The Death and Life of Red Henley

By Philip Wilding

A contemporary noir novel set against the decaying façade of 1980’s New York and a religious commune staked out in the Tennessee countryside. But what connects them both and who killed Red and why?

Rudy Porter had been with his wife, Suzanne, as long as he could remember. They’d been teenagers and then lovers and then married by the time he was nineteen against the wishes of both their parents. Neither of them went to college, they were parents too by the time they reached their twenties. They had two sons; Alix and Mikey, both had graduated college, they’d been his children and he’d loved them, he still loved them. Alix lived in Boston and Mikey had moved south to Florida, he still felt like the centre of their lives if only sometimes as a point on the map. The problem was Suzanne. She’d fallen heavily in the kitchen four days before and hadn’t moved since. He’d placed her in her favourite chair; it had the best view of the TV, and waited for her to wake. He put cups of tea at her side and emptied and refreshed them as they cooled. He held her hand; the colour was running into the fingertips and making them red and purple. Her face was grey, her skull heavier than he could ever remember. He tipped it back against the chair and she sat there as if she were regarding a newly found stain on the ceiling. He missed her more than he could have ever imagined; how could one fall have so irrevocably changed their lives forever?

He sat with her at nights and talked about when they were young and what they both might have wanted from the world. He talked about the time she left him over his teenage jealousies and how he’d discovered a new hollowness inside of himself, that first very real feeling of his heart breaking. His breath stuttered in sharp jolts like a sudden asthma attack in lungs once considered healthy. The numbness of his loneliness spread through his body like the slow recede of snow. He woke daily to the first, sharp realisation of pain. And then one day she suddenly came back with a warning for him to cool down, to trust her and so he did. She took his hand and they walked through their city. The boys grew and left and they both cried and clung to each other, their lives moving forwards in increments. He thought of her in the hat that she wore to Mikey’s wedding, pale blue; the wide brim casting half her face in shadow. He had never seen her look more beautiful and now he was crying as she sat in another shadow altogether, the life ushered out of her, her unseeing gaze staring only upwards as if that was where she was meant to go.

Green had no idea why he was the one they called to the apartment. Later, he’d think it was because of his father’s calling as a priest, that if he could listen and ease the minds of men then perhaps his son had a similar aptitude, a gift, but he was never completely sure why he got the job. Patrolmen had been called to Rudy Porter’s apartment when his son Alix had started to worry about where his father and mother might be. Their phone rang uselessly; Alix imagined it sat there in their apartment trilling with life as they lay asphyxiated yards away, slumped and just out of reach. The patrolman talked to Rudy through the door, but didn’t think crashing through it would help the situation. The man’s nervous reassurances sounded much more weary than they were manic or dangerous. Neither son could make it into town until later that night and there was a stench starting to settle around the doorway and across the building’s landing. Something was waiting on the other side of that door and the patrolman didn’t want to meet its unwavering eye.

Green sat across from Suzanne who was now bloated and cartoon like, her arms stuck out and her engorged calves were set wide apart. He was momentarily worried that her dress was going to rise up. Her head was tilted forward and he waited nervously for her eyes to blink open and for her to come screeching into life. He felt like the butt of an ugly joke. The chair beneath her looked sodden. She was putrefying; the smell made his throat pinch and his eyes redden with tears. Though it was Rudy who was crying. He sat across from them both, hunched over, the tears making his body convulse. Green had never heard a human being make a noise like that, he wondered if that was the sound that grief made, that one day they would all wail like a lost or abandoned animal when it came to facing their greatest fear down. The primal ghosts of all their ancestors brought to bear when it finally sensed extinction. Death, he thought stupidly, really is the end.

“Suzanne,” said Rudy, he was looking at him now, eyes streaming, his cheeks were white; he looked wild. “She used to enjoy wildlife programmes, the Discovery Channel, do you ever?”

He nodded, it was true too; he found some strange comfort in nature’s abstract approach; life really was out of your hands. It was said that the Victorians couldn’t so much stomach Charles Darwin’s research that turned their world and its inherent beliefs on its head, but that they couldn’t bear how indifferent and cruel nature could really be. There was no glorious path or journey; each man’s fate wasn’t aligned to the stars. Death could be waiting at the corner as easily and absurdly as it could a zebra’s watering hole.

“You know the polar bears?” Rudy was staring at him, Green nodded; sure he did. He felt as if Suzanne were staring at him through her eyelids, checking that he really did too.

“They go out on the ice and they make a hole, you know.” Said Rudy, but he wasn’t talking to Green anymore, his eyes were trained on the window, he was looking hard at the polar bear sitting alone among all that white.

“And they wait, for days sometimes. And these beluga whales they come to the surface, they need the air, they’re white like ghosts, they look like Casper, have you seen them?”

Green nodded, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to hear about a polar bear crushing and killing and then eating a beluga whale as Mrs Porter sat just feet away, her insides rotting to an indiscriminate mush, it seemed to make the scenario they found themselves in even more surreal and rank. But he had nowhere to go, he needed to leave with the assurance that Rudy would let his wife go with him, that Rudy might finally loosen his grip and let himself be free. He looked at Suzanne and wondered at the woman, not this ghoulish approximation of a once living thing.

“They come up through the ice, the whale, and they do this sort of half loop, the icy water coming off them in a sheet, it’s an incredible thing to see.” Said Rudy, he was close enough then to feel the spray of icy water.

“And the bear reaches out to embrace them, to get a hold of them, its claws out. And he gets a hold of the whale for a moment, but I don’t know if it’s the momentum of the whale or the water or the impact, but the whale keeps going, these long cuts down its side, these claw marks and it just keeps on going. It hits the water and is gone and the bear sits back and it looks, I don’t know, dumbfounded. Suzanne used to say, I think she was teasing me, that polar bears get lonely out there on the ice and all they want when they reach out for the fish, they just want something to hold on, that they love those whales, that it’s the only thing they’ve seen for days and the loneliness is just killing them.”

He was crying now, hard.

“And I said to her, but when those bears catch the fish they kill them, they crush the life out of them, you know. And Suzanne said…”

And he allowed himself to look up at his once beautiful wife, her cheeks bloated, her hands fat, as if you might prick her and she’d deflate like a day old party balloon. He saw his wife completely then and then he let her go, let the air out him and the next part of his life in.

“And she said, that the bears loved the whale so much that they couldn’t help but hug them too hard and that their feelings were so strong that they ended up killing the thing they loved. Just from the holding on…”

And then Green was across the room and he held Rudy Porter in his arms as he cried and cried and he was careful to turn the man’s head away from the sight of his dead wife, so that he might see her as he once saw her. And he held him firmly but gently, so as not to crush the life from him, but to ensure that Mr Porter might yet go on living still.

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