Issue 117, Winter 1990
On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese — the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate eleven months earlier when the trouble began.
Cecelia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like Cato while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool, with her yellow eyes of someone possessed and her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman, the paramedics had been so frightened by her tranquility that they had stood mesmerized. But then Mrs. Lisbon lunged in, screaming, and the reality of the room reasserted itself: blood on the bathmat; Mr. Lisbon’s razor sunk in the toilet bowl, marbling the water. The paramedics fetched Cecelia out of the warm water because it quickens the bleeding and put a tourniquet on her arm. Her wet hair hung down her back and already her extremities were blue. She didn’t say a word, but when they parted her hands they found the laminated picture of the Virgin Mary she held against her budding chest.
That was in June, fish Hy season, when each year our town is covered by the Hotsam of those ephemeral insects. Rising in clouds from the algae in the polluted lake, they blacken windows, coat cars and streetlamps, plaster the municipal docks and festoon the rigging of sailboats, always in the same brown ubiquity of flying scum. Mrs. Scheer, who lives down the street, told us she saw Cecelia the day before she attempted suicide. The girl was standing in the street, wearing the antique wedding dress with the shorn hem she always wore, looking at a Thunderbird encased in fish flies. “You better get a broom, honey,” Mrs. Scheer advised. But Cecelia fixed her with her spiritualist’s gaze. “They’re dead,” she said, “they only live twenty-four hours. They hatch, they reproduce, and then they croak. They don’t even get to eat.” And with that she stuck her hand into the foamy layer of bugs and cleared her initials—C.L.
We’ve tried to arrange the photographs chronologically. A few are fuzzy but nonetheless revealing. Plate #1 shows the Lisbon house shortly before Cecelia’s suicide attempt. It was taken by a real estate agent, Ms. Carmina D’Angelo, whom Mr. Lisbon had hired to sell the house his large family was outgrowing. As the snapshot shows, the slate roof had not yet begun to shed its shingles, the porch was still visible above the grass, and the windows were not yet held together with strips of masking tape. A comfortable suburban home. The upper right second story window contains a blur that Mrs. Lisbon identified as Mary Lisbon. “She used to tease her hair because she thought it was limp,” she said, recalling how her daughter had looked for her brief time on earth. In the photograph Mary is caught in the act of blow-drying her hair. Her head appears to be on fire but that is only a trick of the light. It was June third, eighty-three degrees out, under sunny skies.
When the paramedics were satisfied they had reduced the bleeding to a trickle, they put Cecelia on a stretcher and carried her out of the house. She looked like a tiny Cleopatra on a palanquin. We saw the gangly paramedic with the Wyatt Earp mustache come out first—the one we’d call “Sheriff” when we got to know him better through these domestic tragedies—and then the fat one appeared, carrying the back end of the stretcher and stepping daintily across the lawn, peering at his police-issue shoes as though looking out for dog shit, though later, when we were better acquainted with the machinery, we knew he was checking the blood pressure gauge. Sweating and fumbling, burdened with reality, they moved toward the shuddering, blinking truck. The fat one tripped on a lone croquet wicket. In revenge he kicked it; the wicket sprang loose, plucking up a spray of dirt, and fell with a ping on the driveway. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lisbon burst onto the porch, trailing Cecelia’s flannel nightgown. She let out a long wail which stopped time. Under the molting trees and above the blazing overexposed grass those four figures paused in tableau —the two slaves offering the victim to the altar (lifting the stretcher into the truck), the priestess brandishing the torch (waving the flannel nightgown) and the virgin, drugged, or dumb, rising up on her elbows, with an otherworldly smile on her pale lips.
Mrs. Lisbon rode in the back of the EMS truck, but Mr. Lisbon followed in the station wagon, observing the speed limit. Two of the Lisbon daughters were away from home. Therese was in Pittsburgh at a Science Convention, and Bonnie was at music camp, trying to learn the flute after giving up the piano (her fingers were too short), the violin (her chin hurt), the guitar (her fingers hurt) and the trumpet (she didn’t want to get one of those big lips). Mary and Lux, hearing the siren, had run home from their voice lesson down the street with Mr. Jessup. Barging into that crowded bathroom, they registered the same shock as their parents at the sight of Cecelia with her spattered forearms and pagan nudity. Outside they hugged on a patch of uncut grass that Butch, the brawny boy who mowed it on Saturdays, had missed. Across the street, a truckful of men from the Parks Division attended to some of our dying elms. The EMS siren shrieked, going away. The botanist and his crew withdrew their insecticide pumps and watched the truck. When it was gone, they began spraying again. The stately elm tree, also visible in the foreground of Plate #1, has since succumbed to the Dutch elm beetles and has been cut down.
The paramedics took Cecelia to Bon Secours Hospital on Kercheval and Maumee. In the emergency room Cecelia watched the attempt to save her life with an eerie detachment. Her yellow eyes did not blink, nor did she flinch when they stuck a needle in her arm. Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”
And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.”