Life In A Thousand Feet
How could someone commit to a 1000 sq. ft. roll of aluminum foil from Costco knowing that their life would never outlive it?
As I tore off a piece to line the cookie sheet to make a half a bag of pizza rolls that night, I noted the date as I always do when I pay homage to this box of foil. It had been nine years. He would have been 58 had it not been for that night in June. The Thursday night before the Saturday morning we received the call.
A phone call at 5:15 in the morning is never good news. It sends the heart into a rhythm that has to be choked down in order to breathe again. Of course, when the phone first rings, you don’t really know what time it is, you just know that when a dream is interrupted by a sound foreign to the night, someone needs to speak to you. Now.
My husband struggled to get his arm out from under the covers, to reach the phone before the fifth ring when it would stop and go to voicemail. Four and a quarter rings in he picked up. The one-sided conversation told me that it really was one of those calls. “Oh my God. Where? When? How? What do I need to do? How did you get my number? Okay...uh huh...Monday? Yes. Thank you.”
“Fuck,” my husband said as he sat staring at the dresser across from the bed.
And then he told me it was Kevin. And that they found him behind a tire store just down the street from his house. Fastidious as he always was, he apparently walked down the street carrying a pillow, a blue painter’s tarp, two instructional notes and a shotgun he had purchased from Walmart the week before. In the middle of a suburban neighborhood, the assumption is he had to have left at that point in the night where the crickets hadn’t yet handed off their script to the birds, and his neighbor Joe wouldn’t see him leave through the window when he was sipping his coffee in the kitchen before work in the morning.
With one foot still in my dream, my mind hadn’t yet cleared its canvas of me sitting in a car in front of a Dairy Queen making out with an old boyfriend while “Don’t Stop Believin’” played on the radio. It was certainly a more pleasant place than where I dwelled now. Life was still good five minutes earlier. Now I sat trying to grasp the fact that one fewer friend’s number would show up on my phone and I didn’t know why.
The murk was replaced by panic as I tore off the blankets and ran out of the bedroom without even putting on my slippers. Something I never do for fear that I might step on a spider in the dark or a puddle of dog pee. I pulled out the white cardboard file box from under my husband’s desk and brought it into the bedroom. Kevin had given this box to my husband before he was to leave town that Wednesday. Told him to hold onto it until he returned. Kevin was a musician and left often. My husband, a musician as well, would help him tend to his home chores when their schedules didn’t overlap. Kevin was single. It wasn’t unusual to have him leave keys to his house or mail or bills to pay. So the box didn’t raise any questions when he asked my husband to keep an eye on it until he got back. Or did he ever really say, “until I get back”? Or is that just an assumption my husband filled in knowing that he always returned?
I lifted the lid off the box and saw that it was filled with sealed FedEx envelopes. Some were fuller than others. Each had a name written on the envelope in Sharpie. Ignoring privacy and names and any confidentiality or etiquette that I would have under normal circumstances, I let adrenaline dictate my next move. And that was to tear into each envelope to see what was inside. Knowing, before the first rip, exactly what I would find. My hands shaking as my fingers slid under the flap of each package, tearing and reading. Reading and tearing. Tears smearing the inkjet letters typed before he took his final walk that night.
Knowing why doesn’t always make things better. The buts… fill in the blanks after each explanation.
“I just wasn’t happy here anymore.
“But, had you let us know, we could have helped to make you happy.”
“I just wanted to find love…”
“But love could have been right around the corner…”
“Life will go on when I’m gone.”
“But life won’t be the same for any of us without you in it.”
I...but...I...but...the game could go on forever. But in this case it found its end when he closed his front door that night, locked it with the key they found in his pocket and walked down the street he had driven a thousand times in the PT Cruiser that now sits in our driveway.
His will was clean and precise, just like he was. Written months before he would end up behind the tire store. But knowing when he wrote it that his story would be ending. He left us his car and beloved Pioneer Elite 60” plasma TV. He loved "America’s Next Top Model." He knew we loved "America’s Next Top Model." I have Tyra Banks to thank, in part, for the TV that still hangs above our fireplace. He also left us all of his household items. Including that box of brand new aluminum foil. One thousand feet. Twelve thousand inches. Ten years of cookie sheet-covering, plate-wrapping, pizza-protecting, life-affirming foil. You just don’t go all in with something of this magnitude if you don’t plan on seeing it all the way through.
Or do you?
Maybe buying the foil was intentional. Sort of a screw you! to life itself. Oh yeah, I’ll show you all. I’ll make you all wonder. Fuck you, life. I’m gonna die with 12,000 inches of foil in my kitchen and you can’t stop me! The giant family-sized box of Tide on top of the washing machine also said, I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.
But the garbage bags told a different story.
The garbage bags were an unplanned afterthought. We didn’t even remember that he gave them to us until my husband opened the garage door a week later and saw the bags sitting there. Rather than have to drive back to his house to put the cans back in the driveway, my husband just took the bags home with him to add to our garbage the following week.
We stood in front of the garage staring at the bags. Opening them felt like a huge violation of someone’s privacy. Once you tie a bag, you are telling the world, "Move along. Nothing to see here. Stop. Do not enter.” Or is trust taken off the table once someone takes their life?
It’s a lot like going into someone’s drawers. You just don’t do that. Or opening someone’s medicine cabinet behind a locked bathroom door at a party. Do not enter. Stop. Beware. But knowing that the contents of the bags could provide clues as to the who, what, where, when and why of the situation at hand, we reached down. I took one. My husband took the other. We pulled them onto the driveway, under the spotlight of the blazing June sun. We just stared. Hoping that some divine hand would come down from the sky and open the bags for us so we wouldn’t have to. Or maybe give us a sign that it was okay to break this trust. That we were helping in some way. Maybe opening the bag could turn back time and make it all go away. Bring our friend back if we could just locate the clues that led to the call at 5:15 that morning.
"Let’s just open one," we said. It was like Christmas Eve. I’ll just open one tonight and leave the other for Christmas morning. But you can never just open one. Once you start, there’s no stopping.
I went first. Wedging my fingernails under the double knotted red plastic tie, I loosened one knot, then the other. Heart racing, hands trembling, and drops of sweat forming above my top lip, I pulled open the 13-gallon, leak-proof, white plastic bag, which came from the box of 200 that still sat on his shelf, practically untouched. My husband stood across from me, both of us reluctant to look inside. What initially surprised me was the lack of smell. I expected more from a bag that had sat in a hot garage for a week. Putrid. Rotting. Sticky. Maybe our adrenaline blocked out the stench, but there was a void where odor should be. All other senses, however, were on high alert.
The first thing I saw was a wall calendar. Nothing fancy, or decorative, or cat-themed, or promotional in nature, just a simple calendar from an office supply store with large squares for each day of the month. The page of this calendar was flipped over to June. Each box had an X through it. The day that he planned to walk down the street with the pillow and tarp and notes and shotgun in his hand was marked by a giant black star. Saying, this is the day. This is the day that it’s all going down.
I wondered if he always put an X in the squares prior to even thinking about his plan. Was this how he knew what day it was? The first box without an X was today? Maybe a ritual of completion to end each day to give himself a sense of accomplishment. Or was this a countdown of sorts.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1...blastoff!
Four days before he took his life, the square was marked with a woman’s name. Sara. Neither my husband nor I recognized the name. Why did he meet with her? Was it a date? Who was she? Did she know what he was going to do? When she found out he was gone, did she think back to that day and say, “Oh my God! How did I not know?” Who was Sara, dammit? Flipping backwards through the months for more clues, every square was crossed off in black Sharpie. A doctor’s appointment. X. An oil change. X. A two-week tour that took place three months prior. X. X. X. Ominous Xs that now, in retrospect, served as an hourglass. Tick-tocking the days away until he would be no more.
The remaining contents in this bag were general in nature. Benign. Tissues, crinkled snack bags, used cotton swabs, and empty frozen food containers. I placed the calendar back into the bag, and tied it into its original double knot and set it aside.
My husband grabbed the bag that sat at his feet. Not as graceful in his opening as I was, he ripped the top of the bag open, leaving the red tie intact. This bag was heavier and definitely packed a wallop in the olfactory department. Pushing aside liquifying lettuce, molded tomatoes, a couple of apples that were still in perfect apple form, and a full package of once-frozen chicken breasts that had swollen into a balloon-like bubble, testing the corners of the styrofoam tray that held the rotting meat, two empty pill bottles emerged. As someone who would normally be so germ-phobic, (I wouldn’t dream of touching anything that touched anything else that was rotting), I reached into the bacterial frappe and pulled out the plastic vials. The labels were still attached. One was for an anti-anxiety medication, the other for an antidepressant. Clearly neither did their job.
Then, right there, under a half-eaten package of multi-grain bread were his eyeglasses. His signature round, wire-rimmed, John Lennon-esque glasses that framed his face since the day we met, sat at the bottom of the bag in a puddle of brown, fetid water. I could imagine how this would toy with his OCD. Repel him from ever touching these glasses again. Force him to buy a new pair. I could see his face behind these glasses. It was there as plain as day. I could see his mouth moving and hear him say, “So are you satisfied? Did you find everything you were looking for? Do you feel better now?” It was a gut-punch. The final curtain. A man doesn’t discard his only means of sight unless he knows there is nothing left to see. The sweat beads above my lip were pushed aside by the tears trailing down my cheek, into my mouth. I could hear him as he tossed them (or did he carefully place them) into the trash, “I won’t be needing these anymore,” before proceeding to clean out his refrigerator so no one else would have to. Then, walking down the street half-blind to his final destination. His eyeglasses safe from the shattering reality that was about to unfold.
I rip off another piece of foil. There are about 200 feet remaining. A good five years of life left to live. Had he only used this box of aluminum foil as his guide.