Millard Salter’s Last Day 1
On the day he was to hang himself, Millard Salter made his bed for the first time in fifty-seven years. He struggled briefly with the fitted sheet, but by bracing the mattress against his good knee, he managed to hook the elastic bindings over the corners. Then came the flat sheet, the pillowcases, the silk comforter that his second wife, a dialysis nurse, had received as a gift from an elderly Taiwanese patient. Millard had called it a duvet, until Isabelle—rest her soul—pointedly explained the difference. (Words had mattered to Isabelle: Pictures are hung, he could hear her chiding. People are hanged.) Finally, he drew the spread over the comforter, letting the fringe hang loose at the foot like a skirt hem, and propped the breakfast pillows and the flanged shams against the headboard. When he’d finished, shortly after six o’clock, the queen-sized bed looked togged up for a fashionable hotel. Only a mint on the pillow was lacking. I suppose they’ll cut me down and lay me out on the covers, Millard reflected. And if they assume that I tidied my bedding so fastidiously every morning, is that such a crime?
Soon the birthday wishes would be arriving—from his children, or at least the three who were likely to remember, because with Lysander, you could never tell, and from his baby sister in Tucson (his baby sister who was now sixty-eight!), and from Virginia Margold, a high school acquaintance who, post-divorce, had taken to phoning the surviving Hager Heights graduates of the class of 1957 to commemorate their special occasions. Virginia was certain to take poorly the news that solid Millard Salter—or “Salty,” as she’d previously known him—had shut his own book at seventy-five. That, fortunately, would not be his concern.
How strange it was, reflected Millard, as he tied his shoelaces—an elaborate procedure since his disc had slipped—that the act of dressing proved no different in its final rendering. Same Lancing tie. Same crew neck cardigan. Same black bag, a gift from his own father at his medical school graduation. Only choosing a belt required reflection. He retrieved his two best belts from the bathroom closet—the closet where Isabelle’s used cosmetics decomposed in a water-warped carton, waiting to be discarded—and looped the leather around his fists, tugging each to test its strength. He intended to use one for his slacks, the other for his neck; the last thing he desired was for them to find him dangling in the bathroom with his trousers bunched around his ankles. Besides, he’d read once that hanging triggered erections, and while the prospect of greeting his “rescue” party with an alert member struck him as amusing, sort of like a raised middle finger on steroids, he didn’t wish to leave the world with the impression that he’d been angry in life, or even disappointed, because he had not.
Millard claimed the elevator for himself from the ninth floor to the fourth, when Elsa Duransky boarded in a cloud of lavender. She carried an ancient Yorkshire terrier in the crook of one elbow, its tiny black paws scampering through empty air. Her husband, Saul, once a respected endocrinologist, had become another of those unfortunate creatures who dressed for work every morning, impeccable as a military guard, but with no patients to see, doddered from staff meetings to clinical grand rounds to case conferences, leaving behind a trail of tangential, long-winded questions. He was everything, in short, that Millard had determined not to become.
“How’s the old-timer?” he asked, meaning the dog. He could never recall the animal’s name, which was either Mr. Spark or Mr. Spike or something similar.
“The old-timer was out the door thirty minutes ago,” replied Elsa, rolling her eyes, and Millard realized she believed he’d been referring to her husband. Yet she didn’t seem offended—and it was one of those misunderstandings not worth correcting. Certainly not during his final encounter with Elsa Duransky, which this was likely to be. No, a clarification now would only sound awkward, insincere. Far better to grin like an imbecile while Saul’s wife filled the elevator car with plumes of gossip. (“Grin like an imbecile”—they’d probably fire him these days if he used an expression like that in the hospital—or, at a minimum, make him sit through some pointless online sensitivity training.) He recalled how Isabelle had summed up their neighbor, after a particularly tedious meeting of the co-op board: “Half of what that woman says is true. The problem is she doesn’t know which half.” Isabelle had possessed a knack for distilling people.
“I ran into Lysander,” said Elsa. “Did I tell you?”
The boy’s name corralled Millard’s attention. Not that you could legitimately call him a boy anymore, not at forty-three. At twenty-five, even at thirty-five, you could get away with such terms, you could speak of him as a good kid with potential, of his early penchant for mathematics and his prodigious imagination—he’d graduated from Wesleyan, after all—but two decades later, Lysander hadn’t harnessed that imagination for anything except daydreams.
“In the park,” said Elsa. “Walking his dogs.”
“Sweetest dogs he has,” said Elsa. “Although Mr. Scratch here might beg to differ.”
The terrier glowered at Millard—his snub nose Elsa’s, his shaggy cliff of a brow distinctly Saul’s, as though the beast had grown into the son the couple never had. The elevator stopped on two, but the corridor stood vacant; someone had given up and taken the stairs.
“We’re having lunch,” said Millard. “I’ll send Mr. Scratch’s regards.”
Elsa hardly registered his remark. “What are their names?” she asked.
A moment elapsed before he realized she meant the dogs—and then he felt a pulse of anger, uncharacteristic anger, that Elsa cared about something so trivial. Or maybe she didn’t care, merely needed to fill the time-space continuum or dormant gray matter. And, dammit, what were the names of those dogs? The car opened and they stepped into the lobby, where a cologne of damp hardwood—an “Old New York” scent—hung perpetually in the shadows.
“Adolf and Benito,” he replied.
They’d been the first duo to pop into his head. He could easily have said Abbott and Costello or Sonny and Cher. Not that it really mattered. This was the solace of knowing that you wouldn’t live to see the dawn: unabashed irreverence.
Elsa’s neck stiffened perceptibly, then relaxed. “Well, in any case, he’s so good with those animals,” she said. “Maybe you’ll make a veterinarian of him yet . . . .”
Maybe, but unlikely. What gnawed at Millard wasn’t that his younger son had piddled away twenty-one post-graduate years without a full-time job, or a serious relationship, or even filing his own tax returns, but that
Millard, embroiled in extraneous affairs, had let him. Still, in preparing for death, Millard found himself pondering whether a man who hadn’t yet amounted to a bucket of warm glue might not generate an artistic or literary masterwork at the age of forty-three . . . or, at least, embark upon a career. That was indeed the purpose of their lunch—their final lunch, Millard reminded himself, his last opportunity to steer the boy onto “the straight and narrow,” as his own father would have said.
All week—all month—he’d been ticking off his “lasts”: his last visit to the public library, his last lecture to the medical students, his last dental checkup, although what a man planning to live ten days wanted with a biannual dental cleaning was hard to articulate. He’d sworn to himself that he wouldn’t deviate from his usual routine. So he’d renewed his subscriptions to Psychosomatic Medicine and Architectural Digest, prepaid his dues at the faculty club, requested an absentee ballot, as he always did, for a primary election in which he’d no longer be alive to vote. That afforded him the opportunity to back out, to reverse course even to the end. Yet as the appointed day approached, rather than fearful, or even reluctant, he found himself resigned—as though, to paraphrase the High Holiday Amidah, his name had already been inscribed on the casualty list inside the Book of Life.
Millard’s only lingering concern was of method, not purpose. Self-destruction hadn’t been designed for the faint-hearted, which explained why most attempts failed. How many patients had he encountered who’d downed a bottle of Tylenol—and, “rescued” by a concerned neighbor or intrusive letter carrier, had awakened to a transplanted liver? No, pills entailed too much uncertainty. With carbon monoxide, one ran the risk of asphyxiating the neighbors. Or, heaven forbid, blowing up the entire building—leaving a legacy of rage and fragmented plaster. For weeks, he’d considered purchasing an unlicensed handgun, but illicit firearms proved hard to come by in his social circle. (Obtaining a legal pistol, even if he could eventually secure one, entailed navigating months of red tape.) He finally appreciated the truth of those Dorothy Parker lines that had merely amused him as an adolescent: “Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.” Since living wasn’t an option that Millard seriously entertained, a makeshift noose seemed the least-worst alternative. Assuming, of course, he marshaled the nerve to kick the chair from beneath his feet.
“And you, Millard?” asked Elsa—as though suddenly realizing his presence. She adjusted his necktie while she spoke, stymieing a quick exit. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” he said. “Life is good.”
Life, on the whole, had been good to Millard—probably more generous, he conceded, than he had been in return. With his ex-wife, Carol, a benevolent tyrant, he’d raised three adult children, two of them successfully. The older boy, Arnold, had moved out to St. Louis, where he served as general counsel to a consortium of beer distributors and coached little league soccer. Their daughter, Sally, married a naval architect who’d inherited a lumber fortune, and had twin six-year-old girls of her own. She divided her time between Suffolk County, home to a renovated nineteenth-century farmhouse overlooking Long Island Sound, and a two-story pied-à-terre on Gramercy Square. And with Isabelle, there’d been Maia—striving, crystal-eyed Maia—a magnificent late-life blessing. If not for Lysander . . . “In baseball,” Millard had once half-joked to Isabelle, “three out of four is Hall of Fame material.”
“Good,” said Elsa. “I’m glad.”
Yet the woman managed to inflect just enough doubt into her words that, when she vanished through the revolving doors, he found himself wondering if she hadn’t meant more—if she’d intended to insinuate that he wasn’t well, but that she’d be willing to maintain the illusion of his prosperity if he wished her to do so. And was he really in such fine shape? He was going to kill himself, after all. Had he been one of his own patients, he’d have phoned 911 immediately. Who could ever say whether a suicide was rational or irrational, justified or unpardonable? A lifetime reading Hume and Durkheim drew one no closer to any defensible truth; one simply had to operate on blind instinct, a visceral sense of right and wrong. He remembered his mother’s father, gout-hobbled, emphysemic, escorting him to hunt acorns in Van Cortlandt Park, warning, “One day, Mil, you blink your eyes open and you’re an old man.” Well, one day, he’d been a married, mid-career psychiatrist enjoying a casual fling with a dialysis nurse—and then he’d blinked his eyes open and he’d had a second family, a daughter two decades younger than her half-siblings, and somehow one of those half-siblings had slipped through his grasp.
“You’re a regular Tony Randall,” jibed Storch, his late best friend. And, slapping him on his back, “A regular Saul Bellow . . . regular Strom Thurmond.” How he missed Hal Storch. Others had called Millard different things, less generous, from a distance. The chatter always looped back to him like a poisonous vine.
That was what they’d talk about at the funeral. Not the desperate souls he’d helped in forty-nine years of practice. Not his passion for German opera, for fishing excursions on Sheepshead Bay. Not that morning five decades earlier, at the butterfly conservatory in the Natural History Museum, when the moment had seized him and he’d proposed to Carol. No, they’d blather in hushed tones about the second family, whispering knowingly that his affair with Isabelle, rather than any intrinsic character shortcoming, had frittered away Lysander’s potential. And they’d blame his death on despair, on his two years of widowhood, because who, other than a depressed person, hangs himself in a Fifth Avenue bathroom—a once luxurious bathroom equipped with mood lighting and solid brass fixtures—on his seventy-fifth birthday? But that would also not be his concern, although he couldn’t resist wondering whether Carol, to whom he hadn’t spoken since the split, would make a cameo at the graveside. She’d surprised him with a sympathy card when Isabelle died, tasteful if impersonal, so maybe she’d catch him off guard yet again.
What fools they’d be to think they understood his motives. He hardly understood them himself. All Millard knew for certain was that he did not want to die dependent or diminished like so many of his threadbare colleagues—like Hal Storch—like Isabelle!—and that everyone had to go someday, eventually—and, dammit, that he had fallen madly in love with the woman he intended to kill.