For the Phoenix to Rise the Bird Must Burn
Magic Marker fuck-yous and sketches of cock and balls decorate the port-a-john walls. On a crowded jobsite, the outhouse is a rare private space, and I’m in here taking a call from my wife. Anna’s voice is small and flat. I know by its sound she’s done crying, that she’s crossed into that weary calm that sets in after months of non-stop, high-grade depression. The calm comes when she remembers the way out, when she quits fighting. The calm comes just before the razor or the pills.
Mark wants me to go to Spokane, she says. Sacred Heart will call when they have a bed ready.
Why Spokane? We have a hospital here.
They do electro-convulsive therapy.
The procedure sounds drastic and punitive. I can only see Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his face a rictus of pain and fear in the hands of a sadistic staff. I worry for her brain. It’s a University of Chicago brain, a lawyer’s brain. It’s her moneymaker and her soul we’re dealing with. I don’t want to lose her wit, her eloquence, the emotional capital of memory. I think of Frederick Exley’s insulin-shock seizures and Hayden Carruth’s Bloomingdale Papers and Ginsberg’s Howl. Nothing I know can explain this to me.
My scalp tightens as if the skin is six sizes too small, and the pain in my arm returns. It’s been there on and off for weeks, a dull ache in my left bicep. I think of the anxiety attack that hospitalized my father when he was just a few years older than I am now and his bypass surgery a few years after that.
Where are you now? I say.
At Mark’s office. He wants to talk to you.
She hands the phone over. Mark, her therapist, is from Southern California. He has a voice that reminds me of crashing surf and Pacific sunsets and the smoke from a driftwood fire. I picture his pleasant, round face, the requisite beard and balding pate.
He talks to me about suicidal ideation, tells me Anna revealed a plan to kill herself. She hadn’t said a word about it to me this time. I feel the anger and betrayal of the cuckold: she shared with Mark a secret she couldn’t trust me with. But at the same time, I get it. I go into battle mode when all she wants is a hug.
We’ve tried everything else, he says.
And they had. Since 2001, Anna has eaten a trashcan of pills to stabilize mood, control mania, curb insomnia, deaden anxieties, and elevate depression. Effexor, Geodon, Paxil, Zoloft, Lamictal, Cymbalta, Prozac, Neurontin, Risperdal, lithium, Abilify, Klonopin, Xanax, Ambien, trazadone. She took her meds, she saw her docs, she worked the whole program, and she had grown much, much worse.
What about side effects? I ask.
Right now, the side effect of doing nothing is suicide. Dr. R. at Sacred Heart can explain ECT to you. It’s effective. They’re going to call you.
Soon, Mark says. They need a bed to open up. It will be tomorrow sometime.
I have to work.
You’ll have to figure that out.
What do I tell her boss?
You don’t have to tell him anything.
He’s right, of course, and her coworkers know anyway. They have heard her crying behind a locked office door, trapped at work because our home—with its razors, pills, a garage and an idling car—scare her. They see the tardyism, the absenteeism, and the disheveled dress. They have heard me burn out the ringer on her phone, calling like a jealous lover; trying to reach her, find out if she’s still alive, force her to the phone, force her to be well. I act like a stalker, not a caretaker.
There are other questions I want to ask Mark, ones I quit asking aloud a long time ago. Did I cause this? Am I to blame? Instead, I ask how long she’ll be in the hospital.
Four weeks, Mark says.
I rephrase it for him.
I remember the state psychiatric hospitals my father worked through the ‘70s. His idea of day care was to let me loose in the art room while he caught up on paperwork or held staff meetings. The place terrified me and gave me migraines and I played with paint and glitter and mowed through the big stack of books I brought to distract me.
The sterile green walls echoed with howls; fear or pain, I could never tell. The patients filled the dayroom or paraded through the halls on their way to the showers or the cafeteria. Their bodies were bent and twisted, their faces scrunched, their gazes fixed, staring inward at some phantasm. I’d seen one of these men hold his own against a half-dozen determined orderlies.
Mark cuts into my thoughts. I’m sending her home.
Is that safe? I ask.
Yes. She looks relieved. She’ll be okay now.
I linger in the outhouse after Mark hangs up. I’m not ready to be in front of the other electricians. I’m not ready for any of this, even though I’ve expected this day since she first saw a doctor, years ago, for a mild but persistent depression. At the time we’d felt satisfied it was the byproduct of long days at the firm, the stress of billable hours. We ignored the family suicide tales; a low dose of Paxil was working, leavening.
But on the night of September 11, 2001, we stared into the TV, shaken and dazed, watching a news feed from the Trade Center rubble. We’d done the inventory, sure we hadn’t lost family or friends, until an anchor broke the names of the first aircrew and showed a headshot of John Ogonowski, a friend of Anna’s father and the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11. I’d shared a few beers with Ogonowski earlier that summer and made small talk with him at a wedding that had drawn me and Anna back east.
Anna cried through that night, long after we went to bed. Her sobbing racked her body, pulsed through our bed and turned to a wail. I rolled over, pissed, sleepless, scared.
You barely knew him, I remember saying. Why are you still crying?
I don’t know, she said. I don’t know.
I walk a muddy temporary road that curves between freshly built housing units on my way back from the outhouse. I’m at the northern edge of Malmstrom Air Force Base, a High Plains life-support system for the white-painted Minuteman III ICBMs that wait for orders in prairie-scattered silos.
Each house greets the street with a prominent two-car garage and, behind that, a half-brick façade and a jumble of gables and dormers. The houses, brand new and built on political pork, differ only in the tint of their siding—tan, pale blue, light yellow—repeating in that order down the street.
I find the one we’re trimming out and go back to slapping in switches and receptacles, wiring in smoke detectors and light fixtures, and all I can think are selfish thoughts: the cost, the lost time at work, the gas money, the food, the parking. Thirty days in a hospital and God only knows how much ECT and all of it out of our insurance network. I can hear my mother’s voice, a shrill knife on china, when my parents argued money and she laid bare my father’s financial excesses. I’m angry with Anna. That she could cost us so much. That the neighbors will gossip. That I’m going to have to work this job forever, and I’ll never write again.
I know better—this is my wife. She’s ill, she needs me, and I took a wedding vow that covers sickness and health. But I can’t silence my mother’s whispers about the family “ghost” in Florida, my mother’s aunt who went for shock treatment in the fifties. A pity, my mother says. She clucks when she tells me of a boyhood friend of mine who now takes an antidepressant: So sad, she says.
There’s stigma everywhere. The voices at Anna’s last job: She isn’t sick. It’s only depression. Voices in her family that say she should just think positive. Voices that call depression a choice. Voices in my own head that wonder if depression is just the tool of the manipulator, the malingerer.
I finish out the garage, the furnace room, the laundry and take the comm kit upstairs and settle into an easy pace, stripping co-ax down to its core and feeding its layers into a compression fitting and then separating twisted pairs and punching down Cat 5. My motions are practiced and robotic and my mind is free to work itself into tight little knots.
For an hour, I run an exit fantasy. I divide our assets, load the dog and whatever else fits in my pickup, quit Great Falls, and move back to Missoula. I take a crappy studio in the Wilma, wash dishes for pay, and I write, write, write. Then I catch myself. This is not how unconditional love works. And I wonder when my love failed her, if that’s why she’s falling.
I stop working and stand by a window, where murky light filters through a painter’s plastic masking. I use my utility knife to cut a square out of the paint-spattered plastic for a little natural light. It falls away and opens up a view north over the concertina and chain link of Malmstrom’s perimeter fence. I look out over a wheat field that stretches and declines away to the deep canyon of the Missouri River.
I reach behind the pouches of my tool belt and pull a little notebook out of my back pocket. It’s covered in drywall dust and grit. I keep it there out of habit, but the last thing I wrote down was over a year old. It was just a fragment of dialog and some notes on a voice. But those notes launched a second novel for me: the same novel that’s been stalled on page 120 for months. I feel sure I’ll never write another word.
I flip backwards until I find a to-do list from a simpler time: AM—mail query letters, PM—Belt Creek. Just a few years ago I had written all week, worked a simple-minded part-time job, beat an unsuccessful drum to get my first novel published, and fly-fished or bird-hunted whenever I felt like. I hadn’t known how good I had it, nor how thin our hold.
Now I wake up early, like a retired dairyman with no herd, and sit at the desk with coffee and wait for nothing. I pad my word count with self-pitying journal entries. Otherwise I just read the book of Job and curse the world until it’s time to go to Malmstrom. Jealousy hides in my breast—my wife is threatening my mistress, my writing. I can’t help the thought. My wife is killing off my last hopes of writing.
This is what it’s like to be on a suicide watch for five years. I find hidden razors and bookmarked web pages about poison. I’m worn down and warped. Anxiety is a daily companion, building and breaking and rising again. My imagination is unchecked. The images flash: her Subaru puttering away behind a closed garage door, her head nodding in sleep. Cooling bathwater the color of blood, skin the white of our tile surround.
I don’t believe Mark. I don’t believe she’s safe at home before our trip tomorrow. I call her as if I can interrupt the attempt. I hit redial again and again, sure she is going to kill herself in the pauses between rings. I can wake her from a carbon monoxide haze, revive her where she sits in that lukewarm bath if only she answers the phone.
Finally she picks up, groggy.
Are you okay?
Mmmhmm, she says.
What? I say.
I’m impatient and sharp, keyed up, shot through with adrenaline after spending sixty seconds living a fantasy of her suicide again and again, helpless, knowing her life force was leaking out even as the phone rang, knowing it was my fault for not doing more.
I ask if I can leave her alone and remember times when I couldn’t. There were days when she begged me to come home, to keep her from hurting herself. Or days when she would lock her office door and stay there, weeping, because it seemed safer than being home alone.
I’m okay, she says. I’m just sleeping.
At the mouth of the garage, I wait, prepared with my anxieties and impatience to see the body behind the wheel or hanging from a joist, wait for the sectioned white door to roll up on our two-car garage and show me first a dark sliver of floor, then Anna’s car—a back bumper hung with drops of rainwater, the still-damp rear window, a clear glimpse onto an empty driver’s seat. The fear doesn’t end there. I storm the kitchen door to catch her before she makes the first cut. When I throw the door open I bellow Anna’s name like a searcher in a windstorm. She answers from the back of the house and I know she’s not dying this time.
Our high-strung bird dog runs to the sound of my voice, a clatter of nails on oak, and mobs me at the door in a squirming commotion of brown and white fur. She snuffles my crotch, breathes deeply of my boots and lunchbox, tosses my shopping bags with her snout like a pissed-off customs agent.
The whole thing has been hard on the dog. When our fights rage and echo and slam through the house, she hides in the basement. She makes me profoundly glad we have no children to witness this.
I leave my muddy work boots and Carhartts at the back door and step into the kitchen in boxers and socks. The dishes rise up out of the sink and onto the counter. Empty frozen dinner boxes and junk mail litter the counter. Things have slipped. I grab a rawhide chew and give it to the dog so she can work out her anxiety elsewhere.
She races with her treat to a place on the couch and I move through the living room to the bedroom, where Anna is packing. A suitcase lies open on the bed, a small pile of clothing beside it. Anna looks up from an open dresser drawer. There are little lines across her forehead, lines I’ve never seen, like tiny flowing script. Our green-eyed tabby sniffs at her bag.
I don’t know what to bring. Her eyes are china blue and flecked with black and they look tired, worried, worn flat by that prescription sampler. I hug her.
I don’t want to go, she says.
Come look at what I got you.
She follows me to the kitchen and I show her the Twizzlers and Smartfood popcorn I picked up on the way home.
Can you have food in there? I ask.
I don’t even know if I can bring my own toothbrush.
I call her my poor little Paddington Bear and she starts crying. I pull away before I start too and mutter something about getting the truck ready.
She holds my hand briefly, swings it back and forth before dropping it.
I need to keep packing, she says. I need to stay busy.
Packing, long trips, strange places: these are familiar motions from a childhood spent riding commuter trains between parents and later, following her father’s teaching stints in Amherst, Palo Alto, Tübingen.
I get dressed again and go back out to the garage to clean my truck, brush out the jobsite dirt, pull off the dusty seat covers, and slip through time. I’m thinking about a December day in 1989. It was my second year at the University of Chicago and the end of First Quarter; my final exams were in the books and my bag was packed. I would be going home for Christmas the next day. My dorm was a former luxury hotel at the far-flung end of 55th, right up against Lake Michigan. A Hüsker Dü song ripped the air in my room:
What makes them sparkle?
What makes them shine?
What makes those eyes of yours look into mine?
I was about to meet Anna for our first date. My window looked west, my room just high enough to see over Hyde Park’s rooftops, through plumes of smoke and steam rising in the cold air and into the distant, flat horizon. The entire moment felt fated, heavy, good.
It was cold at the bus stop; twenty degrees, crisp. The leaves had gone and the elms, black and bare, branched against a sharp blue sky. The sun shone nearly white in the clear air. Three-story walk-ups and panhandlers flashed past the bus window until I reached Pierce Tower, my old dorm and Anna’s then-home. A flashcube of mid-century modernity, it clashed with the 1920s brick apartments north of Garfield and the Gothic cloister to the south.
I felt nervy, excited, when we met in the lobby. She had a blond buzzcut and granny glasses; she smelled of crisp cotton dried in the sun and Rive Gauche, an expensive little perfume that made me go stiff as a board. I felt like a raw bumpkin around her, a common Vermont hick. Over lunch at Ann Sather’s on 57th, she talked of the Bible, Robert Graves, LSD, comparative mythology, Monty Python, Metallica, and kittens. She salted her sentences with perfectly-accented French and German. She was crazy smart and nerdy hot and her hands smelled of garlic from a dish she’d made the night before: the total package.
After lunch, we walked back through the Quadrangles, beneath watchful, sinister gargoyles. I took her through the ivy-cloaked door to Bond Chapel, a shadowy, overlooked little retreat in a busy corner of campus.
We stood in the nave beneath a buttressed and vaulted ceiling, our eyes adjusting to the claustral air. Anna had never been inside the tiny chapel. It was the place where I escaped the anxious, depressing thoughts that hounded me every minute I was in Hyde Park: the certainty that I was an impostor, that I had no business amongst the great books, that my classmates were already passing me by on their way to power and influence. Bond was never locked and always empty.
Bright winter sun shone through leaded stained glass and Anna unpacked the icons, narrated the stories embedded in the reds and blues. We fell silent. Her hand grasped just my middle, ring and pinkie fingers.
When we left the chapel, she zipped up her puffy red coat and tugged a mohair cap down over her ears. I imagined her back home standing on a cold train platform outside Philadelphia at the holidays, waiting on the first in a series of trains leading to her mother’s swank White Plains condo, luggage by her side, wearing her red coat and the cap. She looked like Paddington Bear, I told her.
We were quiet on the long, diagonal walk across campus, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable thing. She held my hand, I narrowed my gait to match hers, and we walked with the sun warming our backs. I’d gone mute, reverent and dazed, believing I had found a long-lost half.
We passed through the courtyard behind Ryerson and cut through the Reynolds Club. I stopped Anna just before she crossed the university’s brass seal set in the floor near the main entrance. The brass tablet depicted a phoenix atop a pyre, the university’s motto in raised lettering above it all. I asked if she knew the rumor about the seal, that if you stepped on it, you didn’t graduate or had a lifetime of bad luck or something. And with that she jumped on the tablet’s face with both feet, her black, blocky Doc Martens landing squarely on the flaming bird. We laughed and stepped out into the cold and took each other’s hands again for the short walk back to Pierce.
Now I wait in the garage before I take my little bear to a place that scares me shitless. I wait like a terrible boatman to transport her across a horrible expanse, across three states, and across time to those state hospitals of memory. I wait for the love that is supposed to guide us through this, the love I don’t know is still there.
Steve Durham has been a newspaper reporter, carpenter, electrician, forklift operator, copywriter, and fly-fishing guide. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and a black cat. His fiction and essays have appeared in Bridge Magazine and Out There Monthly. He’s the author of an unpublished novel, Powerlines. “For the Phoenix to Rise the Bird Must Burn” is an excerpt from a unpublished memoir of the same name.