By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Carol said it had been an accident. But was it really?
We filed into a long snaking line from the door to the church down the sidewalk. Considering that Carol had only lived in town for nine months, she certainly had built up enough of a network to guarantee mourners would fill every single pew that morning. We waited our turns to greet her, to offer our condolences and express our mutual shock that Bob died.
How could this be? People asked the question up and down that line with varying degrees of disbelief. Some shook their heads, their expressions contorted into borderline horror. Linden, Illinois, typified the American small town. Six stoplights, a local economy dominated by mom-and-pop businesses, families who stayed here for generations and knew each other longer than that.
How could a person die in such spectacular fashion here? The most spectacular thing that had happened in the last thirty years was that Starbucks had finally convinced one of the mom-and-pop businesses to convert their small coffee shop to one better known. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Target and all the others followed. But many welcomed the thought of stores with bigger names, although they expressed those hopes quietly and out of earshot of anyone over 45.
What brought them to Linden? The other question that traveled the line left other mourners with eyebrows forming Vs. Despite the number of people who claimed they knew Carol and Bob well, not one single person could remember exactly how the sprightly couple showed up in Illinois in the first place. One day the Carter home sat vacant; the next Carol and Bob Evans moved in and began visiting neighbors door to door, introducing themselves, offering bouquets of flowers, first from the grocery store and then from their own garden.
You never know these days who has allergies, Carol said, leaning in conspiratorially from the doorframe of neighbors bewildered but happy to greet them. Her mother had taught her to greet new friends with a pound cake, but flowers seemed like a safer bet with every third or fourth person allergic to something in food.
The line moved forward, shuffled, somber, uncertain, as death always makes people. Such a shame, people said. Such a shame.
Our group of five deliberately planted ourselves at the end of the line. When anyone walked by we would nod and murmur nonsensical words of grief, but the minute they made it past we let our anger encase the group once again. We weren’t buying Carol’s story for a minute.
When we’d first heard about Bob’s death, we were all as shocked as anyone else. Then the questions began. Carol had said it had been an accident. But was it really?
We’d all seen Bob’s agility on the tennis court. It didn’t matter that the man had crossed 60; he had light feet. And great balance. As far as we knew, he was also in excellent health. In fact—and we didn’t know if Carol knew this—he’d been to his new family doctor in town for a checkup.
The doctor, Bob told us later at lunch that day, gave him a clean bill of health. He’d even asked if he could make a poster of Bob’s vitals. Everyone should have such good cholesterol at his age, the doctor said.
Bob laughed over his Cobb salad and said now Carol would never be able to convince anyone that he’d die of natural causes. If he kicked the bucket, he told us with a glint in his eye, we’d know his old lady did him in. We laughed but uneasily. What a weird thing to joke about. Why would Carol want to hurt him? Surely a couple married for almost 40 years would have weathered the best and worst of everything…right?
A week later we got word: Bob had fallen down the stairs and broken his neck.
The Carters had built an outstanding house way back when, which included a grand staircase that spiraled down from the second floor and into the foyer like a gentleman extending an arm to his ladylove. Carol said the staircase had convinced her on first sight to buy the place. The touches in the rest of the house were nice, she’d said, but that staircase—oh!
Bob had fallen down those very stairs. Carol had been sitting on the back porch with lunch, waiting for him to finish his shower after his tennis game at the Y so they could eat together. While she waited she decided to call Debbie to make a date for lunch the following week. After the phone call she turned on the radio.
An hour later she went inside to check on him and found him at the bottom of the stairs. She’d cried and screamed and called 9-1-1. But the ambulance didn’t make it in time.
And now we all stood in line waiting to tell Carol we were so sorry. Sorry her love story had ended so abruptly. Sorry she was a murderer.
Carol nodded and hugged people, bowed her head when they got overly emotional and eked out several tears of her own. Real tears. She stood there at the head of the receiving line mourning the loss of so many years of livable life.
Bob had never had enough ambition. He’d never wanted more, always content with their state of life. She thought she could shake him up with the first affair and then the second. Nothing. He forgave her, he said. Forgave her! If any man had cheated on her, she would have…well, she would have sent him tumbling down the stairs.
Such a convenient way to die, especially when the stairs offered such a long way to fall. When Carol had walked into the old Carter house almost a year earlier, she’d seen those stairs and almost immediately visualized Bob going down them. Him and his plodding life as an insurance salesman. He’d schooled her, informally of course, in what she’d get if he died. He had planned for every eventuality.
Too bad he hadn’t planned for Carol’s boredom. He said he wanted to retire, and she imagined trips around the world. She imagined a sea change in their life. She certainly hadn’t imagined moving back to Linden, Bob’s hometown, and taking up residence in a place where people could spend hours sitting on a porch and discussing corn. Corn, of all things! It grew fast and was more or less yellow. That was it.
After all the years of sacrifices, children, graduations, weddings, smiling and nodding and always affirming for people that, yes, Bob was a solid guy, Carol had had enough. She wanted more. But first she’d have to free herself of the lump of clay she’d married.
Bob’s close friends from the Y approached, and she could see the wariness in their eyes. Her tears increased in force. How could they know what a woman like her wanted and needed? They were all just like him.