Cara looked out the office window at the black wrought iron fence surrounding the cemetery. A female cardinal with red-brown wings perched there, head tilted up as if she were waiting for someone. Cara was 19 years old and trying not to feel bored. Her job had some uneventful interludes, but she had learned to love it for the moments in between the boredom.
At first she had hated working at the Lullabye Motel and Burial Service Center. Her cheerleader smile seemed to rub the customers wrong or else they were simply impervious to her youthfulness and charm. But she was a quick study and she had learned from Ms. Wickham how to treat their patrons. Seriously, but not solemnly. There was a difference and Ms. Wickham with her calm voice, short pink-polished fingernails and crisp linen suits knew how to convey the perfect balance. Their customers were special people, she had said, pay attention to the nuances.
A grey rental car pulled into the driveway and parked outside the office. The man waited for a few minutes before getting out of his car. Cara could see him looking around at the place. When he stepped out, she saw that he was handsome-tan, smooth faced, with thick sun-bleached hair. His good looks became even more apparent as he came inside. His face was perfectly featured, except for his nose, which canted toward the left. His eyes were gentle, almost curious, and green.
“Good afternoon,” Cara said. It was important to give the customer a feeling of normalcy, Ms. Wickham always said, and Cara sensed that with this man it was especially important. His blue button-down shirt and grey slacks spoke of his utter craving for the ordinary. Not like the last guy who came in wearing one of those tank tops where you could see inside. She had winced involuntarily upon seeing the little gold hoop hanging from his dark aureole.
The man did not answer her immediately. He glanced quickly around the room. It was an ordinary looking motel office in nearly every way. But behind the counter there was a desk for registration and a computer; it looked more like some place you might sit to apply for a home loan.
“I heard that . . . ,” he began and then changed course. “Do you have any rooms?”
“Yes,” Cara answered. “I have a very quiet room in the back.” She paused and then added, “Each room is equipped with gas jets.”
“Gas?” he asked.
“It’s painless and it’s clean. We don’t allow any firearms in the rooms,” Cara said. Some people thought they could use a gun, but if they wanted to do that they might as well go to an ordinary motel. Cara wondered if the violence of a gunshot was more satisfying to some of them. There were those, she had discovered, who did not want to simply end their lives. They wanted to murder someone and the person they wanted to murder was themselves. Murder was messy business. Suicide did not have to be. This job had brought her wisdom.
“No, I didn’t bring any firearms,” he said. “I thought maybe someone administered poison or something.”
“An overdose carries complications. At least that’s what Ms. Wickham says,” Cara answered. “Would you like to come around and register?”
The man cracked his knuckles nervously before nodding. Then he followed her around the counter and sat down in the leather chair opposite her. Cara had learned to modulate her voice in gentle tones the way Ms. Wickham did.
“Now, this is the form we ask you to fill out,” Cara said. “It will take a few minutes for me to verify all your information on the computer. Then we’re all done.”
The man looked into her eyes, and she felt his sudden gratitude. The voice modulations were extremely comforting.
“We need a next of kin or the name of someone you would like us to notify,” she said gently. “Or you can just put down the I.R.S. if there is no one you have in mind.”
She watched his strong hands as he wrote down the information. He was left-handed, she noticed, and did not wear a wedding ring.
“What about the rental car?” he asked, staring at the paper.
“Just put down the name of the company and they’ll send someone to retrieve it,” she said. She cleared her throat and straightened up in the chair, felt the desk beneath her arms as she folded her hands together.
“Now, we do offer burial services and cremation services. If you do not choose one of ours, you must show a receipt from your preferred funeral home or whatever.” She’d forgotten exactly how Ms. Wickham worded that part.
“The cremation service is quite reasonable,” she continued, showing him a brochure with the rates listed on it. “And we offer other services all the way to the ten thousand dollar deluxe package which includes a satin-lined casket and a funeral service.”
Some people loved this part of the explanation. They were extremely attentive to the details of their burial. Others didn’t want to think about it.
“Just put me down for the cremation,” the man said.
“Where shall we send the ashes?” Cara asked.
“Can’t you just dispose of them?” he asked with a trace of irritation.
“Yes, we can do that.” She placed a check mark on another form and scratched her temple.
“The gas jets can’t be turned on for two hours. We do that to ensure the customer feels secure in his or her choice. There is also a tape you can watch on the VCR, a phone for making any phone calls. We have a chaplain on call at all times. The suicide hotline number is posted by the phone if you care to avail yourself of that service.” She said the above in a rote voice, so as not to imply any kind of judgment. Most people were not interested in watching the tape—a presentation of alternative solutions—or calling a chaplain or anyone else. By the time they checked into the Lullabye, they had made up their minds what they were going to do.
Cara took the completed application form from him. She checked to make sure he had put down his social security number and then she used her computer program to verify the phone number matched the name that he had given for notification. Most people were pretty forthright at this point. There was not much left to hide. But if someone really wanted to be anonymous they could be without much trouble. At the bottom of the form there was a line that said: Reason (optional). Most people wrote something like “Tired of it all” or “Can’t go on.” They rarely used the word “I” as if they had already erased themselves. There were paper and pens in the rooms if they wanted to leave a more in-depth explanation for a family member or for friends. Few of them did. Sometimes they wrote poems or drew a picture.
In the space under reason, this man had written in black ballpoint letters, “Too many reaons to list them all. Suffice to say, I have had enough.”
“If you change your mind,” she said, clicking off her computer, “we can always refund your money for the crematory services. Some people find that just coming here is enough.”
“Does anyone ever change their mind and then come back later?” he asked.
“Yes, that does happen sometimes. We charge more for each visit because we want people to understand this is not a regular motel. This is an important decision,” Cara said, quoting Ms. Wickham verbatim. Then she eased into her own voice. “It’s only happened once since I’ve been working here. One woman came back four times. The fourth was her last.”
“How long have you been working here?” he asked, tilting his head to the side as if he had seen her for the first time.
Cara felt her skin flush. She was not used to having the attention turned toward her.
“Almost a year,” she said. “Ms. Wickham was the same age when she first started. She says some of us just have the calling.”
The man smiled—grim but a smile all the same. She didn’t like the smile. It told her that he would carry out his plan, that he had no doubts. He was the type of person the Lullabye Motel had been made for. Cara wondered briefly if perhaps she really had the calling after all.
The man took the key in his palm. If the customers were drunk or deranged, they were sent to the rooms where the gas jets did not work. More than once a person had woken up the next morning sober and delighted to be alive. But this man was neither drunk nor crazy. At least he didn’t appear to be.
“It’s the last building,” she said. “We do have a pool if you want to take a swim. There’s a liquor store next door, too.”
He looked out the window at the liquor store and said thanks he would probably stop by there.
“You can turn on the jets any time after the two hours that you like,” she added. “Some people wait until the morning. I don’t know why. They just do.”
“Thank you,” the man said, shoving the key into his pocket. He walked out the door.
“God go with you,” Cara said as the door slowly fell back into place. She had never been religious before this job, but this somehow felt like a holy mission and the customers seemed like saints instead of the desperate sick people she had once imagined suicides to be.
Mark stopped to gaze at the cardinals that swooped by his car. Now that he’d made the decision, his depression had lifted. He could encounter people—like that pretty black-haired girl in the office—and converse with them. He knew he could not change his mind. If he did, that which made it impossible to function would return.
He kept his thoughts centered on the immediate situation—get out of the car, take the key, open the door. Look. Room with one double bed, a dresser with television and VCR, blue walls. Why blue, he wondered. He was proud of the way he could keep his mind firmly grounded. It wasn’t that he was crazy, he never had been, and he knew all about crazy. But now he didn’t have to think about the future—bleak and fruitless—or the broken picture of the past.
But as soon as he thought about not thinking about the past, he began to remember his mother. He always had to fight the anger he felt for her. She couldn’t help her illness or the things it made her do, but what would have happened if she had just eliminated herself when the schizophrenia first began? Would he be here right now? No wonder his dad had found refuge in the beds of other women but that wasn’t exactly an option for an 8-year-old boy. Who knows, he thought, perhaps his life would have turned out this empty and hopeless even without her constant insanity. The rest of the family had been able to desert her, get unlisted phone numbers, move across the country, why not he?
When he felt his mind picking up the pace, delivering the same old information to itself like a basketball player throwing the same orange ball over and over into the hoop, he forced himself to stop thinking. He went to the window and opened the curtain. A pool. Some pine trees. A cardinal at a bird feeder. A woman in a white suit, not a nurse’s uniform, but a business-like tailored outfit and high heels. Ms. Wickham?
He looked down beside him at the air conditioning unit. There was a red knob on the very end. Above the knob, the word “gas.” He tested the knob. When he turned it, nothing happened. Two hours. What would he do for two hours? He looked outside again. The woman was gone. It was warm out; the swimming pool looked inviting, almost as inviting as death. What was this feeling? Light-heartedness? Was his impending death such a relief that he could actually feel something that was not anxiety or despair? He couldn’t go swimming. He hadn’t brought a swimsuit. He hadn’t brought anything really.
He sat down on the bed. He didn’t want to be alone with his thoughts, but this could be the last time. He thought about Ruth, the one truly good woman he’d ever been involved with. He’d broken up with her because something about her just wasn’t enough. Enough what he didn’t know. Pretty enough? Exciting enough? Cold enough? His doing this would probably hurt Ruth more than anyone. But she was a strong woman. She took things—her father’s cancer, for one—in stride. After four years of living together, he’d left Ruth for Lisa. Auburn-haired, fashion-model tall, tequila-drinking Lisa. She’d stolen two hundred dollars and broken every window in his house before she left for Key West on the back of a Harley. The thought of Lisa no longer made his skin ache. He imagined them both in the room with him—Ruth and Lisa. Suzanne would be next. But even though she was the most recent, she was the one he had the most difficulty remembering. Studious, intelligent, sober. And critical. Now he remembered. That stiff look that came over her face whenever his mother called, which was always in the middle of one of her episodes, never in those few periods when she was relatively normal. Episodes which lasted months. Mother would call seven times a day—or night. The last time he’d seen his mother she had weighed 280 pounds and had a house full of items she ordered from the television—lawn gnomes, exercise machines still in the box, a dozen sets of kitchen knives, ugly jewelry, diet programs, video from PBS that she would never watch, rooms full of useless stuff. He had finally cut up her credit cards with a pair of orange-handled scissors from a set of nine.
The motel room grew darker, and the air stifled him. He stood up and opened the door. No one was outside. A few fireflies danced above the lawn. He wondered if there were a god, and if so, would this god welcome him to the other side, or would his essence just disintegrate like one of those fuzzy flowers you blown in springtime. He shut the door.
He studied the phone on the nightstand by the bed. It suddenly occurred to him that he didn’t have to stay here. He could do this thing somewhere else. Or not at all. Then he noticed a word scratched into the wood of the headboard. He bent down and looked closely. It said “Angie.” He wondered who Angie was and why she had come here. He looked at the bed, brown bedspread, soft pillows. Did Angie turn on the gas as soon as the two hours were up or did she wait? Did she lie here with her head imprinting these pillows until something told her to turn the knob? He felt tears rolling down his face for this woman he had never known as if she’d been a lover, a friend or perhaps a sister. Then the feeling subsided.
He lay down and dozed a bit, then he heard a sound, a metal clinking. The gas had been turned on. Was it two hours already? He could turn the knob any time now. He did not go over to the air conditioning unit. Instead he turned on the television. There it was—the twenty-first century in all its glory, glimmering from a 19-inch screen. Commercials, canned laughter, facsimile people who were paid enormous amounts of money to distract us, he thought. They didn’t care if they made everyone crazy.
He watched the television shows one after the other until midnight, not thinking anything. There was nothing left to think about. And now he did not feel alone. At midnight he turned off the television and sat in the dark. Such an empty world like the inside of a balloon. He turned on the light by the bed. Suddenly, he saw the room as if he hadn’t seen it before—the walls, the yellow and white curtains, the pillows now freed from the covers of the bed. And he knew he had prepared his whole life for this night in this room. He stood up, walked over to the air conditioner and turned the red knob. Then he lay down on the bed and rested his fingers on Angie’s name as he drifted off toward a quiet sleep.
When Cara came in to work the next day, she noticed the gray rental car at the far end of the lot. The cardinals were already up and chirping on the other side of the wrought iron fence. Cara unlocked the door to the office. The door stuck slightly from the humidity. She shoved it open and automatically flicked the light switch. Then she walked into the kitchen to turn on the coffee pot. She didn’t want to check the gas valves right away. No reason to know or even care about the man with sun-bleached hair. And yet as she sat at her desk with the hot coffee in a white mug, she glanced over at the meters in the corner. Well, he’d gone ahead and done it, after all. She’d known that he would. Now she would need to call the rental car company to come get his car. She adjusted the sleeves of her flower-print jacket as she gazed out of the window. Ms. Wickham would disapprove of the cheery colors of her clothing today, but it was spring, after all.
PAT MACENULTY is the author of four books as well as numerous short stories, essays, poems, and plays. She is also a teacher, workshop leader, writing coach and freelance editor. Her most recent book, From May to December was recently published by Serpents Tail.