You Never Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone
The telephone rings. I’m in my underwear at my desk and the phone’s right there next to me even though I’m not expecting anyone to call nor can I imagine especially wanting to talk to anyone, except maybe Virginia or Beatrice or Josephine or one of the others who got away with an invitation for drinks, catching up, lying around together in our underwear. I pick it up. It’s a man, deep voice. “Officer Poe,” he says, and I say I don’t know any Poe and he says, “Is this Stephen Broder?” and I say that’s right but I still don’t know any Poe and he says, “it’s about your wife, Mister Broder. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you but your wife is dead.”
I don’t have a wife. Not I don’t have a wife because now she’s dead and naturally distanced but I’ve never had a wife and I tell this to Officer Poe. “I don’t have a wife,” I say and he says, “You have to come down to the morgue to identify the body and also we’re going to need you to stick around for the foreseeable future due to the suspicious nature of her death.”
The voice is deep, as I already mentioned, but now that I hang up the phone I notice an uncanny similarity in the timbre to my own father’s voice, and I was never able to disobey my father, not even now after he’s been dead ten years, so I do as he says and I put on my pants and I go to the morgue.
“I’m here to identify my wife,” I say to the receptionist behind the desk flipping through a magazine. “Although I don’t know her name and I’ve actually never seen her before.”
“Name?” she asks.
“Stephen Broder,” I say and then she says, “Come this way,” so I follow her into the adjoining room where she passes me off to a haggard-looking man in a white smock whom I imagine can only be the undertaker if that’s what they’re still called, or else mortician, morgue attendant, who looks up at me with resignation in his eyes as if to say, ah, here he is: the husband.
He pulls out the slat from the wall and it’s just like in the movies, and then he unzips the body bag and there’s even a tag on her toe that says, “Missus Broder.” I look at her and I say, “She was fat,” and he shakes his head and says, “She was pregnant.” She’s freckled, and this I find most surprising of all since I never imagined myself as someone who would marry a freckled woman, but she’s also very beautiful and I suddenly feel as if I’ve lost something infinitely precious, and the loss feels all the more acute that I never knew I even had it. I look again at her pregnant belly and I think, that means we must have had sex, at least once.
“How did she die?” I ask.
“Blunt force trauma to the head,” he says. “Internal bleeding. Gunshot wounds. Strangulation. Poisoning. Drowning. Asphyxiation. She died in her sleep. Natural causes.”
“What was the sex of the child?” I ask.
“Boy. Girl. Undetermined.”
I nod. “This is my wife,” I say. “Was my wife. Was the woman who is now my wife.”
When I arrive home I have several telephone messages waiting for me on the answering machine. One from the telephone company reminding me that my bill is now two months past due and if I fail to pay the balance my service will be shut off, and then a message from Officer Poe, requesting I call him back as soon as possible at his precinct. He leaves his full name and phone number and personal extension. The last call is from my daughter who says she’s just heard about her mother and is calling, she says, to tell me she doesn’t believe I had anything to do with it and she’ll be flying out early tomorrow morning for the funeral.
Her voice sounds older than I would imagine my daughter to be if I really had a daughter, at least in her early twenties, which would mean she would have had to have been born when I was still a teenager, nineteen or twenty, maybe, and her mother not much younger. Had I known my wife for that long? Were we high school sweethearts? Did we meet in college? Maybe she’s not actually my daughter but my stepdaughter, and when she called me Dad it was just a diminutive or sobriquet, or maybe what she meant is that I’ve been like a father to her and that the biological component is moot, in which case it’s still unknown how long her mother and I have been married. I wonder if she looks more like me or her mother.
There are other questions of course. Like, for example, whether our nuptials were characterized with the spontaneity of a Las Vegas elopement or if we married in a cathedral, on a California beach, in a chapel in South Bend. Was my mother there? Was it before my father died? Did I give her the ring my father gave my mother before her arthritis made it too painful to take on and off? Was I generous in bed or was that only at first, and after we’d been married two, three, four years did I stop paying attention to her, and then did she stray? Did I?
I pick up the phone and call the number Officer Poe left me. I’m told by the receptionist that Officer Poe isn’t in right now but if I’d like to leave a message he’ll call me back as soon as he returns to the station. “Okay,” I say, and leave a message saying this is Stephen Broder calling you back and I repeat my phone number before I realize that of course he has it already. I almost say I went to the morgue to identify the body, but then don’t know whether to say I did identify the body since I have no way of knowing whether or not she looked or would look like my wife. I hang up the phone and wonder if I sounded guilty. I’m not guilty, at least not that I know of, but of course Officer Poe doesn’t know that and for that matter I am guilty of some things, some things I’ve certainly gotten away with in my past and how long can you run anyway before these crimes eventually catch up with you?
The telephone rings again and I reach to pick it up but then I wonder who can it be this time, so I let it ring five, six, seven times, thinking this is all some kind of joke, some friend’s practical joke, some joke that everyone’s in on, Officer Poe and the mortician and the late Missus Broder and my daughter or stepdaughter and even the part of me that wishes it was all true yesterday when I still had a wife, and then the ringing stops and either I’m a widower or I just don’t have a very good sense of humor.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED