by Steven Ostrowski
A sleeting morning and a shock to the system since it was only mid-September. Connor didn’t want to be there, but Tammy insisted that it was the decent thing to do. Of course, she was right, even though they weren’t that close with Jennifer, who was Tammy’s cousin, and even less close with Jack, Jennifer’s police officer husband who’d shot himself in the head two weeks earlier.
Connor pressed the doorbell. He didn’t hear it ring, thought he hadn’t pushed it hard enough, and pushed it a second time. Tammy shook her head at him as if he’d kicked the damn door. When it opened, Jennifer stood in the doorway looking sleepless and hunched, her blue eyes shrunken and grayed with sorrow.
“Hi,” she said. “Come in.”
As soon as they were in the foyer, Tammy offered Jennifer the bouquet of mixed flowers they’d brought.
“They’re beautiful,” Jennifer said in a quavering voice. She led the couple into the living room, gestured for them to sit. Jennifer went into the dining room and lay the bouquet on the table. “I’ll put these in a vase these later.”
“No, of course,” Tammy said.
“Please sit,” Jennifer said.
Tammy sat down on the mauve sofa, then Connor did. Jennifer remained standing, blinking her eyes as if she were trying to remember what she was supposed to do next. “Can I get you a drink? Coffee?”
Too quickly, Connor said, “Nothing for me.” It sounded, somehow, rude. “Thanks, though.”
“Nothing for me, thanks,” Tammy said. “We just came to tell you how sorry we are, and…and to let you know that we’re here for you if there’s anything we can do.”
Jennifer caressed her left earlobe with two fingers. She wasn’t wearing earrings. She lowered herself into a rocking chair that faced the sofa. “Jack always insisted, ever since he became a cop, that when he died there wasn’t going to be any wake or funeral. Nothing. Imagine? You know what cops’ funerals are like. Everyone wanted some way to mourn together, but I couldn’t dishonor his wish. Right?” She looked only at Tammy the whole time she’d spoken.
“No. You have to honor a person’s…”
“I don’t know why he… He wasn’t really unhappy. There wasn’t anything going on, like he wasn’t being investigated anymore. All that was settled. It’s a stressful job, but, you know, this town isn’t really violent or dangerous. I don’t understand why…”
Connor nodded sympathetically, but he was thinking about the first time he’d been introduced to Jack, by Tammy, before Jack and Tammy were married. She’d introduced Jack as a police officer and Connor as a professor and poet. “With two published books already,” she’d said with naive pride. What Connor never forgot in all the years since was that Jack actually laughed out loud. After that, whenever they saw each other, which wasn’t often, Jack always had to announce Connor’s presence with “Hey, the poet’s here. Recite us a poem, Con. Make us feel something.”
“But even in this town,” Tammy said, “with the job a cop has, they must deal with things that they don’t want to talk about.”
“He hated talking about work.”
Tammy glanced around, said, “The kids go back home?”
“Yeah. We had the cremation, just the three of us. Took his ashes to the beach. You know. They had families and jobs to get back to.” Jennifer fingered the delicate silver crucifix that hung around her neck. “He didn’t leave a note, nothing. He just came home from work that day and gave me a kiss on the cheek like always. A little while later he went out behind the storage shed, and…and…” She fought not to cry, but the tears came anyway.
Tammy got up. She knelt beside her cousin and put one arm around her shoulder and with the other hand rubbed her back. “Oh, Jen. This is so hard, I know.”
Connor stared at an ink stain on his pointer finger. He’d always envied the way women knew instinctively how to console one another. He wished men, or more men, or at least he himself, had that gift.
Jennifer suddenly lifted her eyes and locked them on Connor with an intensity that chilled him. “I don’t meant anything bad by this, Connor, but…”
Tammy turned and both women stared at him.
“I think he resented that you weren’t more accepting of him. Of, you know, his blue-collar occupation, his regular guy-ness. I think he thought you looked down on him. From the ‘ivory tower.’”
Connor shook his head and stammered, “No, I…”
“He told me he sent you some of his poems a few years ago, but you never responded.”
Tammy said, “He wrote poetry?”
“He just wanted something, some little response from you, Connor. A suggestion or two. I don’t know if he was any good; he would never show me what he wrote. He always said, let me get better at it, then I’ll show you. He knew you were a busy guy, but still… You couldn’t say anything?”
They drove. “You never answered him?”
Jack had sent Connor an envelope, snail mail, with three handwritten poems on three sheets of loose-leaf. His note said, Hey, are these any good, dude? Three maudlin, sentimental poems that rhymed, all of them about how cruel the world was. Bad, sad. Sorrow, tomorrow. Connor had put them aside, meaning to offer Jack some generic but honest response, something about how heartfelt and sincere the poems were. And to keep revising.
“Look, Tam, they were awful. But I did mean to tell him, you know, to keep at it. Then I got busy and forgot all about them. It happens. I’m feel terrible about it now, obviously.”
They drove on, Tammy staring out, Connor harboring the absurd hope that his wife would suddenly understand and offer him consolation: It’s not your fault. He had to be depressed. There was probably more to that investigation than we know. Something.
* * *
Steven Ostrowski is a widely-published fiction writer, poet and painter. His flash fiction has been published in numerous places, including Arts & Letters, Midway Review, and American Short Fiction. His poetry manuscript, “Persons of Interest,” won the 2020 Wolfson Chapbook Prize and will be published by Wolfson Press in 2022. He teaches at Central Connecticut State University.