I stood petrified for a few seconds, mechanically took a few shots and then felt a strange mixture of embarrassment, guilt and sheer horror. The sight haunted me for days. A life, a young life at that, had ended in abysmal despair. I was one of the many who had not raised a finger to stop that. I had not done anything.
Believe me, forty years is not enough to wipe a memory like that.
Especially not if the sequel is what followed.
Steve sometimes dropped in for an afternoon beer or an evening cocktail. He liked a gin-and-tonic and I was happy to provide one. He knew a lot about improving the visibility of a website and did it as a part of his job. I listened attentively to his ideas and tried to learn something. Steve also wanted to improve the community and its upkeep and suggested we improve our roads and maintain our trees. He was a quiet man and spoke softly, but had a piquant sense of humor and often surprised me with his witty takes on a neighbor’s driving style or new hairdo.
Since I travel often, I ask my neighbors to keep an eye on my home, especially if there is the prospect of cyclonic weather or heavy snow. In cold weather, I depended on Steve to occasionally start my car and keep the batteries alive. As I was leaving an early morning for South America for a long stretch, I placed my car keys in an envelope and dropped it in his mailbox.
Sitting in Colombia the next morning, I received his message assuring me that he would take care of the car and asking when I would return. I replied promptly and set out for a meeting. As I returned in the evening, there was a sudden cloudburst and a heavy shower unusual for Bogotá, and it seemed like the unsettling augury of a unkind event. And there it was, in black and white, on my computer.
A message from a common friend said that, when Steve’s wife returned from work that evening, she did not see him in the living or dining room. She thought it was odd, because she had noticed his car in the garage. She hollered his name, in case he was tinkering with something in the basement. Her three-year old followed her train of thought and ran down the stairs to see what papa was doing.
The child found his father hanging from the rafters, a long leather cable round his neck and an upturned chair next to him.
A short hand-written note was nearby.
The first responders tried artificial respiration when they came, but they knew from the start that they had arrived too late to make a difference. The police came to investigate, following their unexceptionable rule of treating such a death as homicide until a suicide was proven. The note, along with Steve’s personal notes in his mobile phone, seemed the clinching evidence of his intent to end his life. Heartrendingly, the notes also showed how meticulously he had planned his exit: he had researched a method that was not too painful but quite certain of the outcome.
When the police left, so did Steve’s wife with her child. She could not bear to be in the house a moment longer. Nor did she want for the child any reminder of the ghastly scene he had burst upon by chance. They would stay in a hotel, before moving to another house one day.
The house is now empty, spruced and repainted, put up for sale. There is no lingering trace of the family that lived here for a year. Steve’s wife will struggle for months, perhaps years, coping with what cannot be ever be coped with. His child, one hopes, will one day grow into healthy adolescence and stop having nightmares. There was a memorial meeting for Steve; after that no acquaintance broaches the subject of his life or its bleak end. The police completed their dossier, satisfied that they knew what happened and how it happened.
I am the friend and neighbor, for whom the story has no end. What happened and why? What pushed a decent man I knew to the harsh edge of despair and beyond? What made a quiet, witty man place a noose around his neck, stare unblinking at an indecipherable void and step forward from a chair into the enveloping darkness? I will never know. And I will never stop wondering what I could have done to hold him back.