NEA Literature Fellowships

Joan Wickersham

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(2010 - Prose)

From the memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order

My mother put her house on the market.

We went down to help her get it ready. We cleaned, and we persuaded her to get rid of stuff. We put away the CDs. We threw out the bag of trash from my father's study, opening it briefly to stuff in the curved supplicating suede work gloves.

The next time we went to visit, we saw that the house had begun trumpeting its own virtues. Little signs, embellished with the logo of my mother's real estate firm, were taped up everywhere. "ESTABLISHED PERENNIAL GARDEN!" announced one hanging next to a living room window. "BUILT-IN BOOKSHELVES!" crowed another, in my father's study.

My mother called me, and said, "Apparently my house is unacceptable, and I'm unacceptable too."

She called again. "Maybe I should burn it down. Would that make people happy?"

Finally a buyer materialized. The offer, according to my mother, was insulting. But she made a counter-offer, which was accepted. She began happily debating the pros and cons of various condominium complexes, and to talk about which furniture she would take with her.

Then one afternoon my phone rang, and when I picked it up she said, in a flat drained rasp that was so quiet I could barely hear her: "It's happened."

"What has?"

"Psychological impact. The buyer. I knew it. I knew this would happen."

The buyers had heard a rumor about my father's death, and they had submitted a question to her, in writing. She read me the sentence from their letter: "We heard that your husband died in the house, and that a gun was involved."

She was sobbing; she could hardly talk. "I'll never get out of here, I'll never get away from this."

"Mom," I said. "Mom." I started asking her a lot of crisp questions about what exactly the law allowed and required. She, choking and crying, told me that the buyers were allowed to ask the question, and that she could choose whether or not to answer it. "But not answering is an answer," she cried, "not answering is like saying, yes, you're right, my husband did blow his brains out in the house."

"Are you sure the law allows this? Are you sure this isn't discriminatory?" I said, still in my crisp efficient problem-solving voice. "What does your lawyer say?"

"I haven't talked to him! It doesn't matter what he says! The point is that people are always going to be asking this question!"

She was like the person in the horror movie who sees the ghost and can't stop screaming. I was the one who doesn't believe in the ghost, and then goes numb when it appears.

She screamed: "Daddy did this to me. This terrible thing. It was his job to take care of me, and he didn't! How could he have done this to me?"

I said, "I know how you feel, I know you're upset, but I don't want to listen to this."

"Every time I try to talk to you, you tell me what I say is wrong. Everything I feel is wrong. Maybe I should commit suicide, too, and then you wouldn't have to worry about me anymore."

A silence. I hung up on her.

My mother decided to answer the buyers' question. She told them that yes, her husband had died in the house. She said it was an accident. He'd been cleaning his gun, and it went off and killed him.

The buyers withdrew their offer. They said the closets were too small.

Joan Wickersham is the author of The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order (Harcourt, 2008), a National Book Award Finalist. Her first book, The Paper Anniversary, a novel, was published by Viking in 1993, and her fiction has appeared in Agni, Glimmer Train, The Hudson Review, Ploughshares, Story, and has been published in The Best American Short Stories. She has published essays and reviews in The Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and Yankee, and has contributed on-air essays for National Public Radio's On Point and Morning Edition. She writes a regular op-ed column for The Boston Globe, and also writes frequently about architecture, including "The Lurker," a column she created for Architecture Boston magazine. She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story, as well as grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history.

Photo by Thomas Wickersham

Author's Statement

I am hugely happy and grateful to receive an NEA grant. My last book, The Suicide Index, took ten years to write; publishing it was both a relief and a kind of loss. I needed to be patient and quiet for a while before I started to hear the hum of another book. Now I'm working again on fiction and nonfiction, and am excited about both. Writing is such a lonely, uncertain occupation. It means a lot to have the NEA saying, "Go do it."