Grudgingly
Matt St. Amand

After spring break with Hanna fell through, I visited a friend in Peterborough for a week of snowmobiling. As I was driving back to Windsor this morning, a snowstorm blew in faster than forecast, and traffic slowed to an unsteady crawl. After the better part of two hours, I saw the cause of the delay—three police cars and a wrecker flanked a Chevette mangled between the wheels of a transport truck. The roof was crushed, its windows obliterated, and its doors cut away. The flares on the highway shoulder seemed to burn in memorial rather than warning.

And so a seven-hour drive stretched into eleven.

Now, nearly eleven p.m., I’m back at my apartment, worn out, but too keyed up to sleep. As I kick off my boots and hang up my coat, there’s one thing on my mind: beer. There are three in the fridge—a sight as welcome as a St. Bernard rescuing me in a blizzard.

As I flop onto the living room couch, I grab the cordless phone to check my voice mail.

A swallow of beer goes jagged in my throat as the computerized voice says, “You have twenty-two messages.”

“What the hell?” I mutter.

I don’t usually get that many calls in a month.

I press number one and listen to messages from friends, acquaintances from school, the English department secretary, professors, even Hanna—all calling for the same reason.

Wondering if I am still alive.

After the final message plays out, I sit staring at the phone.

Is this a joke?

I grab my coat and head outside.

Cursing the cold, I go around to the back of the apartment building where the garbage cans and recycling bins are kept. The storm that slowed my drive must have already passed this way because the sky is cloudless.

With the moon’s light reflecting off the snow-covered ground, I can see well enough to search through the recycling bins for yesterday’s newspaper. Soon I find one and return to my apartment. There, in the sober glow of my halogen reading lamp, I look over the obituary section of The Windsor Star:

DUN, Larry, aged 27 years, student of the University of Windsor, died suddenly on February 22. Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Inquiries call Arsenault Funeral Home 255-9179.

It sure as hell reads as though it’s for me.

… student of the University of Windsor, died suddenly…

Was he murdered? Killed in a car accident? Suicide, maybe?

And everybody wondering if it's me.

My surname is common enough, but rarely spelled with one N, as my family spells it. The age listed is five years ahead of mine, but in most of the messages people wondered if that was a misprint.

My mind reels, everything piling on me at once: the telephone messages, my name in the obituary, the mangled Chevette. All tied together with a superstitious pang.

I dial my parents’ number. The phone rings three times before the voice mail picks up. I say, “It’s just me. An obituary with my name appeared in the newspaper yesterday. I've gotten a bunch of calls about it, and you might, too. Anyhow, I’m fine; it’s just some mix-up. Call me when you get in.”

Then I toss the phone to the other end of the couch.

I drink my beer, and in the space of a swallow the silence of the apartment settles on me, as it often has since Hanna left three months ago.

It was an abrupt split, set in motion with her saying, “I’m not happy.” Amazing how three words can change your life. Even with all of her stuff gone, Hanna's still here. I see her curled in the chair by the window, reading—her long hair wrapped in a towel after showering. See the wide wooden sills lined with her potted plants, which I knocked over every time I opened a window. Still hear her humming as she makes tea in the kitchen. I admired her surety in life; she was never halfway on anything: movies, food, music, people. Always knew what she wanted—and one day decided she didn’t want me anymore.

The quiet of the apartment bears down on me.

I should be making phone calls, but I finish my beer instead.

Then I get up and put on my coat and boots.

* * *

Weary of driving, I go for a walk, mulling my situation.

This might all be funny if everyone hadn’t sounded so concerned in their phone messages. My mind circles to Hanna, wondering how she reacted to the obituary. I heard the bridled hysteria in her messages. For a second something morbid and malicious in me almost wishes I were dead, and haunting the apartment Hanna shares with Janice—just to see.

I’m reminded of an episode of The Twilight Zone, where a man flicks a coin into a newspaper vendor’s cash box, and the coin lands on its edge. For the rest of the day the man can read other people’s thoughts—feeling isolated and alien with his new ability, unable to tell anyone about it, unable to believe it himself. Finally, after work, he returns to the newspaper vendor and knocks the coin over onto its face, breaking the spell.

I feel like a ghost hiding between walls.

* * *

Downtown Windsor is virtually deserted.

Moving along the sidewalk, I hear music coming from a club up ahead: Dante’s, the sign above the door proclaims in jagged green and yellow neon. I go inside, needing the distraction of noise and people. And wouldn’t it be great running into a friend who's seen the obituary? Lazarus back from the dead—in Dante’s. We’d laugh, have a few drinks, then start a rumor that I’m alive. Or not. I could be like a movie hero who survives a near-fatal accident, or assassination attempt, and now has the advantage of taking his enemies totally by surprise. Or, take this chance to change my identity—like Jack Nicholson in The Passenger —and live a completely different life. Maybe I’ll just cut the obituary out of the newspaper and frame it—a memento like having lightning in a mason jar.

Moving through the crush of people gathered around the bar is like fighting whitewater rapids. Finally, I get a beer and step away from the dance floor, which teems with lolling heads, flailing arms, and bare midriffs.

A hand clutches my forearm. I turn to find a pretty pony-tailed brunette smiling at me: blue eyes, slender body, striking.

She leans close. “Larry! I thought it was you!”

I squint amid the strobing lights.

“I’m Kelly,” she says. “Kelly Hines.”

I look at her again—Kelly. We hug. She’s my cousin.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I say. My words are lost to the thrashing music.

Kelly’s a year older than me, and she came to Windsor a few years ago, enrolled in the university's School of Dramatic Arts . I called her when I came down for school a year later. We double-dated a few times, back when I first met Hanna, then we never got around to calling each other again.

There is a blessed lull in the music and the glut of dancers divides and subdivides, and crowds toward the bar.

“Still at school?” Kelly asks.

“Nearly finished my English degree. Yourself?”

“Taking a break from school—waitressing, earning some cash so I can make the audition rounds in Toronto.”

She leads me to an area twenty feet beyond the dance floor. We take a booth near the rear wall, and catch up with one another—leaning across the table, shouting over the music—talking about school, the family, old times.

* * *

At the stroke of two, the music stops and the house lights come on. The dance floor clears and the wait staff hurries around clearing tables. To my surprise I actually feel drunk. Kelly is composed, but I’m sure she’s drunk, too—she’s half my size and she’s had at least five drinks since we sat down.

“I hate these places when the lights’re on,” she says, and I detect a slur to her words.

“Didn’t you come with anybody?” I ask as we step outside.

“Some girlfriends. They left around the time I found you.”

“No boyfriend?”

“Nobody steady.”

The wind has picked up outside, and grips us immediately. I slip my hands into my pockets and Kelly clasps hers around my bicep, leaning close. I glance at her hands. I’m grateful for her closeness, but it strikes me as odd. Easy, man, I think. You’re still singed from Hanna—Kelly’s just keeping warm.

The sidewalks are filled with huddled couples and groups coming from clubs and restaurants, hailing the few taxis in the street. We walk in silence, huddled close, and my thoughts make their familiar drift to Hanna: walking arm-in-arm on cold nights, going for coffee after studying. I enjoyed her spontaneity that way—it was never too late to head to an all-night coffee shop. Even after years together, it still felt like a date.

* * *

When we finally come to Kelly’s street, my face is frozen into a grimace against the wind. “Come in and warm up,” Kelly says, leading me up the steps of a four-unit brownstone. “I’ll make coffee.”

I follow her to an upper floor unit. Inside, she hangs up our coats and heads into the kitchen. “Make yourself comfy. Hope you don’t mind instant coffee.”

I sit on the futon and hold my hands by the radiator under the front windows. As the warmth moves from my hands into my arms, drunkenness seeps through me all over again.

“Shot of Bailey’s?” Kelly calls from the kitchen.

“Please.”

She enters a few minutes later with two mugs.

“So,” she says, curling up beside me, “you haven’t mentioned your girlfriend all night. How’s she doing?”

I half-wince, half-shrug. “She moved out a few months ago.”

“What happened?”

The question startles me. What happened? The question’s been my daily whipping post for three months. Then the scene plays through my mind with movie-trailer regularity: Rainy Sunday evening, I’m sitting in the living room, studying. Hanna comes out of the bedroom where she’d been looking over brochures from the travel agency. I push my books aside, ready for a break, but the grave expression on her face makes me uneasy. She sits on the edge of the couch and says, “Larry, I’m not happy.”

And the plans and promises of three years with Hanna unravel at my feet. She cries, says she’s sorry, and I sit like a man at the foot of a mountain, watching the avalanche gather force, unable to run.

“Hanna was tired of living like a student,” I hear myself say. “She got a job with a travel agency, and now she wants to travel the world.”

“And you don’t?” Kelly says.

“I’d love to, but it takes time and money—two things I don’t have.”

There’s an awkward silence. Kelly offers more coffee.

“Maybe I should go,” I say. “I’m keeping you up.”

“Not at all.” She goes into the kitchen. “I’m off ’til this evening.”

Watching her, a thought rises from the shadows, taking me by surprise: Kelly’s beautiful. If I didn’t know her, and had just met her at the club tonight, by damn if I wouldn't want to take her home. And already I’m laughing at myself. That’s good, Tarzan, I think. Fantasizing about a blood relation. A sure cure for a broken heart—sex that’s a shade away from incest.

She’s not a blood relation. The thought comes, random, like a rock thrown through a window. Sure enough, I think, recalling my mother once telling me that Kelly had been adopted into the family.

Fuck off with that, already. She’s my cousin, for God's sake. What’s “adopted” got to do with anything? She’s family.

But if anything were to happen… There’d be nothing, technically, wrong with that.

Kelly returns, with our coffees and the bottle of Bailey’s. She sits Indian-style, with a knee resting on my thigh. My compass arrow must be spinning in circles, wondering if Kelly’s coming onto me. It’s one of the worst side effects of the breakup—overanalyzing every interaction with women. Reading reams of intent and emotion in casual eye contact, whether it’s at the library, a bar, or the supermarket—all fueled by the flipside of freewheeling bachelorhood: terror that I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.

I tell her about my obituary appearing in last night's newspaper.

“That’s creepy,” she says, pouring Bailey’s into her mug. “Creepy, but kind of cool.” She tops up my drink. “Have you called anybody?”

“Left a message for my folks. I’ll call everyone else tomorrow.”

“So I’m the only one who knows you’re alive?”

I laugh, surprised. “I guess so.”

Kelly’s expression turns serious. “Maybe the obituary’s right. Maybe you’re a ghost.”

“What?”

“I haven’t seen you since grandpa’s funeral, then we meet tonight.”

“Coincidence.”

She closes one eye and looks at me. “I think you’re a ghost.”

“Well, I could be.”

“Then whatcha gonna do? Fly, walk through walls, spy on people?” The slur has deepened her voice, making her words gravely and elongated.

I lean over and kiss her.

She doesn’t resist, but kisses me back. My hands find her breasts, and Kelly wraps her arms around my neck. That ghost-between-the-walls feeling sweeps through me anew, and I nearly expect to find Hanna in my arms when the kiss ends.

“So whatcha gonna do, Mr. Ghost?” Kelly drawls.

I think of the addled businessman in that old Twilight Zone episode, tortured by his ability to read minds—see Jack Nicholson rummaging through the pockets of the dead journalist in The Passenger, scavenging his new identity. I want to read minds, to come back as someone else. Feels like I’m halfway there, sitting here with Kelly, who’s looking at me with an expression shifting between arousal and dismay. I want to undress her, hold her, kiss her, make love to her.

I want her to be Hanna.

As the gyre of my thoughts widens, my fatigue and drunkenness mingle, and all I want is to close my eyes. “If I’m dead I need to lie down.”

Kelly lifts my legs onto the futon. “If you fly, tell me where you go.”

“You sure you’re not dead?”

“How can I be? Cantcha feel my heart beating?”

She’s right—her heart’s beating against the side of my ribcage. She’s not dead, then. I must be.

Because I can fly, just like Kelly said. Not through the air, or through walls, but through time, back to Hanna, back when we first moved in together and were still giddy with the freedom of it all. Sleeping with her. Waking to find her flopped on the other side of the bed with the sheet and blankets wrapped around her. Some nights she curled around me for warmth—her breath on my neck, her heart beating against my ribcage.

* * *

I snap awake to complete darkness, warm after sleeping in my clothes. My left arm tingles, asleep. I can hardly breathe. Try to get up, but I can’t move. Then I hear a moan. A girl’s voice.

“Wha—?” I croak.

The moan comes again.

“Hanna?” I whisper.

The weight on top of me shifts and I roll onto the floor, dragging my tingling arm.

“Come back to bed,” the voice says.

I crawl across the floor, extend my hands in the dark, and feel something cool and slender. A lamp? Feel for its switch, and blind myself turning it on.

“Hey,” the voice says. “I'm cold.”

Then it hits me. “Jesus Christ.” Kelly Hines. The name flashes across my mind like a warning flare. I'm at Kelly's apartment. Did I actually kiss her? I try gathering my thoughts, but everything's all over the place: Kelly Hines, my obituary, Dante's, and Hanna…

“I’m cold.”

A single thought rises from the clutter: gotta get home. I slip on my coat and step into my boots. I drape Kelly’s coat over her, then flick off the light. “I gotta go,” I whisper, heading out the door.

* * *

I always feel like The Incredible Shrinking Man when I’m hung over, where walking a city block seems like a Himalayan mountain hike. I check my watch: going on five-thirty. My wits slowly rise above the headache pounding the core of my brain, and I suddenly remember kissing Kelly, feeling her breasts, too, for Christ’s sake.

Holy shit, sign me up for an encounter group—I’ll bring the fondue and Tab cola.

I belch up beer and Bailey’s; wince and wipe my mouth.

So whatcha gonna do, Mr. Ghost? Kelly’s voice drawls through my mind. Spy on people?

Did I actually kiss her? I woke with my clothes on, so things mustn’t have gone too far.

Gonna spy on somebody?

If a coin landed on its edge for Hanna, I’d want her to know what I had felt after she left. I want her to know that one night, the week after New Year’s, I couldn’t sleep so I went driving. As I cruised the vacant streets an answer came with chilling clarity: Kill myself. Drive to the middle of the Ambassador Bridge and leap into the night.

I stopped at the intersection by the bridge's entrance. The light was red. I thought about climbing onto the cold railing of the bridge, seeing the river beneath me, the lighted spires of Detroit on the left; huddled, sleeping Windsor on my right. Then I thought of Hanna, her head placid on her pillow, sleeping in the warm dark of Janice’s apartment. Thought about my family, friends, and the strangers who would find me in the water.

When traffic light changed to green, I continued down Wyandotte Street. Back at the apartment I wanted to feel good about my decision to live, like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, like Lazarus called from his tomb. I searched for a sense of having a second chance, but I only felt like my old deflated self. And working my way toward drunk that night, I imaged the rum smelled like oils used long ago to prepare bodies for burial.

* * *

As I fit the key into my door, the telephone rings in the apartment. My hands are cold and clumsy, but I unlock the door, and get to the phone.

It’s Hanna. Why should I be surprised? It’s only hours after I kissed Kelly. Of course it’s Hanna.

“Larry!”

“Hey, Han—”

“I knew it was a mistake! Have you seen—?”

“Yeah, I saw the obit.”

“You sound out of breath.”

“I just got in.”

“From where?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“I’ve been calling and calling! I called your parents, but there was no answer, and I thought—”

“Everything’s OK—for this Larry Dun, at least.”

“Larry,” she says.

“I’m still here.”

“I feel so bad about our vacation—”

“Why didn’t you go?”

“I gave the tickets to Janice and her boyfriend.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” She sighs. “I feel so stupid.” She begins to cry.

“Take it easy.”

“You sound angry,” she says. “You can’t be angry at me for calling! I thought you were dead!”

“I’m not angry.”

“I want to come over.”

“Still don’t believe I’m alive?”

“I want to see you.”

I belch into the back of my hand, and close my eyes. “The door’ll be open.”

“I still have my key.”

“Even better.”

“I’ll see you in an hour, then. Is that OK?”

“Fine.”

She pauses. I sense she wants to say something more. “Larry?”

“What, Hanna?”

The pause runs on, loud in my ear. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

* * *

The shower revives me.

After grabbing a beer from the fridge, I head into the bedroom and take my suit out of the half-empty closet. Haven’t worn it since my grandfather’s funeral two years ago. I put on my white shirt, and pull on the pants; sweep some lint from the thighs.

Once I knot my tie and put on the jacket, I will do two things.

First, I will raise my beer to the late Larry Dun, twenty-seven-year-old student of the University of Windsor, and wish him well, wherever he might be.

Then I will go into the living room and lie down on the couch—eyes closed, hands crossed over my chest—until Hanna arrives.

A final thought lingers: I’m not sure what she wants or if she understands that I’m not the same guy she left three months ago. But if Hanna called to me from the door of my tomb, I would heed her voice. I would draw breath and flex my muscles underneath the funeral shrouds—rise and shuffle through the shadows toward her. And as I approached the doorway I would pull the covering away from my face, so she could look at me. And see.



“While I was in grad school, the name of an acquaintance from my writing seminar appeared in the local newspaper’s obituary. Since this occurred during spring break, there was no quick way to verify whether or not my acquaintance had actually died. Turned out he was fine, just some other guy with the same (unusual) name. When I thought to write a story involving this situation, I asked the guy whose name appeared in the obit if he wanted a crack at the story idea. He saw nothing dramatic or interesting about it at all. I was mystified. But I wrote the story, filling it out with my own experiences and ideas.”

 

 

Return to Archive