I was startled when Dr. Palmer drove into my driveway. He had never done that before. In fact, I’m sure he had never set foot on the first inch of my property in the 36 years that he’d been my neighbor. But there he was, climbing out of his Cadillac, standing with both feet on my stone drive, looking at my house for the first time from such close range, and then, seeing me wave in the picture window, walking to the front door.
It’s not really the front door. It’s a side door, but it’s up near the front of the house on what would be Dr. Palmer’s left side as he walked to the house. I went from the living room through the kitchen and into the porch. That’s what we call the little room inside the front door. That room has two doors – one to the kitchen and one to the hallway that goes to the bedrooms, of which we have two. Julia was making a rhubarb pie – I didn’t tell her who was coming because I wanted to see her face when she saw Dr. Palmer standing at the door.
I heard a rap on the door – one hard one, not a bunch of little rappety-taps, just one hard one – about four seconds into my standing in the porch. I waited a couple of seconds to show Dr. Palmer I wasn’t anxious to let him in, and then I opened the door.
“Mr. Smith,” he said before I could get a good look at him. “Mr. Smith,” he said it again, “could you please call the police?” He was excited and nervous and worried about something. I was disappointed that he hadn’t come on a social call.
“Come in, Doctor,” I said, opening the door wide.
“No thank you, Mr. Smith. Please, just call the police quickly.”
He was panting and sweating. Something had a good hold on him and he wouldn’t feel better until the police were on their way.
“Sure, Doctor Palmer. What should I tell ’em?”
“Tell them?” he said.
“Well, yeah. What’s the reason for the call?”
By now, Julia was standing behind me. I could feel her breath on the back of my neck. She was drying a mixing bowl with one of my shop rags. They’ve been finding their way into the dishtowel drawer more frequently of late.
“Is everything all right, Doctor Palmer?” Julia asked.
“Hello, Mrs. Smith,” the Doctor said. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“My heaven, what’s wrong?” Julia was alarmed.
“It’s Mrs. Palmer,” the Doctor said. But that’s all he said.
“Mrs. Palmer?” I said.
“Yes, my wife.” The Doctor’s lip quivered.
Our cat Dumplin slipped between Dr. Palmer’s feet and sneaked into the house. Dr. Palmer gasped at Dumplin’s maneuver and glanced backward through the open door. He stared for a while – maybe ten seconds. It seemed like he was listening for something.
“Is she in the car?” Julia said.
The Doctor turned back to us.
“Please, let’s call the police,” he said. “I’ll make the call.”
“Well sure, Doctor,” I said. I glanced at Julia and she had already fixed her glare on me, the one that burns holes through the back of my head unless I happen to turn around, which happened in this case, and then I must respond with my mock Julia return glare, which in this case I did not, keeping myself above such tactics in order to help the Doctor get to the telephone quickly and to avoid a domestic squabble in front of our esteemed and honored guest.
Dr. Palmer was the chief surgeon at Valley Area Hospital. He was 73, past retirement age for most folks. He was busy all the time, taking care of patients, giving lectures here and there, and taking long trips with his wife. I never saw much of him except on those days when he mowed his grass.
He had about six acres of beautiful lawn, four of it in front of the house. I’d say that his lawn was his hobby, considering how much time he spent taking care of it and mowing it. Many times, especially after my retirement, I’d sit in our front yard in a lawn chair on a weekend and watch Dr. Palmer ride his mower. He had such a leisurely and stylish way of doing it. Each time he mowed he used a different strategy.
One time he’d make all passes due east and west, cutting across the width of his property. The next time he might cut north and south. The next, diagonally at 45 degrees. The next, cross-diagonally at 25 degrees. Every once in a while he’d start in the center of the front four and mow in an outward spiral. This maneuver was especially fun and I’d catch myself falling into a kind of hypnotic trance watching it.
Dr. Palmer entertained me on many a Saturday and Sunday. Often, sitting in my chair on a warm and lazy afternoon, I’d imagine that Dr. Palmer was an angel come to earth, flying over the countryside and making the world a better place by cutting down the bad folks and leaving only the good. Or that Dr. Palmer was a French general in battle and I was Napoleon watching the drama unfold on the battlefield. Many imaginative and entertaining daydreams passed through my mind watching Dr. Palmer on his lawn.
But Julia didn’t appreciate the art of Dr. Palmer’s lawn work. It wasn’t that she disliked it. In fact, she had no opinion about it at all. It was only that she was less than happy about my own appreciation for it. She believed that Dr. Palmer’s lawn cutting was only an excuse for me to sit on my chair and “vegetate” as she would say. Over the years, Julia took to regarding my infatuation with the Doctor’s grass cutting as a kind of membership in an exclusive club, whereby the Doctor and I were the only members and no one else could join.
And so for years Julia held this little grudge against the Doctor and me. So I understood why Julia was ready, and perhaps even eager, to believe that Doctor Palmer needed to call the police because of some calamity that befell his wife as a result of something that Doctor Palmer had done. His apparent reluctance to tell us what had happened sparked this suspicion of hers. I must admit I was in a high state of curiosity myself.
At any rate, I disregarded Julia’s displeasure with me for not pressing the issue with the Doctor. I escorted him into the kitchen. I went to the wall phone, took the receiver off the hook, pointed out the sticker on it that listed the emergency numbers, and handed it to him. Julia had followed us and stood behind me. We waited there, expecting to hear Doctor Palmer’s side of the dialogue with the police. But it wasn’t to be.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Palmer said. “I’m afraid this is a sensitive matter.” He said nothing more but held the phone up halfway to his face and refused to put it closer until we left the kitchen.
“Why, of course, Doctor,” I said. I took Julia by the arm, knowing she’d need assistance in her evacuation of the kitchen. “We’ll just step into the living room.”
Julia and I went into the living room. I knew what fate awaited me there and so steeled myself for the verbal assault that I was about to undergo. But Julia paid no attention to me. She carefully and slowly stepped back to the doorway, planting herself discreetly near it but out of the view of Dr. Palmer, and she stood there in her most attentive, most inquisitive posture. Her head was cocked to one side, tilted down just a bit. Her right hand was neatly cupped behind her right ear to catch any stray sound waves emanating from the lips of our visitor. Julia was bent at the waist, her upper body forming an angle with the horizontal. All in all, she stuck a most unusual and engaging pose. It took great effort on my part to stay put. Julia was having such a wonderful time that I was finally drawn to her side in a kind of sympathetic lust for her mischievous sport.
We stood together, straining to make some sense of Dr. Palmer’s muffled conversation with the county police department.
“Palmer, Dr. Frederick Palmer. Yes. I want to report a fatality. . .”
“Oh, my Lord!” Julia whispered and grabbed my arm as if to keep herself from falling over. I held on to the doorframe to brace myself.
“Mrs. Frederick Palmer,” the Doctor said. “Evelyn Palmer. Yes, my wife, yes. Yes, I’m sure she is dead. Yes . . .”
“I can’t believe it!” Julia whispered. “I just can’t believe it!”
Mrs. Palmer was a vivacious, outgoing and kindly lady who was always involved in county affairs and humanitarian undertakings. She and Julia once worked on the same committee to raise funds for the county animal shelter.
“But how did she die?” Julia looked at me as if I held the answer. I could only shake my head. Julia looked back at the kitchen, where Dr. Palmer was holding the phone with one hand and writing in a small notebook with the other.
“She shot herself in the temple with a small pistol,” he said into the phone, as if answering Julia’s question. He said this almost under his breath, obviously having difficulty with the telling of it and probably anxious that Julia and I might overhear. But we did anyway.
Julia slapped her cheek and shook her head. “Oh, oh, oh,” she wailed almost silently. “Why would she do such a thing?”
“I’m calling from the house of a neighbor,” Dr. Palmer said. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith at 1103 East Bridge Road. Yes. And my home is at 1100 East Bridge Road. Yes . . . Yes . . . Yes. All right then. Thank you.”
Dr. Palmer hung up the phone and continued writing in his notebook. Now I was faced with having to put on a grand performance. Julia and I had heard most of what Dr. Palmer said but could not let on to him that we had. How this could be accomplished was beyond my capacity to understand.
My wife Julia, however, honest as she is, can be quick to cover things up. Before I knew what was happening, she grasped my arm and pulled me over to the couch, then sat us down on it. We waited for Dr. Palmer to make the next move. We didn’t have to wait long. Dr. Palmer walked out of the house, got into his car, and was turning into his own driveway by the time we sprinted to the kitchen and realized he was gone.
“What in the world is going on?” said Julia, knowing full well that the only person within earshot didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on.
“He’s gone,” I said.
Julia glanced at me blankly, as if the 43 years with me had made her immune to those profound remarks I make announcing self-evident facts.
“He certainly is that,” she finally said, coming to after a few seconds of deep thought.
I knew that Julia blamed me for letting Dr. Palmer get away without an explanation from him about the misfortune befalling Mrs. Palmer.
“I guess we’ll just have to read about it in the paper,” she said. “That man came into this house, used our phone to call the police, and got out of here without even a ‘how-de-do’ or a ‘so long.’ I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. And why didn’t he call from home?” Julia asked, posing another question I couldn’t answer. For some reason, this question bothered me more than the others.
Julia went back to her pie making. She always finds solace in work. But making pies only keeps her hands busy. From the living room, where I had gone to look out at our empty driveway, I could hear Julia muttering and whispering from time to time between the clangs of the mixing spoon against the bowl. I stayed where I was only long enough to decide my next course of action.
I rose, walked into the kitchen, patted Julia on the arm, and went outside. I walked into the front yard. It was hot and very humid. The sun glared down upon me hard, as if it were taking Julia’s point of view. I walked slowly to my lawn chair and sat down. I wondered if Mrs. Palmer’s body lay in the Doctor’s air-conditioned house or somewhere outside in the oppressive heat. The varying effects each of those environments would have on a human carcass consumed my thoughts as I waited for the ambulance. I wondered if its siren would be on when it arrived.
I couldn’t recall hearing a gunshot that day. In fact, I hadn’t heard a gunshot at home for many years. If Mrs. Palmer shot herself outside the house, even with a small pistol, I would have heard it. Our windows are open nearly all summer.
I considered why Dr. Palmer might have come to our house to make the phone call. It was possible that his own phone was not working. It could have been that he had the phone disconnected for some reason, perhaps a long vacation that he and Mrs. Palmer had planned. Or perhaps Dr. Palmer couldn’t bear to be in the house with his dear sweet dead wife, whose head was shattered by a steel bullet and whose brain lay in pieces who knows where, perhaps on the telephone itself.
I could see Dr. Palmer in his driveway, way back near the house. He stood there, looking toward the road, waiting for the same thing I waited for. Soon the ambulance came. It was followed by two sheriff’s cars. All three drove silently. Julia, watching periodically from our front window, came outside and stood next to me while Mrs. Palmer was gathered up from somewhere inside the house. The ambulance remained for nearly an hour, then left as silently as it had arrived. Julia and I held hands as it drove past our house and into town. I supposed that Mrs. Palmer was headed for the Johnson-Weldman Funeral Home. It was partly owned by the family of Mrs. Palmer’s niece by marriage. Or perhaps, under the circumstances, the body might be taken to the hospital for an autopsy. Julia, crying silently, went back to the house.
The sheriff’s cars stayed on for an additional half hour, one leaving 30 seconds behind the other, both silently.
Dr. Palmer stayed at home. I figured there wasn’t much he could have accomplished by riding along with Mrs. Palmer or driving along behind the ambulance. Julia came back outside.
“And where is the good Doctor?” she said with just a tinge of sarcasm.
“I believe he stayed at home,” I said.
“Stayed at home? At a time like this?”
“Well, what would you do?”
Julia thought for a few moments. She thought very deeply and, I imagined as the seconds ticked by, even painfully. She must have pictured me dying and the ensuing events, including the arrival of the ambulance and the taking away of my body.
“Well,” she said, “you had better not ever do to yourself what Mrs. Palmer – we’re led to believe – did to herself. But if you were hauled away from here and were really and truly gone, with nothing that anyone could do about it, I do believe that maybe I’d stay right here at home. When I think about it, I guess I can’t think of a better thing to do.”
I didn’t say anything but just nodded and patted Julia’s hand, which she had placed on my shoulder.
“Of course,” she said, “I’d call the kids and give them the bad news. They’d all be here in a day or so . . .”
Julia continued a narrative on the events that would fall into place upon my demise. I looked back across the road. Dr. Palmer was on his tractor, cutting the grass.