FICTION: Velma and Jeff by Salvadore Ritchie

It was my understanding when someone has finalized their decision to commit suicide they obtain a kind of euphoria about the conclusion they have made. The heavy baggage that magnetizes to us during the journey we call life magically falls to the wayside. Everything is crisper and a bit of pep develops in your step, knowing your days are numbered and you are the one that is going to do the counting is empowering.

It was with this assumption I thought I would have been able to write the warmest, most heartfelt suicide note in all of human history. Rather than clawing around the cold, rocky gravel that comprises clinical depression, I expected a narcotic-like finale to my death and thus find the energy and inspiration to pen one of the finest works of short literature known to the western world.

For weeks I haunted the Philadelphia apartment my wife and I shared for most of our eighteen year marriage. It was a beautiful place overlooking Rittenhouse Square. I remember the day we found it and the look on her face. All of the comforts in the place she and I built together were now hungry objects just waiting to take another bite from me as I passed. Photos of happy beach days, the bed we shared, the table she insisted we get, all of it growing so large and frightening I was unable to move freely in my captive space. The pain was so great I could no longer go to our bedroom because it still smelled like her.

Investment in another human being is a losing prospect. All relationships end badly. Even happy marriages come to an end. I just expected mine to end at a minimum twenty five to thirty years later. No one should die at forty two unless they want to. I kept telling myself that. I believed that, during the chemo treatments, the nausea, the vomiting. I demanded that from God. He owed me at least that. But there I was, holding a lifeless hand listening to the flat hum of a heart monitor. The strange thing was I thought her father was a prick, our whole relationship he treated me and everyone around him with disrespect, but the look on his face from across the hospice bed when he knew his daughter was gone was so complicated and horrific I still have yet to truly grasp what a massive concept pure loss is. I knew if an insensitive bastard like that could barely stand up from the open howls of agony that shook his body then I stood no chance.

I was right.

I don’t remember much of that day, or much of that week. I don’t recall much of the funeral. I tried ducking out of my own life for a while.

An empty body I no longer recognized broke down from the system of tasks that organized my daily life. Work. Groceries. Bills. Hygiene. Everything drifted from me gently. I was possessed by another version of me that was buckling from the weight of the host body that it carried. The real me, the old me, also died in that hospice bed. What remained had sense enough to know it couldn’t hold on for long. It couldn’t keep this machine I called a body going.

Finally, in the turning autumn leaves I stood in my pajamas and bathrobe in the middle of the park that faced our windows and I felt a soft breeze swirl. As if a switch was turned on, I could hear my wife’s heart machine beep from above somewhere. I opened my eyes. The falling leaves frolicked and danced. There was another beep, then another. An idea had presented itself on the wings of her heart beeps.

I was going to kill myself.

It was real and it was plain. For the first time since my wife’s death I was present. I was in the park. I was in control of my feet and hands. I could walk. I did walk.

There was a moment of that pep that I did feel. The idea formed and grew into a fragrant flower that opened and made me dizzy. Those rocky shores and grey skies were far now. I signed the car rental papers. This idea took me over and I could ease back as I saw the skyline fall behind me. In a way I knew she was waiting for me in those beach pictures. Almost every year we made a trip south for a long weekend in Virginia Beach and played in the surf and sand. God, those sunburns were epic. She was there waiting and I couldn’t be stopped.

The problem with my idea was that much lauded euphoria I was promised never materialized past the initial bump I had in the park. I traced the same route we took almost every year. I hit every snack shack gas station down route 13 in Delaware. If anything, the drain of energy extracted from my body as I went farther increased. There was a growing hint of her as each mile eroded. I was losing my will to drive the rental car. I had to stop and write my suicide note before I was completely gone again.

***
Dover, Delaware

I find the hardest part of writing is starting the process, summoning the spirits if you will. Given these were the last things anyone on earth would have to remember me by I knew I better make them epic. Big time writers always drone on about being over the edge or deep in the abyss or something alluding to lunacy and genius, or hell and brilliance, all of this noise comes together as the source of good writing. Well, here I was writing a suicide note with a headful of burning abyss, now all I needed was the genius. Where was it?

Pen in hand, I sat at the counter of one of the foulest roadside greasy spoons on the east coast. This was saying something if you consider most of the I-95 corridor. But no, I-95 lost out by a wide margin to this shit shack. We accidentally stumbled on the place during our first trip down. It came by way of a piss panic. I already began pissing myself by the time I got to the rest room. Once I was done I almost vomited from the stinking villainy of the eroded facilities. It was such a standing joke my wife and I made it a mission to stop into the place, watching each year the facade and frame rot a little more, placing bets when it would be condemned. It never happened. It out lasted her. I despised the place for that.

The greasy orange counters had faded gold speckles in them. The seats and booths looked the same. Burned coffee and the sizzle of the grille mist coated every inch and the smell imbedded itself into the fibers of our clothes until we tore them off hours later and hit the beach sand. I smelled my robe, the grille mist and coffee had yet to sink in. All I could smell was my B.O.

My coffee cup was empty. I stared at it, I don’t know for how long. I wanted to form the words to ask for another cup, I wanted to climb to the bottom of the cup and ask for a refill and see if I could drink my way out or drown trying.

The cup was bigger than anything else I had ever looked at. I took in a breath and tore my eyes away to the waitress behind the counter. It was so strange. My ears had been turned off for so long I couldn’t remember how long I’d been sitting there looking at that cup. From the looks of her face I may have already died a long time ago and was not informed that indeed I did cross over. Maybe I was a ghost. She leaned against the pie turnstile head against the wall almost climbing up it. Her eyes shrieked in terror. Her lips were wide apart and shaking. It was all I could do not to ask her if I was dead. Maybe I’d already killed myself. That would be a relief. That would mean my epic suicide note had been penned and I was waiting for the ride to my wife.

“Hi.”

A tiny voice to my side alerted me that my ears were indeed working, but still the waitress’ shaking lips had me engrossed. It wasn’t until her eyes darted from me to my side that I tuned in what was happening.

“Hey there. You with us?” It was a willow of a young girl sitting right next to me. Her wide brown eyes widened further upon realizing she had made contact. An opened mouth smile curled up at the corners accentuating the eyes more, providing me an overall editorial that indeed she was excited by my acknowledgment.

“I am with you. Yes.” I watched my cup to make sure it was still there. It was. “Miss, can you fill me up?” I tried my best to muster a cordial smile to the waitress that now let out a gut shriek and had toppled the pie turnstile to the floor.

“Gash!” The young girl focused on the waitress and slammed her tiny fist clutching a shiny, bloody butcher knife onto the counter. “Get this man another cup!” The tiny voice before was gone, in its steed was the voice of someone old and hard. It wasn’t voice she spoke to me with. So strange how people exhibit themselves to others.

The waitress blubbered more and tried to move but only managed to flap her lips.

The second slam of the girl’s fist shook me into the world as if a tiny comet was caught up in an unexpected orbit from a gigantic planet.

By instinct I slowly swiveled my stool around, to take in the rest of the diner. We were the only three there. No cooks. No other wait staff. No one at the register. No customers. The terracotta colored floor tiles leading out the glass front entrance were streaked in a wide swath of light and dark crimson I recognized as blood.

“Gash! Now!” Another slam of her fist.

I jolted back slightly and watched the waitress nearly shake to pieces as she took both hands to pour my coffee.

“Thanks.” I picked up the cup and took a sip, still touring the facility with my eyes. The late morning sun that earlier seemed unbearable from the big panes of glass behind me now guided me to fifteen maybe twenty people running across the parking lot, with two of them staggering, reaching for something that wasn’t there then collapsing. Two more were dragging a lifeless man covered in blood by the arms. His head leaned backwards and bobbed with each pull. Across the street a commercial bus was on fire towards the backseats. Smoke puffed out of each open window. A hysterical crowd of people were running around the bus and into traffic trying to stop anyone that would slow. Another bloody lifeless body was being dragged off the bus and onto the side of the road. Almost everyone was screaming into their phones and hopping all around.

I took another sip of my coffee and returned back to my suicide note, reinvigorated by the distraction the young girl had given me. Before getting back into my process I remembered my manners. I looked back up to the girl. “Thank you for that.” I concentrated on the page once again.

“Uh, you’re welcome.” Her tiny voice was back.

I glanced at the girl and put on a professional smirk of comradery we all give strangers in a work elevator or passing in the hall.

Her smile had unfurled but the open mouth stayed. It was now expressing what I interpreted as a sense of awe and wonder. Maybe she had seen something magical like a ghost or orb? Her eyes didn’t give up their openness, now almost wide with curiosity. “Are you afraid?”

I watched my page and then considered my pen, “I think it’s not really that I’m afraid, I think it’s a little frustrated , maybe? It’s hard writing a good note.”

She leaned in and took in my page, “Dear Cruel World?” Her nose crinkled.

I moved my page away from her judging eyes. “It’s a first draft.”

“A first draft of what,” She cocked her head sideways, studying me.

“Not that you really need to know, but it’s my suicide note. I’m driving down to Virginia Beach and committing suicide on the warm sand.”

She shook her head as if a dizzy spell was being repressed. “You don’t want to live?”

“I would rather say I’d very much like to die. There is a difference.”

Drawing energy from my announcement I could see her expression change back to the original sinister smile. Her eyes sparkled from the hope of something new. “I can help you with that.” She straightened her shoulders as if in a job interview.

“No, thanks. I would prefer to stick to my original plan.”

Gripping her knife tighter, I saw the dried blood mixed with the new blood on both her hands. The shine of the blade was dulling from the fast drying gore as well. “No, I don’t mind at all.”

Knowing she was readying a sharp jab to my throat or wherever I decided I would go ahead and diffuse the situation. “You ever play Rock, Paper, Scissors?”

She shook her head yes. “Sure”

The .357 I bought to shoot myself in head with was weighing me down all day, but I didn’t have anywhere to put it so I kept it in the side pocket of my robe. It was awfully clunky and once I sat down I kept it in my pocket so as not to alarm anyone in the diner, but I did rest it on my leg.

I took it out and set it on the counter with my finger on the trigger pointing at her. “Revolver beats, butcher knife.”

Her wide eyes followed the trace of my hand and weapon then shot back to mine. “You are the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” She dropped her knife and shot her arm out to me, “My name is Velma.”

I shook her hand. “I’m Jeff.”

“Jeff, you are an extraordinary person in an ordinary place.” She lifted her chin and saluted me.

Young, homicidal and eccentric, she was quite a post-human work of art, I thought. “How about we let the waitress go? No need to keep her here. I can get my own coffee.”

“Scram, Gash.” Velma threw her thumb behind her, not taking her eyes off me.

The waitress knocked over some plates and slipped on the blood. She threw open the door. An air of cool wind blew in the sounds of sirens and tires coming to a screaming stop. A chaos of commands and yells stopped once the glass door shut.

Velma and I looked outside the window as if we were a seasoned team on a TV drama.

Ambulances parked off the side of the road were blocked by a growing swarm of state police squad cars that circled the building. Officers ran back and forth getting the proper formation and equipment in place. Firefighters sprayed the flames pushing from the bus. Everyone’s eyes were on the diner. On us.

“You bring quite a fan club.” I said.

“They are my paparazzi.” She bit her bottom lip as her mischievous smile grew again.

“So what’s with all this?” I motioned to the window.

“Huh.” She rolled her eyes. Her smile dropped. “Apparently, I’ve been on a, “she did air quotes, “multi-state killing rampage,” end air quotes. “Whatever.” Her bottom lip protruded to almost a pout.

“Velma, how old are you?”

“Seventeen.” She picked at the dry blood under her nails. “I just want to get to my Dad.”

“Where is he?”

“Charleston. Daddy says the weather is better for his knees down there. I think he just wanted to forget about me in that dump.” She dropped her head.

“What dump?”

“Stupid hospital.” She Looked up to me doe eyed.

“What would you do once you got down to your dad?”

Her mouth twisted sideways from a punchline she had been dreaming of giving. “Give him a permanent smile.” Her eyes burned a thousand hells.

I spun my .357 around and pushed the handle to her. “I think you are going to need this more than me.” I nodded sideways, “paparazzi and all. Besides,” I slowly turned back to face my empty page again. “I don’t think I have the energy to make it to the beach to meet her.”

“Meet who?” Velma picked up the gun and inspected it as if it was some kind of alien relic.

“My wife.”

“She’s at the beach?”

“No. She’s dead.”

The energy I held so preciously was now bleeding from me. I was running out of time. Soon I wouldn’t have the energy hold my pen let alone kill myself. The emptiness of the page, white and unending was inviting me; not to write, but to fall into it and never return. I fell between the light blue lines into the milky white of nothingness. Perhaps death had nothing to do with black nothingness. Maybe death was milky white. A blank page. The pool of life was a temporary blotter on an unending feed of sweet white oblivion.

“Jeff?’

There was a sound, it was trying to pull me back. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay deep in the page.

“Jeff?’

Velma touched my arm gently, pulling me up above water as if I was drowning.

“Yes?”

Velma’s face once again gave her away. It was Inquisitiveness this time. Something odd and new, that’s what she was experiencing. “Jeff, why are you crying?”

“I am?” I felt my face. Tears had been streaming down my face. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? I don’t understand?” She set the gun down.

“I can’t feel anything. I cry sometimes now, and I don’t know I’m doing it. I think I miss not feeling anything the most. I’ve almost forgotten it. I even miss the pain.” I wiped my face with the haggard sleeves of my robe.

“It’s ok. I can’t feel anything either,” her head still sideways, still studying me. “Why don’t you be like me?” She nodded to the gun and knife.

“I can’t kill people.”

“Yes you can. You are going to. Yourself. Aren’t you a person?”

“Not anymore.” I could feel the wetness of the tears stream again.

Velma twisted her stool to face me.

Outside, a barricade had been set up with an army of police aiming a countless amount of armaments at the diner.

“I’m not going to make it to beach.” I saw a copter above hovering.

“Yes you are. We both are.” Velma took my hand. “C’mon, face me.”

I didn’t have the energy to resist. I turned my stool to face her.

She took both my hands. “I learned this from one of my doctors before I gave him a permanent smile. Close your eyes.”

I complied.

The back of my eyes drew out the last bit of energy I had. I grew drowsy although I knew I couldn’t sleep.

“What do you love about at the beach? Is it the sand?”

I wasn’t sure if that was Velma’s voice or some kind of record player that repeated comfortable phrases. It made me keep drawing the past forward, like carrying tiny bricks, building a future one word at a time. I could feel the scolding heat of the sand. I was shocked to figure out the true meaning behind what made the beach so comforting. It was reliability. As life goes on, so much changes and we reach and try to keep a hold of anything familiar before being torn away forever. It is one of those things that were seemingly made of concrete or permanence that never let you down. They let you know, no matter what, those long gone moments that made you bright and fun, at that early time in your life, was still there. So you go back to that place over and over and remember and honor that part of you. Because you mattered. She mattered. Every moment of happiness, of sunburn, every grain of sand mattered. I could feel the sand I could feel the sun. The waves, so angry and inviting. I dove in and swam deep. Coming up at the crash of a wave and the sting of a jellyfish. But that was ok.

“Do you see her?”

The splash of the waves bobbed me up and down, but there she was on the sand. My wife. I could taste the salt water. The sun was almost blinding. There was no one else on the beach. I swam for shore, kicking and stroking. My heart pumped. I reached up for breath. Every muscle, every cell, working towards only one goal.

Big, oval, white rimmed sunglasses hid her eyes, but I didn’t care. She read a Glamour magazine under a checkered umbrella. No matter how much time she spent under that umbrella she still bronzed.

Sand stuck to my toes, ankles and legs as salt water rained off me with each step.

“Jeff, come back to me.”

I refused to listen to the voice, concentrating on her. I picked up the pace before the voice took me away.

“Jeff, it’s time to come back.”

I was consumed back into the white.

One. Two. Three. I opened my eyes to Velma. The diner. The Grille had now caught fire. The chopper above was close enough to sound like it was on the roof. It was all there. It was all the same.

Except…brighter.

Velma bit her lower lip, the corners of mouth arched as high as I had seen them. She shifted her jaw sideways, her eyes traced my face, “the beach was beautiful. What a lovely place to be.”

I meant to say something but only exhaled. I don’t know how long I had been without breath but upon my inhale I could feel every part of my body fill with that narcotic pep so frequently volleyed as one of the benefits to suicide. The day was now bright and lovely, not daunting and harsh. It all was in place, it all made sense.

“Can I go back to the beach with you?” Velma held her hands together as if praying for my approval.

“Of course. Can you get us back there?” I took her hands into my own. “Can you?”

She looked down to the knife and pistol, then out the windows to the hornets’ nest of police surrounding us. “All we have to do is run back to the beach.”

“Where is it?”

“Just outside that door. We can run together.”

The police had built a bulkhead as if we were thirty feet tall with bulletproof skin. Maybe we were. Maybe we knew something they didn’t. Maybe they owed us a ride to the beach, just Velma and me.

“How do we do this?” I let go of her hands.

“You want the knife or gun?” She pushed both over to me.

“I’ll take the knife. You really look happy with the gun.”

Velma took the gun in her hand jumped off the stool, “Well Jeff, I guess I’ll see you at the beach. I can’t wait to meet your wife.” She held her hand out.

I jumped off the stool. Took the knife and shook her hand. “Velma, thank you for everything.”

“I hope you don’t mind. While you were at the beach I finished your note.” Velma said softly.

“You know more about me than anyone alive. Thanks.”

“Well,” Velma lifted the gun up, “we run as fast as we can towards them and then I’ll catch you on the sand. It should only take a minute. It will be fast, I promise”

“I trust you.”

She took off at full speed for the door.

Knife lifted above my head I ran behind her through the door and to the beach.

* * *

The note she finished for me:

Dear Cruel World,
GO FUCK YOURSELF.
VELMA AND JEFF

#

Salvadore Ritchie works as an IT professional at a hospital that handles large trauma and psych units. He’s had stories published in publications such as Pulp Metal Magazine, Yellow Mama, Flash Fiction Offensive, Spelk, Near To The Knuckle and Shotgun Honey.

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