By LIZ ARNOLD
Sixteen years ago, my mother found my father behind the shed on a Saturday morning in June. “Get up off the ground in your good shirt,” she told him, before she understood he was dead. “He looked like he was sleeping,” she told us. “The gun glinted in the grass.”
Seven years after my father’s suicide, I opened the envelope containing police photographs of the scene. He did not look like he was sleeping. Limbs: a swastika. Angles inhuman. Violence and velocity rendered in two hundred pounds of a six-foot man. The gun glinted in the grass—she was right about that.
Initially I was upset she got it wrong. Did she get it wrong? Or she lied to protect her children, three grown adults. (I was twenty-five at the time.) Or shock wrote its own version. She says that shock drove her back into the house to start a load of whites. She watched her hand grasp the silver knob on the washing machine.
Maybe we’re trying to protect each other. I haven’t told her that I’ve read the autopsy report, or that I viewed photographs of the scene.
I remember how, on the night of his death, when I’d flown home to Michigan from Los Angeles, she tapped her temple twice, quickly. “Not a lot of blood,” she said. That was true, though I wouldn’t know until years later that the temple wasn’t the site of the entrance wound. “Intra-oral,” it said on the report. Of course. He was a dentist who collected guns, and his expertise in those two fields converged at the palate, the most vulnerable place in the skull. Bypassing bone, the impact destroys the control center for vital organs.
I’ve since revised my account to believe he was standing. He was standing behind the shed, and then—I can’t piece it together any more.
A few summers ago, I decided to clean out the shed. On the top step of a fifteen-foot ladder, I wielded a leaf blower gusting 235 miles per hour. My mother braced the lower rungs while I aimed the blast overhead at the wispy gauze of a hornets’ nest that clung to the rafters. The kickback of the blower at full speed challenged me to a duel, and I counteracted the resistance by leaning into it, steering the machine through a slippery force field of push and pull.
The shed stands across the driveway from the old farmhouse where I grew up in rural Michigan. Built in the late 1800s and made of cedar, it has a worn charm and beautiful architectural bones. It’s actually two sheds separated by a wall under one green-shingled roof, as long as the house is wide. On the left is a paved tool shed; the right side is a dirt-floor ramshackle of garden supplies. Both sides give off the dull, musty smells of work-glove function: stale sawdust and grease pierced with top notes of gasoline.
Since my mother still used the shed on the left, I’d been eyeing the derelict one as a peaceful writing studio during my visits from New York, where I’d moved for a work opportunity and had lived for a decade. I would put chairs out there. A stove. Throw open the sliding barn door at the back and watch geese and deer. Maybe I’d even write. I wondered, too, if I wanted to be closer to my father. The site of his death was steps away. A burn barrel stood in the spot where he died.
I was upset that my mother had moved the barrel there from behind the garage, not that I’d expressed that to her. We’re Irish-Catholic—we don’t talk about how we feel. It did make more sense logistically to burn papers behind the shed. For a seventy-three-year-old widow who cares for a farmhouse on her own and maintains outbuildings and acres of wooded property with her collection of saws and power tools and one red wheelbarrow, it was simply more convenient to hide the rusted-metal eyesore behind the closest building and set her trash ablaze like we’ve done for as long as I can remember, as rural folks do. Yet I couldn’t help but think of the burn barrel as a cremator. Where my mother found her dead husband is now the site of a chore that culminates in smoke and ash.
His spot offers some of the most beautiful views of the country. These same views could be had from inside the shed, too, if the barn door were slid open along its horizontal track. The resulting rectangular space frames the countryside as it unfolds to the west, and one majestic maple stands in the foreground of the sloping field.
Beyond the grass and past the acres of corn, a row of treetops marks a creek where Native Americans once settled. Their arrowheads can still be kicked up in the dirt. There’s a chicken coop that’s been invaded by woodchucks; my mother plays the country game of hide-and-seek armed with animal poison and Havahart traps. There’s the story about the farmhand who was gored by a bull in the cornfield. A hundred years later, there’s the story about a depressed dentist who took himself out at sunrise.
My mother has told me dozens of times about the morning she found him. He wasn’t in the house when she woke up. His car was in the garage. His watch was in the kitchen drawer, next to his wallet and keys. At one point, she let the dog out. Then she heard growling. He looked like he was sleeping.
We still talk about the day of his death, and we cry openly. Their cars side by side in the garage. The gun glinting in the grass. But we don’t talk much about how we feel now, moments of unexpected sadness. I don’t tell her about the stab I feel in my chest when I open her cupboard and his favorite mug is nearest to my reach. After this many years (he died in 2001), these moments are nuanced and fleeting. One of the most difficult days of the year for me is her wedding anniversary in May, when I don’t know what to say. She seems embarrassed when I force myself to call and tell her that I’m thinking of her. The way she sighs, it’s like I’ve shone a spotlight on her shame.
I think we don’t talk about how we feel now because she says she feels guilty, which I take to mean she feels responsible, no matter how many times I tell her it wasn’t her fault. He was depressed for as long as I can remember, struggling so much that he didn’t work for years when I was young. We never had any money; the collectors’ calls often interrupted dinner. We never even had health insurance. She says she didn’t know how to help him, and he refused to seek treatment. She says he should’ve married someone smarter who would’ve known better, maybe someone he met in dental school, someone with a degree.
I haven’t told her that I resent not viewing the body. It was offered while we were making arrangements at the funeral home, but her hands and so many others flew to my shoulders to sit me down. He wouldn’t want you to see him this way. It made sense at the time, but his disappearance nagged me. Years later, still driven by a need to see, I decided to track down the autopsy report and photos. I’d learned from a government health site that survivors of violent crimes were encouraged to view a loved one’s body, because it helps bring home the reality.
I knew that photos existed. A suicide is considered a crime scene, and my mother had been interviewed by detectives who powdered the gun. (“My fingerprints are all over that gun,” she’d told them. “It sits behind the back door. I pick it up to sweep.”)
On a spring morning, with birds chirping at my windowsill, after a lawyer friend told me to find the coroner’s name on the death certificate, I called the affiliated hospital. I was transferred directly to the woman who managed such requests, and in less than five minutes I’d ordered the autopsy report and the photos—five dollars each for the six police photographs taken at the scene. I agreed with her that I should not view photos of the autopsy, though sixteen of those were available, too. I signed and submitted the Indemnity Act Not To Sue, and when the thick envelope arrived, a ragged tab was already ripped open on the back flap due to rough handling in the mail.
I slid a forefinger into that one-inch window and cautiously lifted the envelope away from the contents. On the first letter-size page was the edge of an image: green grass. I couldn’t bring myself to open it for another year.
The sliding barn door at the back of the shed had been closed for a decade. Overgrown weeds choked its path along the ground, and aluminum siding and wire mesh had been put down to keep out the critters. “They don’t like to walk on the metal,” my mother explained as I tossed the metal sheets aside. She’d followed me outside that first morning, though I’d told her I was happy to clean it out on my own. I didn’t intend to put her to work.
“You could always write on the porch,” she said, toeing the matted grass. “I take naps out there.”
I was aware of the wicker sofa on the porch adjacent to the kitchen, but the screen door permitted the passage of sound, not to mention visitors. The shed I could claim as my own. The neglected dirt-floor room, the space I’d begun calling “my writing studio,” had potential. And it locked from the inside.
“I want privacy,” I told her, practicing a newfound maturity to state my needs. When I was growing up, our house had always lacked privacy. My father spent evenings reading or napping on the living room couch while my mother entertained us kids in the kitchen, and at some point he’d always get up to close the doors he’d installed between the two rooms. The large living room was his alone, and the palpable sadness he filled it with was so disturbing to me as a teenager that it drove me straight out of the house. I busied myself with boyfriends and evening sports practices and lived as though my best friend’s family was my own. Twenty years later, after living on both coasts and going home infrequently, I wanted to claim space in a family I’d long abandoned. I wanted to come home a few times a year. I wanted a relationship with my mother.
Understandably, she wasn’t big on my idea to spend our time together working—and she often resisted change—but I thought it would benefit her, too. I’d create a charming space for us to enjoy when I wasn’t “writing.” We’d eat out there. I’d organize her gardening supplies, purge old stuff, and help her tend to this big property in ways I could see were overwhelming.
“I can do it myself, Mom,” I said. “You should rest.” She walked toward the house, but minutes later I heard the putt-putt tractor engine of her little orange Husqvarna.
She never rests, and I wish she would. We’re both workers—we have strength and energy in stores. She credits her industrious nature to a manifestation of nervous energy on her father’s side. We don’t call it anxiety—that word is reserved for my father. I like to feel useful, and labor is our no-conflict zone, a means of agreeable communication. I come home. We work. She serves tea.
I heaved my body against the barn door. It budged an inch. I tried again. A half-inch. Seeking the momentum that comes from immediate results, I quit and went around to the front door, where I hauled everything out onto the yard: three waist-high bins overflowing with flowerpots and rakes and ropes and conical wire tomato cages; shovels old and new; a three-speed bike; and every last garden tool, including fiberglass stakes I mistakenly grabbed with bare hands.
I swept the dirt floor. Much of the floor was loose with decades’ worth of debris: Post-it notes, gravel, leaves, nails, and chips of neon orange clay from the “pigeons” used in my father’s skeet-shooting trap, which we’d since given away. The squat monstrosity had a spring-lever arm to launch clay disks, replicating a bird’s flight. Shooting a moving target, my father taught me, required anticipation, and his muscular pursuit of the clay birds soaring toward the creek possessed a precision and grace that awed me. He’d sit at the trap with the barn door open, shoulder the gun, and glide his barrel in an arc across the sky. Then gunfire—a satisfying crack—and a burst of orange confetti. Now some of those chips were in the mix at my feet. A poster of Italian guns was stapled to the wall. I thought about keeping it there in memoriam. I reached up and tore it down.
I was upset, too, about the handling of his burial. He was buried at sea by the U.S. Navy, an option for veterans. But we never got the photographs of the ceremony that we’d requested. The urn with his ashes was disposed of off the coast of San Diego—a life trajectory dropped at the horizon.
He loved sailing, and out of dental school he’d served as the dentist on a ship, so we’d all agreed that he’d be happiest committed to the sea rather than to the ground or the family mantel. We used the present tense, as though he were alive. At the funeral home, you could check a box on the form to receive photographs of the formal ceremony. I insisted that we buy the package with the photos. He’d vanished from my life. I had to see. My mother had agreed, though she paused, and mentioned it cost more. My father had gone back to dentistry and had had a modest practice, but we still didn’t have a lot of money, and she was about to live off only his Social Security. I don’t know which box got checked, but we never got any photographs. The Navy forwarded a touching letter with coordinates of the ship at the time of burial, details that my father would’ve appreciated. They also sent a U.S. flag folded wizardly into a military triangle that none of us have dared open, for fear of refolding. She had no recollection of the conversation when I exclaimed that the photos were missing. I kept telling myself to let it go.
My mother drove by on the tractor and made a hairpin turn to survey my progress.
“It can all go to Goodwill,” she said. Her eyes lit up when she spotted the junk dirt I’d scooped into buckets. “I’ll dump it down the woodchuck holes!” She loaded them onto the trailer, gassed the Husqvarna, and rolled down the lumpy lawn to the chicken coop.
I batted the bare walls with a broom, and clouds of dust filled the room. I went next door to the other shed and rooted through the drawer near the saw for a surgical mask. After slipping one over my nose and mouth, I was struck by the sight of my father in the medicine cabinet mirror—his pale blue eyes gazed back from my face. He was behind me, too, his likeness reflected in orderly rows of Folgers cans repurposed for nails, and in the outlines around tools he’d chalked on the wall.
Whoosh. I recognized the sound of a barn door’s glide and went back. My mother, backlit in the doorway, gestured with a sweep of the hand to present the inaugural view. I could tell by the dirt on her knees that she’d weeded the door’s path. “What do you think?” she asked. The state of transformation was undeniable, and we stood in awe of the astounding beauty we’d overlooked from this perspective for so long. Acres of corn rolled in the distance, the maple was a picturesque focal point, and inside, the cedar walls, after a decade of darkness, were scrubbed with the sun.
Now that there was an open path through the room, the experience played tricks on me. The dairy barn I’d run around in as a child had blown down in a storm in the nineties, but I had a desire to seek comfort in its phantom lines and sagging roof, which had carpeted the grass for years after its collapse. One day, without a burn permit, my father set that rotting pile ablaze, and the 150-year-old structure was a mound of white ash by sundown. To this day, the hole in the landscape is momentarily a confusing loss, an ache in the gut like hunger. I looked toward the lone remaining silo and was jolted by the sight of the burn barrel a few yards from where I stood. It was in direct line of view, a charred new obstruction.
Later that night, in the kitchen, she held up a large lit candle. “How about this for the garden room?” she asked. I cringed. Starfish shapes emerged from the glowing perfumed wax, and she was appropriating my shed with a new name.
I had a vision of simplicity. I liked the dirt floor and the rusty hinges. Plus, starfish have no business with Great Lakes people; we’re Lake Michigan and sand dunes, Petoskey stones, cherry pie. My mother has an eye for linens and lace, crystal and silver. Her house is cream-colored and clean and is filled with her elegant finds.
I remembered when I was eleven, how I’d wanted to change the wallpaper in my bedroom, because it was streaked with rust after a leak. But after we removed half of one panel, she cried, because she couldn’t let go of the memories from when the room was a nursery, and so we found extra wallpaper in storage to put it back up.
The next day, after we brought up the dining set and moved a few pieces into the shed, I glanced at the rafters, where an occasional hornet buzzed in the dark warmth. I couldn’t resist the urge. I had to clean the ceiling, too.
“I’ll get the ladder,” my mother said.
When I’m home, I better understand my mother’s relationship with her extension ladder—how easy it is to climb. How satisfying it is to clean. But I get mad at her for changing the upstairs storm windows by herself without even bringing a phone up with her. It’s stupid, I tell her. Dangerous. What if you fall? She scoffs. Nah, she says. I’m fine. Do it all the time.
When she dismisses my concern, I take it as a jab, like maybe she’s angry, like maybe she wants to die and abandon us too, like maybe she wants to get back at her husband for leaving her with so much responsibility, or maybe it’s that she wants to see him again soon, like she says she’s going to, when she’s going to give him a piece of her mind. My mother and her ladder—my mind goes terrible places. She’s stubborn, and I feel taunted by her emails about what she says she did that day on her ladder, especially since she’s only recently agreed to get health insurance, finally understood it wasn’t the luxury my father considered it, outside his budget of ten-thousand-dollar antique rifles and trips to gun auctions in London—spending that buried him in debt. Months after he died, when I was home for a friend’s wedding, I was feeling antagonized by her reports of how she’d cleaned the bats’ nests out from behind the second-story shutters all by herself, and when I inquired about her getting health insurance and she said she could never afford it, that the state would have to take care of her, I leapt out of my chair and screamed, What I really need right now is one parent who wants to survive!
But I do see how easy it is to get going on your own. The chores around the farm are endless for one person, and combined with our energy—well, I was ten feet in the air and inches from a hornets’ nest in no time.
Chunks of the calcified nest rained down on us, and wisps of fresh ones swirled in the air. I’d have to dust everything below again, and sweep. I scolded myself for not doing this task first, and I should’ve used the surgical mask, spotted on a bench below. I was too hasty to think of goggles. I burrowed my face in my shoulder to avoid the spray of debris.
“Are you holding the ladder?” I asked over the roar. “It doesn’t feel stable.”
“Honey, do you see this?” She flicked a latch with a fingernail. “It’s locked, honey.”
I stomped my sneakers and pitched my weight. It did feel fine.
I picked up the hammer and chisel and arched back to access the calcified nest. It had dried like a fist of cement on the wheel of the pulley, which I needed to access to hang lighting from a rope. Twisting around to reach it while a few hornets circled my head, I regretted the glass of wine I’d had with lunch, something my mother and I had found ourselves doing to take our respective edges off. Something still felt wrong with the ladder.
“Honey, I do this all the time—alone. Do you want me to do it?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t want her to hurt herself. Plus, I’m eight inches taller. Hers would be eight inches longer of a fall.
I arched and twisted again, raising my tools. Loose bits fell onto me. Every time I flinched and ducked, I’d catch a glimpse of my mother below, her narrowed eyes focused. Debris speckled her slick skin, clinging to the homemade serum of glycerin, lanolin, and vitamin E oil that’s preserved her wedding-day face. Though she was bracing the ladder just as I’d asked, anger flashed in me from a source I couldn’t place.
Look away, I heard myself thinking. Why don’t you look away? The last thing we needed was for a fragment to lodge in her eye, but I was trying to exercise patience, and I trusted that of course she had the reflexes to protect herself—and yet she wasn’t, and I was resentful—that’s what it was—I was resentful about her recklessness and the ladder and the burn barrel and the health insurance, and for her tolerance for a depressed husband that sometimes led me to blame her for his death, though I knew that was untrue and unfair—even worse, I sensed she knew I felt this way and hence blamed herself twice, which was agonizing to me because it wasn’t my intention to cause her more pain.
I must’ve known that it was precisely her desire to watch that scared me the most. Viewing those photos had devastated me, and I wanted to shield her from hurting herself as I’d done. I was angry at myself for needing to see in the first place, necessary as it was, but it wasn’t fair for me to take it out on her.
Look away, I repeated to myself, look away. But I understood that there is no escape from suicide, not ever—only for the one who leaves, the one who leaves everyone else with his misery. I was angry at my father, for leaving us with this mess.
“Glistening” was the word used throughout the autopsy report to describe the organs removed from his body. Liver, lungs. Their weights in grams. I hadn’t planned on opening the envelope the night I finally did. I was rifling through my file cabinet when my fingers walked over the manila envelope and froze. Before I realized it, I had ripped the envelope away from its contents.
The facts of the autopsy were strangely comforting. They were scientific, disembodied from any semblance of my father. I read the report calmly—heard myself say the word “intra-oral” out loud—and braced myself for what that could look like. I didn’t know what dead would look like. I hadn’t considered that life gave form and posture and soul.
The image of the gun haunts me. It was a remarkable distance from the body, flung from the force of the blast. The gun was beyond arm’s reach and pointed toward his feet.
By the time the photos were taken, the police had slipped canvas bags over his hands and feet to preserve evidence, the fingerprints and gunpowder. He’d killed himself near where he’d buried our two family dogs. The bags, tied with loose string around the wrists and ankles, gave him bulbous extremities like paws. I hadn’t expected to chuckle. On another page, a closeup of his swollen face, where a trickle of blood seeped from the ears, clippings of grass stuck to his white skin.
I found my hand clenched over my heart. I felt weightless, like someone had reached into my rib cage and crumpled my lungs, removed all my organs, too.
And then there was the clerical error on the part of the hospital. After I viewed the six photos, I still held in my hand a thick stack of papers. In a stupor about what could possibly come next, and in what I think of as my accidental suicide, when I killed something inside myself by continuing to look, I viewed what turned out to be sixteen additional pages: photographs of the grisly autopsy that were mistakenly included.
I have the paperwork. I definitely did not check that box.
I wasn’t entirely honest when I said that starfish didn’t have any provenance. When I was a child, my father’s parents used to bring me found starfish from their winter trips to Florida. I felt a sense of wonder for their brittle beauty and the scratching sound they made inside the cardboard box where I kept them, as if begging to be brought out to play. When I opened the lid, I forgave the stench of death and salt—so overpowering you’d expect them to come alive again in your hand in that magical way that starfish grow anew. I’d lift them out and stroke their granular limbs, maybe turn them over to ponder the long slits of their undersides, not unlike the one I had. But soon enough, I could no longer deny that they were dead. Pungently dead. With a budding understanding of mortality, I’d place them back in their coffin, only to be allured again when they slid around—that friendly scratching!
After I viewed those autopsy photos that killed a part of me, I thought of starfish. I hadn’t known that naiveté and hope pulsed in organs. I envied regeneration, and I’d thought for sure I’d never heal.
The day after I viewed those photos, it was pouring rain in New York, and I was late to a meeting in Midtown. Broken, inverted umbrellas littered the sidewalks, their silver structures exposed and collapsed—exoskeletons, all of them. God, how I yearned for metal caging. My heart was on the outside now, shelled and glistening.
We filled the shed with family heirlooms, sentimental things of little value that had never quite found a home in the house. From my father’s days in the Navy, a carved wood figure he bought in the Philippines. From my mother’s side, her late father’s World War II veteran’s baseball cap. My mother presented a print of ruffed grouse that once hung in our living room, but I’d already passed on it. Those were the birds my father liked to hunt. It was too close to his gun hobby, too close to my pain.
We were trying to fill the wall. The conflict was about the memories I wanted to hold close versus the ones my mother did. For example, my father’s certificate. Where I’d ripped the gun poster from the wall is now his certificate from the Navy, which he received upon leaving in October 1969. “Honorable Discharge,” it says in script, and my stomach dropped when I saw that my mother had hung it there. His 2001 autopsy report declared something of the opposite: “Shotgun, discharge.”
We ate dinner in the shed that evening, feasting on wine and bruschetta made the Midwestern way—with cheese, and warmed. (Pizza.) The starfish candle had found its way onto the table, but it wasn’t terrible there. We needed its flame, which flickered inside a glass hurricane that managed to contain its scent.
Close to midnight, my mother, in her long white cotton nightgown, burned the trash. I followed her outside to watch, soothed by the merry motion of the green plastic trashcan bumping along the ground as she dragged it. Her crisp sense of purpose helped rewire my thinking about this footpath from the back door, one I took slower. It likely traced my father’s final steps.
Soon the fire roared, my eyeballs warmed, and my mother glowed in her gown while explaining how to manage a fire, as if I hadn’t grown up doing it unsupervised. A few sheets of newspaper tumbled out and onto the grass, where their exposure to oxygen fed the flames.
I fear that the same will happen with the autopsy photos when I burn them, as shreds of paper sometimes rise from the barrel and flutter into the air. The photos are still shoved in the back of my desk drawer, because I wanted to get rid of them ceremoniously, which I could never figure out how to do in New York. I felt like I didn’t have a sacred place for that kind of clearance. But maybe now I do. I could bring them home.
My mother found a stick, lifted the melting newspaper that curled red at the corners, and dropped it back into the barrel, with the frilled cuffs of her sleeves dripping too close to the fire, too close.
The barn door at the back of the shed was still open, and the room pulled us in to sit for a while. I pitched a few chunks of bruschetta crust into the black night.
A pop in the barrel was followed by a dangerous crackle. My mother looked puzzled and clicked her tongue.
“Sorry,” I said, shifting in my chair. “I think I threw away a cellophane wrapper,” I said, knowing full well that I had.
Plumes of black smoke billowed from the fire as the cellophane released its chemical fumes—precisely why burn barrels have been outlawed in other counties. We sat in silence, hypnotized by the leaping flames, and I hoped that the toxic release of that plastic would pass soon. After some time, she glanced up at the clean rafters, and at our arrangements on the walls and shelves. Then she nodded toward the burn barrel and said, “I can move that for you.”
Liz Arnold‘s work has appeared in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ninth Letter, and The New York Times, online at The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is a freelance writer and editor in Brooklyn.