The Angel of the Tennessee River

It was a Smith & Wesson with a satiny walnut grip and a blued octogonal barrel. A snub nosed .38 Police Special, just like in the movies and pulp novels. Laid out in the window of the Knox Jewelry & Pawn shop it was, on a pad of red velvet, next to a tuba, a string of pearls, and an antique jack in the box.

I went in. I was trembling a little for the image that had occurred to me so strongly it felt like a shot of heroin. It was the image of me carrying that gun out of the Pawn Shop in a paper bag. Walking in a lucid trance through downtown in the November chill. Buying myself a box of ammunition at a hunting supply store. Then, making my way down to the Tennessee River, where it flows in the shadow of a stark green steel arc bridge, the heavy dull current swirling around stained concrete buttresses.


I paid for the .38 in cash. It cost me two hundred and fifty dollars. I did not try to bargain the man down. I peeled the twenty dollar bills from the roll in my pocket with sweating fingers. My mind was so extraordinarily clear that I recall the pinkness of my fingerpads as they shuffled the clean new bills, thinking how odd that in just a few hours those fingers would no longer be pink with blood, they would be blue or maybe white. They would be under deep water.

The haggard white haired man at the counter didn't question my purchase. He didn't ask what I wanted it for. There was no waiting period for a gun in Knoxville, Tennessee at that time, though I did have to fill out a form giving my full name and age and social security number and certifying that I wasn't a convicted felon. He didn't say, "You look pretty antsy there, son. I hope you don't plan on doing something rash."

I would never be old and haggard like him. I would always be, at least in my own consciousness, young. And terribly sad. Well, so be it.

That two hundred and fifty dollars made about half of my personal bank. Plenty left over for a decent lunch. I could have taken myself out to the best restaurant in town for filet mignon and French wine, maybe then to a downtown hotel bar to flirt with the cocktail waitress, drink top shelf bourbon and eat salted peanuts. But if I did all that I wouldn't do what I'd just seen so vividly: I wouldn't go down to the river and blow my own brains out.

So I went to a diner where I ordered eggs, coffee, toast, and hash browns. I swear to you, that coffee -- fresh-brewed, black and searing hot -- was the tastiest of my life. As I ate buttered toast triangles dipped in warm egg yolk, I felt shivers over my whole body. And when the middle aged waitress, bending over the table, touched my arm and addressed me as "darlin'," tears rushed into my eyes. No one knew that I was going to take myself out of this world that very day, in one mili-second, as a .38 bullet bored into my skull.

I pitied everyone I knew a little for staying behind. I didn't think I was going to heaven nor hell. I didn't believe in an afterlife. I was just going. Into the dark? Not really. It isn't either light or dark, hot or cold in nowhere. I regretted the idea of never tasting coffee again, but how wonderful to imagine I'd stop this idiotic suffering.

When you're a fool and totally useless, the best thing to do is die. That's what I thought.

I remember reading a Japanese novel where the protagonist writes in his diary, "When I realized today that I was going to end up killing myself, I burst into tears and wailed like a baby." I knew exactly how this novelist, who in fact did end up killing himself in real life, felt. The act struck me as so dark and so terrible yet also so clear and so right that my whole body tingled.

I thought of my mother giving birth to me. How sad she'd have felt in the delivery room if she'd thought that I'd end up killing myself twenty four years later.

Stop thinking like that, I told myself in the mirror over the doorway. You've got work to do. The last job ever. So I ate my eggs, I drank my coffee, and I left a big fat tip for the waitress who'd called me "darlin'."

The last woman who would ever speak to me.


I gripped the gun in my pocket, carressed it a little with my fingertips, as I walked down to the riverfront and made my way through the trash and the weeds to the Knoxville side base of the Knox County bridge.

I sat on the concrete where it sloped down toward the smoothly flowing water. I shut my eyes. And I thought about the last image that would be imprinted under my eyelids. Would it be a memory pulled from my twenty four and a half years of life? Or would it just be the moving river in dull light and the concrete buttresses?

I couldn't really feel anything but a rising excitement of knowing I was about to end it, all the humiliation and the desire and the disgust, right now.

My girlfriend of the past three years was no longer my girlfriend. She had told me not to call her again. I had neither a job nor a place to live nor the rudiments of a life. I had never published a word. Nobody was interested in me. Only my family would care -- maybe -- that I had died. But they might not even know, because I was going to let the Tennessee River take me.

I took a generous amount of time to say goodbye. Almost a whole hour sitting in the cold shadows under the bridge, hearing the traffic whine and rattle above. I said goodbye to my parents, to my friends, to my whole past. I even said a loving goodbye to my girlfriend. Not a trace of bitterness left in me. I told her I hoped she'd find real happiness, even with another man if that's what it took. Someone better than me who didn't suffer just from life. Have children, I said. Love them.

Sitting there hunched over a little in the shadows I loaded the .38 with six gleaming copper-cased bullets that I shook into my palm out of the little cardboard box I'd bought downtown. Then I put the box back into my coat pocket and stood up holding the gun in my right hand and walked down the concrete slope into the coldly rushing water. My shoes sank into the mud and the water ballooned up my jeans. It was really cold. And it stank.

I walked in a little further. Up to my knees. Just far enough for the current to take me when I fell. I raised my arm and bent my elbow and put the blued octagon muzzle to my right temple just above the eyebrow. My forefinger curled on the trigger. My stomach tensed. I felt sick. My armpits were sweating, despite the cold of the river.

I opened my eyes wide. I didn't want the last thing I saw to be blackness.

I told my forefinger to pull the trigger but it would not. I wasn't shaking or afraid. My finger just would not obey the command of this soon-to-be dead brain.

I shut my eyes.


But as my finger trembled and began to depress that little steel tongue, something unbelievable happened. Something that I still cannot explain. I felt a hand gently touch my back just below the right shoulder blade.

Clearly a human touch. But how did I know it?

Even more: I knew it was a young woman's hand doing the touching.

It was like being in my body and out of it at the same instant. From in my body I felt that subdued and mysterious touch. From out of it, I saw her standing behind me with a smile, arm extended, touching me like a lover.

Dark haired, green-eyed, solemnly beautiful -- a young woman about my age whom I had never seen before in my life was smiling joyously as she touched me. In her smile there was courage and there was love.

I even saw how she was dressed: she was wearing blue jeans that clung to her body, a white shirt, a dark green cashmere jacket with wooden buttons, and a black wool scarf.

Such was the image I saw as I readied myself to die.

It was a big shock, maybe the biggest shock in my life up to that precise moment. The shock was not just that I'd had a hallucination of this beautiful, calm and smiling young woman touching me as I prepared to blow my head off. The shock was that for the first time in many months I suddenly felt something other than sadness and disgust. Namely, love.

Not just love for my hallucination, but love for the world.

And I didn't just feel it. I was totally filled with it.

I knew even before I turned that she wasn't there. I was standing alone in the cold river, my jeans soaked to the knees. Shivering, unshaven.

Holding a loaded gun.

Wanting badly to live.