The voicemail made no sense so I listened to it again: “Sarah, it’s Paul, Stephen’s been shot.” He paused for a few seconds. I heard him swallow and exhale. “We’re at St. Mary’s in Jersey City. You’ve got to get here. There’s a lot of blood. He’s been shot. You’ve got to get here!”
I listened to the message again in my car and then called Paul, Stephen’s brother, but still I didn’t understand. How had my husband been shot? Why? Was he okay? Somehow I drove to the hospital and found the ER and met Paul and two uniformed policemen. One officer—a short stocky man with a crew cut—did all of the talking. He told me, matter-of-factly, that Paul and Stephen had walked into a convenience store, the store was held up, guns were fired, and a bullet entered Stephen’s head. He finished with “I’m sorry,” before he and his mute partner disappeared.
At some point, a doctor appeared and told us Stephen was dead. I thought for a second that everyone had gone insane. Then I thought it was an elaborate, cruel joke. Someone led me to a seat; someone else offered me a sedative. My skin felt foreign. My eyes were closed tightly one minute, wide open and unblinking the next. Every question I asked had an unsatisfactory answer.
I asked to see Stephen and someone led me to a room where he lay on a gurney, lifeless. It was a Stephen I had never seen and I vowed not to remember him that way, but for years to come this was the only image of him I could conjure.
Gail, my brother’s wife, my best friend, met me at the hospital and got me out of there. Every car sped by us on the turnpike and it took forever to reach my exit. Traffic moved unusually slowly on Fort Lee Road, my town’s east-west thoroughfare.
“What the hell?” Gail pulled alongside a donkey drawing a wooden cart with red, white, and green bunting draped around it. A man in a dark, rustic suit one size too small drove the donkey. In the bed of the cart sat a mariachi band and a young couple dressed in late 19th century Mexican wedding attire. He wore a black suit, white shirt, and string bow tie. She held a bouquet of red roses and wore a crocheted shawl over a white lacy gown with ruffles at the hem. They were smiling and beautiful and enjoying the music. Their skin glowed as if it had absorbed centuries of Mexican sun and was just this instant emanating it. This was a strange thing to behold.
“Are they opening a Mexican restaurant around here?” Gail asked.
“Not that I know of.” I turned off the radio and opened the window. A blast of December cold smacked my face. I wished it were colder.
The music was lively, the colors so vibrant, and the clothes and the people in them were lovely. It was surreal and beautiful, and I remember in that moment thanking god that I still had the ability to experience wonder. I could see something, hear something, and appreciate beauty. My eyes filled. We followed the cart and I realized I hadn’t been breathing.
Gail accelerated passed the cart and I closed the window. “That was really weird,” she said.
I watched the scene fall into the distance in the side-view mirror. Then Gail made a right turn on Glenwood, weaving through the suburban streets until she pulled into our driveway, my driveway.
“What time is it? I have to pick up Stevie!”
“Greg picked him up,” Gail said. “He left work and picked him up. He’s at our place now.” Apparently we had already been through this.
“How do I tell him his father’s dead? How do I tell him that?” We’d been through this, too.
Gail’s answer this time was to simply place her hand on top of mine. The softness of her touch started me weeping again.
After what seemed like a very long time and no time at all, I opened the door. A force kept me in my seat. I couldn’t exit the car. Gail met me on the passenger’s side.
“I can’t go in there.”
“Would you like me to go with you?”
“No.” I managed to turn my head to look at her. “I can’t go in there.”
“Why don’t we go to my house?” Gail said.
“I’d like to see that cart again.”
Gail backed out of the driveway and drove to where the cart would have been had it stayed on Fort Lee Road and continued at its slow pace, but it wasn’t there. She drove in concentric rectangles, but we didn’t cross its path again. It didn’t matter anymore. We drove all around Bergen County. Day turned to dusk turned to night and Gail put the headlights on but I wanted them off because I wanted to drive in utter darkness.
What was the point of light?
David Licata is a writer and a filmmaker. “Wonder” is part of a collection of related short stories, another of which, “There Is Joy before the Angels of God,” was published in The Literary Review. In addition to TLR, his fiction and nonfiction have appeared online in Hitotoki, The New Purlieu Review, Word Riot, Sole Literary Journal, and others. His films have shown on PBS stations across the country and screened at festivals all over the world, including New Directors/New Films (curated by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA), the Tribeca Film Festival, and dozens of others. Along with the short stories, he is currently working on a feature documentary, A Life’s Work.
Read an interview with David here.