Billy Joel McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The haunting details of The Ode to Billy Joel are a puzzle. We know he and a girl, who looked like her, threw something off the bridge. But we aren’t told what they tossed. The brother mentions seeing this couple chatting after Sunday church. Did they have a lover’s spat? Bobby Gentry does not explain why. She tells us more about this particular day and the family than she does about Billy Joel. In a Rolling Stones article, it said she wanted her listeners to reach their own conclusion. The important thing was showing this family’s indifference to his suicide. But I’d still like to know the why.
Has there ever been a perfect family, like the Cleavers? My own was dysfunctional, like All in the Family. My sister was born seven years after me. Martha was still an infant when she went into convulsions before the doctor arrived. (When doctors still made house calls!) She survived and got average grades in school. Yet, she sometimes did odd things. Like putting the milk away in the cereal cabinet. Not a big deal, but what thinking person does that? Then, she threatened me with a serrated knife when she was in high school. I thought this unforgivable, but our lives went on. We never grew close.
After Martha graduated, she took courses to become a respiratory therapist. She moved in with a boyfriend after a family argument. Mom begged me to invite my sister into my home. Though reluctant, I did and she moved in with me. Her constant rearrangement of my things drove me crazy. I was happy when she got her medical license, then a hospital job and her own apartment.
A year or two later, Martha had a son she named Eric. Though unmarried, she allowed Jerry to take their son for weekend visits. After one of these, my sister called me. “I think he’s sexually abusing Eric. I found a pubic hair on his blanket.”
Six months later, Martha married Jerry. I thought she was crazy. Why would you marry someone you had accused of being a sexual deviant? Busy raising my own children, I didn’t see much of my sister except at family gatherings. More than a decade later, she called one day and said, “You know more about computers than I do. Jerry is helping some woman install a hard drive. What use is one of those?”
The couple divorced not many months after she called me. The 911 tragedy had a tremendous impact on my sister. She watched the news clips over and over. Martha became paranoid. She insisted her phone was wire tapped and that someone was spying on her. I told Mom that she should suggest counseling to Martha, and I began avoiding her. Exiting a room when she entered it. My sister-in-law listened to Martha’s rants, then, shaking her head, would tell me what had been said.
Martha failed to keep up with the continuing education requirements, so she lost her license. The hospital insisted my sister attend counseling. Martha finally went and also returned to school, so she could get re-certified. I thought she had her life back under control.
Angry at me, Mom called my 17-year-old daughter at 11 pm on Independence Day. After she got off the phone, Tessa told me, “Martha was supposed to help work at a bingo tonight. She didn’t come. Grandma said her answering machine is full. Martha kicked Eric out in April, so she wants me to go over there right away.”
I didn’t understand why Mom didn’t go herself. She lived much closer. Lump in my stomach, I found my car keys. “You’re not going there. I’ll do it.”
“I’d better go too or Grandma will get mad at me.”
Traffic was light on the expressway. I boosted my speed to 80 and kept it there. My daughter and I didn’t talk. The 30 some miles flew by. At last, we reached the mobile home park.
Car in the driveway. No lights on. Was Martha sleeping? We pounded on the front and back doors. She didn’t answer. All blinds drawn. Though it was in the 90s, her air conditioner was off.
“I have to call the police.”
Tessa said, “Let me call Ahren first. Maybe he’ll find a way to get inside.”
My eldest nephew lived in the next-door town. He arrived within 10 minutes but refused to try kicking the door down, so I called 911. Seeing lights across the street, Ahren went to ask if they had seen Martha. The neighbor said it had been several days.
The policeman did not arrive right away. This was not an emergency. At first, he didn’t want to break in. I repeated the same thing over and over to him. “Something is wrong. She lives by herself. Her car is parked here. Her answering machine is full. Something is wrong. Please, please break in.”
At last, he did. He found what we were dreading. Suicide.
The policeman wouldn’t let us inside. She’d been dead for at least two days. He asked, “Was Martha a meticulous housekeeper?”
I shrugged. He said, “Everything inside is spic-and-span. The bottle of her depression medication was empty. A prescription for more was on her dresser. She cut up her driver’s license. She placed its pieces beside an empty antifreeze bottle.”
One thing he couldn’t tell me was why.
Why suicide? Did her infant convulsions affect her mental state? Was there a problem with the hospital re-employing her? Was it because of her failed marriage? Jerry had recently filed suit for child support. Without a job, did this overwhelm her? Then, the hardest question of all: Was it because I wasn’t a good sister?
I don’t understand and doubt I ever will. But I’d still like to know the why.
Assignment: Chose a song of their own liking, do a bit of research on it and learn who wrote the song and why they wrote it. Find out how the song came about, then, write a short story based on that information.
Note: Our subject-matter expert, Ron Benedict, had discussed “The 10 Commandments of Short Story Writing”:
- Thou shall come up with a character, setting, or event
- Thou shall associate it with a strong emotion
- Thou shall have a main conflict
- Thou shall have an inciting incident or goal
- Thou shall have escalated tension
- Thou shall experiment with form and structure
- Thou shall hook with a strong beginning, and with strong action, insight, and opening line
- Thou shall draft a middle focus
- Thou shall not edit as thou goes nor have a backstory
- Thou shall write a memorable ending