Scotch Tape, Butcher Knife, Gas Oven: Mr. Winkler's Suicide or a Part to Play
Is an art, like everything else.
When I was ten, Mrs. Winkler’s husband committed suicide. I could almost hear the satisfying sound of the tape, like a prolonged record scratch, as it unstuck from its roll and wrapped itself round the opening of the plastic bag. There were Mr. Winkler’s fingers ripping the end and fixing it just so, making a folded seam in the flimsy bag, at just the nape of his neck, like the final scotch tape touch on a birthday present. I heard and saw these things. On a rainy afternoon in April, just like any other. Or so I wrote in the essay section of the state-wide exam for fifth graders, for which I earned the privilege of representing the school at a local writer’s retreat for kids. Mr. Winkler actually died in February. This fact was substantiated by the principal after a week and a half of substitute teachers. We all got letters to take home to our parents saying that Mrs. Winkler would no longer teach the fifth grade, due to the recent death of her husband. We were all encouraged to send our condolences. And, almost as an after thought, there was a short paragraph on how to talk to your child about death.
Poor Mrs. Winkler. Probably just popping home for a minute before heading out for her weekly writing group, the one she’d talk about in class, where she always seemed to get such invaluable critical advice. I imagined it to be something like my mother’s knitting group. Fat fingered, pastel cheeked, grey haired women gathered in a circle. Only, instead of the gentle clickclickclick of the needles, each in its own time, one would hear the frenzied scratching noises of pens and pencils on paper. And instead of tea and scones, there would be coffee and cigarettes. At ten, I had a definite idea of what it was to be a writer. Eager to embody this stereotype, I wore black jeans and black turtlenecks. I drank Starbucks coffee—black.
Mrs. Winkler is only planning on staying but a minute. Just the time to take a quick shower and change out of her teacher clothes. She does not expect to see her husband. He works as a computer engineer in a nearby suburb. Or he’s an account manager for an advertising firm downtown. Either way, it’s far too early for him to be home. Normally, she doesn’t see him until at least six or seven.
The entry to their single-story craftsman bungalow looks into the living room, where a large picture frame window gives an eighteenth-century landscape view of the valley, its deciduous trees tall and noble and smudged for mile after mile over the magnificent skyline. This is why they bought the house. The afternoon is cold and bright. It’s four o’clock, and the light is already flashing its warm winter tones, its golds and oranges, its sepia and sienna. On afternoons like these, Mrs. Winkler likes to sit in her favorite chair and bask in wonder, watching the light pierce through the tree branches as it changes from hue to hue. So absorbed, she hardly notices when at last she is finally seated in the dark, alone in her living room. But today, she has her group, and after four weeks of writer’s block, she’s finally got something to bring. It’s just a poem of about five or six lines, but it’s the best thing she’s written in months. There’s no way she would skip out on group. Not today. Not even for the most beautiful sunset of all time.
And then she sees the feet. One crossed over the other. A khaki pant leg scrunched up the calf and hidden from view. The wild leg hairs a living contrast to the sofa’s static, floral upholstery. Mr. Winkler’s classic reading pose. Hurrying for the shower, she wonders what he’s doing home so early. She yells over an imagined trajectory down the long corridor, angling her voice round the wall that divides the entry from the living room, to her husband: “Hey! I’m running. Writing group tonight. I’m just going to jump into the shower, and then I’ll be off again. Looks like a beautiful sunset!” She knows that by now he probably cannot hear her. Not with the water running into the tub or the gentle white noise of the bathroom fan.
The goodbye kiss is a reflex. Like the way a neck cracker contorts his head first right, poppoppop, then left, poppop. Or the way my mother discreetly rolls her tongue over her right incisive when she wants to make fun of someone but knows better. It’s such a commonplace that it almost goes unnoticed. Which isn’t to say that it’s not important. As with any ritual, we’d feel off, somehow nervous, lacking, without it. Mrs. Winkler is holding her car keys in her right hand. A canvas tote from a local bookstore slung over the left shoulder. She is leaving—out the door, really—, but, first the goodbye kiss…
My mother read the letter with one hand curled up on her hip and a pair of small glasses that she wore attached to a long, red cord around her neck. I was eating a bowl of Cheerios, listening to the cereal crunch in my head, and watching her eyes shift back and forth over the paper like a printer’s ribbon. When she’d finished, she put the letter in its envelope and walked it over to the shredder. This news, like the endless ads for credit cards and the humane society’s requests for charitable donations, was turned into strips of confetti, which my mother would later use for padding when she needed to ship a package. Then, in a pensive tone, as though she were speaking more to herself than to me: “It’s just selfish.” A long pause. And then again: “It’s just one of the most selfish things a person can do. Suicide is the most selfish thing you can do.” I thought she might go on, conjugating the terms ad infinitum. But here she cut short and looked at me with a serious face, her cobalt eyes fixed on me so I couldn’t move.
Some philosophers tell us that suicide is the only question worth asking. To be or not to be. Not for my mother. For her, suicide is selfish: that is all. That is her conviction.
The eyes are the same now. Cold and blue and unreadable. And though all I want is to get out of here, to slam the kitchen door and run barefoot to the neighbor’s house, I feel frozen by those eyes. It’s like that dream I’ve had so many times where I’m being chased, but my legs won’t move. Mr. Winkler committed suicide five years ago. I’m fifteen years old.
I wonder if she remembers that letter. If some part of her remains constant in the conviction that suicide is a selfish act. There is something laughable about her self-righteousness now. Just as there is something laughable about the improbably long, white-handled butcher knife she’s got pointed into her chest. The blue eyes stay steady as she shrieks, her voice wild and shrill: “You think I won’t do it? You think I’m too weak? Get your father on the phone. Call him. I want him to hear.”
I know she won’t do it. Not if I play along. The scene is too obvious, too elaborate. People don’t kill themselves like they do in the movies. Suicide is not belligerent or noisy. It is not a “cry for help”. But the thing is, I don’t want to play a part in my mother’s melodrama. I don’t want these tears or this choking voice. I don’t want to say: “Mom, no. Don’t! I love you, we all do.”
The sky is dark outside, and it feels much later than it is. The clouds are bulging and leak rain in thin streaks over the windows. My tone is quiet and even as I tell her she is being selfish. Slowly, I hand her the phone, suggesting that if she would like to speak to my father, she can call him herself. My movements feel awkward and rehearsed as I leave the house, the kitchen door wide open behind me.
There is a park a few blocks away with golden koi and a painted red gazebo. I trace and retrace the grassy square between the fishpond and the street. One foot in front of the other. I feel as though I am walking a meditation labyrinth. What hidden truth will be revealed when I reach the center?
My mother’s arm drops, the long knife extending from her right hand toward the floor. Suddenly she gets a sense of herself standing alone in the kitchen. Not a glimpse. There’s no mirror in this room to reflect back to her the image of a wild woman: the Einstein hair, the disheveled clothing, that ridiculous butcher’s knife. She does not need to see herself to grasp the situation. To hear the faint ringing in the ears that comes after an emotional storm. To feel exhausted like an over-stimulated toddler. The loneliness. The terrible sense of isolation that seems to have dulled all of life’s sensation for as long as she can remember. Her thoughts are not for me or my father as she loosens her grip on the knife, allowing it to clatter against the tile floor before sliding into a nether region under the island. The scene is all but forgotten as she slowly climbs the stairs, goes down the hall, walks into her bedroom, opens the top drawer in the nightstand, and retrieves a small bottle of sleeping pills…
No. That’s not it. That is not the scene. The kitchen door remains shut and the park is blocks away. The butcher knife is still in my mother’s hand, its point pricking a small hole into her sweater. She won’t do it. Not so long as I play my part. And so I play, without much conviction, but not a lot is needed anyway. I only wish she’d had the decency either never to have acted this part at all, or to have gone all the way: an early morning, a sealed kitchen, a gas oven, and a proper fear of her own mortality.