Whatever Was Coming Next
Scot's Fun Challenge

The Winking Suicide

My father-in-law was a psychiatrist in the 1930s. He saw exclusively upper middle-class patients at his office in mid-town Manhattan all through the Great Depression. At first his practice was quite slow. The stock market had just crashed and Hoover was still offering Hooverish solutions to the crisis. So it was hardly surprising that those few who could still afford it still chose not to spare the funds for what was then often thought of as an outlandish indulgence at best, and at worst an interference with the sacrosanct intercourse of God, Man, and Nature. Many were the empty days my father-in-law spent sitting in his small office, in a tall building, facing the chair and the couch on which his patients would either sit or lie, according to their preference, when, and if, they ever came.

One supposes, of course, that he could have simply gone home on those empty days, to his apartment on the Upper Eastside, closer to the river than the park; but my father-in-law had his pride and his ethics. And speaking pragmatically, his home wasn’t much of a refuge. His wife would be there, of course, with their two young children, not to mention their maid Delores, who came to apartment every day but Sunday, and seemed to appraise my father-in-law with sharper eyes than he cared for. His wife’s father-- my father-in-law’s father-in-law—had wanted his daughter to marry a successful man of business like himself. To his mind, doctors, especially head doctors, were but tradesmen, slightly glorified— not that much glory could be gleaned from examining the addled craniums of the gullible.

One further supposes my father-in-law could’ve slipped away to a coffee shop or bar, where he might murder some of these empty hours of his workday, but he felt firmly compelled to stay, posted on his chair facing his patients’ chair and couch. Perhaps this compulsion was born of professionalism, but we might just as likely diagnose it as an obsession, or even catatonia. Or maybe it was a more simple fear, that if he were to abandon his post, even for a short while, he might forfeit his private practice, for which he had worked so hard, sacrificed so much, through so many hours, weeks, years of study, and furthermore, for which he had borrowed considerable thousands from his father-in-law to launch. To sneak away to the library, or wherever, might very well represent the first steps down a path of perdition, even though perdition, per se, was not an integral part of my father-in-law’s modern belief system.

One afternoon, near the end of another empty day, while sitting just so in his chair and imagining a patient he hadn’t yet acquired, my father-in-law heard a sharp rapping. He turned and stared at his office door, but when it sounded again, somewhat more insistently, he realized the racket wasn’t coming from the door at all, but rather the window.

He stood, somewhat stiffly—he had, after all, been sitting nearly motionless for hours—and went to the window. Drawing up the blinds, he found a man, a window washer, hooked to the window’s casing by thick leather straps attached to an even thicker leather belt. The man gave my father-in-law a friendly wave, and gestured solicitously for him to open the window, which my father-in-law, to his credit, did straight away.

“I’m sorry to bother you. But the office from which I exited appears to have closed early for the day. Your is my only other way back inside.”

“Oh dear,” said my father-in-law.

“May I enter?” the man asked.

“By all means, come in.” My father-in-law, stepped aside and gave a welcoming swing with his arm.

After adeptly unhooking his harness belt, the window washer tucked himself in through the window. Once fully upright and facing my father-in-law, he held out his hand, “Thanks muchly. I’m Sam.” He wore crisp gray twill coveralls over a black wool sweater over a white cotton shirt and tie.

My father-in-law, for his part, wore the double-breasted herring-bone suit with vest and gold Phi Betta Kappa tie tack that was his customary attire even when I knew him, decades later. He did not offer his hand or his name in return. Fraternizing with workmen was simply not done in those days.

The man seemed to understand and hastily retrieved his bucket of tools from the ledge just outside the open window. “Weather’s started kicking up, and I feel better being inside until it blows over,” he said after everything was collected and in hand.

“Ah,” my father-in-law replied. He worried that this man might mean to wait it out in his office.

The window washer briefly surveyed my father-in-law's wall of diplomas. “Some sort of doctor, I’d wager.”

“Why, yes. I’m a psychiatrist.”

“Ah, coconut cracker.” The man turned and smiled at my father-in-law to show himself a kidder.

“Yes, well, there is, unfortunately, a wide variety of slang disparagements for the serious work I do.”

“Geez, doc. I’m sorry. I meant no offense, surely. It’s just how types like you are referred to in my circles. But I can learn to do and say better, that’s a fact. I’m sure you do great work, and probably have plenty of it these days, what with all these rich slobs diving out of windows and such.”

My father-in-law examined the man’s face for signs of facetiousness but found none. “These are troubled times, indeed.”

“Too true, too true. Not that you’d ever catch me doing such a damned fool thing.”

“No, of course not.” My father-in-law had heard this sort of bluster before. “But why not, do you think?”

“Well, on the face of it,” the man said, “It’s a mortal sin, at least in my religion. But more than all that, I suppose I’m just one of those poor suckers who loves his children and looks upon it as my job to show them how to live, and when it comes to it, how to die.”

“What if you could make it look like an accident?” It was out of my father-in-law's mouth before he knew it.

The man stared at him, his jocular disposition abandoned. “Well… now… I suppose if a man could do it in in such a way as to never cast suspicion on himself, that might be a different matter, at least in the eyes of his children, if not the Almighty Himself.”

My father-in-law nodded, thoughtful. “I suppose you of all people might be in a perfect position to effect such a deception. “

The man frowned. “How do you mean?”

“Well…” My father-in-law could hardly believe he was saying it. “I suppose…”

“You suppose what exactly?”

“Well, please understand that I don’t profess to know the details of your work, but…” It was wildly inappropriate—indeed, irresponsible—for a man of my father-in-law’s profession to suggest, or facilitate, or even hypothesize idly about the ideation of self-harm. “One might suppose there are instances, when one is particularly vulnerable to the effects of gravity, that one could simply…” He paused a moment, genuinely wondering if he dared utter his notion.

“One could simply… what?”

“Let go.”

“Oh…” the man said softly.

My father-in-law repeated to himself softly. “One could simply let go.”

“No… I could never do that,” said the man.

My father-in-law re-adopted the authoritative tone of the educated expert. “No, of course not.” They regarded each other for a long moment in silence. My father-in-law grew uncomfortable. It was, after all, absurd to be conversing like this with an unknown workman. “I’m afraid I need to beg your pardon,” he said, finally. “My next patient is arriving imminently.”

The man gave my father-in-law the same sharp upward glance of appraisal that his maid Delores sometimes offered. It irked my father-in-law. He would not be judged by those below him in station. “Good day, sir. It was my pleasure,” he said curtly. And the man, with an equally brusque nod of his head, opened the office door and was gone.

My father-in-law, stood there, for a long quiet moment. His thoughts had abandoned him. Finally he spoke out loud to himself. “Let it go. It has no meaning.” He wasn’t about to start attributing significance to random occurrences, like some radical Swiss paraphysicist. And yet hours later he couldn’t shake the niggling intuition that there was something about this man, entering the room, his office, the seat of his consciousness, through a window, and not a proper door, that he found off-putting, decidedly disruptive, even deeply disturbing.

Days passed, week after week.

In the long blank stretches of time between the few appointments he managed to maintain, my father-in-law kept a vigil, staring out the bare window, the blinds of which he now always kept pulled up. The lot directly across the street from his window was vacant, creating a view of mostly sky, with a few tall buildings in the southern distance. It was a frankly unremarkable view, which only turned menacing upon extended scrutiny. At such times it morphed, for my father-in-law, into a squared-off, bifocaled cyclops eye.

Had it been any other time in my father-in-law’s life, or in the life of our nation, the window would have quickly lost all fascination for him, but as it was, my father-in-law had nothing but time, and even though he never saw anything except pigeons and twinkling lights of the far-off buildings when the darkness of evening began to seep in, still he stared through the banal aperture whenever he could. He began having Delores pack him sack lunches so he wouldn’t have to abandon his watch by going to the coffee shop or delicatessen. He unwrapped his sandwich at 11:30 and stared as he chewed.

My father-in-law understood that he was flirting with clinical obsession, but he couldn’t stop himself—and more concerning, he didn’t want to. He strongly suspected that there was a special mystery about this window, and it seemed to him that the nation’s coagulating stasis was offering up all the time in the world to solve it. This strange and utter dissolution of any normal or rational sense of time passing was manifest, not just for him, but nearly everyone. Days went by like minutes. Minutes passed as weeks. You were hard pressed to tell someone what month it was. “You came to your office in the morning and sat down,” he explained to me over cigars and brandy, decades later. “You stared out the window. It was lunchtime. You ate. Stared some more. It was night.”

At the end of one of these indistinguishable days, he went out the front door of his office building and turned to find a thick crowd gathered on the sidewalk several paces in front of him. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have piqued his interest-- crowds gathered all the time in the city, almost always for the most pedestrian of reasons—however, floating above the center of this crowd was the unmistakable peaked blue cap of a policeman. My father-in-law uncharacteristically asserted his way to where the cop was fatuously slapping his billy club into the meat of his palm, warning everyone back from a chalked outline on the sidewalk. The indicated shape reminded my father-in-law of the amoebae he had studied through a microscope in college. The large oblong had a smaller oblong protuberance at one end, across which was splattered a mess of lurid red, like spilled cherry syrup. “My god, what happened?” my father-in-law asked.

The cop ignored the inquiry, but a tiny man with a weasel face exclaimed, “What’s it look like? He fell.” My father-in-law looked up in the direction the weasel pointed and realized with a sudden lurch of his guts that his own office window was within the vertical path indicated.


“How should I know?” Somebody.”

“You said ‘he’.”

“Buddy, how should I know?”

A woman’s crass voice demanded: “Fell, or jumped?”

“Or pushed, for that matter,” the weasel eagerly pointed out.

“Nobody said nothing about ‘pushed’,” growled the cop.

Another man, better dressed and better spoken, said, “One thing’s certain. Given the state of the body before they hauled it away, that was some fall.” Again, my father-in-law's eyes scaled the long stack of windows. His office about half-way to the top, the blinds tightly lowered, as he always left them at the end of the day. Could someone have fallen past his view without him noticing? It seemed impossible. It made him dizzy. He staggered away from the scrum.

My father-in-law knew that the victim—if “victim” was even the right word—couldn’t have been his friend the window washer. (“Friend” was certainly not the right word in that case.) Beyond the obvious rational reasons, my father-in-law understood with a certainty that the universe did not deal in pat tragic connections like that. But he couldn’t help assigning the elsewhere corpse that man’s face regardless. He was unlikely to learn the actual identity of the “victim”. The newspapers didn’t even cover these kinds of stories anymore.

After a few blocks he slipped into a corner bar and ordered a shot of Canadian whiskey. Just like that— “Give me a shot of Canadian whiskey”— like he was some hard character in a picture show. And he belted it back, too. The warmth that glowed in his belly did seem to calm his jangled nerves, just like it seemed to for the denizens of the vast screen at the Roxy.

He left the bar as abruptly as he had gone into it, caught the Jamaica train the two stops to Lexington where he transferred to the Third Avenue El. He got a seat easily. The woman across from him read a paperback wrapped in a hand-stitched cloth cover: blonde, young, but by no means an ingenue. Most likely unbeknownst to her, the woman’s skirt had ridden up beneath her bottom, such that he could trace the seam of one stocking into the darkness formed at the crook of her knee. He unconsciously swallowed. His eyes slowly climbed the buttons of her high-collared coat to find her staring back at him. Was it a hint of amusement in her eyes, or breezy contempt? He glanced away immediately. His heart thumped. The train slowed into Third Avenue station. She stood. He became another person. With the insouciant finesse of some private dick in a Roxy picture show, my father-in-law timed it so that another man was between him and the woman as he followed her up the subway stairs. On the street she turned south, leading him ever farther from his apartment, which was two stops north on the el.

How far was he going to take this? And just what did he think he was going to do if he caught up? This was textbook impulsive behavior. The sort of thing a patient might describe from the couch, while in his chair he wondered what sort of fool would so wildly cede control of their life. She stepped into a diner.

That broke the spell.

He wasn‘t about to follow her into such a bright space. He might be thirty blocks from home, but there was always the chance someone in there might know him.

Still. He could have gone in and sat right down at the counter two stools away from her. After an affable interlude, he might offer a morsel of small talk, and then they would chat. He would softly wow her with his intelligence and natural ability to lend a sympathetic ear. Their eyes would keep returning to each other’s, for longer and longer moments, while their mouths managed fewer and fewer words. She would invite him up for a drink in her cozy efficiency, but the drinks would sit forgotten once they fell into each other, an aching amalgam of flesh, jouncing the springs of her single bed like an out-of-tune squeezebox.

He avoided the company of his wife and his children more than usual that night. He had trouble falling asleep, but once he did his dreams exploded.

First the paperback woman. She was his wife, and they were older. They had children, but he had no idea how many. All he was certain of was the deep, rich, and abidingly abundant love they had for each other: every casual embrace electric, through all the troubles of a long marriage. They lived somewhere in the far west, where the country was very green and open.

He woke, walked into the bathroom and stood before the toilet while his erection eased. Back in bed he dreamed of his office, exactly as in life, though he understood somehow that it had no walls but instead extended into a vastness of infinite soft gray, like the inside of a cloud. His gaze was suddenly riveted to the window, now open, blinds up, as body after body fell past its frame. No. Not bodies. Fully alive happy human beings, blithely tumbling to their demises. He recognized most of them, or thought he did. One of them was the window washer. The deep bright blue of his overalls matched the impossible beauty of the sky. And even though upside down, and plummeting to the pavement, the man took a moment to give my father-in-law a jaunty wink on his way.

My father-in-law fell deeper, into slumber more vicious and viscous. The blonde woman’s body was pushing him down now, smothering him. It was delicious and unbearable. He knew he wouldn’t last long.

A tower rose at the fork of the river. A skyscraper clad in marble, purest white, with only one window, at the very top. From it fell a man: no one anyone had known or ever could. A cipher of a man. Unknowable. Had he fallen, or had he flown? Even hurtling headfirst downward the man’s body was completely at ease, one knee bent, the other fully extended but relaxed. One hand reached out as if holding a cup he intended to fill when he had finished falling. But he would never finish. My father-in-law had never known, in dreams or real life, a man so completely self-possessed. He knew with certainty that if the man ever finished falling the force of him splashing into matter would snuff out the entire universe. And then.


A wink.

He must have gasped in real life, because he was instantly awake, with my mother-in-law next to him murmuring, “What is it?”

Weeks passed, month after month. A simple certitude gnawed at my father-in-law’s core like a worm working its way through his navel: if he didn’t add more patients soon his practice would go under, and there was no plan after that. No tidy exit, except, perhaps, the window in front of him. And so he stared through it, out into the blank white air, fringed at the bottom with the buildings beyond. He could barely credit the notion that anyone occupied them. Sometimes the idea that there was anyone but him in the world, sitting alone in his office, staring blankly, seemed equally beyond belief.



How did people come to acquire such assets, if assets they were?

He was alone.

He acquired a regular patient whom he quickly came to regret. She was the stepdaughter of the Bakelite Baron. Twice weekly the young woman stretched on his couch and rehearsed her greatest fear that she would die a spinster. My father-in-law inwardly enthusiastically agreed, but outwardly listened attentively, nodding and prodding, pleasing and appeasing her with his attention, which was something she clearly couldn’t get anyone else to offer without also paying them for the service. She disgusted him, with her placid passive aggression steeped as it was in cloying fears and phobias. There was nothing deeply wrong with her psychologically. She was simply a pill herself, that was all. Her startling bright rust-colored hair was repulsive to him, and, at least he imagined, to every potential mate.

She wheedled endlessly from one wrong done her by humanity to another. She complained about her mother, whom she claimed still subjugated her with a superior beauty that had not only endured into middle-age but seemed to blossom with it. She complained about how her father, who had abandoned her by dying; and her stepfather, who smoked dime store cigars even though he could afford to buy all the tobacco plantations in Cuba. And all my father-in-law could think as he was pretending to scribble notes on his pad was that he would never be one-tenth as wealthy as this pitiful young woman, no matter how hard he tried, nor how much he thrived as a doctor, or as a man.

He eventually grew convinced that he knew exactly how it would feel to encircle her wretchedly thin, blue-white freckle-flecked neck and squeeze until her life bulged into her sharp blue eyes, and then departed. The intensity of this reverie, the very palpability of it, made his palms tingle.

And he forgot about his window.

As strange and spiteful luck would have it, his acquisition of the Bakelite Heiress seemed to lure in other patients. The business of his practice picked up considerably. One week, he found himself with twice as many appointments as the last. The next week, two of his days were completely full.

Every patient he acquired added to his sense of feeling a fraud. He was as helpless to help any of them as he was with the Bakelite heiress. And, excepting her sessions, he was just as distracted, just as obsessed with his window. It stared at him staring at it. It taunted him, with its blank meaninglessness. He found himself wishing he had fewer patients, and more time to stare. The heiress increased her sessions to thrice weekly. An absurd notion began to blossom for my father-in-law: the window resented her distraction. The window, he was certain, wanted her to die.

My father-in-law recognized he was flirting with his own demise. He was a psychiatric professional after all. But as such, and what’s more, as a self-identified man of self-discipline, my father-in-law recognized that going insane would be disastrous to his practice, and so he decided he would keep his mind intact, whatever the cost. A man can heal himself, if he has a will to. This is the lesson you need to learn from this story. That said, volition is always fortified by luck. It was just a stroke which set my father-in-law back on the path to health and wealth and happiness.

He was with her one day, the orange-haired heiress, wrestling as usual against thoughts of how easy it would be to murder her, when out of the corner of his eye a shadow passed through the window. It was just clearing the bottom sill when his eyes caught up with it. A shoe? Impossible. A bird. Certainly it had to have been a pigeon or some other sort of bird swooping down through the frame.

He was up out of his chair before he could stop himself, flinging up the window sash and gawking down at the sidewalk. There was nothing but a handful of pedestrians passing below.

“What is it?” asked the silly woman from her couch.

“Nothing,” he answered softly without turning.

He clawed at the sash to pull the window down again, but he couldn’t get his hands to grip. His vision became dappled with spots of nothing—not darkness—but blindness, a blankness of unseeing. He reached for his face and staggered backwards. He felt the young woman’s hands at his back, small and bird like. She was guiding him to the edge of his couch. Grateful against his will, he sat on the end of the cushion where her head had just rested. When he took his hands away from his eyes he found her staring at him, like a suspicious changeling.

“What did you see?”

“I didn’t… I didn’t see anything. There’s nothing there.”

“You stare at that window every day as if you expect see a ghost. Why does it haunt you so?

He shook his head, buried his face in his hands again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What do you expect to see?”

“Stop. You can’t ask me that.”

“Fine. If it means nothing to you, then you stay where you are, and I’ll sit here.” She walked to his own chair and sat. He was too weak to argue. He just wanted their hour to be up so he could be done with her. She spent it staring watchfully out the window, and rehearsing her perennial complaints, but her heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore. It was now the window that riveted her—the window, which had overplayed its hand.

The next time she came, he welcomed her into the office perfunctorily, motioning her to the couch and standing before his chair, but she remained standing as well “I wish to sit in your chair,” she said, pointing to it behind him. He began to protest, but she cut him off. “That is my wish. That is how I believe I will best thrive under your continued examination.” The underlying threat, that she might withdraw as his patient, was unmistakable.

And during that first full session things were indeed remarkably changed. He probed her with questions while she stared out of his window, her eyes wide with soft dread. Her statements about herself were more honest, more revealing, more compelling to him. She told him she had dreamed about his office and its window. He found himself not hating her. The fifty minutes passed quickly.

When his next patient arrived, he instructed the man to sit in his chair, while he himself reclined on the couch. “We’re trying something new,” he said nonchalantly. “Sit there and gaze upon the window behind me. Let your focus relax and your consciousness wander through the frame, out into the blankness beyond.” Within minutes the man was confessing to an episode from his childhood involving his manipulation by a priest.

From then on, my father-in-law seated of all of his patients in his chair while he lied on the couch, watching them watch the window. If they seemed suspicious or unsatisfied with his simple explanation of trying something different, he grew grim and quietly informed them that not long ago he had the misfortune of watching a man fall past that window to his death, and therefore he no longer wished to face it. The revelation never failed to have the desired effect: sharpening the patient’s focus, and dissolving their resistance to therapy.

Sometimes, when the analysis hit an impasse, my father-in-law would catalyze progress by staring at his patient, and conjuring in his mind a crisp image of his old friend the window-washer falling, and winking, past the frame.

And sometimes, when the therapy grew particularly intense, or boring, he envisioned a steady stream of bodies falling—bodies of all kinds: male, female, adolescent, black, white, brown and yellow, an endless cascade, like sand falling through the tight neck of an hourglass.

Months passed, year after year, and my father-in-law’s practice only grew richer in reputation and remuneration. Business dipped slightly during the unabashedly impassioned years of the war, but it came back stronger than ever in the war’s aftermath, when the specter of the bomb loomed everywhere. In the mid-fifties he was able to retire a full decade early. From thereafter he devoted himself to teaching.



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