The cop grabbed a coat and walked toward us, and as he approached, I could see the blue veins through the translucent skin of his face. For a cop, he didn’t seem to get out much. Once outside, the Colonel lit a cigarette.
“You nineteen?” the cop asked. In Alabama, you can get married at eighteen (fourteen with Mom and Dad’s permission), but you have to be nineteen to smoke.
“So fine me. I just need to know what you saw.”
“Ah most always work from six t’ midnight, but I was coverin’ the graveyard shift. We got a call ’bout a jackknifed truck, and I’s only about a mile away, so I headed over, and I’d just pulled up. I’s still in mah cruiser, and I seen out the corner a’ my eye the headlights, and my lights was on and I turned the siren on, but the lights just kept comin’ straight at me, son, and I got out quick and run off and she just barreled inta me. I seen plenty, but I ain’t never seen that. She didn’t tarn. She didn’t brake. She jest hit it. I wa’n’t more than ten feet from the cruiser when she hit it. I thought I’d die, but here ah am.”
For the first time, the Colonel’s theory seemed plausible. She didn’t hear the siren? She didn’t see the lights? She was sober enough to kiss well, I thought. Surely she was sober enough to swerve.
“Did you see her face before she hit the car? Was she asleep?” the Colonel asked.
“That I cain’t tell ya. I didn’t see ’er. There wa’n’t much time.”
“I understand. She was dead when you got to the car?” he asked.
“I—I did everything I could. Ah run right up to her, but the steerin’ wheel—well, ah reached in there, thought if ah could git that steerin’ wheel loose, but there weren’t no gettin’ her outta that car alive. It fairly well crushed her chest, see.”
I winced at the image. “Did she say anything?” I asked.
“She was passed on, son,” he said, shaking his head, and my last hope of last words faded.
“Do you think it was an accident?” the Colonel asked as I stood beside him, my shoulders slouching, wanting a cigarette but nervous to be as audacious as him.
“Ah been an officer here twenty-six years, and ah’ve seen more drunks than you’n count, and ah ain’t never seen someone so drunk they cain’t swerve. But ah don’t know. The coroner said it was an accident, and maybe it was. That ain’t my field, y’know. I s’pose that’s ’tween her and the Lord now.”
“How drunk was she?” I asked. “Like, did they test her?”
“Yeah. Her BAL was point twenty-four. That’s drunk, certainly. That’s a powerful drunk.”
“Was there anything in the car?” the Colonel asked. “Anything, like, unusual that you remember?”
“I remember them brochures from colleges—places in Maine and Ohia and Texas—I thought t’ myself that girl must be from Culver Crick and that was mighty sad, see a girl like that lookin’ t’ go t’ college. That’s a goddamned shame. And they’s flowers. They was flowers in her backseat. Like, from a florist. Tulips.”
Tulips? I thought immediately of the tulips Jake had sent her. “Were they white?” I asked.
“They sure was,” the cop answered. Why would she have taken his tulips with her? But the cop wouldn’t have an answer for that one.
“Ah hope y’all find out whatever y’all’s lookin’ for. I have thought it over some, ’cause I never seen nothing like that before. Ah’ve thought hard on it, wondered if I’da started up the cruiser real quick and drove it off, if she’da been all right. There mightn’t’ve been time. No knowing now. But it don’t matter, t’ my mind, whether it were an accident or it weren’t. It’s a goddamned shame either way.”
“There was nothing you could have done,” the Colonel said softly. “You did your job, and we appreciate it.”
“Well. Thanks. Y’all go ’long now, and take care, and let me know if ya have any other questions. This is mah card if you need anything.”
The Colonel put the card in his fake leather wallet, and we walked toward home.
“White tulips,” I said. “Jake’s tulips. Why?”
“One time last year, she and Takumi and I were at the Smoking Hole, and there was this little white daisy on the bank of the creek, and all of a sudden she just jumped waist-deep into the water and waded across and grabbed it. She put it behind her ear, and when I asked her about it, she told me that her parents always put white flowers in her hair when she was little. Maybe she wanted to die with white flowers.”
“Maybe she was going to return them to Jake,” I said.
“Maybe. But that cop just shit sure convinced me that it might have been a suicide.”
“Maybe we should just let her be dead,” I said, frustrated. It seemed to me that nothing we might find out would make anything any better, and I could not get the image of the steering wheel careening into her chest out of my mind, her chest “fairly well crushed” while she sucked for a last breath that would never come, and no, this was not making anything better. “What if she did do it?” I asked the Colonel. “We’re not any less guilty. All it does is make her into this awful, selfish bitch.”
“Christ, Pudge. Do you even remember the person she actually was? Do you remember how she could be a selfish bitch? That was part of her, and you used to know it. It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.”
I sped up, walking ahead of the Colonel, silent. And he couldn’t know, because he wasn’t the last person she kissed, because he hadn’t been left with an unkeepable promise, because he wasn’t me. Screw this, I thought, and for the first time, I imagined just going back home, ditching the Great Perhaps for the old comforts of school friends. Whatever their faults, I’d never known my school friends in Florida to die on me.
After a considerable distance, the Colonel jogged up to me and said, “I just want it to be normal again,” he said. “You and me. Normal. Fun. Just, normal. And I feel like if we knew—”
“Okay, fine,” I cut him off. “Fine. We’ll keep looking.”
The Colonel shook his head, but then he smiled. “I have always appreciated your enthusiasm, Pudge. And I’m just going to go ahead and pretend you still have it until it comes back. Now let’s go home and find out why people off themselves.”
fourteen days after
WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE the Colonel and I found on the Web:
Previous suicide attempts
Verbally threatening suicide
Giving away prized possessions
Collecting and discussing methods of suicide
Expressions of hopelessness and anger at oneself and/or the world
Writing, talking, reading, and drawing about death and/or depression
Suggesting that the person would not be missed if s/he were gone
Recent loss of a friend or family member through death or suicide
Sudden and dramatic decline in academic performance
Eating disorders, sleeplessness, excessive sleeping, chronic headaches
Use (or increased use) of mind-altering substances
Loss of interest in sex, hobbies, and other activities previously enjoyed
Alaska displayed two of those warning signs. She had lost, although not recently, her mother. And her drinking, always pretty steady, had definitely increased in the last month of her life. She did talk about dying, but she always seemed to be at least half kidding.
“I make jokes about death all the time,” the Colonel said. “I made a joke last week about hanging myself with my tie. And I’m not gonna off myself. So that doesn’t count. And she didn’t give anything away, and she sure as hell didn’t lose interest in sex. One would have to like sex an awful lot to make out with your scrawny ass.”
“Funny,” I said.
“I know. God, I’m a genius. And her grades were good. And I don’t recall her talking about killing herself.”
“Once, with the cigarettes, remember? ‘You smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.’ ”
“That was a joke.”
But when prodded by the Colonel, maybe to prove to him that I could remember Alaska as she really was and not just as I wanted her to be, I kept returning the conversation to those times when she would be mean and moody, when she didn’t feel like answering how, when, why, who, or what questions. “She could seem so angry,” I thought aloud.
“What, and I can’t?” the Colonel retorted. “I’m plenty angry, Pudge. And you haven’t been the picture of placidity of late, either, and you aren’t going to off yourself. Wait, are you?”
“No,” I said. And maybe it was only because Alaska couldn’t hit the brakes and I couldn’t hit the accelerator. Maybe she just had an odd kind of courage that I lacked, but no.
“Good to know. So yeah, she was up and down—from fire and brimstone to smoke and ashes. But partly, this year at least, it was the whole Marya thing. Look, Pudge, she obviously wasn’t thinking about killing herself when she was making out with you. After that, she was asleep until the phone rang. So she decided to kill herself at some point between that ringing phone and crashing, or it was an accident.”
“But why wait until you’re six miles off campus to die?” I asked.
He sighed and shook his head. “She did like being mysterious. Maybe she wanted it like this.” I laughed then, and the Colonel said, “What?”
“I was just thinking—Why do you run head-on into a cop car with its lights on? and then I thought, Well, she hated authority figures.”
The Colonel laughed. “Hey, look at that. Pudge made a funny!”
It felt almost normal, and then my distance from the event itself seemed to evaporate and I found myself back in the gym, hearing the news for the first time, the Eagle’s tears dripping onto his pants, and I looked over at the Colonel and thought of all the hours we’d spent on this foam couch in the past two weeks—everything she’d ruined. Too pissed off to cry, I said, “This is only making me hate her. I don’t want to hate her. And what’s the point, if that’s all it’s making me do?” Still refusing to answer how and why questions. Still insisting on an aura of mystery.
I leaned forward, head between my knees, and the Colonel placed a hand on my upper back. “The point is that there are always answers, Pudge.” And then he pushed air out between his pursed lips and I could hear the angry quiver in his voice as he repeated, “There are always answers. We just have to be smart enough. The Web says that suicides usually involve carefully thought-out plans. So clearly she did not commit suicide.” I felt embarrassed to be still falling apart two weeks later when the Colonel could take his medicine so stoically, and I sat up.
“Okay, fine” I answered. “It wasn’t suicide.”
“Although it sure doesn’t make sense as an accident,” the Colonel said.
I laughed. “We sure are making progress.”
We were interrupted by Holly Moser, the senior I knew primarily from viewing her nude self-portraits over Thanksgiving with Alaska. Holly hung with the Weekday Warriors, which explains why I’d previously said about two words to her in my life, but she just came in without knocking and said that she’d had a mystical indicator of Alaska’s presence.
“I was in the Waffle House, and suddenly all the lights went off, except for, like, the light over my booth, which started fashing. It would be like on for a second and then off for a while and then on for a couple of seconds and then off. And I realized, you know, it was Alaska. I think she was trying to talk to me in Morse code. But, like, I don’t know Morse code. She probably didn’t know that. Anyway, I thought you guys should know.”
“Thanks,” I said curtly, and she stood for a while, looking at us, her mouth opening as if to speak, but the Colonel was staring at her through half-closed eyes, his jaw jutting out and his distaste uncontained. I understood how he felt: I didn’t believe in ghosts who used Morse code to communicate with people they’d never liked. And I disliked the possibility that Alaska would give someone else peace but not me.
“God, people like that shouldn’t be allowed to live,” he said after she left.
“It was pretty stupid.”
“It’s not just stupid, Pudge. I mean, as if Alaska would talk to Holly Moser. God! I can’t stand these fake grievers. Stupid bitch.”
I almost told him that Alaska wouldn’t want him to call any woman a bitch, but there was no use fighting with the Colonel.
twenty days after
IT WAS SUNDAY, and the Colonel and I decided against the cafeteria for dinner, instead walking off campus and across Highway 119 to the Sunny Konvenience Kiosk, where we indulged in a well-balanced meal of two oatmeal cream pies apiece. Seven hundred calories. Enough energy to sustain a man for half a day. We sat on the curb in front of the store, and I finished dinner in four bites.
“I’m going to call Jake tomorrow, just so you know. I got his phone number from Takumi.”
“Fine,” I said.
I heard a bell jangle behind me and turned toward the opening door.
“Y’all’s loitering,” said the woman who’d just sold us dinner.
“We’re eating,” the Colonel answered.
The woman shook her head and ordered, as if to a dog, “Git.”
So we walked behind the store and sat by the stinking, fetid Dumpster.
“Enough with the fine’s already, Pudge. That’s ridiculous. I’m going to call Jake, and I’m going to write down everything he says, and then we’re going to sit down together and try and figure out what happened.”
“No. You’re on your own with that. I don’t want to know what happened between her and Jake.”