On the day James McGee decided to end his life, his wife had called him an asshole. “You’ll never be happy, Jimmy,” said Helen.
They sat at opposite ends of the kitchen table, middle-aged opponents squared off on a suburban battlefield. McGee planned to endure today’s skirmish as he had countless others, through a tactic of silent indifference.
While she talked, he watched over her shoulder. Next door, Amundsen mowed his grass again. The precise crisscrosses of his neighbor’s lawn offended him, as did the well-trimmed bushes and flowers. The landscape was an annoying quasar in McGee’s dark universe.
“Why does Dave need to cut his grass three times a week?” he said.
Helen fiddled with a dishtowel. She’d given up cigarettes five years ago, and her hands had been busy since. Her ragged fingernails teased out a thread along the towel’s edge, then deposited it on a growing pile in the center of the table.
“Don’t change the subject,” she said.
His headache set in. Jim’s Helenache, laughed the men at the office where Jim worked. “I’m happy,” he said.
Helen twisted the rag into a tight figure eight. “Why did you quit taking the antidepressants?”
McGee raised his hand in protest, feeling like a traffic guard. “I didn’t stop,” he lied. How had she found out? He was diligent about the pill disposal. Every morning he brushed his teeth, then plop, into the toilet. They turned the water a beautiful blue.
“You’re a liar.” Another frayed thread joined the heap.
The oaty smell cut grass drifted through the window, reminding McGee of his parents’ home, when he was small. “The pills gave me diarrhea.”
“So? Drink some Pepto-Bismol.”
“Helen—” His face felt hot. “My pecker didn’t work.”
She laughed. “That’s the least of our problems, Jimmy. Does it really matter anymore?”
He stood, knocking his chair to the floor. “It matters to me. What about that?”
McGee yanked a beer out of the fridge. It was barely noon. “I’m not dead, you know.” He popped the lid, and a fleck of foam landed on Helen’s cheek. It looked like a pale mole.
“No?” She swiped her face with the dishtowel. “You might as well be, for all the enjoyment you get out of life.”
McGee tipped the can back, then slammed the empty on the table. “So let me get this straight. I’ve kept food on the table. Put three kids through school. I pay the bills. But none of that’s good enough—”
That’s not the point, Jim, and you know it.”
“Then what is the point?” He enunciated each word.
“You’re never happy, Jim. You’ve never been happy, and you’ll never be happy; that’s the point. And you don’t want to fix that.”
The silence was broken by the laughter of Amundsen’s children, playing on his freshly mowed lawn. At last, McGee asked the question whose answer had always eluded him. “What is happy?”
When she didn’t answer, McGee grabbed another beer and left to take a shower, abandoning his wife to the low drone of Amundsen’s Lawn-Boy. He returned to an empty kitchen. He checked the closet. Her favorite shirt was missing, as were her blue-striped pants. The carpet showed four wheel-shaped dents where her suitcase had sat since she bought it, three years ago. They’d planned a second honeymoon to Maui, but it never happened.
He sat down at the empty table. A ghost of Helen’s perfume lingered in the air. He switched on the TV, attempting to drown out the happy sounds of his neighbor’s bratty kids. His wife was right. He was an asshole, and the last time he’d been happy was…never. Helen suffered because of his stupidity, his cowardice. So why put off the inevitable decision? And now that he’d finally come to that decision, there was no fear, only relief.
But how does one commit suicide?
Guns were too messy, and besides, he didn’t own one. He might have to wait days for a handgun permit. Overdosing was popular these days, but the medicine cabinet contained nothing but Midol, Extra-Strength Anacin, and a puckered tube of Preparation-H. McGee was incapable of tying a decent knot, so hanging was out. He would only fall and twist an ankle. Head in the oven? His aging knees would complain at the prolonged kneeling, and the smell of natural gas made him sick.
He decided to jump. The Golden Gate Bridge might be a cliché, but it was only a thirty-minute drive, maybe an hour in Saturday traffic, even with all those damned summer tourists. This unpleasant business could be done before dinnertime. Moreover, he’d always liked the view of the bay from up there. The Pacific side would be best. He’d once read in Newsweek that it took only four seconds to fall. He would strike the water at seventy-five miles per hour. Would it hurt, or would it be like that brief painless instant when you hit your thumb with a hammer, and then…nothing?
A news flash scrolled across the bottom of the TV set: Possible Suicide Attempt on Golden Gate. A grainy newsfeed showed flashing lights, and a silhouette perched at the rail. Damn it, that bastard beat me to it! The jumper stood near the south end, on the bay side near Fort Point. The idiot was at the lowest part of the bridge. He might break his legs or end up in a wheelchair, crapping into a bag for the rest of his days, but he wouldn’t die. “You moron,” shouted McGee. “You’re too close to the shore!” What a waste of time.
He could find another place to jump. The Bay Bridge was closer, but the view far less scenic. Worse, the whole idea seemed so unoriginal at this point. He decided he was hungry, and wished Helen were there to make him a sandwich. He rummaged around in the fridge and then the pantry, settling for an ad-hoc buffet of last night’s tuna salad, some sweet gherkins, and a handful of BBQ-flavored Lays.
On the TV, the cops had cuffed the incompetent jumper. They stuffed him and his suitcase into the back of the squad car. What was the suitcase for? Was the idiot bringing his favorite clothes to the Seventh Circle of Hell? “Good riddance, you loser,” he shouted, spraying bits of potato chip everywhere. “You don’t deserve to die!”
He cracked open another beer. It was probably a good thing the bridge hadn’t worked out. He was getting drunk. Driving might have been dangerous. Yet the thought of his car triggered an idea. He replaced the tuna salad in the refrigerator, tossed the pickles in the trash (Helen didn’t like them anyway, they gave her gas), secured the chips with a snack clip, and wiped down the table. No reason to leave her with a mess. That done, he opened the front door and stepped outside.
A long row of unruly shrubs lined the front of McGee’s house between the sidewalk and the picture window. They were Pacific Wax myrtles, planted fifteen years earlier by McGee and his then teenaged son. McGee had never wanted them in the first place, but Helen had insisted, citing potential medicinal uses, and their small but lovely flowers.
The myrtles were so overgrown it was difficult to reach behind them, but after a great deal of scraping and cussing, McGee got one hand on the hose bib. Unfortunately, the once shiny brass fitting of his red, no-kink garden hose had developed a thick layer of mossy green corrosion. He would need a wrench to remove it.
McGee was scratched and sweaty by the time he climbed back out from behind the myrtles. He stood there a moment to catch his breath. He really ought to get more exercise, he thought, and then laughed.
He’d loaned the wrench to Amundsen. Something about a leaky drain. He walked to the side of the house and peered around the corner. He was in luck. Amundsen’s fussy green Prius, the same shade as his immaculately landscaped lawn, was gone.
His wife might be home, though. He crept through the backyard with the caution of a jewel thief and snatched Amundsen’s garden hose, hanging in a neat coil from a hook behind his azaleas. Amundsen could get it back tomorrow, or never, as far as McGee was concerned. He could even keep the damned monkey wrench.
When he reached his back door, McGee discovered someone had stolen a row of pavers from the patio he’d installed two years before. Some damned kid had vandalized his yard! He was tempted to call the cops, then looked down at the stolen garden hose. Let Helen deal with it.
A slow trail of water followed him through the living room and down the hall. He was still pissed off about the patio, but she could afford now to have someone come fix it. With his life insurance policy and what they had in savings, Helen McGee could fix everything.
He opened the garage, saw the old Chrysler Town and Country, and cursed. She’d taken his BMW! He didn’t want to die in a frigging minivan. Ah, well. No choice now. He climbed under the Chrysler’s rear bumper, Amundsen’s hose dragging behind him. He fed one end into the rusty tailpipe, but the fit was poor. There was a gap between the hose and the inside of the exhaust pipe. Like a sixty-year old hard-on in a twenty-dollar whore. He could seal around it, but no, he’d loaned the duct tape to Amundsen as well. Damn that needy bastard.
He cranked the minivan’s rear window down a few inches and shoved the other end of the hose inside, where it dripped quietly onto a bench seat stained with the flotsam of countless Happy Meals and afternoons at the beach.
McGee went back inside the house for the last time. He circled through the living room, the den, the kid’s echoing bedrooms, running his fingers along the walls. He detoured to the kitchen to grab one last beer, then removed the keys to the minivan from their hook above the shoe rack and returned to the garage.
He climbed in the driver’s seat and started the engine. The roar was loud in the enclosed space. McGee turned on the radio, laid his seat back, and sipped at his beer.
He was concerned at first that he might run out of gas, but when he started to feel dizzy, he just closed his eyes and waited. He was drifting off for good when his cell phone rang.
That’s just perfect. A guy can’t even kill himself in peace. He ignored it until some time after the fifth ring.
It might be Amundsen. If that nosy ass decided to return his pilfered monkey wrench now, he’d ruin everything. McGee roused himself enough to slide the phone out of his pocket.
His vision was quite blurred by now, and it was difficult to see the digits, but it looked like Helen’s number. McGee didn’t want to talk to her. He reached out one wobbly finger to push END, but his finger swerved at the last second and pushed SEND instead.
Helen’s tinny voice called to him, competing with the engine noise. “Jimmy? Jim? Are you there? Please answer, Jim. I need you.”
He raised it to his ear. “Hello.” Dammit.
“Jimmy?” She was crying.
“Helen?” He struggled to keep his eyes open. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been arrested. Can you come get me? I’m at Russian Hill.”
McGee’s voice like it was coming from the end of a tunnel. “Russian Hill? The police station? Why are you in San Francisco?”
“It’s a long story,” her voice hitched. “They won’t let me leave without you. Please, just come get me.”
McGee took a deep breath. He could just hang up. By the time the cops got there, he’d be gone. “Okay,” he said at last. “I’ll come.” He hung up, fumbling the phone. Warm beer spilled onto his lap. The last of it gurgled onto the driver’s side floor mat.
He was very tired now, but he had to get Helen. His plans would have to wait.
He reached up with an arm grown impossibly heavy and batted at the garage door opener, then remembered that it didn’t work. Helen had asked him weeks before to change the batteries. He succeeded in opening the door, only to fall to the garage floor. He struck his head on the concrete and gashed his forehead. As McGee’s blood mingled with the motor oil and bits of floor-dry, his final thought was that Helen would need a cab to get home.
. . . . . . . . . .
He opened his eyes, expecting to be dead. A pair of clean white tennis shoes stood inches from his face. Above that, a splotch of red, like a toothy C-shape. It looked like a grinning skull. Fresh air streamed in through the open garage door.
“Mr. McGee? Are you okay?” He squeezed his eyes shut in a vain effort to quiet the pounding in his head.
With a supreme effort, he twisted his head around. It was the Amundsen kid—Bobby, Billy?
“What?” he croaked. “How did you get here?”
William Amundsen motioned with the monkey wrench, nearly braining McGee. “My Dad told me to bring you this.” He set it on the concrete. “I heard the sound of the engine running in the garage, so I came in through the back door. It was unlocked. You really oughta leave the garage door open when you’re working on your car, Mr. McGee. Carbon monoxide is dangerous.”
Thirty minutes later, McGee pulled the minivan into the parking garage of the Russian Hill police station. His BMW sat crookedly in space 18-A. McGee peered in the window. Helen’s Samsonite lay in the backseat like a tired dog. Its sides bulged, and a spray of red pavers covered the floor. The remains of her favorite shirt dangled from the handle. Any potential use on a Hawaiian vacation was long gone.
He’d applied a large band-to his forehead before leaving. Four aspirin had quieted the thumping in his skull somewhat, but his vision was still blurry. It took him nearly ten minutes to find the detainee holding area. A tall cop sat frowning behind the desk.
“Excuse me? I’m here for Helen McGee.”
The cop looked up from his paperwork. “You her husband?” He eyed the bandage on McGee’s forehead.
“Yes. James McGee. Why is she here?”
“Just a minute.” He picked up the phone and punched in four digits. “Hey, it’s George. Yeah. Bring Helen up. Her husband is here.” He hung up the phone. “Have a seat.”
“Why is she here? Why was my wife arrested?”
“You’ll have to ask her that, sir.”
The door to the holding area opened and a woman in khaki pants led Helen outside. “You’re free to go, ma’am,” she said, then looked pointedly at McGee. “Take care of her, Mr. McGee. We don’t want her back.”
Once outside, they walked to the car. “What was that all about?” said McGee.
“Never mind. I’ll explain later. What’d you do to your head? You look like hell.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just banged it on a door.” As they approached the Town and Country, McGee remembered the BMW. “Can you drive?”
“No. Let’s get it tomorrow, okay?”
He opened the passenger door. “Helen, what happened? Why were you arrested?”
She shook her head. “Let’s just go home.”
He pulled out of the parking garage and onto Vallejo, towards the bay.
At the top of the hill, she glanced at the bridge, and shivered. “What took you so long to get here, Jimmy? I was getting worried.”
McGee checked his rearview mirror and angled towards the exit. “I was just working around the house. You know, Saturday work. Some kid tore up the patio.”
“Really? That’s awful.”
McGee maneuvered through traffic. “I’ve been thinking about this morning,” he said at last. “You were right. I’ve been a jerk.”
“You—you’re not the only one with problems, Jimmy. Living with you isn’t easy.”
McGee accepted this without comment.
“Maybe we just need to get away for a while,” she went on. “Take a vacation or something.”
“That sounds great,” he said, glad to change the subject. “Maybe we can finally go to Maui. You never did get to use that suitcase.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot all about that old thing.”
As they crossed onto the Bay Bridge, he took her hand for the first time in years. “There’s a new restaurant over in Alameda. The guys at the office said they have great swordfish. Maybe later we can—” His smile faltered. “Helen? What is it?”
“Jimmy.” Her voice carried a note of triumph, like she’d just announced a winning hand of bridge. “Why is there a hose in the back seat?”
–Story by Kip Hanson
–Photography by Manuel Estheim