Soon after Ben dies Maura makes up her first Morbid Multiple Choice question: God is A) a hoax, B) a monster, C) confused, D) sadistic. Ben is/was her brother. He likes the question. He’s already giving her grief about it. “Why isn’t there a positive option?” he demands. “What’s there for the guy who’s certain God’s hand guided him to buy the winning lottery ticket? The lady who loves God because of her goldfish?”
“‘Confused’ is there for those folks,” Maura tells him. “‘Confused’ is a perfectly good option for the Godophiles among us.” She steps outside then. Where she can keep a conversation going with her absent brother. Take a walk. Actually the level of conversation between them has risen a notch or two since his death. Ben’s listening skills have improved. They do their best talking when Maura is striding along on one of her grief walks.
“‘Fuck-up’ should be one of the options, don’t you think?” she asks him. Ben blinks—the dead blink like anybody. And he says, “Maybe.” Then he shuts up. Like a real good dead brother. The grief walks get her through some very bad afternoons. The ones where neither of them have much to say.
Maura walks on Hagen Parkway facing the traffic. She walks a foot or so out from the shoulder—far enough out that the oncoming cars have to steer around her. She strides with her arms swinging. When the cars come close but miss her she calls out, “Hey, Death, you’re a pussy!” When a car comes near enough to her to let her know Death is serious she hollers, “Woo woo! Let me see what else you got!”
But Maura has only so much stamina for grief-walking on the parkway. Drivers lean on their horns long after they’re past her. Drivers shout out their windows. “Crazy little bitch!” and like that. It’s exhausting. And Ben doesn’t really like it. “It’s stupid,” he says. “Why involve other people?” he asks her. “Why make a mess out where the public has to see it?”
He’s got a point. He also has the final word. He doesn’t even have to say it aloud. And he’s sweet not to yell at her for trying to copycat him. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean Ben has lost his sense of humor. “Doesn’t count if you volunteer,” he tells her once after she’s actually touched the rear fender of a car that didn’t try all that hard not to hit her. “Got to be drafted for this kind of duty.”
Maura knows. It’s chicken-shit trying to get the world to do it for her. If one of these mega trucks hits her head on at seventy miles an hour and tosses her all bloody and broken off into the parkway weeds and trash, that won’t really be what she wants. Which is to have her brother back. The two of them down in the basement dancing themselves into a dripping sweat and flinging it out of their hair when they spin. The two of them so alive it’s like they’ve injected jitterbug juice into their veins. Like they’ve shazamed themselves into particles of light.
“So cancer—” Ben starts, and Maura says, “Shut up!” before he goes any further. He tells her if she’d let him help her understand she might be able stop acting like an idiot and get some sleep. “I won’t stop talking to you,” he tells her, “if you just forget about doing the death thing for a while.” “Till I’m about a hundred and six?” she says. “Play bridge and watch TV for about a billion years? Maybe eat some cat food? Would that be a long enough while for you?”
Ben says, “I’m just saying you don’t have to be in such a hurry.” And Maura says, “Why wait? What’s in it for me?” “Chocolate chip ice cream,” he tells her. “Paris,” he tells her. “‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ Yodeling. Swimming in the White River. Sex with your sweetie when he comes along.” “Shut the fuck up,” Maura tells him.
But he’s getting somewhere with her, she can tell that much. Damn boy’s influencing her mind in spite of all her effort. “I’m turning you off for a while,” she tells him. “Fine,” he says. “Don’t go away,” she says. “Where I am,” he intones, “there is no away.”
Maura goes a whole day without taking a grief walk. Without conversing with Ben. Without . . . Well, she can’t claim she hasn’t wanted death all day. She just hasn’t wanted it quite enough. Which is usually the case. She paces the house. The family home. Her parents’ place. The walls get too close. She opens the door to his room, steps in, stares out his window, scratches her neck. “Shut up,” she says. “I’m not talking to you.” She barely hears a whisper, “I think you are.”
So she changes her venue. She walks around the neighborhood. She takes it upon herself to explore her dear hometown as she’s never before thought to do it. Clarksville after dinner. Clarksville in the twilight hour. Clarksville streets where the streetlights have been busted out for target practice and never replaced. While her parents are at home watching TV. Too zonked out on their meds even to ask where she’s going. “You can come along,” she tells Ben, “but I’m not actually asking you.”
Folks on their porches watch her. They go all quiet while Maura walks past. She makes herself say hi but it comes out squeaky and lame. They don’t answer. She doesn’t blame them. Next night the mother of the porch family is waiting for her, standing just inside the gate. “Who are you?” the woman asks her. “Come a little closer so I can see you.” Maura steps up. Not exactly close, but she thinks it’ll do. The woman looks her in the eyes. Maura’s a little afraid. “Something wrong with you?” the woman asks. Maura murmurs yes. She can’t say it very loud. “Go on home, sweetheart,” the woman tells her softly. Maura doesn’t want to go. She starts to say, “Please.” But that’s not what comes out. “Yes, ma’am” is what she says.
“Dead brothers all around everywhere,” Ben tells her when she gets back to where there are some streetlights. “I don’t think you understand just how common it is. It’s nothing special.” “Fuck off,” Maura tells him. It feels good to tell him that. She snorts a couple of times thinking about it on her way home. “Fine,” Ben says when they get back to their house. “Get some sleep,” he says. She does. She walks straight upstairs to bed and sleeps like a rock at the bottom of a lake. Five whole hours. Near dawn she wakes up, tip-toes into Ben’s room, and closes the door behind her. “What the hell is it I want?” she whispers to the still room. She climbs under the covers of his bed and cries a long time.
“Breaking up with you, bro,” she tells him, sitting up on the side of the bed. “For my own good. I figured it out. I can’t ever catch up to you. I’m just trotting around in circles and making whining noises.” She listens to see what Ben will say, and what he says is nada. Maybe that’s all you have to do to end an unhealthy relationship with a deceased sibling. Tell them you’re breaking up with them. Then a jolt of pure pain shoots through her body and crumples her off the bed and onto the floor. “Wouldn’t want you to think I wasn’t listening,” Ben tells her. “Get up,” he says. “Got a little errand for you.”
The boy’s got a plan that’s sheer craziness. The old marble quarry out by St. Mike’s. There’s a bridge over it and there are pools way down below, pools that fill with water or go dry depending on the snow and rain. You never really know what’s waiting for you down there if you jump. Which St. Mike’s kids do when they get sufficiently drunk or stoned. Every couple of years there’s a death out there, picture of a kid in the newspaper. The bridge and the quarry are owned by an old coot who won’t put up barriers to keep the kids out. The old coot gets his picture in the paper, too. “You want me to go all the way out there?” Maura tells Ben. “I don’t drive. I don’t have a license. I don’t have a car.”
“Eight point six miles,” Ben tells her. “A couple hours. Easy for a natural born walker like yourself. I’ll walk with you. Keep you company. Hum some tunes for you.” Maura keeps quiet a moment. Her heart’s thump-thrumming in her chest like she hasn’t felt it for a long time. “Then what?” she asks him. “After I get there.”
“You know what,” he says. “Climb up on that concrete railing. You’ve seen the bridge before, but you haven’t seen the view. Get up there and have a look at the world. See what you think.”
Maura’s quiet again. “I can’t believe you’re telling me this,” she says.
“What you need,” Ben tells her, “is a jump or don’t jump moment. That’s what I’m telling you.”
Maura stays quiet. Stupid heart thumping like Seven Nation Army.
“Now,” he says.
“Okay, okay.” She gets her jeans and her shirt on, her old running shoes. There are other things she wants to do before she starts walking out to St. Mike’s. She hasn’t brushed her teeth or her hair, doesn’t put on deodorant. “Don’t dawdle,” she tells herself before he has a chance to say it. She feels some urgency but not so much as to make any noise. Not that she’d wake her parents up even if she slammed the door behind her. They’re sleeping the sleep of the deeply drugged.
The morning’s clear and brisk. She’s out before there’s big traffic. She keeps to the sidewalk and then the shoulder. Crazy, she thinks, to be cautious on the way out to that bridge. But she doesn’t mind crazy. Been deep in it since Ben made his exit. Maybe this is the epitome of sanity, she thinks. Walking all this way to stand up on a concrete railing over a two- or three-hundred-foot drop. Right now the clouds overhead are moving faster than she is. She picks up her pace. “Thought you were going to hum me some tunes,” she tells Ben. She hears him from what sounds like far ahead. “If you knew / Peggy-Sue / How I love you.”
He hushes with the singing when she starts down the path to the bridge. Then there’s a fence with a sign that says Keep Out / Danger / No Trespassing. But there’s a human-sized hole cut in the fence right beside the sign. Like an invitation. Maura doesn’t pause, she steps right through. Her heart’s banging so hard it’s like it’s going to knock her off her feet. She wishes Ben would sing a little more, but right now she’s beyond making any requests.
On the concrete railing just wide enough to stand on she feels the sky lift up about a thousand miles. Then the landscape zooms out around her like it wants to give her all the space on the planet. Get away from the girl. Let her make her decision. Maura doesn’t look down right away. Knows to save it until she absolutely has to do it. She stands up straight. Uses her arms to help balance herself. Wouldn’t want to do it and not mean to.
“Toes over the edge,” she hears him whisper. “Won’t count unless you get yourself right up against thin air.”
She does that. She’s not quite teetering. When she looks down her eyes are tearing up so she doesn’t really see what’s down there. It’s like looking down into a cloud from an airplane window. So she looks out over the Winooski River. Sees Mount Mansfield blue against the sky. About a thousand acres of farmland and trees. A few houses. Monkton Pond. A JetBlue airliner gliding across the horizon toward the airport. Maura’s got more altitude than it does.
So she’s having it now. Her jump or don’t jump. No big deal except it makes her kind of out of breath and dizzy. Even so, she could stand up here a hundred years if she wanted. A little whiff of a breeze cools the sweat on her forehead.
“Want me to help you down?” she hears Ben offer. He’s on the bridge just a little behind her. Pretty close now.
A gull sails through the silence. Close enough she can see its eyes as it turns its dumb gull head briefly toward her.
“Yes,” she says. And not softly. Lets the word float out there into all that space. “Yes,” she says again. “Please. Thank you.”