Best Actor in A Tragicomedy

    Paul A. Toth

Dear Tom:

People often ask how it happened, how it came to pass, what possessed me, and so forth. It's not as though I made a decision. A certain pattern emerged, but like a page from a coloring book it required intervention to become this colorful 'lively' thing. The pattern needed the human hand, offered unknowingly (I still take the blame, okay?), to give an unseen push, resulting in action, fruition. Yet there remains guilt (I already said so) easilyenough unfathomed from hidden motives, when this mechanism of self-delusion desires to be exposed and brought to justice. And so I offer my confession and impose the just sentence. 

I found the note beside the body. My brother had obviously typed it to me in the midst of death, the intoxicated ramble familiar.

Scotch blemished the surface of the card table, the empty bottle on its side.

From the puddle on the carpet I ascertained he had consumed about half the fifth. From the recent prescription of phenobarbital I estimated five to 10 capsules had gone down his throat. John's face lay on the keyboard. The keys were smudged with ink and scotch. John's last words were "h y 7 u b 6 j."

The note must have almost written itself, some outside force pushing him through the stupor to make sense of the past two years.

"What force drives our plotted lives, transforming chance and mystery so that they foreshadow the stories we live? Is it rooted in genetics so that sons follow fathers, reliving lives like restaged plays?"

A chain of rosary beads wrapped around his fist, John made an unlikely religious man, a half-redeemed Prodigal Son. After my father committed suicide, he went into an angry silence, enraged his return had been celebrated not with a fatted calf but a hole through the back of dad's head. He felt responsible for the suicide, and correctly so.

I felt no remorse.

A sheet had been draped across the window, the sun backlighting it, and huge shadows of leaves flapped against the walls and ceiling. Everything about the room, the candles and books and endless stacks of papers and diaries, reminded me of a monk's cell. I picked up a red book marked "Loss Angeles" and flipped through the pages. Odd diagrams seemed to trace one day's thoughts to the next, as if he were laying out the schemata of his mind. He'd gone too far inside himself. A swimmer has to know his limits.

I remembered when he came home from Loss Angeles with a sickly-looking tan (it made him look older and more ragged, like a debauched actor who'd spent too many days drinking martinis poolside). He had a curiously shamed expression; I sometimes wondered if he'd committed several petty crimes -- I couldn't imagine him having the guts to commit anything more serious.

My father interpreted this behavior as his own failure. After his wife left, he would only refer to her as a bitch or a whore, slandering her to snuff out his love, but I knew better. He was a good man and whatever may have happened between them, she was the cause of it. But I knew damn well where my brother stood, and so did dad. John thought he had every excuse in the world to drive my father even further into remorse and alcoholism.  

First, he mimicked my dad's drinking. It started soon after she left. Later, you could see it in his trembling fingers when he first walked through the door after two years in Loss Angeles. He might as well have said, "You did this to me."

"Perhaps studies will show that parents and their children even share dreams, and within those dreams lie the signals of fate. One day, we will know the outcomes of our lives decades in advance, and will have some small hope of changing them, however minutely." 

He believed he had been cursed by his father. This near schizophrenic reasoning was that of a man who had killed my father and would have seduced his own mother if given the chance, climbing back into the womb from where he first emerged, retreating into precognition, vanishing into the cells of her body.

A coward by any other name, my brother, who had stopped talking for the past six months, marking his first step toward extinguishing his own guilty conscience. I wouldn't have been surprised to learn his mother's affairs had begun decades before they were discovered, and thus John, her illegitimate offspring, hated his unnatural father and conspired with her to bring about his destruction. (My hostility, which many experience after a relative's suicide, was a form of mourning.)

My father was right: John's mother was a whore. Gigantic eggs bounding across the surface of the ocean, her poisoned breasts to his mouth, shotgun shells in the palm of his hand . . . I knew full well the content of my brother's dreams. And this apartment, with its soiled sheets for curtains, its rank air hovering like a cloud of poison, was the container of his dreams and should have been burned to prevent contamination.


Now the question remained: When to call the police (or hospital)? Well, they could wait. I already had the answers to their questions. No need for swinging lightbulbs or square-jawed detectives snapping monosyllabic jibes.

No, I was quite content right where I was. I went to the easy chair and stretched out. It'd been a long day. Maybe my brother was at peace; after all, Jesus was on his side, but I was stuck with myself.

I looked at him, his eyes closed, that snakelike mind finally done coiling.

"I never drank until I was 20 years old. Was it a decision to start? I'd like to say no, but when I examine my thoughts, the ones that circle me like airplanes waiting to land, then I know that I chose to drink for one reason: because I knew you would blame yourself. How little I considered the cost to myself, like any murderer who temporarily loses all perspective, not even caring about the punishment that awaits him, knowing how inevitable his capture and sentence; somehow, though, the act is designed and carried out. Even worse, my plan was crueler than any murder, a protracted series of events which require that the victim himself pull the trigger!"

What had he expected when he returned from California? The crown? My father gave him enough money to rent this apartment. It wasn't that bad; actually perfect for someone of his disposition, with plenty of darkness and solitude in which to corkscrew inward. He accused me of being hostile toward him, but I was merely protective of dad.


And so he withdrew. He needed medical attention, but refused, accusing us of plotting against him, but he himself had now "admitted" to being the one overly interested in plots, in three acts with a cathartic resolution. He brought it upon himself.

The night John came home from Loss Angeles, I immediately knew he now had something in common with dad, who with a drunken smirk stared at his son like a mirror.

"Well, well, well," dad muttered.

John dropped his bags in the hallways, went over to give the old man a handshake -- the closest anyone got to him.

My father couldn't help but add, "At least somebody comes back."

"Christ, don't start in on that bitch," I said. I didn't want to hear about her." I knew the spiel. It always came out after the drink stopped deadening his memory, then intensified it.

 "I told you before, it's 'whore', not 'bitch'."

"Very funny."

"So you didn't become a goddamned movie star?"

John sat next to dad, at the other end of the couch. "I wanted to live where it's sunny and warm."

"I heard they have a different sun there," I said. "Brighter and bigger. What'd you find? Same sun. It's all bullshit."

"Yeah," dad said, "what'd you go there for anyway? I figured you were gonna become a priest."

"Looks like he's got the drinking end down."

"That's half the battle."

John ignored us. He was merely sitting in our vicinity.

"So why you back?"

"You know what they say."

"All that way and there you were?"

"Something like that."

"Now what?"

"No idea."

"Need a drink?"

"Yeah, I'll take one."

"Tom, get asshole a drink."

He mistook this gentle ribbing as a vicious assault, making a point of swallowing his drink and going off to mix a few more which he drank by himself in the back room. Then he went to bed and dreamed.

Yet my father had been every bit as much a dreamer as John. I knew the mental construct of a shrine to his wife (by chance named Mary) he carried. His drinking loosened her hold, then loosed it upon him -- of course he was unpredictable. No one could predict just when the shift would occur. On a good night it never did, at least not until he fell asleep, when she returned skyward to remind him that not only had she abandoned him, but would do so again and again.

How she wore her blackness in those eyes and the hair that framed her pale mask. Her lovers were to be pitied. They fell on jeweled swords. I relished the pain my birth had caused her. Retributory justice -- before her crimes, true, but the seeds of betrayal must already have been planted. 

Even John's reverence for the Virgin Mary, apparent in the statues and prayer cards scattered throughout the apartment, was a mask upon the mask of his very mother. How he must have prayed to the very cause of his suffering. Hail, hail at the hour of your death! It was a ghostly masquerade.

I studied his own death face, those eyes open, finally, staring at the truth that confronted him in the final moments.

"Yes I killed him. I may have put the blame on my brother, for encouraging our father's hatred of our mother, when he should have forgiven her. But that was my weakness. I chose not to see the spirit of our mother, still poisoning us, our ruin never complete, a tragedy without catharsis." 

I had been vindicated.


After the police fingerprinted me and conducted blood and urine tests, they took me to a small room. But there was no swinging lightbulb. I had not predicted this moment accurately. Reality shifted out of my control. The detective paced. His shoes needed shining. The room itself was flat. I felt wrapped in a box. In the corner a uniformed cop chewed gum. I had been answering convoluted questions for an hour. Finally, the detective said it plainly: "Did you or did not you not put those pills in your brother's mouth?"

"I don't understand the question."

"Get him the fuck out of here."

Soon, I was released on my own recognizance. I walked out of the police building. The clouds sagged.

I went into a bar. There was no one there but a man smoking a cigar. He snubbed the cigar out when I sat at the counter.

"What can I get you?"

"I killed my brother. Scotch."

"Yeah? How'd you kill him then? Did you stab him, throw him down a flight of chairs, choke him, crown him, shoot him?"

"Poisoned him."

"Oh, I forgot that one," he said, setting the glass by my hand. "Why'd you poison him?"

"That's a good question. To be honest, I'm not sure I poisoned him. He might have done it himself."

"Well, then, I wouldn't worry about it."

"I think what happened was, he had taken some pills before I arrived at his place and then he almost nodded out and I slipped a few more into his hand, lifted his hand to his mouth, and then he did the swallowing himself."

"That's a tricky call."

"I'm very serious. You seem to think I'm joking."

"Listen, a lot of people come in here trying to pull my leg. I don't believe anything."

"The police let me go. But they'll be coming around."

"Did anybody love him?"

"My brother?"


"I don't think so."

"Then don't worry about it."

My leg twitched.

"What I'm trying to tell you is I'm very upset."

"I understand."

"Can I have another drink?"

"You can have a hundred drinks."

"You see," I said, finishing the first drink, "I feel very lifeless. Very hollow."

"That would be normal, if what you say is true. Would you like me to call the police?"

"No, not right now. I told you, I just came from the police station."

"Well, I thought you might feel better if you talked to them. But I'll talk to you, if that's what you want. I'm not doing anything. I was going to close early."

I looked around. There was an odd glow -- the jukebox and the neon beer signs. I felt like I was in a cartoon bar.

"You don't look good at all," he continued. "There's something, I don't know, faded about you. Positive you were at the police station and not some kind of a --"

"I was at the police station. Look:" I held my wrists out so he could see the handcuff marks.

"They don't normally handcuff a man in your situation. They'd know they could be wrong. They might not even suspect you of anything. They wouldn't rough you up."

"They know me. I've been in jail a few times. Fist fights, drunk driving."

"A troublemaker."

"No, sir."

"My customers like a peaceful atmosphere."

"I'm not planning anything."

He leaned closer. "Look at those pupils -- I think you took a few pills yourself. I didn't notice before, but now with the drinks you're getting a cockeyed grin."

"Let me ask one question."

"Go ahead, then I'm closing." He began switching the lights off.

"Is this how it looks if say -- say I'm guilty of something. Not that I am, but if I was. Would everything glow? Would people act a certain way, the way they think they're supposed to act -- like those cops, and you, too? Am I imagining it?"

"Look kid, I don't know what to make of it. Maybe it's a confession or a lie you've got on your mind. Maybe it's all pill talk. Tell the truth, I lost interest in people's stories a long time ago. I listen and nod and stir drinks. I made an exception with you and now I regret it. Now it's time for me to go to bed. If you need a cab, I'll call one -- that's as far as I get involved in people's troubles."


Outside, it was cold. I heard horns blaring but saw no cars. The bartender was right -- I must have taken a few barbiturates myself. My legs were numb.

The glare of the streetlights became a shroud. I stood abandoned within my own distorted perceptions. There was one place to go.

I began walking down the street, my shoes clopping arrhythmically on the pavement. Did she still live in the same apartment? She might have moved to avoid me, though I'd stopped searching for her a year before. Until now, it made no sense to see her even if I could have done so. I had realized the purpose she served. But now things were different. She might help me.

Even arrest and execution would be better than this disorientation -- if it really was a confession I harbored.

The path to her house, once so memorized, confused me now. I knew the names of the streets, but east was west in my state of mind. I walked against my instincts until I began to recognize the restaurants where I had so often humiliated myself in our public arguments. A glass of water in the face -- monsieur! 

I lost control of my bladder and kept walking. There was something crucial about my disgraced condition. I not only knew it would get worse but that it might never improve. Still, a purpose had finally invaded my will.

And there it was, the second floor, the lights on, and the curtains, sky-blue-- the same curtains I once gazed at while lying in her bed.

I walked up the circling staircase. It was made of steel and rang with my weight.

Standing in the doorway, I looked at the orange door, which now seemed a malfunctioning traffic light, signaling something between stop and slow down.

Now that people ask how it happened, how this all came to pass, what could possibly have possessed me, and so forth, I refer them to this moment, when I made the first decision I remember having made in two days.

She answered the knock quickly. She probably remembered just what sound the staircase made when I used to visit.

Now she looked at me and, not quite laughing but smirking and trembling, putting her hand on my shoulder, as if I were some old friend standing in her doorway about to hopelessly admit I loved her.

"I knew you'd come around, sooner or later -- I knew you'd look like this."

"Let me in for Christ's sake."

"Technically, I still have a restraining order against you."

She found that funny, too. I could have pulled a knife and stabbed her right there; she would have giggled to death.


She let me in. The apartment looked the same, except there were no photographs of me.

"You clothes are wet. Do you want some pants? I think I have a pair of your old ones somewhere."

After changing, I felt better, not as disoriented but still thick.

I sat beside the electric fireplace; she had a real talent for making the tasteless charming. I told her how I wasn't sure what happened. I told her everything, as best I could.

"I can't believe he's dead."

"I know. But that's part's over. Now what?"

"I talked to the police. They let me go for now, but I think they suspect something."

"You honestly don't know whether you might have --"

"I don't know. I must have taken more pills than I thought."

"But the letter -- you said there was a letter."

"It could have been written by either one of us."

I laid my head on her shoulder. While she didn't comfort me, she didn't pull away either.

"This is a stupid question, but can you both type?"

"Our high school required it."

"The keys -- they could take fingerprints off them."

"No way. They keys were too smudged."

I felt her head against mine. "Did you want to --"

"I don't know. Probably."

"Because he took her side?"


I studied her pale hand.

"You never once told me how much I looked like your mother. I wasn't about to ask why."

"Lately everybody wears a hundred faces."

"I wonder why we can talk calmly now, of all times."

Her voice fell distant. I saw myself glide into the red mouth of a mask.

"Go to sleep, John. Pretend you're at peace."


The next morning I awoke at noon and felt clear as the blue sky, recognizing that the police would make their determination based upon the same confused facts as myself. At that very moment, they were probably shifting through John's diaries and papers. Yet it wasn't criminal guilt that concerned me.

What lingered, though only half-remembered, were the words of the letter. One of the things I shared with John was grandiosity. We both found our way into a myth and played our roles like Oliviers. The intent of the letter, equal parts blame, confession, justification and denial, could have been written by either of us. I began to wonder if what really happened mattered. A psychological game had solved itself by using the players. But while that satisfied my abstract sense of the situation, I remembered my loss of control the night before, and how resolved I felt as I staggered toward this apartment, stained by my own piss.

Michelle slept as I dialed the police. I spoke to the detective who had allowed me to leave.

"I have an idea why you called," he said.

"That doesn't surprise me, though maybe I'm not going to say what you think I am."

"Oh, no, I'm quite sure of it."

Looking out the window at the sun, I wondered if I knew myself what I wanted to say -- how could he know?

"Before you tell me what I already know, I want to say something to you: We've found ample evidence that your brother planned to kill himself that evening, not the least of which was a suicide note."

"Yes, I've read it."

"You not only read a suicide note, you wrote it, all two pages of it. The ink on your fingers left only one clear print, on the second page."

"Then I guess I have nothing to say. I should wait here for you. I'll give you my address --"

"One second. I said you wrote 'a' suicide note. Unfortunately for you, there was a second suicide note inside his desk calendar, placed between the pages for yesterday's date."


"It's obvious you called me to confess. Or were you planning to contribute to the policeman's fund?"

"Well I --"

"It's a very interesting case. However, we could never prosecute you based on the evidence."

"But I'm offering you a confession."

"Yes, and I believe you. It's a difficult situation. He probably would have died anyway. I wouldn't even have suspected your involvement except for that first phone call from you. You had the sound of a man who'd grown used to his brother's death. Who might have seen the whole thing and waited quite a while before letting us know about it. Who had the very substances found in his brother's bloodstream, in his own. But there's something else I believe: This was a failed murder/suicide. You're going to have to live with that. And you'll have to find your own sentence to serve."

I looked around the bend at Michelle, whose mask seemed to have fallen away, and I saw her lying there, face as luminous as the moon.

"What do you suggest, detective?"

"Call your mother."

In Posse: Potentially, might be ...