In between seconds, as the river rushed closer, illogically slow, the accountant counted. He counted his heartbeats, he counted the number of nights spent on the couch where he avoided the wife he no longer loved and, remembering his mother, he counted the hairs on her head after the chemo: one. He counted like he had always counted. Each item formed a brick that he then meticulously placed on the wall he had been building all his life. He did the usual roll call of events, from childhood till now, in the usual order.
Miraculously, about 10 feet from the water and having calculated every visceral detail of every memory, he ran out of things to count. It was then that, the first time in a long time, he realized he was no longer numb. The sensation that reminded him of a vacuum with cool air he couldn’t feel and of a sort of dull slowness had passed. He was faced with emotions like a warm ocean squall sending a wave of superficial self-awareness that threatened to overcome the wall of the man who refused to learn to swim.
Immediately his body felt heavy and his muscles seemed to detach themselves from his conscious control. As a slightly painful tingle which made him feel suddenly alienated from his walking corpse surged throughout his body every breath became an enormous undertaking. His labored breathing was soon coupled with thunderstorm of apprehension rumbling within the pit of his stomach. He was nearly crippled by the tonnage of guilt, anxiety, fear and anger of a life half lived. His breathing became a staccato cacophony as years of unprocessed emotion putting massive pressure on his underused tear ducts.
Yet he was too close to that sweet nothingness to cry. Instead he thought back coolly and perceptively on the string of endless possibilities that had led him to this seeming eternity of falling. He took comfort in the new endeavor, of categorizing already counted events. As the categories become clearer, and more numerous he channeled them towards the breach of his emotional damn. As a sense of familiar control returned so did his mnemonic acumen. With this his mind cleared, his heart vanished, the vacuum returned and he started counting again. He counted the events and calculated probabilities and explored several scenarios and hypotheticals until he had narrowed it down to one possibility. It was decision that would, in essence, stop him from falling. With only a few blissful milliseconds left, the accountant could now meticulously muse about that decision and the alternate universe it created.
Forty years ago to the day the accountant made what he thought was the most important decision in his life. That day the paint on the walls of the funeral parlor was pealing. The ebony walls had turned as gray as the mood and Death permeated through the walls like the 159 paint chips lying on the ground. His father, in a new $600 tux, new hairdo and brand new $120 glasses had never looked better. It seemed almost disrespectful to look so good at a funeral.
There were exactly 50 people surrounding him, enough that for a time the future accountant successfully forgot that it was his father’s funeral. The accountant continued to count, much like he does now, until everything was accounted for. The leaves on the fake plant, the pews, the cracks in the ceiling, the number of times the white haired women said “um”– every little detail noted. It was first time in his life since that counting began that he could remember it stopping so abruptly, having merely run out of road. It wasn’t until then that he cried.
“How did he die?” Everyone seemed to whisper at once.
“I think he had a heart attack” Replied one elderly man with a dubious connection to the deceased.
“At his age?”
“No, he was shot. I heard the gun blast myself.”
“You sure? I think I would have heard about that on the news.”
“They don’t report suicides on the news, Darline.” His mother said quietly and bitterly.
To the accountant, the voices were just tidbits of gossip coming from vague bickering shapes. The accountant remembered wanting to shut everyone up–by force if necessary–but that was not his mother’s way. She still played bridge with the woman she knew the accountant’s father had been sleeping with for years.
A slow moving worn down man with a face full of wrinkles (none of which were laugh lines) and thick horn-rimmed glasses walked down the main aisle of the death filled room. He had slow but powerful and fluid gait. He seemed like a man whose youthful vigor still clung around him unused. He stopped, periodically, to talk to some of his parishioners who were in attendance. It must have taken him fifteen minutes to walk to twenty yards from the entrance to the podium.
Once at the podium the Pastor the Unitarian Church of God John Ignatius, wise beyond his considerable years, preached.
“Good evening. We are gathered here today to bid farewell to a loving father, dutiful son but never-the-less deeply flawed man. It is with a heavy heart that we say good-bye to a fellow soldier against evil who lost the final battle with himself. We all know that this final battle, this inner struggle with ourselves, is difficult. Yet the lord did not intend this battle to be fatal. He saved us through his grace and it is by this grace that we persevere. We give ourselves to the lord and receive everlasting life so in metaphoric death comes rebirth. When we give into ourselves, when we create our own timeline, there is no rebirth. As we consider this self-forsaken soul whose death strikes a foreign cord in all of us, we can only ask ourselves ‘how do I wish to die?’’
The eulogy went on but the accountant stopped listening after the pastor asked that question. Thinking back on it now, there had been some more respectful eulogies in that church. Yet the accountant’s mother was angrier at her husband than sad at his premature death and she must have let Ignatius know. As a boy, all he could understand in those 132 words was the final question. Unfortunately the father idolizing accountant heard that question and decided on: falling.
Had the accountant thought of any other word at that precise moment it was possible, even likely, that he would not find himself standing on a bridge looking down yearning for nothingness—reaching for death’s embrace. But as it stands he was. He remembered, in a strained yet absent way, that usually he forgot about the moments he spent deliberating that question when he counted the worries to form the bricks for his wall. However, peering over the edge, his potentially falling children, souls struck by a receptive cord, flashed through his mind and he stepped back for the 40th time. Yet unlike the 39 times before he felt something about himself that he couldn’t grasp. He felt a strange almost ephemeral call to action. A call to start living. He felt a desire to reach out, to call his children whose phone numbers he had memorized. With that eerie yet profound feeling teetering on the rim in the recess of his mind he turned around, got into his car and drove home to the wife he might love again. As Paul got in that car without counting the steps he still found himself thinking: Maybe next year.
*Thanks to Quinn for helping with this revision of an old short story of mine