Michael Tolkin's acclaimed second novel, Among the Dead, is an arresting examination of public and private grief in the wake of unspeakable disaster, a slow-burning tour de force of psychological fiction. When Frank Gale writes a passionate letter to his wife confessing an affair, he hopes all can be forgiven on the warm beaches of Mexico. But the farewell kiss of his girlfriend causes him to miss the flight carrying his wife and daughter, and when he learns that their plane has crashed in a crowded city, his life changes in the course of seconds. Soon Frank's letter is discovered among the dead, and suddenly one man's struggle to comprehend his loss and grief becomes consumed in a media circus of legal drama, family quarrels, and public scandal.
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A Long Lunch
The night before everything changed, Frank Gale wrote a letter to his wife. She was asleep in the bedroom, upstairs. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, but in a certain way, the right way.
Before he thought of saying it all in a letter, he had thought of taking her to an expensive restaurant and telling her at dinner. Was there ever, he thought, a plan with more drama or elegance? The attention to the details of the evening would require from him such concentration that he would enter a state of pure meditation, without fear, without stage-fright, in which nothing he said would be awkward or out of place, and by the example of his grace in this terrible situation his wife could only forgive him. They would hire a babysitter for Madeleine, and he would reserve a quiet table, or a booth. They would drive to the restaurant, and he would gently ask Anna questions about her day. He would be nice to her. How else but through the right performance of mundane actions could he hide how uncomfortable the pressure of his feelings made him, when Anna, so sensitive, would know something was wrong? Unless he solicited her feelings, she would ask him what the trouble was. If he were to let Anna see his unhappiness, this would provoke from her a flow of understanding and compassion, and then he would be tricking her away from the right to be angry without constraint.
But there were problems with setting the confession in a restaurant. What if his trance broke, and he hesitated in the middle of a sentence? Anna would wake up and suddenly realize what he was saying, and what if she screamed at him? How much farther away from her mercy would he have pushed her? He wanted to be fair to Anna. If she needed to be angry, and he knew she would, he wanted to help her. She needed to be someplace where she could expel her grief and her rage without hurting herself, or anyone else, where the humiliation would have no audience. When he had the brilliant idea of taking her to Mexico, he had at first pictured telling her while they were walking on the beach, where the sand would slow her down if she wanted to run from him, or even on a late afternoon swim in the ocean. Madeleine would be with a Mexican babysitter, one of the maids working for a few extra dollars, a grandmother. Frank would take Anna for the swim, and then, bodies attending to the business of floating, their minds and their emotions at a gentle null, Frank would say what was finally impossible not to say. But the water would hardly give Anna the advantage. Why force her to swim and listen to him at the same time? What if she choked on her unhappiness, what if she drowned while he was telling her? And what was that advantage? And why did Frank want to concede the advantage? Because he wanted to be fair. And justice demanded of him that he concede to Anna her right to leave him, never to see him again. And when it came to him that he should write a letter, he had the answer to his problems.
For a few days he composed it in his head, and it made him think of Mozart working out a symphony before taking up a pen, and he felt great peace, the relief of someone who has given up fighting for a bad idea. For how long had he been so sick of himself? When he considered how close he had come to confessing in a restaurant, he could have fainted from the shame of what he had almost done, as if he had done it, as if the impulse to make this piece of theatre for himself and Anna so demonstrated this basic moral weakness that acting on it or not made no difference, since someone heroic would never have such stupid thoughts flitting across the mind. How can you hope for a reconsecration of your marriage if it begins with your wife's public humiliation? The restaurant confession would force Anna to behave in a well-mannered way; she couldn't scream or cry if she felt the wound deeply. The meditative grace that he had planned for himself would have been a weapon. And while swimming? No, the water is another kind of manacle. And so the letter. And nothing could be more dignified, nothing could better protect her dignity, or his, than an elegantly composed letter, handwritten, not typed. Out of the decision to write the letter it came to him that there was only one way to deliver the letter. He would let Anna read the letter while he took their three-year-old daughter for a walk on the beach, or into the town to buy her something. When Anna read his letter, she would be alone in a hotel room, she could react however she wanted. She could leave, she could stay, the choice was hers. She could break every window in the room, she could tear the sheets with her fingernails, she could throw his clothing into the hall, she could smash the mirrors and she could burn the carpet, and then, because he would make no protest, she could see that he loved her, and she could forgive him.
After he knew he had to write a letter, he knew that if the letter was true they would need time to recover from its effect, which would be to push her away from him. Mexico would heal them. There would be a moment, a few days after the letter, when she would look at him and say, 'I love you,' and she would mean it, and he would say, 'I love you,' and it would all be over.
He had alarmed Anna with his frantic enthusiasm for this trip. There had been vague talk about going away, and then, with three days' warning, Frank showed Anna the tickets.
For six months Anna had told him that she felt an empty space in the house whenever he came home, and that he was becoming mechanical in all of his attentions and responsibilities. She would wake him up and tell him about her bad dreams in which she saw him with other women, or with another family, and he would help her analyse the dreams in a carefully thoughtful way. For some time Frank had been unhappy at work, and with his wife's encouragement he had pursued an early ambition, to produce records. He told Anna that her dreams of other women showed her ambivalence about this pursuit, since success in the music industry would probably lead to temptations he never had to confront running the business he shared with his brother.
'You have to tell me the truth,' she would say. 'It isn't fair to me if you don't.'
Then he would lie to her. 'The dreams about other women are symbolic,' Frank told her. 'You're worried I'll be married to the music business.'
This would keep her calm for two or three days, and then she would say to him, 'I think I'm going crazy. I feel paranoid about everything and everybody.' He recommended therapy. He told her that he loved her.
It hurt him every time he denied her intuition, and he wanted to throw the whole problem at her feet and beg her to help him with this demon that made him cheat and lie, but he didn't want to take from Anna the right to be the one who was hurt. He could so easily say, 'Help me, Anna, help me get over this disease which makes me do nothing but tell lies.' Against the impulse to degrade himself, he felt sucked down by a terrifying weakness, which he took to be the first tremors of the muscular dystrophy that waited for him if he continued to steal the attention from his wife's right to hate him. Unless he could tell her the truth in the right way, so Anna could hate him, so there would be no other issue than his lies, and not his feelings about his lies, he would rather keep on lying. How could he confess without pride? How could he make amends? Each lie gave Anna more reasons to punish him, but what punishment could erase the memory of the fun he and Mary Sifka had ripped from each other's bodies? Unless she left him, he wondered what she could do to him that would finally make him feel the pain he had caused his wife.
He sat at his desk and took out his diary. This was not a journal of events, but each day he tried to write down a few words that summed up whatever the day had meant to him. He hoped, some day, to go back through the diary and fill in the spaces between the words, but as time passed he usually forgot whatever it was that had inspired him to write down whatever words he had written down. Yesterday he had written, HOPE – BRIGHTER – LETTER. Now it was time to write the letter itself. He would compose it in the notebook, and then, when it was ready, he would copy it on to a note-card he had bought at the County Museum's gift shop. It was a Mexican painting, of a woman carrying a basket of flowers. He began:
This is difficult.
Or is that already begging for mercy?
I'm on the beach now. I know you'll be upset when you read this.
Still not direct. Don't presume to know her feelings. Maybe she'll be relieved. Maybe she's been having an affair and can at least leave me, now that the masquerade is over. Do I believe she is seeing someone else? She would have to be a better actor than I am, and I don't think she is.
I love you. You asked me why I was so desperate to take this vacation and I said that I needed to get away from the office for a while, and that's true, but there's more. For a few months
No, this was a denial, a few is not enough; he had to tell the truth.
For six months you've noticed that I've been distant, and I have been. I had an affair. It's over now. Completely. I wanted to take this trip so that we could find a way to heal ourselves. I don't know how you'll take this, and all I can say is that I beg you to forgive me, but if you don't want to, I will understand.
He crossed out the last sentence. Somehow he thought the letter was stronger if he didn't ask Anna for anything. Saying that he didn't know how she would take the news implied that he had already anticipated a set of possible responses. If she studied the sentence and the letter with the intensity with which it was written, how could she miss the strategies that lay behind each measured word? He wanted her to think that the letter came out of his heart, quickly, a confession for his heart alone, not for hers. If he left off the last sentence and ended with the two words 'heal ourselves', how could she feel anything for him but pity? In the 'heal ourselves' was a plea for his wife to join him in work they both needed to do. The subtle gravity of that phrase pulled his wife, her behaviour, her attitude to him, into the reasons for the affair. So he was that much more sure that he should drop the plea for her understanding. In 'heal ourselves' he forced her to be his equal. The sacrifice of those two words granted her a position superior to him. Would she appreciate the gift? Perhaps some day, he thought, I can show her the early drafts of this letter. No.
He knew that Anna's first question was going to be, 'Who was she?' or, more likely, 'Who is she?' He couldn't say, 'That doesn't matter, it's over now,' because of course it did matter. Unless he gave her the answer to the question without her provocation, how could he defend himself against the charge that he was protecting the other woman, and if he was protecting her, how could he say the affair was over? He went back to the letter and copied it over one more time, keeping the sentence that ended with 'I will understand ...' Now the letter read:
I love you. You asked me a few weeks ago why I was so desperate to take this vacation and I said that I needed to get away from the office for a while, and that's true, but there's more. For six months you've noticed that I've been distant, and I have been. You asked me if there was another woman, and I said no, but I was lying. I had an affair with Mary Sifka. It's over now. Completely. I wanted to take this trip so that we could find a way to heal ourselves. I don't know how you'll take this, and all I can say is that I beg you to forgive me, but if you don't want to, I will understand.
He reread the letter and cut out the word 'completely' because the emphasis, the word as a sentence by itself, called attention to his style, it was a useless rhetorical flourish. If he'd already said that the affair was over, how could the word 'completely' help him? Either it was over or it wasn't, and if it was over, then it was over completely. Satisfied with the letter, he took the note-card out of its envelope. The card opened sideways, like a book. The other card he had considered, of a Rothko, two large fields, one black, one muddy red, above a smaller field, dark green, had opened from the bottom, to rest like a tent on whatever mantel where it found a home, and now he wished he had bought that card, since it would have been easier to write from the top of the card to the bottom, instead of on the two sides of this card. And the choice of the Mexican art now seemed sentimental and predictable, although at the time the Rothko, with its brooding sense of something final, seemed to him also pretentiously serious. Wasn't he giving Anna flowers? And a woman. She would think about the woman, and her burden. But he didn't want to write across the two sides. If he wrote carefully, and slowly, and if he didn't dedicate the letter to her, 'Dear Anna', but just began at the top of the card, with narrow margins, then the letter could fit on one side.
Something in the letter made him happy as he copied it. He was pleased with the choices he had made, and if the care he took meant that he hoped to tilt Anna's attention away from his adultery towards something general, something about the two of them, he was sure that she would know that he was, finally, sincere. It was important that Anna not stumble over a single word trying to make sense of his writing. Usually he wrote in a scrawl, but now each word was separately crafted.
When he finished copying the letter, he took the card upstairs.
He went to the bedroom and undressed. Anna always slept deeply. He was not afraid of waking her up. The luggage for tomorrow's trip was open on the floor. He took his letter to her and slipped it into a pocket inside his suitcase.
He was thirsty and went back down to the kitchen. He drank from a bottle of grape juice, leaving enough for Madeleine. He wanted more and drank it, with the excuse that in the morning she could have milk or water, and her mother could buy her juice at the airport.
Then he regretted this theft, and he went upstairs, to see her sleeping. She was on top of the sheets, and her hair was damp. What made her sweat? he wondered. Dreams of exercise, or just the heat of growth?
Perhaps he should have written 'heal the family'. Certainly he needed time not just with his wife, but with his daughter. He was afraid that she hated him. She was three now, but how long did they have before her character was so formed that part of it would always be made of contempt for her father? If it wasn't contempt, it was something close to it, not all the time, but when he talked too much, say, if he drove through an area he didn't know and stopped to look at the map, and he told her everything he was doing, she would tell him, from the baby-seat in the back, to stop talking. Whenever she told him to stop talking he could suddenly hear himself, and what he heard was the tiring drone of a bore. And if I sound like this to a child, he asked himself. No wonder I have so few friends. He talked so much to her because he thought she would like the comforting sound of his voice, and that she would grow up to be a better person if he paid her the respect of explaining what he was doing. He thought he was being helpful, a good father. She had no interest in his explanations of things.
He would look at her in the rear-view mirror, and he would see her distance from him, and he would tell himself that the little bit of detachment of hers in which he saw himself was a reflection of his detachment from his marriage. He blamed himself for what he thought would be the foundation of his daughter's general misery when she was older, estranged from the world, unsure of love. She would finally understand, probably through a long and expensive analysis, how it was her father's example, and the forces driving that example, that moulded her character.
Now she was asleep, and smiling, her favourite white teddy bear under her arm. Those seeds of future misery were tucked deep inside. What would he change in her if he could? A few times they had been to the mountains, and when they walked in the forest she screamed to be carried. She was happy only indoors, or on the beach. She was afraid of trees. It was a small fear, and he told himself all the obvious reasons why a child who loves to run through airports would hate the terror of trees, shadows, trails. She was born into a world of right-angles.
So was that all he despised in this daughter who despised him, her fear of trees? He was willing to say that he loved her hatred of him, a feeling so precocious that she might escape a family trait to hang on to people rather than to know when to leave, that she would become a woman who demanded respect. The trip to Mexico was as much to help him find a way to win her love as it was to win his wife's.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Among the Dead"
Copyright © 1993 The White Mountain Company.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What if you survived a plane crash, and decided not to come home? Tolkin explores this concept in a wicked sick way.