Death and Life – Erin Karbuczky

The day she killed herself should have been the best day of her life so far. It was Monday afternoon, and on Monday evening, she was set to have the soft launch of her very first book kickoff at the local bookstore. Pre-orders had been strong, and her publisher had pushed for this debut, hard. She never felt more supported and never felt more alone. 

In the morning, her husband ran for bagels and coffee and told her she was beautiful. After breakfast, he took their daughter to the park so she could get ready alone and have the space to freak out. When his car left the driveway she took the razor to her wrists in the shower. This was not the first time she cut herself, but it would be the last. Six cut-free years down the drain. 

When Jake and Maggie (not Margaret) came home, Maggie went straight to the couch to watch her favorite cartoon and down goldfish crackers, disregarding the wash your hands when you come in the house rule. And for good reason – had she walked into her parents’ bathroom to wash her hands, she would have found her mother slumped over the edge of the tub, eyes lifeless and body limp. 

Instead, it was Jake who found her and held her body and reached for his cell to call the police.

No one notified the bookstore. 

At about 7:30 pm, a half hour after the event was supposed to start, the author had not shown up, nor had she called to alert anyone to a late arrival. The owner and sole employee, Veronica, took the microphone and said, “I believe we’ve been stood up. I’m sorry for any inconvenience. I will happily give refunds to anyone who is unsatisfied…” and she wondered how she would get the publisher to take the unsold and returned books back. She also ruminated on the fact that she had brought out the good wine and cheese for this event, because the book had stirred her emotions and brought back her own creative side again. 

“I am so disappointed,” said Ruth, a regular at the store. She was in her seventies, and most of her free time was spent wandering the stacks, looking for the cheapest copy of Oprah’s latest book club pick. “I was looking forward to this event. My daughter told me to stay home tonight because I have a cold, but I couldn’t wait to meet the author. Is there going to be a discount or coupon for those of us who made the trip? And do you have a copy of All the Light We Cannot See?” She took a crinkled, hardened tissue out of her pocket and sniffled into it. 

Veronica sighed. She stopped typing her email to her representative at Penguin and walked Ruth to fiction. “It’s by Doerr,” Veronica said. How many times had she told Ruth that the books were alphabetical by author?

A few days later the store phone rang about an hour after close. Veronica was staying late to straighten up and work on the budget.

“Sylvia’s Bookshop,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the sight of Ruth’s tissue, now on the store carpet.

“Hello, I’m looking for a Ms. Veronica Birch?” the caller sounded smooth as whiskey and cologne, and also like he was holding back tears. 

“This is she,” she said.

“I apologize for the late notice, but… you had an event on Monday, right? And no author came?”

“That’s right…”

“She… she’s my wife. She killed herself Monday. I’m sorry I didn’t call sooner. I couldn’t… I wasn’t able to talk.”

Veronica had no idea what to say, so she said what she always said when someone slighted her, no matter their reason. “Okay.”

“Is there… anything I can do? Can I buy the books you didn’t sell? I’m sure you had some angry customers.”

“As a matter of fact,” Veronica said. “I can’t return them. So I would love for you to take them off my hands.” As an afterthought, she said “Sorry about your wife.”

Jake felt bad, and then he laughed despite himself. Why did he feel bad for Veronica? Yes, she suffered a bit financially, but his wife was DEAD for fuck’s sake. 

Jake hung up after making an appointment to pick up the books. He wondered what exactly he would do with fifty copies of his wife’s book? The only other copy in his house was an advanced reader. It had come in late July when the family was on vacation, and the sun had melted the packaging a bit. Alicia’s face had blurred on the back of the book, the skin-toned ink leaking down from her author photo into the red background. He checked on Maggie, asleep in her room, the night-light making star and moon shapes on her face, which was morphing into his wife’s face by the minute. He closed her door and went into his room and took his wife’s laptop off of her desk. She gave him the password just recently when she asked him to retrieve a document from the computer. 

When he logged in, the most recent tab on her Chrome was a document simply entitled “Journal.”

Alicia kept journals starting when she was about fourteen, and ending only when she died. There was even an entry from that fateful Monday morning.

“I feel like I should be on top of the world right now, but inside I want to die.” 

Was she ever happy? He wondered. He had known her for so long, but it was damn near impossible to read her. Now was his chance. He went into the closet and took out the giant rubbermaid tote and took her journals out in piles. A few years ago she had went through them and labeled them in order, 1 to 30, with approximate dates. He set aside her journals from ages fourteen to eighteen, but at nineteen things got interesting. That’s when she began to write fiction. 

Before long, he had discovered three novels, enough poetry for two collections, a trove of song lyrics, fifteen short stories, and twenty fragments of yet-to-be started projects. He also discovered that she had an affair a few years ago, around the time they got pregnant with Maggie. He was supposed to be making funeral arrangements right now. He felt like he was supposed to idolize his wife now that she was gone, but he was instead reveling in how gloriously human she was. If she were alive, he would have been angry at the discovery of betrayal. But now, this was like smelling her perfume on a sweatshirt. It was like entering her for the first time. It was sobbing into her neck, or holding her hair back when she threw up during her pregnancy.

There was no question about Maggie. She had his eyes and his sense of humor. He had raised her since she was born, and he planned to continue to do so. There was no need to question paternity. But he did wonder about publishing Alicia’s work. 

Echoing his thoughts, her agent said, “It would be a shame to not shop around those previously rejected manuscripts. The market changes all the time. What was rejected before, might be rejoiced now.” And the agent went to work, shopping around the manuscripts in his filing cabinet and email, asking publishers to JUMP on this HOT, POSTHUMOUS WORK. JUVENALIA. MARGINALIA. JOURNALS. PURCHASE GENIUS LITERATURE BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS.

And the publishers leapt like dogs in heat and bid and bid higher and higher. 

Jake did not know he was sitting on a million dollar’s worth of writing. If he had, he would have shut this thing down immediately. No one could put a price on his wife, even if she was fading from the forefront of his mind, rapidly. 

A few weeks after her death, he found himself at Veronica’s apartment with a bottle of wine and a brick of local cheese, and some conversation crackers. 

Veronica let out a horsey laugh when she opened the door. It was the exact type of wine and cheese she wasted on the book launch that never was. 

“On a more serious note,” she said, raspy. “I saw on Pub Weekly that you’re getting upwards of a million dollars if you sell your wife’s life’s work! That’s a silver lining for sure.” As soon as she said it she felt like an idiot. Silver lining? He just lost his wife. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay,” he said, and tucked his hair behind his ear, wanting to tuck her hair behind her ear. He felt himself wanting her, despite (or because of?) his grief, despite his perpetually watery eyes. Despite only having booked the sitter for two hours. He was only supposed to pick up the books. What was he doing here at her apartment, upstairs from the bookshop?

“How much did the books cost?”

She gives him a number, feeling awkward now. She was charging a widower for his dead wife’s books because she couldn’t sell them, even though by now everyone wanted to buy the books, and she would have to order more from the publisher anyway. 

“Do you actually… things have changed since we last spoke. I can sell the books now… you know, it’s like Kurt Cobain…” she wasn’t making any sense. Jake wasn’t sure how to respond verbally. So instead he kissed her, and then felt like an idiot. But she responded in kind. And that’s how he ended up in Veronica’s bed, mere weeks after his beloved slit her wrists, taking her last jagged breaths as she died, thinking god knows what.

When he got home and paid the sitter, he decided it just wasn’t right to sell his wife’s work. If she didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of her labor, he didn’t either. The next morning he asked the agent to stop shopping Alicia’s work, and to destroy it. A media frenzy would have followed, but by then the story had died down, so to speak. There were so many new news stories each day, his own was buried.

Two months after that fateful Monday, he took Maggie into the yard, where he had lit a bonfire containing his wife’s journals and works. The only evidence of her work existed on her laptop, which he had scanned every page onto before collecting it for the fire. He made hot cocoa “the special way, Mom’s way,” three mugs of it. He held his daughter tight and they reminisced, both of them laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time. Maggie said her heart felt like it was being tugged by her mother in heaven, and Jake laughed, because he and Alicia didn’t talk about religion with Maggie, and certainly not the concept of heaven and hell, which neither of them believed in. But now, he wondered if heaven was real, and if Alicia really could see her husband and daughter from her perch among the stars. Joy pulled at his own cardiac muscle when he looked behind him. Veronica came through the back door with wine and cheese, and introduced herself to young Maggie, who had just moments before wished on a shooting star for a new mother. 

Erin Karbuczky is a Lead Bookseller at Powell’s Books, and an avid reader and book collector. Her mission as a bookseller is to unite each person with the perfect book for them, so that they may grow to love reading as much as she does. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their cat, and a head full of stories aching to share with the world.

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