Hold up, you will say. Someone’s on the other line. You won’t get there in time, but your friend will leave you a message, too long, as usual, with his usual brand of suspense like, “I know we haven’t talked for a year, but if you call me back, I’ll tell you who’s dead.” Then he’ll hum along with a song you can’t hear and try to get in a dozen belches and some beatboxing before the beep. A seductive voice will tell you his message will be saved in the archives for only three days, and even that computer will sound oddly threatening, so you’ll call him back within the hour.
Are you sitting down?
Of course I am. I’m driving, asshole, not running.
You could be running.
Come on. Who the hell is dead?
And then he will tell you. You will think you are ready for this moment, but you won’t be.
No one knows. Shot through the head. Either she shot herself or someone else did.
You deduce that all by yourself?
What’s the difference?
What do you mean?
I mean, what’s the difference? Murder, accident, suicide. She’s still dead.
You will think about this until you understand the difference. You won’t say it out loud, but you’ll realize that if it wasn’t suicide, you wouldn’t be dwelling on it nearly as much. Out of character, he will fill this silence with some actual sympathy. It will give you the creeps.
I’m really sorry, dude.
When you’re watching a movie, you know immediately that it’s bad if the camera keeps lingering on the reaction shots. You know these moments well, the ones designed to tell the dumbest viewers when to gasp, laugh, or cry (coincidentally, the typical reactions to murder, accident, and suicide, in that order). Picture the scene. An actor does something shocking like, say, pulling his eyes out of his goddamn head. That should say enough to the viewer, right? Well, a bad movie won’t be content with this. A bad movie will cut to someone screaming, maybe even shouting out, “Oh, my god! I can’t believe something so crazy has occurred! Imagine the pain!” This is infinitely worse if the bad movie in question is trying to make you cry.
Are you sitting down?
You’ll decide that he only asked you that because he saw it in too many movies. Unless it’s the scene where authority figures come knocking on the door, that’s how the phone call always starts. The movies always tell you that’s the hardest job ever, delivering the news to the wartime widow, but you’ve never believed that nonsense. You’ve noticed that they never have to actually say anything. The woman always collapses on the stairs before they speak, sometimes before even opening the door. You’re convinced those motherfuckers have the easiest job of all time.
So after you soak in the news, the two of you will discuss her death and a bizarre competition will surface that neither of you will be consciously aware of. It will sound familiar to anyone leaning in to listen because you’ve said it all before, even outside of the worst movie.
First is your bizarre rush to react the most inappropriately (“I guess she won’t be needing that five bucks back!”) quickly followed by a scramble to be the most respectful (“I’d drive nine hours to her funeral if I had to.”) then you’ll start the world’s most subtle duel about who really knew her better (“I remember every word of her alligator poem.” “You mean ‘crocodile’?”) then you will say something about there being nothing you could have done to change things, but you’re actually be hinting that even an extra word in the last sentence between you would have changed everything that followed (“I almost forced her to miss a plane by not calling her back.”) then you will subtly attach meaning to the most insignificant interactions (“I’m the one who named her dog, even if she never realized it.”) negated by a hasty downplay of the most significant ones (“She brought me that article on love being a disease, but she probably showed it to everyone.”) then you will offer up something embarrassing, knowing that although no one can prove her feelings for you, you can change your own depending on who’s around (“I hesitate to even say this, but I always wanted to sing Karaoke with her in the crowd, and, God help me, sing it well.”) then you will make it clear your special connection allows you any joke no matter how many crickets are chirping (“Tragedy minus time equals comedy, but this clock ain’t workin!”) but then you’ll make it clear you wouldn’t allow anyone to do the same thing (“Imagine her mother in the car with us before you say that stupid shit again.”) then you will desperately try to attach yourself a little closer to the tragedy hoping that there’s at least one person left that hasn’t heard so you can ask if they’re sitting down, too (“If you haven’t called Crazy Mike yet, let me do it.”) then you will remove yourself from the drama (“The funeral reception is too far away, and her body won’t even be there”) in direct opposite proportion to your relationship with the deceased (“I’d hitchhike if I had to, even though she probably wouldn’t remember me.”) then you will take advantage of an opportunity to settle old scores (“I’ll tell him I don’t want to talk about it if that asshole has the bad judgment to want to reminisce.”) then you will minimize her best accomplishments (“I think people should be honest and admit that her poems needed work.”) or maximize them depending on the accomplishments in your own life (“I told her that one day we’d all rent hot-air balloons when we’re inevitably millionaires.”) then you will, of course, fall back on the ridiculous contest of who-knew-her-best since it was never decided (“Once, I saw her hold up a line of traffic while she walked down the middle of the road with her headphones on, everyone honking and yelling over her shoulders.”) however, you’ll never (“I know, I know, that’s so her, isn’t it?) no matter how hard you try (“Actually, it wasn’t like her at all.”) really declare a winner.
Unless you get caught with a mouthful of something and spray it everywhere in shock when you hear the news, you can always count on your reaction to be unsatisfying. And you can’t just fake it and hold milk in your cheeks and wait for the punch line like they do in the movies. You’re talking about that split-second after your drink washes over your teeth, that instant before your throat flexes to swallow, that moment that’s harder to nail than anyone actually realizes. And if you do spit uncontrollably all over everything when they tell you, then maybe, maybe, you’ll believe that you reacted honestly. But you won’t.
Just understand that an honest reaction to the news of a tragedy has never happened in the history of the human race. That’s what we are.
For example, notice up there how many more times you will say “I” instead of “her.” This is because the only people who handle tragedy worse than high school kids are college kids. And the only people who handle tragedy worse than those little bastards are everyone else.
If you drive long enough, the only relationships you can cultivate is hatred for authority figures who claim more than a reasonable share of your road. You will also begin to think of every cop, fireman, even paramedic as the same person, blissfully ignorant of the destructive influence this blind generalization has had with other relationships in your life. This is mostly because, much like the initial giggling skirmish you had over that theater armrest on your first date, you simply cannot tolerate anyone asking you to move over.
So when you almost get pulled over, your instinct is to call someone and tell them all about it. In the movies, the hero never bothers to tell anyone what just happened, no matter how strange or remarkable, even though it is the only time a reaction shot would be justified. This is not the case in real life.
But someone will call you first, and you’ll be getting the news about her suicide all over again. You will imagine everyone out there fighting over phones to tell you again and again.
You will want to take the high road when you answer, but suddenly, even though this caller will be more sincere than the first and won’t play the game nearly as well, your old reflexes will be back before you know it:
First, you’ll ask each other all the sexual details that you’ve always suspected (“I swear I never fucked her.”) minimizing or maximizing in relation to what the other one reveals (“My shit was up against her shit, and that’s all.”) then you’ll Monday-morning quarterback the crime scene with a decade of police shows under your belt as qualifications (“I think they need to track down where she got the gun.”) then you’ll decide that since you’re not directly involved, no one should be involved (“I think that it’s not our tragedy to claim because with every death someone else has earned the right to be more upset than you.”) then you’ll decide no one can grieve unless they’ve got identification to prove they’re her mother, father, brother, or sister by blood (“I honestly don’t think a stepbrother should get the first call.”) then you’ll complain about how families are the only ones who get to know conclusively if it was really a suicide or not (“I know for a fact her parents knew her least of all.”) then you will try to make someone feel better, but only because jealously motivates you to try to dismiss their influence on her last days (“I’m telling you, it’s not your fault. She was upset about someone she just met, not you.”) then you will try to make sure no one writes about it without changing everything (“If you’re gonna put it on your website, I think you should say her cat died recently, not her dog, you know, to protect the dog’s family.”) or else you’ll decide that no one can write about it at all until you have the time to try (“I honestly think posting an online tribute for her relatives to stumble across when they’re searching obituaries is the equivalent of crashing a stranger’s funeral.”) then you will mourn the loss of the most important password you can think of outside of a high-tech heist film (“I tried to befriend her on her Spacebook, but she told me it was just to log in and access other people’s sites, making hers out of reach forever.”) then you’ll swallow your disgust as you compete with people suddenly claiming things that can never be verified (“Good thing I’m the only one that can access her profile, until I forgot her password and ruined it for everyone. Oops.”) then you’ll either say it’s a god’s fault (“I saw thirty people today that deserved to die before her.”) or a god’s will (“I know there’s a plan.”) then you will try to hint, as tastefully as you can, that by talking to her last or by not talking to her last, you were responsible for her death (“I want you to admit that you’re actually proud you made her cry, not just because I am, too.”) because no one is allowed to ever admit such a thing out loud even though it’s in our fucking DNA.
This second conversation will be what they called during the Cold War a “race to the bottom,” but you will fail to recognize it. And you’ll struggle to recognize actual guilt under all that bullshit. And the real problem is you never will. You can only feel guilty about having inappropriate reactions to tragedy, never to the tragedy itself. You may finally understand that for humans this is simply impossible, always has been.
But the quickest way to gauge how close you were to the deceased?
How eagerly would you use her death to get out of a speeding ticket?
This is the real reason that talking on the phone while driving is now a crime in seven states.
The worst movie you ever saw would have been fine if it wasn’t for all the reaction shots. The opening, ending, and everything in between was just this long chase where the monster was on a rampage and working its way through a campground. But all momentum was destroyed when the camera constantly kept cutting to the faces of the teenagers to show them looking horrified, even though you were the one who was the most traumatized by the way the movie failed on every level.
Your phone will ring, and you’ll finally get to tell someone the news. But you’ll do it all wrong right out of the gate. You even forget to ask if he’s sitting down.
“You know, just between you and me, I might have fucked her…”
First comes something that no one can prove (“Just kidding, I never fucked her.”) quickly followed by something else no one can prove (“I never fucked her either.”) then some shady denials (“I swear.”) then you’ll try to come up with the best theory no one’s thought of yet (“I’d kill myself if my dog died.”) then you will discount everyone else’s (“I know for a fact that a dog can’t affect someone like that, even if they gave birth to it.”) then you’ll try to suggest she was thinking of you (“I sent her a text message the day before it happened.”) at the same time you suggest your absence drove her to extremes (“I should have answered the cryptic message she sent me back.”) then you’ll feel the need to demystify her (“You and I both know she wasn’t perfect.”) in direct proportion with anyone who dares romanticize her (“Remember when she told us about her sister slashing her wrists on Thanksgiving?”) by proudly letting your imagination fill in any blanks that her family won’t (“I’m thinking there’s is no sister, never was.”) then you’ll convince others, as you convince yourself how well you really knew her and how important your friendship was compared to everyone else’s (“Today I realized she never knew your middle name.”) then you’ll try to set the record straight on something that will only make you feel better (“I hated how she tried to be one of the guys, telling us ‘bros before hos’ whenever we didn’t include her.”) and ignore the awkward silence when you’re finally honest enough to get to your point (“One of the guys, my ass. It was clear that she just wanted to get with you, not me.”) then you’ll try to make light of it since this said more about you than it did about her (“I told her ‘prose before hos’ and went home to do my homework that night since she just wanted to stay out longer with you.”) then you’ll throw out a bit of trivia (“Once she was up before the sun and called to brag, but it only lasted two more mornings.”) then shame mixed with relief that you’ll only admit to yourself (“I’m sort of relieved she can’t ever tell anyone I couldn’t get it up.”) then you’ll try to shock the conversation to a close and be disappointed when you can’t (“Remember the day all three of us walked through campus for the first time and she couldn’t take her ears off you?”) so you’ll try harder (“I actually thought about killing you so that she’d listen to my stories instead.”) then you’ll project a bad memory of the last time a cop came to your house and searched your face for the right reaction, as if this explains your behavior since (“They always act like it’s hard to knock on the door with some bad news, but they love that shit. Don’t let them tell you different.”) then you’ll gratefully acknowledge your forever-second-place position in this competition and try to end the debate quickly (“I think no one knew her at all, not just me, I mean, not just not me.”) then you’ll make a surprise connection (“She was the sister I never had.”) but you will mock anyone else’s similar revelation (“You mean the sister you never fucked?”) then you’ll want to get off the phone fast when you remember there’s one person out there no one’s told yet, someone who might still be standing up.
And you’ll never ask yourself why you’ve never cared if it was suicide, accident or murder or which order those three words belong in because you’re too excited about giving someone the news. As you stab the gas, all you will know with certainty is that, despite what a murderer in the worst-made movies may believe, the embarrassment over things you said to someone when they were alive never dies with them.
This will be your best chance yet to tell someone first. You will be the closest to her. And she doesn’t have a phone. You threw it out of the car when she wouldn’t show you who called. There ought to be a law.
Soon, you will pass more and more cars that look exactly like one you used to own.
You will consider the collisions.
David James Keaton’s fiction has recently appeared in Dirty Noir, Shotgun Honey, Dark Sky, and Thuglit, among others, and his story about killing coaches from Plots With Guns #10 was named a Notable Story of 2010 by storySouth. He received an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh is the editor of Flywheel, yet another online journal using electricity.