The Dénouement

Posted on: October 29, 2015

The rising sun, a red ball set in a hard grey sky, painted the tips of the ocean waves all the way to the water’s edge. Everything it touched looked bright and hot. Even the crystalline sand shimmered and glowed like a bed of smoldering coals.

A wind from the east blew up from the beach and carried the grit and sea-smell inland. It ruffled and filled the voile curtains at the edges of my French doors and bent inward the saw grass that grew thick at the foot of my terrace. A breeze on a beach was always welcome, but one from the east, with the red light of dawn burning on the horizon, carried a portent. 
I leaned against the terrace railing and watched thunderheads form at the edge of the sea just above the horizon, billowing high into the sky, majestic and foreboding. I was sipping my coffee and studying the gathering storm when I heard my front door close. I turned my head only halfway to listen. It might be the wind, I thought, but then I heard soft footsteps approaching. I’d been expecting the visit. He’d phoned and said he had news, the dénouement, he called it. He came up beside me and stood there in the full force of the wind staring out across the ocean vista and expansive sky. I didn’t turn toward him. It wasn’t necessary. The familiarity of his presence did not require it. Don and I’d been close friends for almost twenty-five years.

He was a man of rhythm and tempo like the waves on the shoreline. He’d been a music major in college, and though he’d left that life behind long ago, his intuitive sense of timing remained. He waited for his cue, counting the pulse of the waves like the measures in a symphonic prelude. I waited for his news, and when he found the rhythm for his words, it wasn’t a wind from the east that spoke, it was the storm.

“Rick loved his pickup truck.” Don began in a matter-of-fact cadence. “You know he didn’t need a pickup truck. He wasn’t in construction. He wasn’t what you’d call a very handyman or a do-it-yourself kind of guy. Those things were not his forté, and in his case, better off left to the professionals.” He chuckled. I smiled. “He was a teacher. He’d always wanted to be a teacher and in the end, that’s what he was. I learned he was a good teacher, imaginative, amusing, held in high regard by his colleagues, well liked by both parents and students. He was a good teacher, a good teacher who loved his pickup truck.”

He paused and gazed down at the swaying saw grass at the base of the terrace. I sipped my coffee and watched the light change with the shifting clouds. I stood pressed against the terrace boundary. I knew some of the story but not all. With the news to come, I wanted to be in the full force of the wind that streaked up from the ocean. Don lifted his head and continued.

“In fact, he loved his pickup truck so much that he decided there was no better place to die than on the front seat. I don’t know how he reached that conclusion. I don’t know what went through his mind. I don’t know how he put the logic together to arrive at that place, but he did. I don’t know the why either, but it took some planning. He removed the exhaust manifold and used a vacuum cleaner hose. It pumped the fumes right into the cab. I guess you could say I underestimated his handyman skills.” Don paused and shook his head, puzzled. “He must have read some books, don’t you think?” I turned and saw him smile at the thought; then Don pulled out a chair and sat down at my terrace table.

I would have preferred to take the news standing full in the wind, but after a last glance at the ocean and the endless white caps, I turned away, pulled out a chair and joined him. I wanted to get away from it, yet I needed to face the end head on.

“When they found him, he was stretched out on the seat under a blanket. Julia told me that they’d been trying for a baby. He’d brought home the blanket one day. It was a baby blanket covered in purple ballerinas. He insisted they sleep under it every night. It was their good luck charm, he told her. Looking back on it, though, it doesn’t seem so lucky, does it?” He straightened and turned to face the wind, hoping it would shutter his emotions. “In that state of mind it must be possible to live two lives in parallel, one where you continue with the life you know, your family, your profession, the familiar and frequent steps, and at the same time, unearth the thoughts and designs that write your own epitaph.” His voice rose to a shout. He spit his words at the rising wind. “How can you believe in good luck charms like a baby’s blanket and then make such detailed plans to end your life?” He was short of breath after the outburst. He slumped in his chair, and tears dropped onto the front of his shirt. His questions remained unanswered. They would always remain unanswered. The dead speak too softly or not at all.

There were no answers I could give Don. The answers he sought had died with Rick. I could only offer him solace and share the grief. It was my grief too. Together, we’d lost a friend, or perhaps he’d lost us. It wasn’t an accident or disease that took him. He’d left by choice like a friend who waves goodbye from a parting car, with no thought of tomorrow, only the journey and the road just ahead.

Written by: James Shaffer
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll

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