A hollowness opened in me as I entered the house, a space within a space, as if I already sensed what had been lost. In the TV room the stuffed toys lay piled almost to the ceiling, their little heads and tiny eyes facing up. A whirring in my ears began, from the space within a space, “hello?” I said and the sound disappeared. Where were the cats? I paused at at the stairs to the second floor. The steps up seemed staged, like a movie set, “Follow us, the show’s about to begin,” said the hollow in my head. I went to the kitchen instead.
“I will not give in yet,” I thought, though that hollow space signalled over and over again “this is not going to be good.”
I’d come down the stairs that morning at 5:30 a. m., on my way to work.
“Sure you’ll be okay, Samantha?” I called to my wife.
“Yes,” she said, “I’m going to volunteer at the Union Gospel Mission.”
“At least that’ll get her out of the house,” I thought.
I stepped outside, reached into my pocket.
“Forgot my work keys.”
I ran back upstairs. Samantha lay in bed, her black hair tumbling over the pillow.
“I’m so sleepy,” she said.
“I recommend staying in bed,” I told her.
I grabbed my keys and left.
I worked at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, running the school program. I helped patients obtain their Grade 12, complete correspondence courses, learn English and computer skills.
“Don’t you feel unsafe, working at that place?” friends would ask.
“I follow the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius,” I told them. “Besides that, I learn more from the mentally ill than they do from me.” But I also asked myself “Could it also be because I’m more like a person with schizophrenia than the normal individual?”
That morning I met my work colleague Steve for an hour walk around Colony Farm Park. Steve was short, bearded, very strong, he ran the hospital’s woodwork program. As we hiked along the wood chip trail in the dawn, he clutched his Croatian made cow bell, ready to ring in case we met any bears.
“They found some giant sasquatch skeletons in Peru,” he told me.
“I don’t believe in claims without evidence,” I said.
He grinned. “Sometimes you’ve got to have faith.”
“You can always hope,” I said. “But there’s the bad side of it too.”
“Yeah,” Steve dinged his cow bell. “Does your wife still believe the neighbors are keeping a dog chained up in the basement?”
“She hasn’t talked about it,” I said. “She’s been getting out and volunteering.”
“That’s good,” said Steve.
He dinged the bell again. I gave him a stoic grimace.
“Samantha told me a few days ago that she felt happier now than at any time in the past year. She said her depression lifted.”
“Maybe that medication increase is working,” Steve agreed.
That day, I began teaching some maximum-security patients basic computer skills. As everyone settled in the school room, three stocky men arrived at the door, hauling trolleys loaded with boxes.
“We’ve come to switch the computers,” said the one with blue fish tattoos all over his forearms. “I’m Drew, the IT man.”
The patients looked up. “Hello, Drew,” said one.
“I already started the program for the day,” I told them. “Can you come back later?”
“We’ve got to do it now,” said Drew. “We told your supervisor about this last week.”
The phone rang, Samantha’s number. I picked up.
“The neighbor’s dog is howling again,” she said.
“Maybe turn on the radio,” I suggested. “Don’t you have that volunteer work?”
“It’s not until two,” she whispered. “I guess I could take a bath and put on a CD.”
“Yeah, that sounds good,” I said.
Drew stood over me, holding a keyboard.
“We’ve got to get started,” he said.
I lifted my face from the phone.
“I can deal with this,” I thought.
“I need to escort the patients back to the ward first,” I told Drew. “They’re maximum security.”
I watched Brodie, a skinny resident incarcerated for attempted murder, stare at the computer guys dragging in some long electrical cords.”
“Please remove those extensions,” I said.
“Who are you talking to?” Samantha asked.
“Guys at work messing up my routine.”
“O. K., I know you’re busy,” she continued. “The mess isn’t your fault. Remember, I love you more.”
She hung up.
“Now let’s take it one step at a time,” I thought. “Everything will sort itself out.”
I called my supervisor Rhylene to help escort the patients back to maximum security.
“The computer guys came in without advance notice,” I told her.
“Yeah, lots of things are beyond our control,” she said, flicking back a lock of blonde-green hair.
The rest of the morning I charted and wrote reports, kept fuming about how this computer change screwed up my day. My stoicism vanished in my angry thoughts and I didn’t call Samantha back.
“Too much to do. She’ll be fine,” came to mind several times. “There’s only so much that’s within my control.”
I worked through lunch, installing software on the new computers. By the time the afternoon ended, I’d picked up a terrific headache. I drove straight home.
Samantha had attempted suicide ten years before. I’d returned from my job to find her unconscious on the bed, lying beside a note telling me she couldn’t take the thoughts in her head anymore. At emergency, they filled her stomach with charcoal, then pumped everything out. The two medications she swallowed cancelled one other’s effects. She survived. I thought about that cancellation as I drove home after the computer issue stress.
“How could that be coincidence?” I repeated over and over.
The house had been in Samantha’s family four generations, the main beams cut from old growth Douglas fir still solid as the day they were raised. As I jogged up the porch steps I imagined those beams holding all that weight. I opened the front door and the hollow within the hollow hit me, the space within the space. I wrenched my gaze past the stairs and headed for the kitchen. There, on the table, lay a note written in thick red felt pen. “Life is too cruel and the dog was abused,” and another note beside it “They want us out.”
From time to time, in her depressed, delusional periods, Samantha believed the neighbors were trying to drive us from the neighborhood by torturing a dog in their basement. She’d called the SPCA and the police a few times.
“Your neighbors don’t have a dog,” said the SPCA officer.
“They’re sneaky, they’re hiding it,” Samantha said.
“You need to get your wife into an adult day program,” said the policewoman.
“She says those are for demented people,” I responded. “And she doesn’t think she’s demented.”
Then, a few days after the police visit, Samantha emerged from her obsession. It seemed a small miracle, like medications cancelling each other. She went to volunteer and attend support meetings.
“When I’m gone from this house, I feel lighter,” she told me. She turned. “I love you more.”
The house was full of her things. Shelves of crystal glassware, all the stuffed toys piled high,
books everywhere, stacked up beside the bed, double stacked on top of cupboards and drawers, all her antique clothes pressed together, hanging on multiple dress racks all the way up into the attic, boxes and boxes full of blankets and other clothes filling the hallways. Her favorite TV program was “Hoarders.”
“I’m not as bad as them,” she grinned, watching the TV with dozens of stuffies beside her.
I lifted my eyes from the kitchen note and headed for the stairs. That’s where the hollowness beckoned, coming from beyond the upper landing, and before I arrived, I knew where to go. Sure enough, the pull-down attic ladder lay open and stretched to the floor. I clambered up into the space. We’d reinforced the floor up there so Samantha could store her heavier stuff. I pushed by some trunks at the attic opening. The light was on, and over by the chimney I saw Samantha leaning forward kneeling, her face pointed my way and that rope coming up from her neck and stretching tight all the way to the main reinforcing beam.
I heaved my way up into the attic hollow. All around me lay Samantha’s antique clothing racks with all the unique fashions she’d collected over the years, all the beautiful dresses she used to wear hanging there with all the ones never worn at all. Behind her leaning body stood the overcoat racks and hardcover books and keepsake boxes full of rock collections, and the suitcases of positive thinking tapes.
I pulled her up, held her with my forearms and loosened the rope as quickly as I could, and released her head from the loop. I lay her down on the attic floor and turned her body over.
Her face was already cold, ivory white. When I received the coroner’s investigation report a few weeks later, it said she’d hung herself around 1:30 p.m., five hours earlier, just before she was scheduled to go to her volunteer job. I put her down, reached for my phone, called 9-11.
“You shouldn’t stay here overnight,” the police inspector advised.
He stood grey faced, white whiskered, holding a notebook. The firemen and ambulance attendants did their work up in the attic. When they came to the door, I ran down the attic ladder and the stairs like a spider and motioned “Up here!” One of the big fellows, carrying a cardiac defibrillator, bashed his head on the roof as he sprinted up.
“Shit!” he exclaimed.
“Sorry about that,” I told him. “It looks like she’s dead but give it your best shot.”
“I know she’s dead,” I thought.
I walked around looking for the cats. I couldn’t get past the hollow in my head. It didn’t make a sound, but I knew it was there. The police arrived. They hiked upstairs to rendezvous with the first responders.
“I’ve talked with this lady before,” said one officer, her face white and drained as Samantha’s. “She put in some animal complaints.”
Now, in the kitchen, I offered the inspector a chair.
“I understand why you are asking me all these questions,” I said.
“The cause seems pretty clear, now we’re waiting for the coroner,” he told me.
I finally found the cats in the spare room downstairs, under all the shelves of glassware, where Samantha had lain down blankets for their comfort.
“Do you guys want some kibble?” I asked them.
They stared back from beneath the shelves. “Someone is at the door,” I thought.
I ran over to open it even before a knock, and there on the steps stood a tall, rangy woman wearing oval shaped black glasses, my naturopath, Dr. Jody Van Iderstine. I hadn’t seen her in a year, but she looked pretty much the same.
“How did you find out so quickly?” I asked. “I didn’t think naturopaths did emergency calls.”
“I’m also the on-duty coroner,” she said.
I nodded. “My wife is upstairs.”
I stepped back into the kitchen. “I can’t believe it, the coroner is my naturopath,” I told the police inspector.
“Almost anyone can be a coroner,” he said. “You just have to take the course.”
After a time, Dr. Van Iderstine clumped back down the stairs.
“Your whole life has changed,” she told me, “Your life will never be the same.”
“That’s obvious,” I thought, but what I replied was “I knew something like this would happen sooner or later.”
“You were the one who kept her going,” said the doctor.
“I hope so,” I said.
A few minutes later, two stretcher bearers humped down, carrying Samantha’s body on a stretcher, everything covered by a blue blanket.
“You might want to wait in the kitchen,” the police inspector told me.
“I hope the small guy doesn’t hurt his back,” I said.
They took the body out to an unmarked van, to the same type of van that carried Samantha’s father away, ten years before.
After the police left, I called my sister Evelyn. She and her boyfriend Larry arrived within fifteen minutes. Larry managed a recovery house in Burnaby. He’d lived ten years hooked on drugs in the downtown east side, then quit, completed a substance abuse counsellor program, and acquired a job at Burnaby Hospital detox. He was big, bald and intense.
“You don’t seem that upset,” he said.
“Jackson’s always been low key,” Evelyn told him. “How are the cats?”
“I’m low key because I follow the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius,” I told Larry. “Aurelius the Stoic.”
A cat poked its head around the corner of a crowded bookshelf.
“Animals aren’t afraid of Evelyn,” I thought.
“I knew this kind of thing would happen sooner or later,” I said, then realized it was the same thing I told the naturopath coroner.
“Are you going to stay here tonight?” asked Evelyn. “You can stay with us.”
“Thanks, but I’d sooner sleep here,” I said. “I need the space to think.”
“There’s probably not much space left,” said Larry. He passed me a couple of pink pills. “These will help you sleep, if you need them.”
“I work at a hospital for the criminally insane, I live in a hoarder house, and my wife just killed herself,” I thought, staring out the upstairs window at the neighbors’ house. “There’s no tortured dog there. It never existed, except in her mind.”
“Nothing,” I thought. “Nothing killed Samantha.”
I lay back on our bed and Stumpy the cat jumped up.
“You may as well look through the window too,” I said, and we checked the outside world together.
I thought of Samantha’s words. “I love you more.”
I hung on to their sound.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you,” I said, as Samantha’s voice filled my hollow head.