Devoutly to be wished by Paul Negri

“Hanging is out. That’s final.”

“Try to keep an open mind,” I tell Ophelia. That’s her problem. She has a closed mind. She’s not open to trying something new. And God knows I’ve given her enough imaginative options, two others that she seemed on the verge of approving but at the last moment found unacceptable for her own finicky reasons.

“This is getting depressing,” she says.

I can’t blame her. Starbucks is depressing. The obscenely priced coffee, the pretentious desserts – Berry Croissant Blossom. The baristas and their unctuous smiles. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of the barista?

I’ve tried to steer Ophelia to our local greasy spoon where the doughnuts are doughy, the coffee is cheap, and the man behind the counter is just a man behind the counter. A bit déshabillé, I admit, but with a touch of Tennessee Williams. It has character and certain advantages. The scant presence of customers and the big old-fashioned booths assure a good measure of that increasingly scarce commodity – privacy in public.

Why she will not allow me in her apartment or come to mine is a mystery to me. Our three-month acquaintance has a lifetime of depth, after all. But she is guarded, even with me. Always a public place and always a black coffee to discuss in hushed tones her devoutly-to-be-wished consummation. She has always gone to Starbucks and can sit and drink coffee nowhere else. She was born in a rut, has lived in a rut, and will die in a rut. Unless I help her. As her friend (or at very least her collaborator) I must do my best to make her final act not merely an end, but a climax. Something different. Something new. Something memorable. So that she will not be forgotten entirely by the world that has so diligently ignored her to this point.

“I’m not saying you should hang yourself in a closet amid wrinkled tops and mothballs,” I tell her.

“I iron my tops, Belasco. Give me a little credit.” Ophelia’s dutch chocolate eyes look unusually large, but they’re not. It’s just that her face is so thin and looks even thinner framed by too much translucent blonde hair. A-thinnin’ we will go. Garden-variety anorexia, unusual only in that Ophelia is forty, definitely a late bloomer in that regard. But she imbibes just enough black coffee and berry croissant blossom (if she purges it’s not at Starbucks) to stave off genuine starvation and live on and on as a shadow in the shade, pauvre petit. Avanti, Belasco! Snatch her from the jaws of obscurity, give her a blazing instant in the spotlight, a YouTube moment for the masses. 100,000 views. One million views. Five million views. More than the talking dog wearing the top hat (3. 5 million views).

“Ophelia,” I say. “Ophelia!”

“I’m not across the street, Belasco.”

“You look like you’re not listening.”

“You were saying,” she says, “not just hanging amid the mothballs.”

I turn my iPad toward her.

“You’re kidding, right? The George Washington Bridge? Everyone jumps from the bridge.”

“We are not talking about jumping, Ophelia. Hanging. Guess how many people have hung themselves from the GWB?”

“I’m going to guess none.”

“Bingo!”

“I’m going to have another coffee.” Ophelia doesn’t even have to get up, just gives the barista the tiniest wave, like a bidder at an auction. They know her so well here they are attuned to her every wish – except one, of course.

“I don’t know how to make a noose,” she says with a sigh. “Knots are impossible for me. I couldn’t tie my shoelaces until I was twenty.”

“One shoe is untied now,” I point out.

She ignores me. Ophelia has apparently noticed a covert sign from the barista, as she rises, Lazarus-like, and stiffly makes her way to the counter. She waves her phone at the scanner to pay, picks up her coffee, and limps back to our table. I’m disheartened by her increasing decrepitude. How will we ever get her over the guard rail on the bridge? Courage, Belasco! Remember Molière. The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.

“Your back seems a teensy bit more troublesome, Ophelia,” I venture.

“I’m turning to stone.”

“All the more reason to hasten your last spectacular act, wouldn’t you say?”

Ophelia stares down at the table. She whispers something, but not to me.

“Yes?”

“I can’t even tie a knot I told you.”

“Nor will you have to.” I reach across the table and take her hand. It’s cold and a little sticky-berry sticky. “I will prepare it for you. It will be like putting on a pre-made tie. Just slip it over your head. And the portion that ties to the rail is so easy a child could do it. It’s called a hitch knot. Simple and strong. It won’t let you down, I assure you.”

“And where will you be while I’m tying this child-like knot? How will you take the video?”

“I will not take the video,” I say. “I can’t be anywhere near you. I’ve explained this to you, Ophelia.” Patience, Belasco. Walk her slowly down the runway. “I can’t be construed as having assisted you in any way. I must remain forever unsung, the man behind the curtain. It’s totally your show.”

“How can I take a video of me hanging myself?” She sounds almost angry.

“You will not take a video of you hanging yourself. YouTube would never air such a thing. No reputable social media would. Not yet, at any rate.”

“So what exactly would they air?” Now she is angry.

“A pre-hanging video selfie. Your phone on a selfie stick, but not too far. Your face ethereal in the dawn light. Your voice a whisper, intime. Your last words memorable. I’ll help you with that. You lay the phone on the ground. Then-a plunge into world celebrity. Nothing gory or untoward. Nothing objectionable. Just utter and heart-wrenching pathos and bravery. Voila, Internet immortality.” I let that sink in. “Then I will come strolling down the walkway, find the phone, look over the rail to verify you have been successful, and call the police. And I, as a Good Samaritan, will post the video for you, in accordance with your last wishes.”

“And what if I am not successful? What if I fail again? It would be my third attempt. Three strikes and you’re out, right? I might be forced to live.”

She has not vouchsafed exactly what those attempts were. But plainly they were ineffective. “Your third attempt, perhaps, but your first with me. I will not let you fail.” I squeeze her hand. “You trust me, don’t you?” I give her my most barista-like smile, as if I could faithfully serve her black coffees and berry croissant blossoms for all eternity.

“I do trust you.” She withdraws her bony hand.

Well done, Belasco! Press your advantage. “Shall we continue our planning in your apartment perhaps?”

“Do you think I’d actually allow you in my home?”

I look at her quizzically. Her big eyes seem to grow bigger as she gazes at me. “Shall we go for a little stroll?” I say.

###

Our “stroll” is from the Starbucks to the corner, just far enough for me to hail a cab. It’s only a dozen blocks to the George Washington Bridge but that is equivalent to a moonwalk for Ophelia, hampered as she is with a constellation of afflictions, real, imaginary, and a beguiling mix of both. With a delicious touch of irony, her medical condition is compounded by iatrophobia, the fear of doctors and all things medico. Thus she stands in dread of her only possible source of succor and is eager prey to the seductive powers of Internet self-diagnosis, which, I know, is her primary daily activity. She sits in the cab thumbing her phone, oblivious to the splendid city streaming by just outside the window, as she Googles some new or favorite symptom I’m sure. Beware, Belasco, not to upset her delicate equilibrium. Let her stride amid the cyber-scape, where she can scroll, stream, click and double-click for days and weeks and months and years with the merest motion of her finger or arthritic wrist in the only place where she is safe and sound, a little cyber ghost, nothing more than a username and a password, not even worth hacking. Until I make her a star.

“Is this really necessary, Belasco? It will be cold on the bridge.”

“Just a little rehearsal. I want to show you the spot I’ve picked out. It’s perfect. And it’s a lovely day. You won’t be cold.”

“I’m always cold.”

True. It was the first thing she said to me when she called on the Suicide Helpline.

She didn’t say she was sad, troubled, depressed, hopeless – no, no, no. “I’m cold,” she said. Ah, Belasco, thought I to myself, something different, after so much tedious angst. I immediately sensed someone worthy of my directorial skills. And just in time, as merely two months into my volunteer service I was invited to leave the Suicide Helpline. Apparently my supervisor found me too enthusiastic.

I considered going back to the community theater but the thought of directing little ghetto boys and girls in uplifting playettes approved by the Board of Education was too depressing to contemplate. I thought back to my days in summer stock, my production of A Streetcar Named Desire in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, featuring an up and coming Naomi Ambers, a name now long forgotten, who would certainly have been a star had she not died too soon. But no resting on my laurels. At seventy I am just hitting my stride, albeit with a cane. There are new modes of drama to explore and exploit with massive new audiences. All the world’s an audience now. Excelsior, Belasco!

“Not so loud. You’re making the cabbie nervous,” Ophelia whispers.

Is she hearing voices now? All right, Mr. DeMille, she is ready for her close-up.

“I can’t make it,” says Ophelia before we’re halfway to the center of the bridge. Despite the mid-afternoon sun on this mild April day she is shrouded in her wool winter coat, her red scarf clumsily knotted around her neck.

I shepherd her down the pedestrian walk, moving her closer to the rail when the occasional bicyclist pedals by. It has taken us twenty minutes to traverse about a quarter the length of the bridge. I may indeed have to make some adjustments to my calculations.

“You’re doing very well, Ophelia. Just take your time. There’s no rush after all.”

“You’re going to need a shorter bridge.”

“Remember, you won’t have to walk back,” I remind her.

She stops and leans against the gray metal rail. “I’ve never done this before.”

“No one who succeeds at it has,” I say, trying to be reassuring.

She looks at me. “I mean walk across this bridge.”

“Rest a bit. The center of the bridge is not much further.”

There are a fair number of people using the path at this hour, which is why I plan Ophelia’s performance for dawn, before the day is fully awake and the traffic grows frenetic. The traffic now is fairly heavy, eight lanes with cars moving in opposing directions down the center of the bridge, their endless drive and rumble and the mild but ceaseless wind sending a slight vibration through the whole gigantic structure, a tingling you can feel in the soles of your feet if you are sensitive to that kind of thing and both Ophelia and I are just such sensitive souls. Breathe, Belasco! Breathe it all in. The skeletal steel towers, the massive cables, the warm sky above, the cold river below. What set on a paltry stage could ever compete with this for the scene of a final tragic act?

“Wake up, Belasco.”

“Pardon?”

“You have that look again, like you’re sleepwalking.” Ophelia grips my arm. She is stronger than she looks.

“Shall we go on a bit further?” I coax her. “The view is so much better from the middle of the bridge.”

“Just a little more,” she says. “Today I do have to walk back, don’t I?”

We go on, holding tight to each other, pulling each other along and I’m not sure who is leading whom. We stop still short of mid-bridge. My knee is hurting. Ophelia let’s go of me and leans against the fence. It’s less than chest high, its tubular top rail resting on evenly spaced gray metal bars. She folds her arms on the top rail and rests her chin on her arms and looks down at the river. “Jumping would be so much simpler.”

“And so clichéd. You’d end up just another statistic. Recorded by the city and forgotten. Is that what you want?” A safe question, as I know it is not.

“I called Dad this morning,” says Ophelia.

En garde, Belasco! This could be a complication.

“I told him I was going to kill myself. Do you know what he said?”

“I assume that’s a rhetorical question, Ophelia.”

“He said, ‘Again?'” Ophelia smiles. “Again,” she repeats.

“Won’t he be surprised when he turns on his PC and finds you omnipresent?”

“I doubt he ever goes to YouTube.”

“He won’t have to, Ophelia. You are destined to go viral. Your final soliloquy will be heard-and seen-by more people in a week than Hamlet’s was in four centuries.”

“By Dad and Mom – ”

“Yes.”

“My supposed friends – ”

“Assuredly.”

“My therapist – ”

“Without a doubt.”

“My doctors who never believed me – ”

I grip Ophelia’s arm. “You will be everywhere, ever-present on the eternally streaming Internet. On some link somewhere someone will always be seeing you and listening to your words. Forever.”

“Belasco?”

“Yes, Ophelia?”

“I don’t like it.”

I feel the bridge shift under me. I grip the rail. “What’s not to like?”

She makes a grand sweeping gesture. “All this. It’s too – I don’t know – not me.”

And there’s that cryptic smile that gives me pause and makes me wonder. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course you do. Who knows me better than you?” She links her arm through mine.

“But I’ve put so much thought into this. So much mental effort.”

She pulls me closer to her. “Now you’re upset with me.”

“Not upset,” I say. “Just-confounded.” Good God, Belasco! What will ever please her?

“I’m cold,” she whispers. “I need a coffee.”

###

“I won’t use a gun. I’m for stricter gun control.”

“Just hear me out, Ophelia.” It has taken me but a week to recover from my chagrin over her veto of the bridge, scout out a new location, check its viability, and devise an even better final scenario. No sitting and sulking, Belasco! Faint heart never won fair lady, nor fame to laggard came.

“I wouldn’t have the strength to pull a trigger. I can barely open my meds in those tamperproof bottles.” A speck of red, like blood, sits at the corner of her mouth. But it is merely jam from her Strawberry Fields Tartlette, available at Starbucks, like Ophelia herself hopefully, for a limited time only.

I turn my iPad toward her. “Smith and Wesson M&P Shield. Just nineteen ounces and six inches long. So easy – ”

“Please don’t say a child could do it.”

I open a new tab and turn the iPad to her again.

“You’re not serious. St. Patrick’s Cathedral?”

She is impressed. Who can blame her? “Solemn and spectacular. And surprisingly deserted at certain times of day. Times I have been studying.”

Ophelia casts a sidelong glance at the barista, who nods. My God, she is communicating with him telepathically.

“So I’m to stroll into the Cathedral, make a video selfie, and shoot myself?”

“Not so loud, Ophelia.” But no one seems to hear. All around the bustling Starbucks people sit alone thumbing their phones, pecking at keyboards, staring at screens, seemingly conversing with the air. Even those who are together engage more with their devices than each other. Just one old man sits in the corner reading a newspaper to his evidently blind companion.

“I’m Jewish, you know.”

“All the better,” I say.

Ophelia leans back in her chair and looks at me for a long time. Then that smile, which is part smile and part something else, a something else I can’t decipher. It leaves me hanging between certainty and doubt.

“The show must go on. Isn’t that so, Belasco? And I have a front row seat, don’t I?”

She leans forward and puts her hand on mine and all my doubts fall away. The curtain rises.

Bravo, Belasco! Bravo.


Paul Negri is the former president and publisher of Dover Publications. His fiction appears in The Penn Review, Vestal Review, Bartleby Snopes, Pif Magazine, Jellyfish Review, and other publications. He has twice won the Gold Medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. He lives in Clifton, NJ.

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