The following is a short story taken from the collection “The Lexical Funk” by Daniel Clausen
Angela Killed Herself
She calls me right before to tell me not to worry too much. Her abusive boyfriend has left her and so now she’s going to kill herself. She tells me how she’s going to do it. Dramatically, in a voice cut off sporadically by sobs, she tells me that she’s going to cut her wrists with a knife. Slicing downward this time, not fucking it up like she did when she was thirteen. Then she tells me that she loves me. I say that I’ll be right over, but when I get there she’s just lying there with her eyes open, looking at the ceiling. She’s dead, but also peaceful. Still, I can’t help feeling bad about her death. And when I think about it, clearly, logically, putting together the pieces of our fragmented lives, I know for sure that Angela’s death was my fault.
On the surface it seems that simple: the abusive boyfriend; he leaves; and then she kills herself because she can’t live without him. Or something like that. It’s nice. It’s simple. It’s easy to sell. And it has the power to heal people. To make people feel better about her death. But, come on, let’s face it, as far as morality tales go it’s boring, a worn theme, a spent genre, a storyline so recycled Lifetime TV doesn’t use it. It’s Archie and Jughead fighting over Veronica—it’s old, fetid, rank like last week’s breakfast, and oh, the maggots have already started to collect. We need a more complicated telling, do we not?
Now that Angela’s dead, I have more time to think. I did a lot of that before I met her. Life was less complicated then. I could steal an hour or two of silence anywhere and the world seemed better for it. After I met her, those same hours were gone. They were consumed by us and the thises and thats of our complicated relationship. Now that Angela’s gone I can have those same hours again. I can play with them as I like. But they’re stale hours. Somehow, they’ve lost their flavor. And I don’t know how to get the flavor back.
Sometimes confession begins for the most selfish of reasons. The flavor of my hours is my selfish reason. This is a confession, right? You are my priest, right? Help me, father. Help me gain the flavor of my hours back.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to admit this to myself, but I’m a bad person. The tasteless hours of my life give me time to create a new genre, to put things together differently. It takes time before I can truly implicate myself in this whole affair. I have to think about it. The pieces seem stupid and inconsequential at first: the puking dog, car payments and the man upstairs, Angela’s boyfriends. All these things had something to do with it, but how they come together to implicate me doesn’t occur to me right away.
Before you really start to judge me though (and you should), there are some things you should know about me: where I come from, what kind of person I am, the guidelines I live my life by. All these things are important. Maybe it will help you and Angela understand.
I’m a college student. My mom and dad died in a car accident when I was in high school. My sister took care of me for a little while, but then she moved to California with one of her boyfriends. I forget which one. She calls me every once in a while and we talk. She’ll cry about things that seem distant from me. She’ll cry and talk, but I can’t help not listening. I can’t help thinking about other things in my life, like car payments and my math test coming up. I guess when it comes down to it a math test is more important than my sister. Angela never understood this. She was always a better person than I was, even if she was crazy.
Generally speaking, I’m a likeable guy. I’m like Richie Cunningham. Straight and narrow, no drugs, occasionally alcohol but rarely to excess, do my schoolwork every night, and if my parents were around, I’m sure I’d love them very much. I’m one of the guys. Always up for a good time, American fun and hijinks, as long as it doesn’t include illegal activities such as drugs and gang violence. I’m responsible for my age. And for some reason the older Jewish ladies I serve at my coffee shop love me. I get good grades. I speak good English (well English?). And if pressed hard enough I’ll generally acquiescence to arguments that what America really needs is more tax cuts to make rich people richer and poor people, well, like Angela. And though all of these things may make me likeable, none of these things make me a good person. I’m a selfish person. I want my damn education, so I can get out of my crap apartment and crap job. Hell, likeable person? You better believe it. I’m politicking my way out of poverty: hand shakes, kissing Jewish grandmothers, and tax cuts for everyone.
We both worked in customer service. We both served food. We both served ideas and images. Coffee and bagels for me mostly; chicken wings and beer for her. Angela’s ideology of service was that caring mattered, that you could make people happy by caring about them, showing them that they were needed and that they could be liked. And so they bought massive amounts of chicken wings and stared at her ass without fear of censure. And me? Sure I smiled at the older women as I brought them their coffee and low-fat muffins. And I showed them their own version of tits and ass: a young man, not unlike their grandsons, who could make it through college without the financial support of their elders, listen submissively as they bitched about high taxes and immigrants, spoke near perfect English and had well-polished teeth. That’s right, no gold-teethed brothers at my coffee shop.
Mine was a non-talent. A habit of stooping, really. But Angela, well Angela had real talent. Others would abuse the things she could do for them: listen to your problems, offer sympathy, and convince you, really convince you, that she was deeply hurt by the evils heaped upon you. I would abuse this. I would abuse her. I would abuse her gift of caring.
She would listen to a lot of my problems, she would give me advice, and then when it came time for me to listen to her problems, I would tune her out, daydream, and think about how great of a friend she was and how I would use her again sometime soon: perhaps during finals when a person to talk to is really hard to come by. No, for Angela, there was no stooping. There was no standard response. She didn’t want perfect English, perfect teeth, or for me to acquiescence to whatever politics she believed in. No, she needed for me to care. And I didn’t. Now she’s dead.
What do you think? Should I politick out of this one? More tax cuts?
I think for a while about how I could campaign out of my guilt. Really persuade the constituency of my moral brain matter that this all had to do with something bigger.
Angela was another victim of a negligent society. The same decadent disease that eats at people like Angela eats at the very building blocks of our nation. It eats at the foundations of our shared family values. A lack of caring and a lack of concern over the general welfare have opened our communities to drugs, gang violence, and crime. Only when we fight the causes of these problems can we truly prevent deaths like that of Angela and others who have suffered abuse from a loved one. Tax cuts for everyone and God Bless America.
But no, Angela’s problems go beyond what people blame as “the problem.” It goes beyond politics or the troubles of the time. Angela’s problem was people. Specifically, people like me. I’m a lot less abstract than politics. For this reason, I should be blamed. Even though politics never really happens in the abstract.
My friend Bob tried to tell me how her suicide had nothing to do with me, that she was a “one-way train” that would have taken me with her, or something like that. I love Bob. He’s a simpleton and a buffoon, and for these reasons I love him. I talk to him more often now that Angela’s dead. I told him all the things I’m telling you now, and he tried to convince me it wasn’t my fault. You’re a lot smarter than Bob, though. I know this. Your judgment will be more astute, whoever you are. I know with at least you, I can’t talk my way out of this.
There are some things you should know about Angela. Angela’s family lives in a trailer park. Her sister is fifteen and pregnant. Her mom drinks heavily. Angela was a high school honors student who couldn’t afford to go to college full-time. I would often go to see her at work and observe as she used other men for money and they used her back. She liked to think she was just bringing them food, but I could always tell which ones were there to stare at her tits. Some didn’t even see her special talents for caring. They stared right past it at her body. And they regarded her as a thing. Sometimes I would find one or two of these people in the parking lot and scare them a little bit, but only the smaller ones.
Had things been different, I would have been one of those guys paying money to gawk at her. Just another idiot with wide eyes, eating chicken wings, not paying attention to her. Angela would flash me sometimes, and I felt lucky to be her friend. But I liked it better when she listened to me. Her tits were nice, but not as nice as her listening to me. There was something comforting about Angela’s silence.
Early on in our relationship I realized that I did not want to date Angela. That she, like me, was messed up in some fundamental way. It was better for her to be the friend I came to who could understand me, and whose tits I could stare at. And when she would talk I would always daydream. I never really listened to Angela. If she were here now, though, I’d listen. She could tell me anything she wanted to. She could tell me all about her messed-up life, why she was about to quit school and work full-time, why she let other guys hit her—all that crap. I didn’t listen, though. Angela is dead. I think about her staring up at the ceiling with peaceful eyes. I think about it a lot.
My life is complicated, though. You should know this. Because I had school, work, my dog, I never bothered to find out which boyfriends would beat Angela. She became an expert at hiding the bruises. She could hide wounds well, but, also, I tried not to see them because every bruise I saw was one more fight I’d have with her newest boyfriend—she had a lot of them, and I didn’t always win. I’m in college and I work a lot. I didn’t have time to fight all of Angela’s boyfriends and that’s why she’s dead. I thought about telling her to seek therapy, but she hit the last guy who told her this with a lamp—a very big lamp. I have enough freaky shit in my life. Angela was a good friend as long as I didn’t have to deal with her freaky shit.
Her problems were not my problems. School was my problem; car payments were a problem; that fucker upstairs getting noisy while arguing with his wife was a problem because I couldn’t sleep for days. But Angela, who came from a trailer park, whose father drank, wasn’t my problem. There wasn’t enough room between the car payments and the fat man upstairs.
My dog was sick that week. Josie. My dog was puking up the dog chow I was feeding her. I missed two days of classes and took her to the vet, which cost me eighty dollars. Eighty dollars is a lot of money to a college student. I didn’t eat much that week because money was tight. Angela let me borrow some money. I will never be able to pay her back, or say thank you for the third time. I couldn’t tell anything was wrong that week. I was worried about my dog. That week I pondered quitting my job. I needed something that paid more— perhaps one of those obscure jobs that appear in the newspaper from time to time for people who are willing to do nasty things, usually having to do with sales or sanitation. I told my dog this and she wagged her tail in approval. I love the way she does that.
I found Josie lying on the street one day coming back from work. Her leg was scratched and infected. I took her to the vet, put up signs looking for the owner, but nobody ever came to claim her. Josie limps around my apartment and chews through my clothes. I tell her “no” in a stern voice, and then follow this up with a “no treat for you.” But she knows I don’t have any treats, just dog food that comes in twenty-pound bags. But her tail wags back and forth anyway, so I just let her chew through my clothes. She’s happy, which makes me happy. Making Josie happy was more important than making Angela happy, because it was easier. I could always work more hours, buy more clothes for Josie to chew on, but Angela was more complicated.
“One-way train, man,” Bob said. It’s very easy to love Bob and Josie. I could make Bob happy with little things, like buying him dinner or telling a dirty joke. Angela was more complicated. She was great at giving, but when it came to the other part she was messed up, crazy. If I hadn’t dropped my psychology class I’d have a technical term for you. I’m not sure one exists, though. (Is there a technical term for messed up?)
Perhaps I was her stray pet. If she were alive she would tell me how men are really easy to take care of. I bet she would have said something like “give them a little attention, stroke them a little, and they’re happy.” The guys who came to see her at work—came to stare at her tits—they always thought the same thing. She was great at giving…she was a bitch for giving so much.
She treated every man that ever cared for her like garbage, though. The ones that abused her stayed until they had used her up. Where does that put me? It’s easy to blame Angela for her death, but it’s even easier to blame me. I could take it; she couldn’t. And that’s why she’s dead. She let people like me screw her into an early grave. It’s my fault she’s there. All because I didn’t tell her that the reason her father beat her and she cried frequently is because I could handle a puking dog, car payments, a math test, the man upstairs, but not a crying woman, not her. You are my fault, Angela. I had a bad week. You had a bad lifetime. But this will not change the fact that you are dead. It’s my fault, all of it. It doesn’t make any sense. But if it did, you wouldn’t be dead. I’m sorry things don’t make sense, Angela. But I’ll listen now anyway.
Thanks for reading, you can get a copy of The Lexical Funk from Amazon or if you are feeling frisky you could hassle Daniel on Goodreads for a copy, it really is a clever collection and a great place to get hooked on one of my favourite authors.