By Cathy Thomas Brownfield
Every Monday and Wednesday this semester, Amaris Jewett had parked her nine-year-old car on the steep incline beneath the bridge that ramped East Liverpool, Ohio to Chester, West Virginia just across the Beautiful River. That was what Ohio meant, Beautiful River. She lifted her backpack, heavy with textbooks, notebooks, folders, pens, pencils, markers, tissue, hand lotion, lip balm, Bandaids and ibuprofen, and anything else she might need while she was away from home.
Now, at the end of the day, she was tired. She was hungry. She was broke, in more ways than one. She wanted to drop into her comfy chair, but she dreaded having to go home to do it. But where else was there to go? She exited the building, her backpack slung over her aging shoulder. She would hurt later because of the weight of it. There was no one to call after her to join them for coffee and talking at some quiet place open until late. So it took her only a minute to walk to her car parked on the incline under the bridge that ramped across the river to Chester, West Virginia.
She opened the back door and dropped her backpack on the seat, closing the door again. She opened the driver’s door and tossed her purse on the passenger seat. She paused, her back barely against the car door, and stared, no, studied, the river and what lay on the other side. She stopped to look, just this way, every Monday and every Wednesday this semester. Things didn’t just lay there, though. Twenty or so white houses and a three-floor hotel all looked as if they were tacked to the hillside below the tree line. The trees waited for the sap to rise and for spring to burst into color.
She’d always heard stories about the people across the river, rednecks, they were called. The talk had always raised a little fear inside her, enough that she didn’t want to go there, especially alone. Yet, every Monday and every Wednesday she came to her car and studied the small town across the river. And a longing grew stronger inside her every day, a longing to get into her car, drive onto the ramp, cross the toll-free bridge. The desire was to pass Chester altogether and drive until she became lost in those West Virginia mountains. She wasn’t so afraid these days. She was thinking that people in West Virginia weren’t really so different than their Ohio and Pennsylvania cousins.
Not today, she thought. Not today. She got into her car and turned toward home in spite of the dread.
Amaris wasn’t home yet. She wasn’t even off the freeway when her cell phone rang. She recognized the number immediately and took the exit ramp to get off the four-lane highway to answer it. She felt urgency in the ring.
“Cee?” First there was silence. Then Cee spoke. There was a tone in her daughter’s voice, like she was trying not to scare Amaris.
“Mama? Where are you?”
“Just getting off the freeway.”
“You’re almost home then?”
“I’m a little ways out yet. Is something wrong?” Amaris heard a siren. “Who’s hurt?”
“The ambulance is here to take Daddy to the hospital.”
“OK. Listen to me, Cee. Are you listening?” She heard voices. Cee answered them, her voice fainter. Then she came back to her phone.
“I’m on my way.”
“They said to go directly to the hospital, Mama.”
“OK, Cee. I’m on my way.”
It was several miles into town. She didn’t recall seeing anything along those miles. She caught the traffic light red at the center of town. An ambulance ran red toward her and turned up the hill toward the hospital ten miles north. She dropped in behind it. She lost the ambulance, though, once they broke free of town. She pressed the gas pedal and drove on to the hospital. She sat alone until family came in to take up the vigil with her, and to tell her what had happened. The news was what she had feared for a very long time.
The accident wasn’t an accident. And injury wasn’t intended. Fatality was.
From the instant her cell phone began to sound Amaris knew it was bad news. She’d expected it since 1985. But she had hoped it was so far behind them that Matthew would never think about it again. She had thought about it enough for everyone for all of these years.
Amaris finally was allowed to go back to him, behind the wall, a barrier to keep families at a distance until the doctors were clear about the situation. That the families had time to calm down. She didn’t speak. She had been to this emergency room enough to know it was bad or else they wouldn’t have had someone waiting for her on the other side of the door.
“Before we go back, Mrs. Jewett, there’s something you need to know.”
“I probably already do.” She lifted her eyes from the floor. “Is it...?”
Already she could hear his voice whining about how he had botched it. He couldn’t even off himself right. And she would hold her tongue, not say how stupid this was, how costly in more ways than just dollars and cents. How he’d promised never to even think about suicide again…
“I can’t believe--.” Matthew had been so angry because she had tried to get help for him after some friends told her he was contemplating suicide. Oh, she had denied it. She’d insisted that she knew him better than anyone else did and her Matthew would never conceive of such an idea. Never. But fear had driven her to seek help. His eyes had been fury-filled, so cold and flaming at the same time. She’d been pregnant with Cee at the time, though she hadn’t known it yet.
“What should I have done?” she’d asked.
“You could have talked to me!”
His words made sense but she’d known he would have denied having suicidal thoughts. He would have convinced her naïve self that it just wasn’t true. She hadn’t known how to talk to him. In all of her life up until that moment she had never had occasion to deal with suicide, to cope with someone who had so little hope that they would rather be dead.
A year later he had confessed it was true. Yes, he’d been thinking about it.
“I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt the children. Just, one day some hunters will find me out in the woods,” he’d vowed.
All she could think about was the way he had punished her for telling someone, for trying to help him. Punished her. She had worried every time he’d gone out hunting. She had worried every time a financial crisis arose. She had worried she might say the wrong thing and push him over the edge, and the children would demand to know why she had harassed him into killing himself.
Now. He had finally gone and done it. She had stopped worrying. She had stopped worrying and he had pulled the trigger. She was the trigger. The marriage counselor had told her that.
She looked up.
“He looks bad, but he’s alert. He’s talking.”
He didn’t really want to die, then. If he’d really wanted to die he would have done it right. He was a ‘marksman,’ an ‘expert’ shooter. He didn’t miss unless he wanted to miss. A long time ago she’d heard him say it, “There are people who just shouldn’t waste oxygen. I could take them out, just like that!” And he’d snapped his fingers. “I could kill them and never leave a trace of evidence. They would never be able to trace it back to me.”
He’d talked on and on and on in his soft, low tone. And she’d been afraid to do anything but listen.
“Hey, baby,” he drawled as soon as he saw her.
“Matthew.” She sat down on the chair near his bed. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t remember anything.”
Amaris looked at the nurse. “Amnesia?”
There was a slight nod. The nurse wasn’t convinced, either. But both women chose to go along with his story.
The doctor came into the room. “We’re admitting him for observation. If everything is OK we will cut him loose tomorrow afternoon.”
Amaris exited the building from class. She unlocked the car, dropped her backpack onto the back seat and closed the door. She paused, her back against the open car door and stared at, no, studied the setting across the river. There was the bridge above her that ramped to Chester, West Virginia on the way to the mountains somewhere past the river, past Chester, past the way things had been for too long.