Authors: Scott Spencer
Waking The Dead
This book is dedicated to Celeste and Asher.
But some man will say, “How are the dead raised up and with what body do they come?”
for Minneapolis with our life together in the worst possible repair. I knew enough about the suddenness of things to know that you ought never say good-bye to someone you love without acknowledging that you might be looking at them for the very last time. I broke this emotional law and twenty-six hours later Sarah was pronounced dead and zippered up in a black rubber bag in Minneapolis Community General Hospital.
The police informed Sarah’s family down in New Orleans but the Williamses didn’t have the decency or perhaps the presence of mind to find me. I finally learned about it on the CBS news that evening, as I sat in our apartment in Chicago, surrounded by the things Sarah and I had accumulated over the three years of living together. The picture that flashed on the TV screen was of Francisco and Gisela Higgins, who had left Chile when the generals took over the government and who had been making the rounds internationally, describing the horrors of the current Chilean regime. As it happened, Sarah had been driving Francisco and Gisela to a church in St. Paul where the parish had given sanctuary to a few Chileans who had fled to the United States illegally. They were in a white 1968 Volvo station wagon, with an indestructible KEEP ON TRUCKIN’ bumper sticker in the back—six years hadn’t peeled it off, nor had six hundred days of winter in the northern tier, nor, finally, had the blast of the bomb that had been taped to the bottom of the car and radio-detonated when they were just a block from Our Lady of the Miracle. But for me the details came later. I knew something whose terribleness was beyond anything I’d ever known happened as soon as I saw Francisco and Gisela’s faces on the screen and the news reader said, “This afternoon, terror struck a quiet neighborhood in Minneapolis.” And then Francisco and Gisela’s images were gone and the newscaster went on talking and there was film running. I saw the white Volvo covered in firemen’s foam, bare trees, a light April snow falling, and then a reporter standing on the street with a microphone, looking very official and indignant, a big blond boy with a movie star haircut and a fancy winter coat with a fur collar. But my hands were over my ears and I couldn’t hear what he was saying. And then there was a picture of Sarah. The same old picture I had seen on her parents’ piano in their house on St. Charles Avenue, a picture of her sitting on a wicker chair on their porch with her arms around her knees and a completely happy smile on her face which was rarely that completely happy. The sunlight was in her hair, shining also in the whites of her eyes, the moisture of her teeth, the little gold chain around her neck. My own voice was echoing as I said no over and over and then I hit the Off switch.
I left the apartment without closing the door behind me and without a coat. The late snow that had been falling in Minnesota was now falling through the coarse gray darkness over Chicago. Somehow I seized on the idea that there was something I needed to decide, a course of action I needed to affirm. I don’t honestly know what I was thinking; the truth is most of my effort was probably spent fighting going mad.
We were living on 51st and Blackstone. I was going to law school at the University of Chicago and Sarah was working on the northwest side in a place called Resurrection House. We had few friends and virtually no money, so most of the time we had to spend together we spent alone, in the apartment.
I was still strange to the streets I walked that night. The lights in the windows seemed sharp and unfriendly and the families living on the ground floors, whose domesticity I could spy in brightly lit wedges, seemed remote, unknowable. From time to time, I became aware of how cold it was. I looked up and saw the snow drifting past the streetlights. Sometimes my heart seemed not to be beating at all and sometimes it seemed to be beating far, far too quickly. I made my way to 53rd Street and found a bar. I had a few dollars in my pocket and I ordered a beer. I was supposed to be stopping drinking and it didn’t quite occur to me that this was a time I could back off that vow. The taste of the beer was too real and its reality made the night undeniable.
The bartender had a large white distorted face, unbelievably grotesque, like something underwater. There was one other person in the bar, a bus driver sitting in front of what looked like a Scotch and soda. There were framed photographs of famous boxers on the wall— that listless automatic decoration they use in bars without any real character. I had some change in my pocket and I went to the phone booth. I was wet, shaking. I dropped the dime in and dialed our apartment and listened to the ringing. And with each ring I thought: My God, it really happened.
and been in the front seat and they were instantly dead. Probably they were each buried with shreds of the other in the casket. Francisco Higgins had been in the backseat, lying down. They took what was left of him to the hospital, where he died two days later. By this time, I was in Minneapolis, too, and I visited his hospital room. He was small in that bed; the equipment was larger than he was. It was a cheerful room. Nordic and up-to-date, with little humanizing touches that were coming into vogue: warm colors on the wall, a child’s crayon drawing framed, an orthopedically designed chair for visits.
I really didn’t know Higgins. I’d met him only once, at dinner with Sarah and a few of the others the night before the trip to Minnesota. I’d liked him that evening. He was a sort of Chilean government-in-exile, but he had a way of not taking it so awfully seriously, or at least not rubbing your nose in the seriousness of it. I’d liked him then but I did not like him in that hospital room, and as soon as I walked in I realized it was wrong for me to be there. I started to shake and I was having vile, desperate thoughts, my mind jerking this way and that like a snake tortured by a sharp stick. He had clearly been the object of the attack; his wife was a secondary target and Sarah had just happened to be along for the ride. He’d been deliberately attacked, but, in a sense, Sarah’s death had been accidental. It seemed inarguable from the beginning that the bomb had been planted by terrorists in the pay of the generals running Chile—the generals who’d held Francisco and Gisela prisoner and who, having succumbed to international pressure to set them free, wanted them silenced. But the last thing they wanted to do was kill an American citizen. Francisco and Gisela were world famous, but it was Sarah’s death that became the focus of the stories about the bombing, Sarah’s death that made people in America care. And soon Francisco’s friends the world over would be making the most of it. They were going to take her away from me and make her stand for something.
Sarah’s father was in Minneapolis to accompany the casket on the flight down to New Orleans, where she was going to be buried in the family tomb—burials are above-ground in New Orleans because the loam is too soft to hold the dead securely in their pine and mahogany cocoons. He spoke to the police and avoided the press. He thought the reporters were somehow conspiring with the dissident Chileans to use Sarah’s death to disgrace America. He was a large, aggressive man, fit from tennis and the isometrics of his own bad temper, and he came into the cold Minnesota spring wearing a light blue suit, a white belt, and white shoes, as if these were the tribal colors of his better way of life.
A woman from a local TV station focused in on me. It wasn’t as if she cared. She was just trying to be original in her handling of the story. I was, at first, the boyfriend of the deceased, and then she promoted me to the fiancé, in time for the ten o’clock report.
I thought I owed it to Sarah to say something but really there was nothing left of me. I’d tried to eat some toast but I couldn’t keep it down. It had been twenty-four hours living off the sugar in Scotch. I didn’t dare sleep or even close my eyes, and the worst part was I knew that my response to all of this was just in its larval stage, that I had managed to isolate my shock and grief, freeze it back a little, but I wouldn’t be able to keep it like that for very long and soon—well, who knew what I was going to feel or what I would make of it? “Whom do you hold responsible for this?” the reporter asked me, shoving the microphone before my mouth.
I thought. I couldn’t answer quickly. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “The government of Chile has a secret police force and they’ve been known to follow dissident Chileans all over the world in order to silence them.”
She waved to her cameraman and then shook her head, dropping the microphone to her side. “That sounds like propaganda,” she said. “Can we just keep it—I don’t know, keep it personal and immediate?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “It’ll seem more real that way.”
to Sarah’s father on the flight to New Orleans. Neither of us wanted the company of the other but there was no way around it. His name was Eugene, named after his father. He sold insurance and acted as if this gave him a certain insight and competence in matters of life and death, as if he were a surgeon or a priest. He was successful but not well liked. Sarah was one of his three children—all daughters. He’d named her Sara, thinking it was ladylike, fetching; she’d added the
to her name later on. Sarah’s mother’s name was Dorothy and she was afraid and evasive around Eugene. It was hard to say where her loyalties were. She seemed mostly to care about appearances, and even though it is probably an emotional impossibility to care only for the surface of life, Dorothy seemed to do so.
Eugene and I watched the stewardess demonstrate the safety features of the 727. It was a rough takeoff, right into the wind. It surprised me how fervently I wanted the plane to crash. Clouds raced past like torn dirty rags. You could hear the engines straining. Then the
sign went off with a little
and we were securely airborne. Eugene lit up a Kool and tilted his seat back. He toed off his white loafers and exhaled smoke through his nose. Sarah’s body was in the belly of the plane. Minneapolis was beneath us looking clean, ordinary, distant. Then it curved away, as if the earth in its rotation suddenly jerked forward, and beneath us was the frozen stubble of farmland, and little blue-enameled bumps: the silos. We were flying. We were going to heaven.
When the stewardess came by, Eugene asked her for a vodka and tonic. They weren’t serving drinks yet, but she seemed to know he was the father of the woman, the body, below. She seemed also to know who I was and she asked me if I wanted something as well. I said no, just because it was easier. When his drink arrived, Eugene took a bottle of pills from his jacket and shook one out into his hand—he had a large palm and the lines in it had a faint reddish tinge. “Want one?”
I shrugged. “What are you taking?”
“Dorothy’s doctor gave her some tranquilizers and I’m taking them,” he said. He smiled, as if there was some tragic irony in a man of his enormous strength having to take a woman’s medicine.
“Are they doing any good?” I asked.
“I think so. I’m not so … jumpy, you know.”
I put my hand out and he gave me one. It was the same light blue as Eugene’s suit on one half, and dark brown on the other. I put it in my pocket. “I’ll keep it for later.”
had a bad effect on me. Time was moving on, but it was empty now. The word
made me realize that my life might be very, very long and that now I would have to live every second of it without her.