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A Time to Speak

I stood at the curb and watched people filing into the funeral home. Our town's self-appointed celebrity, Kelly Sturgess, climbed out of her BMW and strolled towards the entrance. Two women I recognized from the parents' committee at the elementary school greeted her with eager waves and hurried to join her. They were all dressed in black--like a murder of crows. Kelly, sleek and immaculate in her suit, made me want to go home and brush the cat hairs off my pants and iron my shirt.

I'd been trying to talk myself out of going to this funeral for two days, and the sight of Kelly and her entourage eliminated the last vestiges of any indecision I may have had. I woke up with a killer migraine, I thought, already planning my excuse. I had to leave. Ended up spending the whole day in bed.

"Hey, I was hoping I'd see you before I went in."

I turned to see my friend, Carly, walking towards me. I shook my head. "I don't think I can do this," I said. "I had a monster headache when I got up this morning. I took something, but it's not getting any better. I'm going home to lie down."

Carly stopped to rummage in her purse. "Here you go. My last Darvocet. You'll be smiling in no time."

"Shit, Carly. Truth is, I just don't want to go."

"And you figure I do? If you think I'm looking forward to watching Steve do the grieving widower routine, you need more than that Darvocet." She rubbed her bare arms and glanced around. "I should have worn a jacket. Hey, do you think her kids will be there?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. Probably."

"Well, they'll need some hugs and a few kind words. Kelly and her associates will be too busy consoling Steve to pay any attention to the kids. Come on. Keep me company. Please?"

"All right. Let's go."

Neither one of us said anything until we got to the door. Just before we went in, Carly put her hand on my arm and turned to face me. Her eyes filled with tears. "Why didn't we do anything?" she asked. "Why didn't we help her?" Then, without waiting for my answer, she walked into the chapel.

That's why I didn't want to come. I knew someone would say those questions out loud--the ones plaguing me like an insistent toddler since the night they found Lise in her van, parked by the lake.

Steve told everyone that Lise went shopping that morning. He said that he was used to her marathon mall trips and didn't become concerned until she missed supper. Shock joined disbelief when we learned that she wasn't wearing any makeup or jewelry when they found her body, surrounded by three empty vials of prescription drugs and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels. Everyone knew that Lise wouldn't even go down the driveway to her mailbox without putting on her makeup and rings.

Carly had phoned me the next morning. "They must have had a terrible fight," she said. "For her to leave like that."

"I suppose. Maybe she didn't give a shit about anything anymore." I didn't know what else to say, and talking about Lise was making me feel claustrophobic with grief and guilt. My monosyllabic answers and lack of enthusiasm kept the conversation short, and I hung up a few minutes later. I should have talked to Carly, I guess. My words couldn't help Lise anymore, but there were things I needed to say--things that I knew about Lise. Not because we had been best friends or anything. She didn't have any close friends. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, that's all. I went to her door one night to drop off some stuff from the fund-raiser we were doing for the school library.

I still can't believe she answered the door in her condition. I sure wouldn't have, but I guess she was in shock. At first I thought it was lipstick smeared across her face, but then I realized it was blood from a split lip. Mascara ran down her face like black claw marks and her hair was all messed up. I caught a glimpse of her two kids cowering behind the couch in the living room.

She tried to wave me away and shut the door, but I edged past her and walked right in. I led her into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Then I got a washcloth from the bathroom and cleaned her up as if she was one of my kids and not the wife of the police sergeant. "There you go," I said. "It looks nasty, but it's not. You're going to be just fine."

She didn't say a word until I set a cup of tea on the table in front of her. "He's never hit me before," she whispered and touched her lip as if she didn't quite believe that the unthinkable had happened. "I don't know what set him off." She looked at me and her eyes pleaded with me to understand. "He's under a lot of pressure at work, you know. The whole department is, but he's in charge, and that's the worst." She took another sip of tea and winced. "It won't happen again," she said, almost to herself. "I'll make sure it doesn't."

"You should put some ice on that. Keep the swelling down."

"What am I going to tell everyone? A note of hysteria crept into her voice. "I can't tell them the truth. How can I tell them the truth?"

I shook my head. "Why not? You can get help. I'll help you."

"I can't," she said and stood up. "You'd better go. I'm sorry but you can't be here when he comes back. It wouldn't be, it would just…."

I finished the sentence for her. "Make things worse, right?"

"You won't say anything will you? Please don't tell anybody."

That was my time to speak and I paused, struggling to find the words to explain why I had to tell someone. Why I couldn't just walk away as if nothing had happened. Instead, I told her what she needed and wanted to hear. "I won't say anything unless you want me to."

My reassurance allowed her to take a deep breath. "You know, SteveWants me to see someone. A psychiatrist or something. He says I'm depressed.Not myself."

I felt like saying, yeah, good idea, but send the prick to the shrink instead. Maybe they'll lock him up. I nodded. "I think talking to someone is a great idea."

We didn't see her for a few days. At school, I cornered her little boy, and he said she had the flu. She showed up towards the end of the week with a story about the swinging door between her kitchen and dining room. I stood there while she told the other moms, and amidst the sympathetic groans and smiles, I caught her staring at me. I forced myself to smile and nod to confirm my promise from that night.

She started joining the rest of us for coffee after we dropped our kids off, something she'd never done before. "My doctor told Steve I needed to get out more, so I asked Steve if I could spend a little time with you guys in the morning. He said sure, as long as I still got everything done at home." She grinned and threw up her hands in mock distress. "You know men."

You're wrong, I thought. That's not a man. That's an asshole. As the others laughed in friendly agreement, Carly shot me a look as if I'd spoken out loud.

"Hey, Lise, why don't you come for a walk with a few of us after we finish our coffee?" Carly said.

Lise stared at the table and traced the top of her cup with her index finger. "Oh, I don't think so. I told Steve I'd be home by nine-thirty. He'll probably call."

"Sure, no problem. Maybe another time."

When I left the coffee shop that morning, Lise walked out to the parking lot with me. "How come you never go for a walk with the others?" she asked.

I laughed. "I avoid exercise when at all possible. How are you doing these days?"

"The doctor I'm seeing is helping a lot. Things are going much better." She hesitated. "Especially at home." I guess she was trying to tell me that there hadn't been any more split lips or whatever. I should have asked her if she told the doctor what happened that night, but I didn't. Shit, ever since she died, all I seem to say to myself is, I should have done this or I should have done that.

I phoned her a few days later and asked her to come shopping with me."I'm getting a new dress for the awards banquet at the country club this Friday. You guys are members, right? I figure you'd be going. Why don't you come along and get one, too?"

For a second, I thought the line had gone dead. "Lise, are you still there?"

"Yeah, I'm here, but I can't go today. I've got too much to do, and besides, I told Steve I'd be home all day. I could probably go tomorrow, though. I haven't bought any clothes for ages. I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

That's why, when I heard Steve's story about her going shopping the day she died, I knew it was bullshit. I seriously doubted she'd ever been shopping all day in her life--at least not during her life with him. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that if she needed something, she asked him for the money and hoped for the best. I hung up that day and thought that maybe she'd been right. He wouldn't hit her again. He didn't need to.

I kept asking her to get together, but she almost always said no. Around Thanksgiving, she stopped having coffee with the group. Too busy getting ready for the holidays, she told us. When I phoned, she couldn't, or wouldn't, talk. A few times, I drove by her house, but the sight of Steve's police cruiser kept my foot on the gas.

Steve stopped to help me change a flat tire in front of the post office one day. He had the kids with him. I listened to him patiently explain to his little boy what he was doing and reassure his little girl that yes, they would still stop for ice cream. I wondered for a moment if perhaps I had created a monster that didn't exist. After all, she did tell me he had never hit her before.

Possibilities crowded my mind. Maybe the doctor was helping her--helping them both. Maybe it had been unbearable stress that reduced him to a despicable act? Who was I to question the spending habits and routine of a married couple I knew only from social encounters? When I saw the mixture of awe and affection on the little boy's face as he stared up at his father, I couldn't help but wonder if my unspoken accusations were the product of my own need to feel important.

The sight of Lise at the grocery store one night refreshed my fears like a spring rain. She had lost weight, but it was the expression on her face that disturbed me. She didn't even try to act as though everything was okay, anymore.

One day, just before Christmas, I decided to talk to Carly. "Lise looks like crap, and she acts like she's in some kind of fog. I don't think that doctor's doing her any good, and I've got serious doubts about Steve being any help at all."

"I've been thinking the same thing, but I remember when my brother wasbeing treated for depression, it seemed to take forever for them to find the right meds. Have you tried talking to her?"

"Yeah, but she doesn't want to talk. Besides, when do we see her anymore?" I shook my head in disgust. "She wasn't depressed until Steve decided she was. Maybe she has some problems, but I still think he's the biggest one."

"So what do we do?"

"I don't know. I honestly don't know."

"Tell you what," Carly said. "It's only three days until Christmas. Let's get that over with, and then somehow we'll find a way to talk to her. We'll do it together."

I agreed quickly, distracted by my own thoughts of getting ready for the holidays. "Sure. Sounds good."

We never had to figure out how to find a way to have that talk. Lise made it possible for us all to stop worrying about her when she killed herself on Christmas Eve.

Carly and I slipped into a pew at the back of the chapel. During the service, she elbowed me and drew my attention to Kelly and the others, all listening with grave, attentive faces and nodding at appropriate moments. When I saw Kelly lay a sympathetic hand on Steve's shoulder, I shook my head, dismissing her. For once, I didn't give a shit about Kelly and her façade. I had missed my time to speak, and now I couldn't bear to listen, so I sat and stared at the pamphlet I'd been given at the door. "Lise Ellen Rogers- The Celebration of a Life," it said on the cover. I couldn't help but wonder what the hell we were celebrating.

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