The Final Option – By Adelaide B. Shaw
Rae Wells was two weeks shy of being 50 years old, the age at which her mother had mysteriously died. She strongly resembled her mother. Of average height and a few pounds overweight, Rae dyed her hair a medium brown, kept it short and wore sensible, conservative clothes. Anyone turning back the clock could have mistaken her for Mary Elizabeth.
Rae realized that for nearly all of her life she had been influenced by her mother’s death. Forty years earlier Mary Elizabeth had fallen from the 11th floor of the Cox Building. The possibility of an assault had been eliminated. There were no marks on her body except for a few scratches on her hands and arms, most likely from thorns acquired when Mary Elizabeth had pruned her roses that morning.
Suicide, another option, was to the members of the family unthinkable. It would mean that something had been wrong in Mary Elizabeth’s life, a life which Rae, at ten years of age, had admired and wished to have. There had been no farewell note, no conversation with her husband, children, friends or even strangers to explain why.
Richard Brimley, Rae’s father, had been a faithful and loving husband, a good provider, the owner of a small market in the neighborhood where they lived which was sufficient to provide for the family consisting of Rae, the youngest, and two sisters and two brothers. Her parents were at ease with each other and happy, and her siblings were no more bothersome than to be expected. There was time and money enough for friends and fun, family outings and special treats. Mary Elizabeth’s doctor and the autopsy confirmed that there had been no secret illnesses which could have propelled her take her own life. All that was known was that her mother had caught the bus into town at 1:45 in the afternoon on a warm and sunny day in late October, (the bus driver remembered her), and at 2:15 she lay dead in the alley behind the Cox Building.
The family had been anxious to accept the coroner’s verdict of accidental death, except for Rae. Although she wanted to believe that her mother’s death was not a deliberate sabotaging of their happy family life, she could not get beyond the fact that Mary Elizabeth had no reason to be in the Cox Building. Why was she there if not to jump from it? Rae was still asking the question.
As the years past, Rae wondered if she would be like her mother, including the possibility of killing herself. She expected to become a teacher like Mary Elizabeth, marry a kind man who had some sort of family business like her father, have three or four children, and live, as her mother had been doing, happily ever after. Thinking her mother had cut short the ending to that fairy tale gave Rae leave to follow. Suicide was not unthinkable. It made the thought, which she would at first suppress, push forward in times of stress and disappointment, as when she lost her first boyfriend at 14 to her best friend or didn’t get into any college of her choice, or when her husband walked out leaving her with $20,000 in debt and two kids.
Rae had asked herself each time what her options were. One option, the final one, was always suicide, and she would picture Mary Elizabeth jumping, not falling, into the alley 11 floors below. Gradually Rae’s fear of suicide was replaced by a resignation that she could do it.
Odors of spicy food, rancid oil and urine assailed Rae’s nostrils as soon as she stepped into the lobby of the Cox Building. Once a professional building with well maintained office suites in a thriving neighborhood the building still had the same brick facade of 40 years earlier. It had not been stuccoed over as the other brick buildings had, nor had it been maintained. The wooden window frames lacked paint, the bricks needed pointing up and the interior lacked not only paint, but even the presence of soap and water and a broom. Some of the offices had become apartments, and the odors of cooking were stronger as the elevator rose to the 11th floor.
“I saw that the window to the fire escape was open,” said a young secretary in the Cox Building at the time of the death. “I was on my way to the ladies’ room. I saw this purse out there and climbed out to get it. Then I looked over and there she was, sprawled out in the alley. I didn’t see or hear anything.”
Rae had saved every news item after the death, hoping for clues, for a reason that made sense.
“Yes, I saw her in the hallway,” a young dentist had said. “She was out of breath. She was just coming from the stairwell, I think. She went one way and I went another. I saw nothing more, nor heard anything.”
Had Mary Elizabeth screamed? The street was being repaired at the time. Jack-hammers and car horns and the usual noise on a busy Thursday afternoon would have covered Mary Elizabeth’s scream had she done so. Having been seen near the stairwell and out of breath, had she climbed the stairs that day instead of taking the elevator? Had the climb been a delaying tactic? Undecided and unsure, had her mother put off what she had come to do by taking that slow climb? Perhaps she had stopped on the 11th floor simply because she was so out of breath she could not climb the last flight of stairs to the top.
Rae walked along the dimly lighted corridor and moved toward the muted glare of light coming from the dirty window which opened onto the fire escape. The neon EXIT sign had only the IT lighted. She pushed on the window, but it was stuck. She tried again. It hadn’t been stuck 40 years earlier. Everything worked beautifully then, her family, school, friends, the world, everything smooth, her life gliding along as if on well oiled runners.
With her mother gone, Richard Brimley worked longer hours at the market, leaving Rae in the care of her 16 year old sister who was, besides Rae, still in school. Patsy, a popular cheerleader, had little time to mourn for her mother or to supervise her ten year old baby sister. Rae was left to her own devices and amusements, some of which, for a while, had included the suicide jump of her Barbie doll from the top of her dresser.
Rae gave up on the stuck window. She left the building and went into the alley, but she found no answers there. She looked up and counted to the 11th floor. Some of the fire escapes had laundry draped over the rails. Two had tomato plants in tubs. She studied the pavement where the body had lain, badly cracked now and stained with paint, oil, years of spilled garbage. Mary Elizabeth had landed on her back, crushing her skull and several other bones. The photograph in the newspaper had shown her near the trash bin. Had she landed in the bin on top of the cardboard cartons and stacks of paper she would, perhaps, have broken some bones but would have lived.
“That’s a crazy question,” Patsy said to Rae. “Why do you keep asking after all these years? It was an accident. Believe it. Mom didn’t jump. She had no reason to.”
“Except for feeling inadequate or mortal or old. She had just turned 50.”
“Is that what this probing is all about? A mid-life crisis for you? If Mom had one, she kept it a secret. She was happy and was going to meet Aunt Rose for tea that afternoon. She was dressed up in her best suit, that blue tweed, and her navy pumps. Christ, she even had her hair done. You’re not thinking of doing a nose dive because you’re going to be 50, are you?” Patsy didn’t sound worried, just annoyed that Rae would bother her with such negative and depressing ideas and thoughts.
“No. If I had wanted to end it, I had more reason when Ken left me broke and I had to get food-stamps.”
“Well, you didn’t for long. Everyone pitched in to help. Why can’t you forget that time? Why can’t you forget all the bad times? Things are going great now, aren’t they?”
Patsy’s tone was one of hopeful expectation again. Rae sensed that Patsy didn’t want to be bothered with any news about Rae’s life unless it was good news. Bad news might have required Patsy to do something to help, and Patsy was burdened with her own problems, mostly imaginary and of her own doing, but ones which would prevent her from being helpful to others.
Rae had not considered her questions as evidence of a mid-life crises. She had been asking questions for years. Mary Elizabeth had had no business which would have brought her to the Cox Building unless it was to jump, but she could have gone to the Harley Building for that. It was nearer home, and she could have walked there. Or she could have taken her life at home.
She was alone that Thursday. Her father, who sometimes came home for lunch, had stayed at the market. Her head in the gas oven would have worked, or a quiet slitting of her wrists in the upstairs bathroom. By the time anyone came home her body would have gotten cold. There had been no need to go to the Cox Building.
“Are you O.K.?” Catherine, the first of the Brimley children to be born, now 65 and recently widowed, asked an hour after Patsy hung up.
“Patsy said you sounded funny. Some kind of mid-life crisis.”
“No. Just because Patsy had one doesn’t mean we all have the heebie-jeebies at 50. I was just thinking about Mom and that she was 50 when she jumped.”
“She fell, not jumped.” Catherine still maintained the coroner’s verdict as gospel, never questioning it.
“Don’t you wonder why she was there or how she fell, if it were a fall?”
“Never. It’s one of life’s mysteries. I don’t know why my Lenny went from a healthy man to a dead one in less than two months. I don’t understand the disease, the progression of the cancer cells, their growth and spread. I just accept it as a nasty fact.”
“But the doctors understand. Someone does, even if you don’t. No one understands about Mom’s death. That’s what propels me to keep asking.”
“I thought you’d gotten over that obsession years ago. You’ll make yourself sick again. Give it up.”
Rae would not let the questions become an obsession again; she would be careful and not let the mystery consume her as before. One summer during her college years she had tried to relive her mother’s life in the days just preceding her death. Rae imagined her daily activities, contacted old friends and made them remember conversations. She cleaned and gardened as her mother had and even rearranged the living room furniture as it had been. The Cox Building at that time hadn’t changed, although some of the tenants had. The dentist who had seen Mary Elizabeth in the few minutes before her death and the secretary who had seen her just seconds afterwards were no longer in the building. Rae had climbed the stairs and walked through the 11th floor hallway, climbed out on the fire escape and waited for some intuitive knowledge concerning the event to surface. None did.
Rae had to stop her reenactment after her father smashed the dishes and had threatened to smash Rae as well.
“This is all junk,” he had shouted, sweeping his arm across the table sending the old dishes to the floor. “I shouldn’t have kept this stuff in the basement. Throw it out, all of it. Using this junk won’t bring your Ma back. And, it won’t tell you why she jumped.”
Richard Brimley had aged badly in the years after Mary Elizabeth’s death. He looked much older. Bloated and overweight from drink and heavy food, he sat around the house most of the day, content to let his two sons run the market, now much larger and modernized and in a smarter neighborhood.
“So, you think she jumped, too?” Rae felt a wave of disappointment when she had thought her father agreed with her. Although Rae believed the death was suicide, she would rather have believed that it was an accident.
“No. I don’t. She fell. Plain and simple. She had no cause to jump. You’re making me crazy with your questions.” He tossed what few dishes remained on the table onto the floor and swung his arm close to Rae, but stopped just short of making contact. “Your mother was a happily married woman.”
Rae, although she had not allowed her interest to become an obsession again, had periodically reviewed all that she knew and tried to imagine something credible which she didn’t know. These episodes would arise at moments of crisis in her life. Each time she pondered her own suicide, Rae wondered what had gone through her mother’s mind at the last moment. Perhaps she was suffering a mid-life crisis after all. Rae was certain that she would have no concerns about reaching the half-century mark had her mother lived. It was her mother’s mysterious death that surrounded that date with dark shadows and foreboding.
On the day of her 50th birthday Rae’s daughter called, then her son. They lived in other towns, had other lives which didn’t include Rae except rarely- Christmas, Thanksgiving, the birthday call sometimes. Her 50th birthday was apparently of sufficient importance for both of her children to have remembered.
Rae was cheerful, upbeat and positive. “It’s just another number,” she told her son. “Doesn’t bother me a bit,” she said to her daughter.
That afternoon Rae went to the Cox Building again and tried to picture the street as it was. She walked up the stairs this time, taking them slowly, pausing on each landing. How had Mary Elizabeth managed to climb the stairs without collapsing?
The window to the fire escape was still stuck and Rae went down to the 10th floor. That window opened, and she sat on the window sill, swung her legs over and hoisted herself onto the fire escape. She climbed the iron steps to the 11th floor, then looked down. A sharp tap on the window behind her made her turn around. A young dark skinned man with a white surgical coat looked back at her.
“Are you O.K.?” he shouted while trying to open the window. “Be careful.” He pushed harder, and the window gave a little. “Don’t lean over the rail like that,” he called, bending down and speaking through the opening.
Rae bent down, and they lifted together, creating an opening wide enough for Rae to slip through. It was awkward. Her skirt was too tight for easy movement, her limbs too stiff to manage the exit gracefully. She fell into the young man’s arms.
“You frightened me,” he said with a hint of a British accent. The tag on his white coat proclaimed he was Rajesh Singh, DDS.
Rae explained her reason for being there. Although she felt foolish, she did not lie about it. Let the young man think what he wanted.
“Dr. MacCauley was here 40 years ago. He may remember the incident.” Dr. Singh led her to his office which was opposite the stairwell.
Dr. MacCauley, a tall thin man in his late sixties, was with a patient, a young boy to whom he was telling a story about a dog with a toothache. Rae waited. When he finished he said he remembered Mary Elizabeth’s death. He spoke in the same soothing voice he had used when speaking to the boy. They sat in Dr. MacCauley’s office which was cramped with old steel file cabinets, stacks of yellowed journals and dusty dental models.
“I was here in this very office,” he said. “I just began working for Dr. Bloomfeld. I’ve been here since, except for a few years when I moved upstate. Too cold, so I came back. Never saw so much snow until that first winter we moved.” He appeared to be ready to launch into his own experiences, pleased to have a listener.
“What do you remember about that day?” Rae asked.
He disappointed Rae by repeating the same story that he had told the newspapers. He had seen Mary Elizabeth only briefly; she had been out of breath and near the stairwell. “The door had been propped open. I think someone was moving out that day. Some of the furniture wouldn’t fit into the elevator.”
“Did she speak?” Rae asked.
“No. She appeared to be in a hurry and looking for something, I think. She kept turning around and looking in every direction.”
This was something new. Rae waited for more, moving to the edge of her chair. The old fool, she thought. Get on with it. What could Mary Elizabeth have been looking for? That information could have been important 40 years ago. When there appeared to be nothing more Rae sighed and gripped her purse.
“Anything else?” she asked.
“No, nothing.” Dr. MacCauley shook his head, then stopped and shrugged. “Just a small white cat,” he finally added.
Rae bolted upright. “You never told that to the newspapers?”
“It didn’t seem important. It was odd to have a cat in the building. It streaked by me. Frightened I guess and lost. It had nothing to do with the tragedy, so I thought no more about it.”
Rae had a sudden realization that the cat had everything to do with the tragedy. Within a matter of seconds the scenario of Mary Elizabeth’s death was made clear. It was the final ingredient in a loose mixture, the one ingredient which jelled all the other ingredients into a solid, firm mass.
Mary Elizabeth loved cats. They had two, and her mother would not have been opposed to having a third. On the day after her death, the newspapers carried a story about a white cat which had been found with a broken leg near where Mary Elizabeth had met her death. Rae had read the article with interest, but had not saved it. She, like the dentist, had thought the cat had nothing to do with her mother. But it had.
Rae pieced together her mother’s probable movements. Seeing the cat on the street, lost and frightened, Mary Elizabeth would have tried to pet it. It ran into the Cox Building whose doors were open to facilitate a tenant’s move. It went up the open stairwell, through another open doorway on the 11th floor and down the hall, streaking past the young Dr. MacCauley. Then came Mary Elizabeth, out of breath, searching for the cat. The hall window was open, and the cat ran onto the fire escape, again followed by Mary Elizabeth. She put down her purse and reached for the cat. Maybe the cat tried to go higher, and Mary Elizabeth stretched, trying to get the fast moving animal. Panicking, the cat scratched Mary Elizabeth in its haste to get away. Mary Elizabeth, already leaning on the rail, her body stretched and twisted in her desperate effort to get the cat, reached out further to grab it. She reached too far and, in an instant, both she and the cat fell into the alley below.
Rae thanked Dr. MacCauley for his time and left his office feeling a sudden loosening of the past. She took the stairs to the lobby, skipping down each step with increasing buoyancy. Once outside, her feet skimmed over the sidewalk. Mary Elizabeth’s death had been an accident, not suicide. The certainly of that fact after four decades of doubt propelled Rae home with the speed and lightness of a freed kite whose restraining cord had just been broken.