Joe calls at eleven-thirty Sunday night. He says, "These are famous suicide notes that people have left behind. Listen to this one: 'Now the mystery begins.' I like that one. Do you?"
"Joe," I say. "Are you going to hurt yourself?"
Joe's wife had moved out that morning after he'd told her about his many affairs, and he is thinking about suicide in a hypothetical way. All he's accomplished so far is to start smoking again. "Do you want me to come over?" I ask.
"No, you'd better not. I told her about you, too," he says. "But if you're going to anyhow, could you bring over a case of decaffeinated Diet Coke?"
"Sure," I say.
The next day, Monday, Joe asks me to call the sorority where he cooks and tell his boss he's going into detox. So I call Beth and tell her Joe is ill and won't ever be in again. She is quiet on the telephone for a minute and then she says "Thank you" in a small voice and hangs up.
"Why didn't you tell her I was going into detox?" Joe asks. He is smoking, twisted up in a foul army blanket on his couch and drinking Diet Coke. He has smashed all of his wedding pictures.
"Why don't you eat something?" I say.
"Because eating is not important. It doesn't matter. Once I didn't eat for six days. It's a great way to lose weight. And I don't love my wife and my wife doesn't love me, so why should I eat?" He peers at me closely. "Do you love me?" he asks.
"Absolutely," I say.
"Will you promise not to call the police or Doctor Brown when I take all my Xanax?"
"When are you going to take all your Xanax?" I say.
"Tonight. I'll call you, though, and you can come over and I'll die in your lap, okay?" he says.
"Well, I'll have to get a babysitter," I say. "Do you have some sort of time frame? Maybe Vickie could come over."
Later that evening, he calls. He has consumed all of his Xanax but he can't remember how much he took—probably fifty or seventy pills. I drive to his apartment, push the door open, and see Joe, listing 45 degrees left, at his computer keyboard, trying to open a file. He can't remember the command, though, so his screen is full of ?d/opengoddammitshell?shell? and ?d/3openthisfkkngksthing?// and love::love::love$:::C//allisvanity d/. The Xanax bottle next to his printer is empty. I help him into bed and sit out in the wrecked living room for four hours, listening to him rattle and snore. I read a book on his shelf called Codependent No More. When his breathing gets quieter, I leave.
Wednesday he calls, incoherent. I am there in five minutes, where I find him naked in his empty bathtub, smelling of ether. He'd bought a can of the stuff you squirt on snowmobile carburetors and sprayed it up his nose. He says he didn't want to actually kill himself; he just wanted to get stoned. Though he's sobbing and drooling, I can see he's not going to die right at this moment, so I take the three other cans of ether I find, cover him with his ratty army blanket, and leave him there alone in the tub.
He makes another attempt on Thursday, with a 357 magnum he bought new with his American Express platinum card that afternoon, but instead of shooting himself, he just chain-smokes, gets furious in a general way, and discharges a dozen bullets into the kitchen ceiling.
On Friday, he comes over to my house where he sits on my porch swing, talking, for three hours. I ask him to stay with me overnight. I promise to turn the electric blanket up high so he will stay warm. He is dirty and tired and talking constantly of dying. He tries to tell me what he's going through, but all he can say is, "I will do anything to make this pain go away. It's not about wanting to hurt myself. It's about wanting to not hurt." I'd called Grace, his first wife, in Yonkers earlier today and she'd begged me to get him to the Yellowstone Treatment Centers in Billings. But I, the New Age Twelve-Step postgrad, am still trying to respect his own crappy decisions about his own stupid life.
We finally go in the house and crawl into my bed. He spoons up around me and falls heavily asleep. His skin still smells like ether. I lie very quietly so he'll stay asleep, but it's no use. Around midnight, he's sitting up, smoking.
"I'm hungry," he says.
"You are? You haven't been hungry in two weeks."
"Well, I'm starving. I'm going to McDuck's for a couple of greasy bacon cheeseburgers."
"Now?" I say. "No, Joe, stay here with me. Go back to sleep. I'll make you breakfast in the morning." But before I can gather my robe around me, he is dressed and ready to go. "Call me when you get home," I say.
"I will." He kisses me and is gone.
A half hour later, the telephone rings, and it is Joe. He is fine, he says, he is just great, the cheeseburgers were delicious, he's going to sleep now, he feels much better, I'm not to worry, sleep tight, he'll see me in the morning, I love you don't worry everything is fine fine fine fine fine fine fine.
At nine o'clock the next morning, I am in the basement of Dahl's Funeral Home, standing next to a steel gurney, with my hand on the dead-cool-butter forehead of a suitcase that used to have Joe in it.