A slurp and a gulp. The knock of something solid against the surface next to the phone. Common noises on the other end of the line—she’s taking a drink, setting down a glass.
Then—the ear-splitting boom of a gunshot, the shallow thud of a weight hitting the floor.
I scream her name.
No noises now.
My best friend is dead.
At Roanne’s funeral reception, the eagerness for answers was thicker than the abundant short ribs set out next to the potato salad and baked beans. The guests had no appetite. They wanted to sink their teeth into why Roanne chose to die the way she did. And they were all looking to me, her closest friend for fifty years.
People had driven to Round Rock from other parts of Texas or from farther away to spend the morning at the church, midday at the cemetery, and the afternoon gathered at the home of Roanne’s sister, Darla.
They leaned out and asked, “Why, Connie?” as I walked through Darla’s living room, taking small, deliberate sips from a glass of iced tea, avoiding eye contact, unable to respond.
Roanne had called me that night, at three minutes after eleven. I’d hit the TV “off” button, was headed to bed, had stayed up too late again, hooked on my latest Netflix binge. The words we had exchanged played back to me with every shiver and stab to my heart that I had felt then:
“I got the bastard,” she said. From the hollow sound of her voice, I knew her phone was on speaker. “Straight through the balls.” Her words shook.
“Ro? You’re scaring me, girl,” I said. “Got who?”
She was breathing hard, with a sharp, staccato, “Uh, uh …”
“Is someone with you?”
“Not anymore. Just me, myself, and I,” she said between a snicker and a sob.
“Are you at home? I’ll come get you.” My adrenalin was pumping. Something terrible had happened or was about to happen, but what? I could make the ninety-five-mile drive from San Antonio to Round Rock in an hour and ten. I switched my phone to speaker and pulled a pair of leggings on under my nightshirt.
“Don’t bother, I’ll be done soon.” She breathed in, a deep reverse sigh, like she was struggling to find the strength to get the words out. “The anger. You take it and take it, and one day you see there’s no way out. You’re trapped.”
“You’re angry? With whom?”
“With Johnny, with the whole goddamn male establishment, my daddy, the school bullies, the boss, the superintendent, the judge, the lovers, husband, ex-husband, the smartass at Home Depot, the whole lot of ’em, every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”
Her words seemed silly and frightening. “That’s a bunch to take on by yourself. Why don’t we talk about it, regroup?” I needed to get between her and whatever it was that was galloping, like my heartbeat, toward her. Couldn’t you find someone’s location on a cell phone? But you had to set that up, and I had had no reason to before.
“Now what would Judd do?” she said.
I pulled the name from the past through my memory to the present. It didn’t fit in the moment. “Judd? Mr. Asher from senior social studies?”
“You know what I really liked about Mr. Asher?”
“He looked like David Cassidy?” Giggle, Roanne. Be okay, Roanne.
“Exactly, that too.” I pictured her smiling through the pain in her voice. “He seemed to have all the answers, didn’t he? Only he wanted us to figure things out on our own.”
I stepped into my running shoes, left the laces untied. “What does Mr. Asher have to do with—”
“Figure it out for yourself. Speak up, Con. Don’t let them have the final say.” Roanne’s words slurred and trailed off. “It’s too late for me, but—”
“Hang on, it’s never too late.” I could feel the bad ending like the anticipation of an icy finger about to touch the back of my neck, raising goose flesh. I picked up my keys and purse. I headed for the garage. Keep talking, Roanne, please keep talking. “Tell me where you are, sweetie.”
Another intake of air. A gap of silence. A gulp. The boom. “Roanne!”
My iced tea sloshed onto Darla’s living room carpet as a hand reached out from the sofa and snagged my elbow.
A thirtyish, delicate-looking man in a dark suit and ostrich cowboy boots balanced a paper plate of untouched food on his lap and looked up at me.
“Connie?” he said, his pained frown making his wire-rimmed glasses slip off the bridge of his nose.
I had met him before, the assistant manager at the Hallmark shop where Roanne had been employed for the past sixteen years. What was his name? Something French. Jacques. Jean. Didn’t the ladies at the shop call him Jay?
“How could she do that to her daughters?” the young man pleaded. He didn’t seem to expect an answer. “You can’t blame them for not coming to the funeral, can you?” He picked at the food on his plate.
The coroner’s report had said the bullet that Roanne sent from the pistol into her right temple killed her instantly. Johnny, her ex-husband, had died more slowly, bleeding out on the garage floor from a gunshot to the genitals.
“How are you holding up?” the man on the sofa asked. “You must feel so … you were so much closer to her than any of us. Did she give any signs?”
Across the room, I caught Darla’s eye. Her hands fretted with a napkin. Her look beckoned me.
“Oh, I don’t mean you were to blame in any way,” the young man said. “Of course there’s nothing you could have done. She was obviously very disturbed. You just wonder after something like this, don’t you? Was there some clue you missed, we all missed?” He slapped his forehead with the flat of his palm. “I’m going on, aren’t I? It’s how I deal with something so, so … so sorry.” He caught my hand and squeezed it. “Connie, I’m so sorry for the pain you must be going through.”
His words brought back the image of a man I had passed in the back of the church as I was leaving the funeral. He had spoken to me, with the same words, even my name. I hadn’t recognized the older gentleman in a tweed coat with thick white hair swept back off his forehead, but something about him had been familiar, the eyes that smiled in spite of his somber words. I had thanked him and continued to the exit.
“Excuse me,” I said to Jay-Jean-Jacques, “I’m going to check on Darla.”
Darla greeted me with a stoic smile and a long hug. We had rarely seen each other, even on my trips to Round Rock to see Roanne, but death can pull together what life has not. She was younger than Roanne by five years, a shorter and forty-pounds-heavier version of her statuesque sister, her blonde bouffant stiff with a generous application of hair spray.
Tears had washed pale streaks through her makeup and smudged her mascara. Her pink lipstick was faded and revealed a speck of dried blood on her lower lip where she may have bitten it. A smear of barbecue sauce stained the front of her navy crepe dress.
“Sit with me,” Darla said and steered me to chairs near the sliding glass doors to the patio. She pulled a shoebox from under her chair and handed it to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Some old photos I came across. I thought you might want them. Remember all those pictures taken of us kids every time our families got together?”
I cradled the box on my lap. “My mom was a crazy woman when she had a camera in her hand.”
The Slaters and the Canellis had been close ever since the Slaters moved in three houses down from ours on Pecan Street in Austin, the year Roanne and I turned fifteen. My dad was an aircraft engineer at Bergstrom Air Force Base. My mom stayed home, mothering and housekeeping. Mr. Slater owned a roofing company. Mrs. Slater mostly kept out of sight, more often than not just a voice from the back bedroom, “under the weather.”
“Weather,” Roanne would say, “is Mommy’s favorite brand of vodka.”
Darla threw up her hands. “What am I gonna do with all that food?” She burst into tears and covered her mouth to stifle the sound.
The table in the center of the room groaned with Darla’s culinary handiwork, which on any other occasion would have been picked clean by now. I set my glass and the box on the floor and put an arm around her.
“I’ve prayed and prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, help me understand,’” she said, “but I just don’t. Thank God, Mommy and Daddy have passed and don’t have to deal with this. How could she do it?”
I patted her shoulder. “I don’t understand either, hon.”
Darla turned to me. “Have you talked to the girls?”
“To Stella. She flew back to Virginia right after Johnny’s burial service. Zoe won’t take my calls. She hasn’t spoken to Roanne in years and now … I don’t know how an orphan adopted from the other side of the world processes losing a second set of parents.”
“No one’s touched your angel food-orange cake. It was so sweet of you. You shouldn’t have gone to the trouble.” Darla looked like she might cry again.
I gently squeezed her upper arm. “It was no trouble. You know me. I always bring the cake, whether I’m asked to or not.”
“And how are you coping, dear?” she asked.
I hesitated. I was expecting the “These are the times you need faith” talk from Darla. What I needed, according to other well-wishers over the past week, was community, routine, counseling, or hot yoga.
I wasn’t falling apart. I had taken to scrubbing my bathtubs more than normal, but, otherwise, I did the usual, watered and weeded my tiny garden enough to keep most of the plants alive, went to the grocery store once a week. I put in a minimum four hours of writing daily on my latest book and kept my author Website up to date. My blog posts had become sporadic, but I still made an effort.
I still volunteered every other week as a docent at the Witte Museum, and, although I had temporarily misplaced my motivation to move it or lose it with Wednesday senior water aerobics at the YMCA, I planned to restart the class sometime soon.
I still talked as usual with my neighbors whenever we crossed paths while checking the mail or taking out the trash or on early evening walks, though they tended to stay inside their air-conditioned spaces most of the year. We were a loose community who mostly minded our own business.
But, I couldn’t avoid thinking, about the times I would have called Roanne or driven up to see her or met her somewhere in between, and sleep had become a nightly torment.
Movies had played in my head for the past week. They came up out of the blue at any time of the day. Roanne and me, little scenes from our lives together. They came with a distinct memory of when each had originally occurred, the year, sometimes the exact date, scenes from several months ago or when we were young wives and moms or girls in high school. Each time, I was there, and she was there, like it was happening in the present. Each morning, I would awake after barely nodding off, rattled out of my sleep with tremors in my hands, furious with Roanne and missing her like crazy at the same time.
When it came to sharing feelings, Roanne and my sister had been my tiny comfort zone for a long time. I didn’t open up to Darla. “I’m okay,” I said. “Some days are harder than others.”
“I pray for you, and I pray for Roanne’s immortal soul, that she had the time to accept Jesus as her Savior and ask Him for forgiveness befor she … she spoke to you before she … what did she say?”
“She wasn’t making sense. She mentioned a teacher from Bonham.” I paused to rerun from memory Roanne’s other ramblings. “She said anger was a trap, and I should speak up. Gibberish, really.’’
Darla stared at me. “She was angry at a teacher from high school?”
“No. Just angry.”
“That doesn’t sound like Roanne. I know she took it hard when Johnny left her, but, my God, that was almost twenty-five years ago. For all her failings, and, of course, we are all in need of God’s mercy, no one can say she wasn’t a cheerful person.”
That was true. Roanne had lifted me out of the dumps with her smile or a clever word more times than I could remember. Our lives had run parallel in many ways—college right after high school, marriage soon after college, both to military guys who served in Vietnam. They were best buddies like us, her Johnny and my Scott, two daughters for her, one son for me. Both divorces were ugly events that seemed much longer than necessary compared to the marriages of nineteen years for hers, mine after twenty-four.
“Lord Jesus, help me understand,” Darla repeated. “Scott was a jerk, too. You divorced him. You didn’t do … that.”
“My life didn’t splinter into bits around me. She lost everything she cared about because of those rumors.”
“Her and that student.”
“She always blamed Johnny.”
“She couldn’t prove Johnny had anything to do with those rumors,” Darla said, an irritation in her voice, or maybe just fatigue.
“You can know something’s true even if you can’t prove it.”
“Still, you move on, don’t you? You’re not going to go over to Scott’s house with a gun and—” Darla’s volume went up a notch, her tone bitter. “‘Domestic violence,’ that’s what they said on the TV news. Roanne wasn’t violent. She was a nice lady, just like you and me.”
“Maybe there was a part of her we didn’t see?”
“Nonsense. Roanne was transparent as a picture window,” Darla said. She put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, my, the boys will be disappointed there are no bones for them. After the guests finish off the ribs, I always give them the bones.”
“The boys” were Darla’s two Cairn terriers. Roanne and I had concluded long ago that the dogs were substitutes for Darla’s sons, the one who had died as a child and the one who stayed far away on one business assignment or another.
I touched her hand. Distraction had always been Darla’s way of coping. She was stuck in her living room full of grief with no immediate escape route, no place to secretly wolf down a pint of ice cream or a pan of brownies.
She curled away from me and pulled her hand out of my reach. “It must have been an accident. I refuse to believe she could have … ”
“Shot Johnny, then turned the gun on herself?”
Darla shook her head and waved her hand in a dismissive motion, like she was trying to erase my words. “No, I’ve read about this kind of thing. Women don’t do it.”
I caught her hand and patted it. “But she did do it, hon, she did.”
Darla abruptly stood up. “That potato salad won’t keep.”