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Home: The Toast

Molly Minturn’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.

When I showed up for my interview at the magazine, I was perfectly on time. The chapel clock chimed as I put my hand on the doorknob. Before I could turn it, the door opened and I saw Kevin, the managing editor, for the first time. The way I’ve framed it sounds like something out of a romantic comedy, but instead of romance I felt something familial when I saw his face. He looked at me like we shared a secret—that’s the only way I know how to put it. His eyes actually twinkled. I stood there on the step, my mind flashing to vintage images of Santa Claus. But Kevin wasn’t jolly, a fact for which I was grateful, because neither was I.

He gave me a tour of the office, which was housed in one of the oldest buildings at the university. The general atmosphere was threadbare yet confident—WASPy, really. The wooden floors were so worn that some planks looked white, like birch trees. Each room had a fireplace, though none of them worked, which, in the end, was an apt metaphor for the soul of the place. The mantel in the main room was lined with copper Ellies, a kind of cold fire.

I remember how well dressed he was for my interview, his pressed blue shirt and loafers. When I got to know him better, I understood that he cared about his appearance even when it seemed like he hated everything in the world. In the nightmares I had about him dying before he died, he had hanged himself in his office, and he was always wearing a suit.

***

Kevin's office

I reported to Kevin for my job, copyediting long, lugubrious pieces about war for the magazine, processing author payments, reading poems from all over the country. For all of the voices flowing into the magazine through submissions, the office was often silent, each of us in a separate bell jar. Sometimes the editor would give me a message for Kevin rather than speaking to him himself, or vice versa. I remember walking down the dark hall in between their offices, looking at the small window high up at one end. The silence of that space felt like church.

My desk faced the fireplace and back door, the chapel through the window to my left. On rare days the chapel bells chimed on the seventh dissonant chord for funerals of the university’s preeminent secret society members. I remember looking at Waldo, my coworker who sat right behind me, and we would raise our eyebrows at each other. “The Sevens,” I would whisper and he would nod knowingly. I remember pressing myself against the window hoping to see a Seven, whose membership in the society was not to be revealed until after death. There was never anyone standing in front of the chapel.

In those moments I felt as though I’d arrived at the job I’d always envisioned for myself; it was like something out of a Laurie Colwin novel. Her protagonists often found themselves in outdated, moody offices performing obscure research and administrative tasks. “It didn’t take me long to love my job at the Race Music Foundation,” says Geraldine Coleshares in my favorite of Colwin’s books, Goodbye Without Leaving. “I did my work, which required familiarity and devotion—I had plenty of those—and did not call for special skills, of which I had none.” 

I felt that way—unremarkable and lucky, cocooned in manuscripts and invoices, perfectly unseen. It was the same feeling I’d had at the cubby desks in the stacks of my college library, walled in by books, watching the sky darken through the skinny windows, which reminded me of castle arrow-loops.

In Kevin I felt a kinship in the sense that he, too, was comfortable being unseen. He was the quiet heartbeat of the office—the first to arrive in the mornings, the last to leave. He was the one who turned the lights on and off. I thought of him as the man behind the curtain (pay no attention). If I was sloppy or hasty in my work, I could count on him to walk to my desk, brow furrowed, with a pointed question, and just as quickly disappear back into his office. I could hear the floorboards creak in my mind before he even made his approach.

But what is it, this urge to be largely unseen? In college I’d read Jane Kenyon’s long poem, “Having it Out with Melancholy,” and for years, three lines from the first section hung in my mind: “And from that day on/ everything under the sun and moon/ made me sad.” Like a little ghost, the words hovered close by. Everything makes me sad, they whispered—a purple crocus blooming, a confused old man in the park, the hundreds of poems I rejected each year.

Kevin was the same, and didn’t keep his depression a secret. He would sometimes tell me about his insomnia, his trouble finding medication that worked. Occasionally he had to take a day off if he was too blue to come in, but so did I from time to time.

***

office doors interior

For my first two years at the job, there were more good days than bad. I learned early on that Kevin, who lived alone, liked to cook. He invited my husband and me to dinner parties—elaborate, old-fashioned dinner parties with multiple courses and ingredients I had only vaguely heard of—tenderloin with chimichurri sauce, cherry clafoutis. The parties always began with an amuse bouche, carried tenderly to the table by Kevin, the components of the night’s dishes all foretold in a delicate bundle.

When El Bulli closed I sent him an email about it with the subject line, “Tragic.” He answered with an image of Alinea’s menu. What exactly is venison with fireplace log? or transparency of raspberry & yogurt? or eggnog with buffalo trace? he wrote.

We spent New Year’s Eves together—a holiday that I have always dreaded, the same way I dread spring. It is a holiday for the young, the idealistic, the confident, the way spring is a season for the beautiful people.

We reclaimed New Year’s Eve and made it about elaborate meals and parlor games. Some years, he would even put on party hats. One picture I still have of him from New Year’s Eve, 2008. Kevin is wearing a tall, cone-shaped hat, golden, with clocks running up the sides, reminiscent of the Mad Hatter. He is looking away from the camera, but he is almost smiling. He is the jester and the sage, a reminder of time passing, of his time passing.

In early 2009, I discovered I was pregnant. I told Kevin I when I was only eight weeks along. He’d noticed me hunched over my desk, green, eating entire boxes of Wheat Thins and nothing else for a week straight. In his quiet office, which to me always felt safe, like a giant wooden shoebox, I told him my news and asked him to keep it to himself until I was into my second trimester. He felt like family then, like my future baby’s godfather or uncle. We shared a secret together.

A week later, work was slow in the office. We’d just finished an issue; the interns had little to do and so they circled the table of books up for review next to my desk. One held up a book of poetry about the apocalypse. “What would you do if zombies took over?” he asked.

Waldo replied first, describing the homestead he had planned and the hundreds of jars of preserved fruits and vegetables he and his wife already had stacked in their cellar.

Kevin had come into the room at this point and stood in the background, amused.

“I think for me, I’d end it quickly,” I said. “Some bourbon and a shotgun should do the trick.”

“But what about the baby?” Kevin asked. Everyone turned to him and then turned slowly to me. Kevin clapped his hands over his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut. He then started—and I could tell he was desperately trying not to—to shake with laugher.

It was so good to see him laugh I couldn’t feel angry. When he was happy, whether it was that day in the office, or sitting at the head of the table at a dinner party, the large, uncovered windows of his apartment spread out behind him like a black ocean, I felt a peace. It was like faith, that happiness. When I saw it in him, my own path forward through gloom seemed possible.

***

hallway

In 2010 the job shifted, clenched. Cloistered as we were behind the centuries-old bricks at the university, we worried about the recession, some convinced the magazine would be shut down at any moment. Higher-ups began making plans for the future of the magazine that did not necessarily include the current staff. I had never felt quite so disposable before, nor so stupid. Who did I think I was, working as an editor for a literary magazine? I was a fraud. Everything makes you sad, I thought, as I reviewed job listings.

For Kevin, in his early 50s, who had moved across the country to work at the magazine, who had been depressed for decades longer than I had, it was much worse. “There was a moment during my working hours in the late afternoon when a kind of panic and anxiety overtook me, just for a few minutes, accompanied by a visceral queasiness,” William Styron writes in Darkness Visible, his memoir about depression. I saw that in Kevin, as he increasingly left work early, glancing at us before he shut the door, his eyes somehow both frenzied and dull.

Styron describes a phenomenon for those in a deep depression as “the sense of being accompanied by a second self—a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it.” It was in these months that I began having nightmares about Kevin ending his life. “It will be all right,” I remember saying to him on the phone one of of the worst days. The words sounded hollow to me as they went over the line. I don’t think he responded.

In the last week of his life, Kevin dressed beautifully in crisp white shirts with cufflinks. I remember one moment as he was sitting by my desk giving me more and more responsibilities to take on (why did I not see this for what it was?), his skin was almost glowing against his shirt. All that was missing was a Panama hat. In that moment he seemed rich, royal. I think about what he knew then, how he was the only one in the world who knew it, how powerful that must have made him feel.

“I had not as yet chosen the mode of my departure, but I knew that step would come next, and soon, as inescapable as nightfall,” Styron writes.

On that Monday, my husband and I had Kevin to dinner to talk about the difficulties at work. He sat on our couch and bounced our daughter, then nine months old, on his knee. Hey, kiddo, he said again and again. She pawed at his face—it was one she recognized. On Friday, he shot himself on the other side of town, alone behind a thin border of trees.

***

I remember walking away from the office after we got the news, walking up Rugby Road with my father to my parents’ house. A friend’s Valium kept me wrapped in cellophane. I turned to my father as we passed Westminster Canterbury church, whose cloister normally made me calm and nostalgic whenever I walked by, and I said, I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything. It was around five in the evening at that point. The sun in July in Virginia gets trapped in the sidewalk; by the end of the day we all may as well be in a terrarium. I thought of him then, thought of his body, whether it was still on the ground, whether it was swollen in the heat.

I wish I could say something wise about suicide, but all I know is that the aftermath feels like a vacuum, like a face contorted, like a great shouting snuffed out. They take all suicides to Richmond, Waldo said as we sat in the office after we got the news. With that, Kevin had turned into something else entirely, an archetype, one in a long string of paper dolls.

In the weeks after his death, he appeared in my dreams, always in his gray overcoat, sometimes in his spectacles. Two nights after he died was the clearest dream—we had a long conversation midway up the hill in Iowa City that leads away from the river up to the center of town. Though I’d only known Kevin in Virginia, he used to tell me about his old life in Minneapolis, and his childhood in Wisconsin. I think he felt safest in the Midwest. His ashes are now under a tree in Wisconsin.

There were trees in the dream, trees all around us, like the trees in The Wizard of Oz that suddenly come to life. It was autumn on the hill, and the leaves behind and above us turned to orange as he spoke to me: “The report,” he said, and handed me a binder. I held it in my hands and the papers glowed from within, but I wasn’t allowed to open it—I could feel that I wasn’t. I can still see the dream behind my eyes; we are standing on the sidewalk at a pitch, my eyes focused on his dark gray coat, his face alive, but smudged, the most important information in the world in my hands. I woke feeling the way I used to when I served as an altar girl in church—like I had breathed holy dust.

Several weeks later some of us gathered for dinner at Waldo’s house far out in the country. We sat on his porch with his old, wizened dogs at our feet. The sky smeared above like oil paint, plugged with stars that held greater meaning for me in those scorched weeks. I was staring up at them when Waldo dragged a box onto the porch and flipped on the overhead light. The box was filled with Kevin’s things, things Waldo thought we might want. Each item, like the stars, felt important—a small cutting board, an iPod Shuffle, LL Bean waffle shirts. (Some things really did get to the heart of him— notebooks full of recipes, letters to the love of his life, unopened letters from his mother.) I was poring over his papers and didn’t notice at first what Waldo had pulled from the bottom, but then I did: the gray overcoat from the dream. He may as well have pulled Kevin’s body from the box.

I’d gone to his home two days after his death, after we got a key from his apartment company. I expected signs of torment—an overturned table, perhaps, or even just food left out to rot, but everything was calm. His bed was made with the sheets turned down, like in a hotel. The bedside light was on. His laptop was on, too, and I nosily woke it up and read the documents on the screen. One was a resignation letter from the magazine, never sent, the other was his suicide note, a copy of which was found beside his body, along with his driver’s license. He’d tried to make it somewhat easy for the first responders, even calling in his own shooting to 911 right beforehand.

I went home after the dinner at Waldo’s and waded into old emails, as if they would give me an answer to why he did it or where he was now. He’d written to me in the midst of one of the largest snowstorms to ever hit the city, a day when I’d been worried about Kevin, who was alone. But he’d made it in to work, of course, the only employee to reach the office that day. “If you need to escape the house, feel free to stop by. It’s very quiet here,” he’d written.

I remembered the day I’d received that email, how I’d been distracted by my baby at my side, bouncing in her chair, staring at her hands. Her sweetness absorbed some of the sadness that used to hang from me, evaporated it. Briefly I saw Kevin in the silent office, the small glow of his desk lamp. I turned back to my daughter.

That same day, he’d emailed his favorite poem. I read it again that summer night, my desk light the only illumination in the house. Certain lines made me turn around to see if he was standing behind me in my study.

Let the old sorcerer know what he knows, /Let the grave child befriend the immortal bird; At the end of every storybook, it snows.

I went to the window to check for snow, ghosts, or God, any of which would have felt more reasonable than a smooth, empty driveway and sun setting over the Blue Ridge just the way it was supposed to.

***

Kev

A few years after his death I stood with my daughter in the park, at the very edge of the playground where the rubber surface ends and the pine needles begin. Beyond was a row of sinewy pine trees and a hill that seemed to envelop children. She crossed over and stood in the orange needles, her little feet sinking slightly into the earth. I followed her, the air turning cool as soon as I stood beneath the pines, the sound of children’s voices echoing from below, where they built teepees and shimmied up trees.

I remembered my own childhood then, the days before depression, where I spent long evenings with neighborhood friends, walking the length of the brook behind our houses, watching katydids skirt the water, poking grass and leaves into the cages behind the neighbor’s barn, the small white rabbits inside pressed up against each other like cotton, shaking. Just before dark we would play sardines—one person hiding, the rest of us searching and then disappearing—the little prick of terror to realize you were the last one, listening to your own breath as you search the shed, beneath the station wagon, the neighbor’s boat moored in the yard.

That’s what depression was like, years later, that same feeling—my own breath like a taunt.

My daughter and I returned to the playground, the sun seeping down once more. A boy about four years old emerged from the woods and came to a stop beside us. He gently tugged on my shirt. “There’s bears in there,” he said to me, solemnly. The trees seemed to shift before us, turning inward, the way they do in fairy tales when children become further and further lost. “Don’t get dead,” the small boy said.

It was good, plain advice. I wish I had said it to you, no matter how unspeakable it felt. You roll your eyes and shift uncomfortably. I miss you, I say. The trees say nothing.

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Molly Minturn's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Boston Review, The Awl, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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