The investigator’s report, neatly collated and stapled, and hand-signed by Ed Keen, with his detective’s license number typed below and embossed with a notary’s seal, looked official and convincing. If you read it carefully, which Sheila Harvey had done twice, in one sitting, you wouldn’t be inclined to argue with its findings.
There were copies of restaurant receipts and bank statements and photographs, some of them grainy, admittedly, but still clear enough that you could only dispute what they appeared to show if you were kidding yourself.
Don’t kid yourself, Shelia told herself. You know it’s right.
At first, she didn’t know what was right. Nothing made sense. When she found her husband Pete’s suicide note, her first instinct was: This can’t be right. I don’t believe it. It’s not happening. Sheila realized that this was what everybody thinks whenever something horrible happens. But she still thought so.
Sheila Harvey was sitting at the kitchen table – their kitchen table, the circular one, big as a wagon wheel, the one where she and her partner of 16 years (14 of them married) drank a thousand cups of coffee and mused a million unspoken thoughts. It was the place where they sat together, always together, whether they were talking or not, cordial or fighting, irritable or relaxed.
She had grown accustomed to looking across the plain between them, and, now, in hindsight, Sheila had to admit, she had always found great comfort in knowing they were somehow attached by an unseen umbilical cord. Connected. That was more important, she realized in his absence, than romance or lust or admiration, all of which had incrementally vanished from their relationship some time back. They were married. That was the important thing.
Sitting there at the Harvey kitchen table, surrounded by familiar framed photos and glass ingredient jars and the Viking range she loved to look at if not necessarily use regularly, Sheila laughed bitterly. Everyone else had been wrong and she had been correct: This can’t be right. I don’t believe it.
Maybe every wife says that when her husband commits suicide, but in my case…
She shook her head. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
The shaking made her feel better, as though she could dislodge all the barbed and stinging thoughts from inside her skull and fling them out and away through the apertures in her ears.
He’d been gone almost three months. Each day in the interim she’d relived the awful moment when she found his note. And each day Sheila would re-read the note, every word, carefully, simultaneously torturing and comforting herself, as though peeking into a lover’s diary. She thought she probably had the damned thing memorized by now.
Sheila wanted to read the investigator’s report once more.
But before she did, just to make sure everything finally made some sort of sense, that one thing might explain the other, Sheila went to the drawer beside the range where she kept Pete Harvey Jr.’s suicide note, pulled it out, and contemplated her options: burn it or read it again. Read it first and then burn it? Frame it?
She wasn’t sure what she wanted. But she began reading. She couldn’t stop herself. The words were the same as they were the first 100 times, but now they meant something else.
My Dearest She-She,
I am sorry. Really sorry.
It’s not you and it’s not the kids it’s me. I’m sick in the head and I’ve got to make it stop. I realized I can’t be happy living like this. I tried. I really tried She. But you know I’m not much good at anything and I could not ever live up to what everyone expected of me including me myself. Big disappointment that’s me. I AM SORRY.
When they find me or whatever is left of me you might not recognize me so please remember how I looked when I was younger and you were still attracted to me.
Tell the kids that Daddy went away on a long trip. And tell them later that I AM SORRY. Someone as screwed up like me should probably not have kids anyway and he should not ruin other lifes [sic]. I need to be erased. I can’t make the pain go away anyhow else.
I love you forever She but I can’t go on anymore. I’m done with this life.
All the papers are arranged on my desk in the office. Your [sic] going to get a good insurance check so no worries there.
You are going to be fine. It’s just me that is not able to be fixed.
Sorry, love you,
Pete Harvey, Jr.
Fucking loser didn’t even sign his name, Sheila thought. Typed it, like an invoice for his bus company.
Initially, when it happened, they had cried, all of them: Sheila, and Pete, Sr., and Sheila’s sister, Rachel, who Sheila called first, sobbing and screaming and shaking, as though seized by an epileptic fit.
Rachel told her to hang up and call the police; maybe there was still time to find him, stop him.
Sheila called the police. The 911 operator asked her what the emergency was and Sheila said, “I think my husband killed himself!”
A few minutes later, instantly it seemed, two uniformed officers were at her door, poker-faced and concerned, but not so concerned as to allow any emotion to interfere with their job, which was to get the facts and figure out who to call next.
A detective arrived five minutes later, and the officers repeated to him what Sheila had told them: she came home from yoga, she parked the car in the garage, she got a Diet Coke from the refrigerator, she walked back to their bedroom, and on the bed was this note. The detective, whose name Sheila didn’t catch, a skinny Latino man with silver hair cut short and groomed military style, read it, sighed, and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Harvey.”
He had seen this kind of thing before, many times. Sad, especially if you thought about it too much.
At the time, Sheila had so desperately wanted it to be untrue, the proverbial bad dream from which she would awake, that she pointed out to the three cops that, technically, Pete’s note didn’t explicitly say he was going to kill himself, or where or how, and that maybe, you know…maybe?
They looked at her pityingly. The detective said, “I know this must be difficult.” But he didn’t sound very sympathetic.
The kids came home from school an hour later, and they were upset at the sight of a squad car in their driveway and their mother crying and no one telling them anything. The neighbors were upset, too. Everyone was.
Somehow a reporter from Channel 4 found out and showed up, polite but persistent. Sheila recognized him. That he was standing on her front deck, beside the potted saguaro, struck her as further evidence that her calamity must be imaginary, that it really truly wasn’t happening.
Surreal, she thought was what you called it. Swear to God, she told friends, or anyone who asked, it was the most surreal moment of my life. Acquaintances of Sheila used the word all the time. Surreal. Seeing an ex-boyfriend at the mall after 11 years, that was surreal. The punishing downturn in the stock market: surreal. Her friend Jody, Sheila remembered, had described the prices at a going-out-of-business sale at their favorite boutique, Ann B. Smith, as “beyond surreal.”
Sheila didn’t know if she was required to talk with the reporter, who, she noted, looked older in person than on TV, but still nice, as if he might have had a little work done. That was surreal, too. Rachel, who had arrived by then and was protecting her sister from the world, shooed him and his taut bronze skin away.
Sheila Harvey was never considered a suspect. Her story checked out perfectly. Besides, the police didn’t want to tell her, but, truthfully, this happened more often than you might think. People just can’t take another day of whatever it is that’s bothering them, and so they end it. That’s it.
They would never say so to the family, but most of the cops privately believed anyone crazy enough to kill himself was probably better off dead, because then his craziness couldn’t hurt others. It only affected him. Sure, no question, it affected the family and friends, leaving them with unknowable questions and toxic feelings that probably never fully healed. But at least the dead guy didn’t take anyone else with him in his final moment of despair.
Because sometimes they did, and, man, that was an ugly scene, enough to make you sick right there, enough to make you quit the force. Murdering the babies and the wife, especially the babies. That was the thing with a lot of these suicides: they were so violent. Gunshot wounds ringed by skin burnt black. Blood. Brains.
The men, anyway. The women, they mostly used pills, or sometimes hanging. The men, they put a rifle barrel in their mouth, or a pistol to their temple. Resting in peace, apparently, was not in the plans. Most of them wanted to go out with a bang, literally.
That’s what was slightly peculiar about the Harvey case. His death was so quiet.
There was a search of Scottsdale for a few days, with dogs, but it was called off abruptly when Pete’s Escalade was found hundreds of miles away, near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, in a ditch on a beef farmer’s property, out of view of the highway, with Pete’s wallet and uncharged cell phone in the glove box and some bloodstains (his) on the leather but no signs of foul play.
They never officially found his body. Many people believed that a badly decomposed male corpse, mostly headless and eaten by vermin, discovered subsequently on a remote Colorado River shoal by a group of Grand Canyon rafters was Pete Harvey, Jr.
Sheila didn’t. She couldn’t. But most folks did, including the police, who were untroubled by the absence of matching dental records.
One of the skeptics was a gentleman named Ed Keen, a private investigator who the Liberty Assurance Company of Kansas City employed to look into matters that involved the untimely death of Liberty Assurance Company life insurance policy holders, particularly those unfortunate souls who had purchased their coverage in the preceding twenty-four months. “Being prudent,” was what they called the process.
Ed lived with his wife of 27 years, Margie, in Phoenix, near Glendale, and the airport. They lived previously in Wichita, but when Margie’s auto paint supply company failed (she was the office manager) she and Ed decided to make a fresh start somewhere else, someplace with fewer tornadoes and more sunshine. Their daughter Lindsay was grown and married, living abroad with her boyfriend in Hong Kong, and they had never developed a large social network, mostly because of his malady, Ed thought.
He had Tourette’s, a relatively mild case. But it was enough to make most people uncomfortable.
The Keens had heard you could get a super new home, custom built even, for a decent number, and the values were just going sky-high, and it was the fastest growing region in the United States, even more than Vegas, and taxes were low, and that Phoenix also had all the professional sports teams and airlines you associated with a big, thriving city. So they moved, and it was a kind of adventure for them.
Margie got a job right away at a building supply company, in the accounting department. And Ed got his Arizona P.I. license, which wasn’t difficult because he already had one from Kansas, and they had a kind of reciprocity agreement. From the start, he had a good business. Lots of infidelity in Scottsdale, more than in Wichita, for sure. Wives doing it, too, not just husbands with their secretary. The whole Valley was like a soap opera, he thought, everyone screwing everyone else’s spouse.
Less lascivious but equally remunerative were Ed’s old clients, the insurance companies from back home, who still needed (and trusted) him to look after their affairs when their affairs needed looking after. Mutual of Omaha. Northwestern Life. They were steady customers. Also, his friends from Kansas City, the Life Assurance folks. Ed handled all of Arizona, part of New Mexico, and most of southern Nevada for LAC of KC, as well as the concerns of several other companies who kept him on a modest retainer.
Ed did not carry a gun or possess advanced powers of observation. He was good at looking up things in personnel files, and public tax records. He thought of himself as a badger, a determined burrower who didn’t like to be confronted. “I like to sniff around,” Ed would tell people at parties, when they asked him about his unusual job. “And sometimes things just don’t smell right.”
The Harvey case, Ed Keen thought, had the stench of mendacity. Guy had a beautiful wife with expensive new tits and probably a rejuvenated hoo-hah. A couple of healthy kids. Beautiful home, with a next-to-nothing mortgage. Good business. Great business, actually, and everyone in town knew that he was supposed to inherit the whole thing when the old man passed on. Coyote season tickets, five rows up from the glass, at the center line. No gambling, no drugs, so far as Ed Keen could tell. Pretty much a winner on every count. How unbearably painful could that be?
What the investigator didn’t know, at least not until Sheila Harvey told him, was the depth of Pete Harvey, Jr.’s discontent. With everything.
They fought often, Sheila said. About nothing, in her estimation. Pete was always complaining about something. He never felt he was getting enough. Not enough money in his Christmas bonus, not enough attention, not enough credit for everything he did at work and around the house. Definitely not enough sex – although, come on, I gave it to him all the time, she told Keen.
“I don’t mean to pry,” Keen said, which was his standard line when he meant to pry.
“No. It’s OK. It doesn’t matter now,” said Sheila, snorting bitterly. “He was, like, addicted. In my opinion.” She told Ed Keen what she told her therapist, Dr. Wanger, the psychologist she saw once a week, on Tuesdays, after Pilates and before bridge club: Pete always wanted more. Even if he got it once a day, that wasn’t enough for him.
Sheila, in fact, had been talking about this particular compulsion at her last appointment, two days before she would find Pete’s suicide note. Dr. Wanger, a slim woman in her 50’s whose girlish page-boy haircut suggested youth and insouciance, had begun their session innocently enough, she thought, asking, “Last week we were discussing your marriage. How is everything on that front?”
Sheila had begun to cry, telling her therapist, “He’s wearing me out, and it’s becoming a chore, and I don’t know if I can do it anymore. I’m so tired!”
Dr. Wanger handed her a tissue and reassured Sheila. “Men tend to have large appetites,” she said. “Do you feel – has he made you feel inadequate?”
“Sometimes,” Sheila sniffled.
Their latest fight wasn’t louder or angrier than usual, but, Sheila admitted, it hurt her. What he said.
“What did he say?” Dr. Wanger asked.
“He said I was selfish.”
“Because you weren’t in the mood for sex?”
Sheila screwed her face into a clench, trying vainly to hold back her tears. “Yep.”
Dr. Wanger nodded. “How does that make you feel?”
“Shitty!” Sheila snapped. “It’s not like I’m frigid, or anything. It’s not like I don’t…I give him sex. I give him oral sex sometimes. But it’s not enough. I’m depriving him, according to him.”
“So it’s a frequency issue, not a, as we say, a quality…” Dr. Wanger made a note in her spiral-bound pad. “When you two have sex, it’s – he finds it good. He’s making you feel that he wants sex more often.”
“Yes. And sometimes I’m just not in the mood! You know? I mean, I swear to god, is that such a crime?”
Dr. Wanger tilted her head sympathetically. “No. Of course not.”
“And so he gives me this big speech, accusing me. It feels that way. To me.”
Sheila looked around Dr. Wanger’s office. The diploma from ASU. The framed embroidery of a fish. Many books. “My husband, who I have sex with almost every day, whether I’m really into it or not, who I give, sorry, I give him blowjobs – he accuses me of being a selfish person, because…Because…I don’t know. Because I don’t want exactly what he wants.”
Dr. Wanger nodded sympathetically.
“He said – what he said I don’t really want, I can’t repeat exactly.” Sheila shook her head.
“OK. Paraphrase then.”
“Well,” Sheila said, “he compared my to someone who wouldn’t feed a starving person!” She cried at the unfairness of the metaphor.
What Little Pete Harvey had said, actually, was itself a paraphrase of something he’d recently read in a peculiar brochure his friend Matt, from college, had left in Pete’s office.
This thing had some funny stories in it, stories Pete could relate to, parables they called them, and he found himself carrying the pamphlet in his back pocket, folded neatly, like a treasure map. Some of the ideas contained therein, which he considered between visits to his favorite Internet porn sites, seemed to apply to him. And to Sheila.
They had been on their back deck, beside the pool, drinking margaritas and eating tenderloin sliders. Pete suggested skinny dipping, and after Sheila demurred, he told her what he’d been reading and thinking about. He said: You know, She, if for some reason I was someone who wanted and needed a lot more celery than you, I’m sure you would say, sure, go ahead, eat all the celery you want. Just so long as I don’t have to eat celery when I don’t feel like it, you’re more than welcome. Or if that’s a bad example, cuz I know you like celery – how about, instead, something like, you want to do two hours of yoga everyday, but I’m not into it. Ok, fine. So you do your yoga on your own time, with your instructor and your friends. Whatever. And maybe once a week I join you, right? Ok, so now I’m saying, She, why does it have to be different when it comes to, you know, sex? Having sex. Why? I mean, this is what I’m saying: Whenever you want it, you got it. I’m ready, you know? No problems in that area, thank god. But when you don’t want it and I do, well, then, why shouldn’t it be like the celery, or the yoga? You know? You have as much as you like and I have as much as I like. Just because you’re not interested, does that mean I shouldn’t be? You see what I’m saying? Isn’t it a little selfish in a way?
Dr. Wanger made a sound, half-coo and half-hum, meant to convey to her $155-an-hour client that not only was the therapist paying attention she was also concerned and affected by Sheila’s story of misapprehension and injustice.
“Just because I don’t feel, pardon my language, like fucking every ten minutes! I don’t, I’m sorry, I don’t think that makes me a bad person. Or selfish,” Sheila fumed.
“Did you communicate that to your husband?” “Oh, yes. Swear to God, I told him straight out, like you suggested. Did not hold it in.”
Dr. Wanger smiled. “Very good. And…?”
“And he said something stupid, like he always does. About how I’m going to miss him only when he’s dead and gone. Just stupid,” said Shelia, spitting her words in disgust.
When she found his note, she remembered telling her therapist of his incomprehensible stupidity. And she felt then as though her entire digestive system was filled with bile, and she needed to turn herself inside out to cleanse her body of the ugliness inside.
And now, reading Ed Keen’s report for a third and final time, Sheila Harvey felt ready to vomit again.