The Wretched’s Grace

1 March 1937

I deserved to end like this:  dropping dead of a heart attack as I yelled out to passersby’s selling newspapers there on the corner of 13th and Douglas in front of the State Hotel.  I deserved to lie there in the dirt, hand clutched to my aching heart, the heart that’s been aching since 1918.  No one notices the old newspaper man; no one pays me any mind as my eyes close for the last time, as the last weary breath leaves my body.  I don’t mind though.  My last thoughts are of her.  How I had hoped this end would come sooner.  How I hoped she would be there on the other side.  How I hoped she would forgive me.

The desk clerk from the State Hotel rushes out to my side and faintly I hear him say, “Hold on Mr. Sutliff, just hold on.”

But I have no desire to hold onto this wretched life anymore.  My eyes are closed and for the first time in years, I can feel my mouth lift into a smile, the muscles within my cheeks ache and pull at the surprising movement.  My body feels as a feather, caught on the wind and as the clerk’s words jumble and drown in my ears, I let go and float away on the brisk March breeze.


2 March 1937

When my death notice runs in the newspaper the following morning, they say I have been sick for a long time.  Although no one, except perhaps for my oldest boy Milburn, knew for how long.  But sickness to one is not sickness to another.  No one can see the sickness that hollows you from the inside.  It’s true, though.  I had been sick with one form of illness or another the last two years.  It was the heart attack, the first one in 1935 that put the final nail into my already closed coffin.  But a disease has been eating inside me for years, sometimes I think going back to my early childhood.  I fought hard against it in those early years.  Years where I was happy with my mother, with Belle and Eva, and even after those horrific things happened I was still happy in the years with Myrtle and the children.  I thought I had almost beaten the monster.  But it had returned, more ferocious, more hideous than before.  I tried to drown it then, and that worked for a time.  One day blurring into the next as I managed to forget every terrible thing that had happened.  As I lost myself down the bottle, I lost what remained of my family.  The girls and Gilbert were separated, taken by different relatives until only I and Milburn remained.  We packed what little belongings we required and left that desolate, death-ridden Manilla home behind and headed west for Omaha.

It was wonderful, in those early years before the Depression struck.  The noise, the street cars, and speakeasies everywhere you turned around.  I don’t think Milburn and I spent a night sober.  But in the end, I paid the price for my days and nights drinking.  We all did in those days.  I can only imagine what my mother would’ve said, seeing me waste to nothing before her spirit.

I suppose that’s why I’m here now, in this dark, dank place – as a penance for all of my wrongs.  I’m remembering them now.  The memories that I’ve buried deep within the recesses of my soul are beginning to surface, forcing me to relive the pains of the past.  They rush over me, drown me; so many that I hardly know where to begin.

I can see her there.  There in the mist when the dark lifts and a faint ray of light shines through blinding me.  Her shape appears as I squint behind my lifted hand, fingers separated.  I try to call out to her, but my voice was left behind with my body.  Mutely then, I scream, waving my arms about, desperate for her attention.  She turns, and for a moment I think she too sees me.  But the veils of darkness fall once more and she disappears and that horrible ache within me returns along with the need to suffocate the pain.

One by one, they begin to appear, staring at me with vacant stares, waiting for my answers and apologies.  Always my gaze is seeking hers, but always she is out of view.

Time has no meaning, no understanding here.  Hours and hours of darkness blend until the only thing left to do is to think.  So it surprises me when it is a different she who comes speaks to me first.

I’m spun around in a sudden strange gust of black wind and when it settles and I open my eyes, I’m met by her hard stare.  “It was your fault, don’t ya know?” she questions me, her voice rough as it ever was.  A faint glow lights up her face, the end of a cigarette as she draws on the tip.  I watch her smoke it down to a nub and then crush it beneath a heavy foot.  “Can’t you answer me?” she asks before she snorts and says, “’Course ya, can’t.  Guess I’ve been here too long to remember what it’s like for ya.”

I watch her pace back and forth like a caged animal, the way she always did whenever she was upset with me.  She pauses and turns to face me.  “Come on then, Willy,” she calls me affectionately.  She offers me her hand and reluctantly I take it in my own.  Her fingers feel chilled, like flower petals brushing against my calloused palm.  I glance over at her quizzically.  “Where we going, ya want to know?” she asks and I nod in response.  She laughs in her wheezy way.  “We’re going back to where it all started.”


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