The Family Hanged
Leonard Grimely hung himself in the family garage on a bright Spring morning, as the robins perched outside sang nearly in tune with the creaking of the rope from which his body gently swung. The first one to find him was Rupert Brownez, a neighbor who had come by in his brown fishing hat and suspender-shorts to borrow a weed-wacker. Rupert tried to lift the garage door and, upon finding it locked, cupped his hands around his eyes and tried to peer through the glass pane and into the garage.
“Leonard,” he called out with his face pressed against the small window. “Leonard, what are you doing? Come and open the door. I can see you standing there. Leonard!” For Leonard Grimely had been quite a tall man, leaving the tips of his toes just scraping against the cement floor and causing him, if seen in poor lighting and through the weak eyes of Mr. Brownez, to look as though he were indeed standing in the far-left corner of the garage. Standing with a bowed head and sagging shoulders and seeming to rhythmically sway on his feet, but standing nonetheless.
Leonard hadn’t left a note before he died, something that the rest of the neighbors noted with an affable shake of the head. “Lazy old Leonard,” they chuckled. Judith Grimely answered with a wan smile, her eyes on the ground and her hands resting on the heads of her two young children. Weighing on her mind were several of the new difficulties that had welcomed her into widowhood, chief among them the costs of purchasing a coffin and having a burial and tracking down her late husband’s will and having it looked over by an attorney, not that she expected him to have had much to leave. Not to mention the issue of getting rid of the body in the first place. She would have to have somebody cut Leonard down and drive him down to the morgue, where he’d have to be kept till the funeral could be arranged. And would the owners of the morgue bill her as long as she kept a dead husband with them? She wasn’t sure.
“So in the end I decided it all simply wasn’t worth the trouble,” as Judith later recounted to her friends as she explained her decision to leave Leonard’s body right where it was, hanging from the ceiling in the garage. “He isn’t in any-body’s way, after all,” she added, and this much was true, for Leonard, whether intentionally or through simple chance, had hung himself in the upper-left corner of the garage, an out-of-the-way spot away from the tools and the lights switch and the garage door opener, where there was little chance of the careless or sight-impaired bumping into him, and where Judith wouldn’t ever have to move his body out of the way as she drove the car in and out.
So leave him she did, even after it soon came out that Leonard had purchased a lucrative life insurance policy before he died, granting some measure of comfort and security to the family and even permitting Judith to make their lives a bit more opulent than they had been. By then, Leonard’s body had become something of a household ornament, a more interesting topic of conversation and a more familiar presence than either the children or the neighbors could recall him having ever been before. The children took to showing the body off to their friends, telling ever more embellished tales about how they had been the first ones to discover their father’s suicide, or even how they had personally witnessed it. Sometimes, when their lurid descriptions and crescendoing voices had brought their audience of friends and other neighborhood children leaning forward in anticipation, they would quickly seize the corpse’s limbs and lunge forward, waving a clammy arm or leg at the younger or more squeamish of the other children until the rope grew taut and pulled the three of them back.
It was only through Peter and Delilah’s intervention that Judith did not finally have their father disposed of after all, once his body had started to decay and the putrescent stench threatened to give way to festering maggots and chunks of flesh sloughing off onto the floor like rancid pancake batter, as her mind’s eye threatened. But young Peter and Delilah persisted and pleaded until their mother at last gave in, partially to appease them and partially to prevent them from making any more of a scene in front of her guests, which included a handsome and young-looking man who had been introduced as a doctor.
“But,” she hissed once she had dragged the children off into the kitchen, "only if you take care of him yourselves. And I mean keeping him clean and presentable and for God’s sake, do something about the smell. If I have to lift so much as a finger, it’ll be to take your father out of the fridge or off the noose and be rid of him for good!”
So Peter and Delilah took Leonard’s body and did the most thorough job of cleaning it that they could imagine, which turned out to be little more than washing the suspended corpse with the garden hose as one child aimed it and the other held their thumb against the nozzle to create a narrow and pressurized jet, and dousing the entire garage in the most saccharine perfume they could plunder from their mother’s room. When it soon became clear that even these efforts would not be enough, they pooled together all the savings they’d accrued from allowances and odd jobs for the neighbors that Judith had always pushed them into to get them out of the house and bought the biggest freezer they could afford. It was still a rather small freezer, but was just big enough to accommodate even Leonard if they only folded him up slightly. Here they kept him during the night and most of the day until they wanted to show him off to guests. If they only wanted to admire him themselves, they were usually content to leave him crumpled in the freezer, rubbing the fabric of his suit like a good-luck charm or daring one another to stick their fingers in his mouth and pull the gums into a grotesque smile before gigglingly letting them snap back into place.
Over time the children began to take their father out less and less, and their mother all but forgot about him. Within a few weeks they were only thinking of him on the occasional Friday evening, then perhaps only once or twice in a month. By the time Halloween came around it had been so long that the children could scarcely remember when they had last seen their father. Their mother, when they complained that they hadn’t any decorations for the house, offhandedly suggested that they might use Leonard for this purpose, if they still had him around somewhere. So Peter and Delilah took out the stiff corpse of their father and carefully unfolded him and strung him up on the porch with some old Christmas lights that they hoped might look somewhat frightening if one remembered that it was Halloween rather than Christmas and managed to view them from the right angle. For added effect, they even tied fishing line to Leonard’s wrists and hoisted his arms above his head to lend him a ferocious look. But even this, which surely would have delighted them once, seemed quite dull and insufficient for the few moments they had to examine their handiwork before Judith chased them away to go trick-or-treating around the neighborhood when a gaggle of her friends and neighbors, including the handsome doctor, arrived in costume. The doctor came wearing a white coat with a stethoscope slung around his neck, which Judith emphasized was delightfully witty. As the children lept off the front porch they ran into Mr. Brownez walking by with his own three children. “Still got old Leonard, have you?” He chuckled. “How’s he holding up these days?”
By the next year, Judith had married the handsome doctor and taken the children with her into his larger and more luxurious home. When she sold the house, she briefly mentioned “the body in the garage” to the Niemmans, the young couple moving in, and wrote them a small check of her new husband’s money that they might dispose of it as they pleased.
She dropped the house keys into one of their hands--she didn’t note whose--and let the both of them shrink and disappear in the passenger mirror of her new husband’s car as he drove off. The young couple stood in the driveway for a brief time before awkwardly turning their attention to the rest of the house, passing through each room and inspecting them as deliberately as they could before finally feeling obligated to inspect this body Mrs. Grimley had warned them about. They entered the garage to find it dimly illuminated--even with the solitary light bulb switched on--and nearly empty save for a small rectangular container--nearly square--in the far corner. It was only on getting a closer look at the object, as well as the electrical cord that snaked out from its edge, that they found it to be a refrigerator laying on its side. They stood there for a few more moments, each periodically shooting glances at the other until at last their eyes met and, as one, they steeled their resolve.
The couple drove the body, still bent and crumpled inside its refrigerator, to the landfill on the outskirts of town. They had briefly discussed whether it might be more appropriate to use Mrs. Grimley’s money to have him taken away and buried, but convinced each other that it was just as well, and rather more economical, if they handled the situation themselves. When they reached the landfill the husband got out and helped the wife carefully back into the edge of the towering refuse pile without allowing the tires to become stuck in it. When they had gotten as close as they felt possible the wife stepped out of the vehicle and they both took hold of the refrigerator and, on the count of three, tossed it into a spot on the garbage mound that seemed just concave enough to fit their cargo. The refrigerator nearly stuck the landing, shifting in the pile no more than a few inches before coming to a rest where it remained as the last remnants of snow dotting the edges of the landfill melted away to be eventually replaced by the autumn leaves that blew in from the nearby trees. The young couple settled comfortably into their new house as their family began to grow, and as Peter and Delilah grew up and into families of their own, Peter finding himself with two daughters and Delilah with two sons. These children--with the exception of Peter’s youngest, who was born after Judith’s divorce and subsequent remarriage--considered the doctor to be their true grandfather; not through any deliberate inculcation from their elders, but rather because those elders had by then largely forgotten anything to the contrary, and if they ever did remember they did not mention it.
Shortly after Judith died in the hospital, Peter and Delilah went to what had been her latest residence, an apartment in a comfortable spot uptown, and began to divide up her belongings according to her last will and testament. When they had split up the silver, the sparse furniture, when the cross-patterned rug had gone to Delilah, they found a small box tucked away in the back of the bedroom closet and full of photographs. Their mother had never mentioned anything about photographs, and there had been nothing in the will. The first of the photos, at the front of the box, was black and white and showed a young girl in pigtails sitting on the lap of an older woman who looked stern beneath her wrinkles. Delilah divined that the girl must be Judith in her childhood. The woman, perhaps her own grandmother? They passed through the row of pictures, pausing now and again to take in those that were particularly intriguing. They’d passed onto color photos by now--a teenage Judith resting a violin against her cheek; then a few years older and standing amid a crowd of peers in black gowns below a cloud of graduation caps.
Then there was a strange man, standing with a plainly adult Judith this time. He stood tall, having to slightly bend over to fit into frame with Judith, who had wrapped her hands around his forearm and rested her head just below his shoulder. Both of them were smiling, and in such an open and carefree way that Peter and Delilah took several moments to recognize their own mother, and longer still to finally know the man beside her.
“Is that--” Peter hesitated, but Delilah guessed what he meant to say. “It’s Leonard.” She took the photograph between her thumb and forefinger. “Whatever happened to him?”
Peter shrugged. They decided to throw the pictures away. They hadn’t been left to anybody, and neither could think of a use for them. The photographs found their way to the landfill at the edge of town, where a controlled fire had been set to eat away at the overflowing mass. The picture of Leonard and Julia, caught by a lucky gust of wind, was propelled upward and into a small pocket that the fire had yet to reach, and so it lasted a short time longer than the others. But eventually the first staccato licks of the flame caught up to it, making it curl inwards into a darkened and shriveled imitation of what it was, much as Leonard’s body, buried somewhere in the same mound of filth, must have done years ago, and the man himself still before.
Paul Vivian was raised in Illinois, educated in the Twin Cities, and recently returned from living in rural West Africa. This is his first published piece.