Still Literary Contest Judge's Selection: Elizabeth Glass
Elizabeth Glass has a Masters in Creative Writing from Miami University and is the recipient of grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council. Her writing has been published in journals and magazines such as The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Writer's Digest, Chattahoochee Review, and The Single Hound. She has attended the Appalachian Writers' Workshop at Hindman Settlement School the last two years, and she lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
That night, Guy was on the top of the Humana building—a skyscraper and centerpiece of Louisville. The roof wasn’t fancy at all, though, just a regular one with concrete poured as a floor, fans and air conditioners everywhere, with a three-foot stone lip. He had sat on that short lip wall many times before, which he told me about—times he had wondered if he would do it, thought about it hard, wondered what the dogs and I would do. So many times he didn’t. He had told me about all the visits he had made to the roof of the 25-story building, when he sat looking at the skyline, at the Ohio River flowing the color of midnight a quarter of a mile away. He had stood on the Second Street Bridge and done the same. It’s the bridge with a walkway. He parked his car on Main Street, said I would find it and know what happened, but I told him if he did it, he better do it to where I’d know because not being sure would have been worse than being certain. The night I’m thinking about, though, when he was on the roof around four in the morning, he did it—tied an 80-pound weight around his neck with thick rope I imagine scratched on the way down—and I come back to that time and again, to the rope instead of the bottom where he’d land on top of another building. The weight was so he wouldn’t chicken out, so he could throw it over the edge and have no choice but to follow, to where he would land on the roof of the building where my dad died.
Dad was a lawyer whose office was on Fifth Street. When I was little, it was where the Humana Building is now and he let me walk down the street alone, while he watched, to Ollie’s Trolley and get French fries with pepper and a chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream cone. That was the best thing about going to work with him. That and the sugar cubes I sucked and let dissolve, feeling the sweetness flow over my tongue and fill my mouth. Sometimes I ate two layers of cubes from the bright yellow Domino Sugar box. I don’t know if Dad noticed or cared, but he didn’t ever tell me not to do it. He liked when I went to his office for the day because I packed a bag of books, crayons, and a few toys. I used typing paper given to me by his secretary to draw on, and even though the drawings weren’t any good, he taped them up to the wall of his office. I always figured he took them down after I left, but he never did, not until I drew him new pictures the next time I was there.
He loved that I read. In the evenings, he read books aloud to my sister Callie and me. Callie hated it, hated sitting still so long, being read the classics—Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels—instead of the picture books we checked out from the library each week after going to reading hour. I listened to the woman read the books and peered over the heads of other kids to see the pictures; I enjoyed picture books too, and they were what I read by myself, but I loved spending time with Dad those evenings. Even though Callie told Mom she hated Dad reading the classic books, he continued. Eventually he read only to me, but Callie would still listen to “Pooch, Pup, and Pal” stories. They were three dogs Dad made up stories about with him as Pooch, Callie as Pup, and me as Pal. They were my favorites, and even though I was crazy about him reading to me, the best stories happened with those three dogs.
He read like he delivered opening arguments in a trial—with a serious face, but then making intellectual quips and smiling to get the jury to like him, and hopefully by extension to like his client. Callie didn’t appreciate his choices of novels, just like she hated days she went to the office. She wasn’t a reader and said it was “boring,” which is what she has always said about everything, but I got lost in books, played in Dad’s front room, which he called my “office” and I was allowed to set up the desk however I wanted. He stocked it full of pens with his name and office phone number on them and typing paper which I usually ran out of and had to get more. He taught me how to make paper airplanes, but wasn’t very good at it because they would fly a few feet and then nosedive to the ground. “That’s why I didn’t become a pilot in the Air Force,” he said.
I often sat in a dark wooden chair with a leather maroon-cushioned seat and back that was across from his desk while he told me about his time in the Air Force. He was very circumspect, frequently saying, “Well, I can’t tell you more because it’s top secret.” I still don’t know exactly what he did when he was in the service other than he always said he was in “Intelligence.” I mentioned this to my mom recently and she laughed and said he was a clerk.
“Like Radar?” I asked.
She cocked her head to one side, the good side that doesn’t hurt when she moves her neck that direction, and said, “He really told you he was in Intelligence?”
“He was only in four years. If he was intelligence, it wouldn’t have gotten him a lot of clearance for top secret information.”
Dad had to move when the Humana Building was set to go in, which when built filled the block between Fifth and Sixth and Main and Market Streets. He moved down Fifth, though not far at all. This meant moving thousands of legal books; he and Mom made hundreds of trips with dollies taking furniture, pictures, decorations, but mostly books, to the new office. Lawyers in big firms had sets of the thousands of legal books he had, but in a library which all the attorneys shared. Self-employed lawyers like my father usually used the Law Library at the University of Louisville. Not Dad, though. It took days to pack the books and more days to unpack them. After he died in 2000, no one wanted the law books because the world of law had long since moved to the digital age.
Growing up and while I was in college I spent many days and weeks in Dad’s office helping out whenever his secretary was sick or on vacation and I wasn’t in school. I did this at the old office a few times, but at the new office, I did it far more often. He had finally landed on a secretary willing to put up with his sternness and perfection, characteristics of his I felt daily but tried to ignore. Peggy worked for Dad until he died—about 15 years—and I don’t think he once let her go on a vacation when I wouldn’t be available to be her stand-in. I answered the phone, typed a few memos and court documents, and once I was old enough, leafed nosily through his files to see if anyone I knew had needed his help. My favorite part, apart from all the time I got to read and write, was going to the back hall of his small suite of offices where the new law book inserts were kept. Each law book had an updated insert every year and the previous year’s had to be removed and the new one put in. There was a special pocket for them built into the binding. I helped him with this task every year from the time I was little until I moved away from Louisville for graduate school. The hall with the inserts smelled like new books—glue, paper, a clean smell I rarely smell anymore except in a few just-issued hardback books. When I find one, I sniff it in deeply, inhaling the memory of my dad and the long days in his office where I still sucked sugar cubes, but couldn’t go to Ollie’s Trolley anymore because the Humana Building had displaced it as well.
It was his secretary Peggy who found him. The black metal gate that went across the elevator opening had its huge padlock on it. He wrote a note on yellow legal paper—the same kind of paper used for his 13-page letter to my mom he left on the desk—that said, “Don’t go to the stairwell. Go upstairs and call the police.” Peggy fumbled to unlock the gate and hurried to the stairwell where she saw my Dad on the bottom. She walked down the stairs; he was surrounded by blood. He was still breathing, though he wasn’t conscious. A gun was in his right hand. Peggy called the police and then my mom and said that Dad had broken his arm and an ambulance was taking him to University Hospital, the trauma and research hospital. It’s not somewhere one goes for a broken arm.
He must have worked on that 13-page suicide note for the whole day. It shows signs of being written in different pens—him picking up different ones throughout the day when he had another thought to add. He asked to be cremated, but we didn’t get a copy of it until two weeks after his death, over a week after his burial. I can’t picture him descending those stairs that he never took, preferring the elevator. The stairs had a thick, brown rubberized tread. The stairwell was dark, deeply buried in the interior of the building. I can picture him at the bottom, though. He was crying, putting the gun to his head, wondering whether to put the gun in his mouth or his temple, his hand shaking. That comes from too many movies and TV shows, though, because what I really see is him taking the stairs slowly, his heart beating fast from the exertion from the lethargic depressive state he was in. He took a deep breath at the bottom. He knew he only had a few minutes because he had only sent Peggy upstairs to make some copies, so he did it quickly. Put the gun to his head, took another deep breath, prayed even though he wasn’t entirely a believer, and pulled the trigger. The city erupted. Ambulances came—more than one of them—at rush hour, closing Fifth Street down. Dad was well-respected as an attorney so a lot of people came to see if they could help, strangers came just to watch, TV cameras and newspaper journalists came. It was on the air before I even knew it had happened.
Mom tried to call me, but I was working, and neither mom nor Guy knew how to reach me. I didn’t have a cell phone and I hadn’t told anyone where I’d be then. I was in a great mood when I got home that night. It was ten o’clock and I got home an hour or two later than usual. I was met on the stairs by Guy. “Your Dad’s been in an accident. We have to go.”
Once we were in the car I asked if he’d be okay.
“I don’t know. Your mom just said an accident.” Guy was driving. We were nearing downtown when I asked, “Did he do it to himself?”
Guy shrugged, but I didn’t see him because I was looking straight ahead at the Louisville skyline with the familiar Humana Building and Aegon Center.
“I don’t know.” He lifted his shoulders and shook his head again.
“If he did, I hope he didn’t hurt anyone else.” The past Saturday, Callie and I had our “sister birthday party” at the house, which we did every year since our birthdays are only two weeks apart. Dad sat with us at the table wearing a white undershirt, jeans shorts, and house shoes. He looked like he was somewhere else, only his body sat at the kitchen table. He listened to our stories, watched us open gifts, and ate birthday cake, but in three hours he only smiled once, and just barely. I had never seen him like that. I knew he was sometimes happier than at other times, but Mom had hidden his depressions from us, which often occur more frequently and worsen as someone with bipolar disorder gets older. He wouldn’t take medicine because he was afraid someone would find out and his reputation would be ruined. I guess he didn’t think about his reputation when he killed himself.
The last time I saw Dad, he lay on a metal gurney in the hospital with a white sheet pulled to his chest. Blood pumped out of his temples every time his heart beat. The shot had gone in his right temple and out his left, slicing through his brain and leaving his body alive, but his mind gone. That image is the only way I picture him other than how he looked in specific photos or at our last birthday party.
Six years later Guy stood at the lip at the Humana building and threw the 80-pound weight over the edge. He followed it down, just like he’d planned. Before he went to the roof, he asked his coworkers there, where he worked security, if they wanted a coke, and one said yes. Guy said he would be back soon, but didn’t return. He had taken out his wallet and keys and left them on the security desk in the lobby as he was leaving. “You’ll need your wallet for the drinks,” a coworker said. Guy shook his head and patted his pocket. I recently learned that Dad took his wallet and keys out of his pockets and left them on his desk, too.
When Guy was taking the 80-pound weight up to the roof he was on camera several times carrying and rolling it into the elevator, along the long corridors, up the stairs and out onto the roof, but no one noticed. He would have been winded when he got there—he was fit enough, but not in good shape. The rope and weight were in his car, and he had told me what he wanted to do with them, but I thought he had thrown them away when I asked him to.
When a woman who worked in National City Tower across the street arrived at her office that morning, she opened the blinds and saw someone lying on a roof of one of the many buildings that abuts the Humana Building where Guy worked. Though my mom knew, it was days before she told me the building Guy landed on was where my Dad’s office was, the one he died in, an office that remains empty to this day. People don’t trust an office where someone committed suicide like I don’t trust people not to kill themselves.
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