This morning I was researching a brilliant style of creative non-fiction called the “hermit crab essay”, which derives its style from ordinary, non-literary types (a recipe, a police report, an obituary…) to create the structure for its subject matter. It’s a sub-genre that I want to attempt… very soon.
I was reading an example in crazyhorse literary journal.
When I got to “Father Knows Best”, which describes a failed suicide attempt with a hose to an exhaust pipe, I had a flashback to a day, 36 years ago, when I witnessed such an event.
Isn’t it amazing, I thought this morning, how our lives can be dissected into millions of fragments, some that deliver meaning and messages designed to revisit us years- even decades- later?
I was driving home from school that day (as a teacher), pregnant and tired. As I slowly drove the winding road through my neighborhood, I saw movement in my peripheral vision. At the top of the hill, my middle-aged neighbor was hooking up a vacuum cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe of his car as it was parked in his driveway. The other end of the hose was tucked into the rear driver side window where the glass held it in place.
As I drew closer, I saw him stand up and approach the driver’s side door. With his hand on the door handle, he looked up at my approaching vehicle. I slowed to a near standstill as I reached his driveway.
Our eyes held for a long second, then he looked away and opened the car door. I saw no emotion.
My brain began to process the contents of the scene.
My pregnant body was holding this new life approaching entry to the world, in contrast with the old body approaching exit from the world.
Would this be an even trade?
I quickly turned my car around at the next intersection.
By now, he had started the engine and a puff of exhaust escaped around the perimeter of the hose. Or maybe I imagined this. Perhaps the car simply shuddered in revulsion upon starting.
Having had my own experiences with suicidal thoughts, I weighed the outcome and my role at this brief intersection in time. There had been a time in my own life- many, many years, all of my childhood years, actually- when my first thoughts upon awakening and my final thoughts before sleep- were the desire for death. I had craved it. I knew his desire.
Should I interfere? Or not?
Should I let him complete this suicide contract with himself? Or intervene on the premise that maybe I was meant to cross his path that day as a kindred spirit?
Was the message in this for him? Or was it a happenstance directed to me?
I drove quickly to the bottom of the hill, to the nearest house where I knew a friend and neighbor was at home, and used her phone to call 911.
We were a small village. The man’s wife was the owner and proprietor of The Village Store, an ancient place whose floorboards knew us all. I dared not call the store. The fire station staff would soon alert her.
Instead, I parked my car at the intersection and waited for the 911 responders to arrive. Followed by the missus.
Now she would know who had called in the suicide attempt in progress. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
They got there in time. When I set out again, homeward bound, he was out of the car, arguing with the responders. He was drunk.
A week later, he completed his task. I read about it in the newspaper.
I continued to buy my milk and newspapers at The Village Store. She and I never acknowledged what had taken place on that cloudy winter day.