Dead William

Jason has rented a dumpster from the big place out on Commerce Road that he passed sometimes on one of the variations of his route to work, usually when he was in a hurry and so had to forgo the country road for the paved practicality of the industrial suburbs. It’s brand new, an excruciating orange in about the shade of the prisoners’ uniforms he’s seen in some movies. The black lettering on all sides says HUMPSTER’S DUMPSTERS, and Jason makes the delivery guy park it right by the side of the house. Some flowers, and Shayla’s entire crop of oregano, are ruined, but Jason nods approvingly as he hands the guy a twenty-dollar tip. The gears grind and there’s a billow of ugly dark smoke as the truck makes its way down the street. Jason can still smell it as he walks into the house.

He walks up the stairs and has to stand at the door for a full minute before he is able to enter William’s room. The window is already open, and when he looks down he is staring right into the maw of the dumpster. Shayla has told him explicitly and repeatedly not to do this, but something in her knew that he would do it anyway, and so she has already rescued some of the clothes, some of the toys, most of the things that were gifts from friends and relatives. She passed him in the hallway with a squeaky dolphin in her hand, and he just stared ahead blankly as she pursed her lips, held back tears, and rushed by him quickly.

Jason has no system. He takes an orienting look out the window to gauge the target, and then just lets a few objects drop, and heaves some others. He examines the result: everything has plonked into the dumpster. It’s a bit of a frenzy after that as he goes about emptying the contents of the entire room. The smallest is a platinum letter W which he tosses out nonchalantly, as though it’s a bit of debris that he has come across while dusting. The largest: a dresser where Shayla has meticulously folded all of William’s clothes. The clothes are easy, and the drawers make crisp splintering noises as they crash into the harsh metal of the dumpster, but he has to kick the frame of the dresser to pieces, and then beat at it with its own cracked-off limbs. He sweats: it’s the best (the only) workout he has had since William’s death. He goes at it for five solid minutes, choosing the weak spots, like a boxer, pounding for a while, and then drawing back slightly to rest and to re-evaluate strategy, and then to hone in for the kill. He lays it on its side and then rushes it like a linebacker would, pounding it into the wall. Something cracks, and in a lucid moment he hopes that it is not his shoulder.

Jason stands up, the sweat now literally dripping onto the floor, his body drenched as if he has just stepped out of the shower. There’s a fine line, perfectly straight, running down the top of the dresser, and he half laughs and half cries as he charges at it for one last time, and the thing splits in two. A large splinter of the wood, about a foot long, also now sticks out ludicrously from his bicep, and he pulls it out and watches the blood run down an arm, mixing in with sweat and dirt and debris from the floor, all forming a rivulet which ends at his elbow and drips from there. He pulls off his T-shirt, then his pants, and stands there in his socks and underwear. He wraps his shirt around the cut in his arm, pulls it tight, ties it in a knot. It feels immediately better.

Jason surveys the room. The dresser is the only thing of any substance remaining, and he forces the biggest two pieces of it out the window, and the sound they make reverberates, like it should when something gets destroyed obscenely, like it should when a child dies, like it should when it all comes to a crashing end. An hour and a half later, the room is completely empty, as if he has cleaned it out and tidied it up for new tenants. He gets a broom and sweeps all the little bits into a large plastic trash bag, and that is the last thing that he throws into the dumpster.

Shayla is sitting on the couch when Jason sees her from the kitchen on his way to the basement. There’s a magazine in front of her, bright glossy photos with impossible greens in them, a little text on the edge, but she seems to just be staring straight down at the table rather than looking at the magazine. She looks up and he can’t see anything at all in her face, as though a mess of many negative feelings have all cancelled themselves out and ended up just looking like fatigue and resignation.

“Jason, for fuck sake.”

He hesitates for the briefest moment-but then just touches her lightly on the shoulder, averts his eyes, and heads for the basement. On his way back upstairs with the paint and brushes, he avoids the kitchen and heads straight back for William’s room.

He wants it all black, including the floor. He’s already stripped off the carpet, which is discarded in a hundred pieces of various sizes in the dumpster. The walls are bare, the closet empty of even hangers, the light bulb and its cover both now also removed and lying in the dumpster. Jason starts with a wall, slathering the paint on with a large brush, the light blue giving way easily to the black, the rainbow which he had meticulously, lovingly painted over the door about a week before William was born-the rainbow is also soon lost in blackness. Each wall takes about twenty minutes and Jason makes sure to do the closets as well.

Eventually, everything is done except for the floor: he sits in the middle and stares up at the ceiling. The sun is just starting to go down outside and the ceiling looks like it goes on forever, an insubstantial blackness which combines with the sky, everything connected, everything poisoned by the death of a baby. Jason finds a toothpick in his pocket and he starts absentmindedly poking at his chin with it while he surveys the room now. The paint has gone on thick, like on a black panel by an abstract artist.

He throws the toothpick out the window and starts painting the floorboards. It’s exhausting work and he can feel a threatening twinge in the part of his lower-right back which sometimes goes out. He stands, stretches, bends backwards, and then returns to the painting. This pattern is repeated until, like in a cartoon, everything is black except the area he stands on in the doorway. He steps into the hallway, dips his brush one last time into the paint can, and makes it all one, dark, black, negative, evil, the last memorial to their dead son.

He wakes up in the same hallway. It’s early: he can tell by the light and the quiet outside. What day is it? He’s never sure any more.

His back is sore and he has some trouble just getting to his feet. His cut arm hurts. He goes to the bathroom and runs the water for a bath, pouring lavender-scented bubble bath into the gush of water. He slides down into the tub, his body more slender than it has ever been, now that he doesn’t care at all about such things. It’s too hot, but he shivers as though it were too cold. It’s up to his neck now, this sweet-smelling water, and he fantasizes about sinking all the way down, disappearing. Not about killing himself, but just about slipping quietly into a world where there is no such thing as loss and anger and the debilitating helplessness of being a mere man against God.

God. That’s who occupies his mind all the time. He wants to slide wetly into a world where he could wreck some vengeance on God, sneak up behind him, hurt him when he was least expecting it. Or better yet: kill his son again the way that God apparently let William die, God just easing back onto a comfortable cloud, checking his nails, while a baby gasped for air. An eye for an eye, a son for a son. He imagines sacrilegious scenes in which anonymous thugs have pinned God to the ground but allowed his head to be turned so that he can see Jason nailing his son to another cross, the blood running from the hands, the tears in the all-powerful father’s eyes as he sees the error of his ways, eventually turns his head away in shame as much as horror.

Jason is embarrassed at his fantasies, not because of their content-he couldn’t care less about God and all the rest of it-but at how clich√© his reaction is. He can’t blame a drunk driver or a burglar for causing his only son’s death. He can’t blame himself. He can’t blame a bungling emergency-room doctor. So he shuffles around looking for someone, anyone, to be the object of his rage, to be the unlucky chosen one on whom he pours all his hate and frustration and helplessness-God, who in Jason’s imaginings is guilty for not doing anything when it was obviously within his powers to do so. Don’t they call it “criminal negligence causing death,” or something like that?

The water is getting cold. Jason considers letting some out and replenishing the tub with more hot water, but he notices his wrinkled skin and decides to get out instead. He towels himself off and looks in the mirror while the cloudy water eddies down the drain, little tufts of bubbles still clinging to the tiles in some places. He does feel a little better: a simple hot bath has put him in a better frame of mind for dealing with the indifferent universe and its laissez-faire creator.

For a full month after Jason’s blackening of William’s former room, neither he nor Shayla even acknowledge it. Jason is not sure what she thinks about the whole thing, and he doesn’t really want to talk about it. He concludes that she is not particularly angry at him, but she is quiet and subdued. She sits at the dining-room table looking around, and only smiles weakly when Jason brings in the salad for dinner. She pokes at the wet leaves of lettuce as if she is trying to make something, as if she is looking for something better than what she has been offered.

“It’s good,” she lies while still chewing. “It’s good. Thanks.”

Jason is not much more enthusiastic. For about a week he subsisted on nothing more than chocolate bars and potato chips, all washed down with Coke. It gave him permanent heartburn, and he had to pop Tums every hour or so just to stay livably comfortable.

He removes the salad after she has played with it for twenty minutes and consumed only about a quarter. Shayla nearly winces when he places the pasta in front of her: she can’t even imagine tackling this.

“Jason, I don’t think I can,” she says, looking at him helplessly as he sits back down in his chair.

“Can’t what?”

“I can’t eat. I’m not hungry. I don’t think I can eat anything.”

Jason looks at her for a moment and then just turns his eyes toward his own plate. He fiddles with the sauce and scrapes a fleck of some herb or other off a noodle. There’s silence at the other end of the table, and he looks up to see that Shayla has abandoned her utensils altogether. She pushes her plate forward toward the center of the table, as if conceding defeat.

Jason doesn’t have the heart to cajole her anymore. It’s just a matter of timing, he thinks. He’s just coming out of his own pattern of disordered eating, and starting to eat normally again. But Shayla has no appetite for food right now. Her son is dead and she’s not hungry. What could be more normal than that? He hopes and expects that she will come out of it, emerge a better person somehow, but he won’t push her. Let it happen. Let it all just happen the same way that everything else just happens.

He smiles across the table at her and she nods back.

It is the following Sunday morning and Jason is sitting on the deck at the back of the house. Coffee in a dark brown mug on a pine table. He sits in a wicker chair, his legs stretched out in front of him. He’s wearing a dark blue cotton bathrobe with stylized white-line images of fish on it. The sun is just about to come up, and an occasional chill breeze makes him pull together the front of his robe over his knees.

Jason sometimes is scared and sometimes just does not care enough to work out all the financial details. He knows that if he did the simple math, dividing what he has in the bank by the number of years he could reasonably expect to be alive, the prospects would likely not be good. He knows that he might have to get another job at some point, though right now he cannot possibly fathom even the hint of that: getting up in the morning, going out to work among people, coming home exhausted and frustrated and bored, and then doing the whole thing all over again the next day.

The top of the dark orange orb of the sun is now showing itself on the horizon. Jason feels that its light and warmth are directed right at him. He closes his eyes nearly all the way and through the slits he sees the sun get larger and less orange until it is huge and illuminates everything around him. It’s too bright now, darkness having given way to a perfect balance and then deteriorating to this plethora, and when Jason closes his eyes all the way, he sees black, and then all the colors, and then white. Things swirling and things appearing out of nowhere.