There are three coats of paint on the upstairs bathroom walls
of the Shopwell house, that the Shopwells themselves know of. That’s because they put them there, one in 1954, one in 1967, and the last in 1988. If you were to get some paint thinner, apply it lightly, and take off the current shade of eggshell, you’d find a less-than-pleasant lime green, and dark red stain. Take off the green, and you’d get to a sort of beige, and another stain, this one further up, near the towel rack. The beige was applied by LeRoy Shopwell Jr. with a wide natural-bristle brush. He applied the stain later with a ten-gauge shotgun and a sizable portion of his head. Underneath that, you’ll find the original wood-grain, which would really enhance the value of the house as an antique if it weren’t for all the blood.
Mrs. Shopwell tells me all this matter-of-factly, like she greeted us at the door and like she ordered her brother to take our bags upstairs. She leads the way to the guest room, but Ellen stops me before I can follow. “What she failed to mention,” she says, “is that that last coat of paint didn’t go on for three months.”
“Yea,” I say.
“Can you imagine taking a bath for three months in a room with your cousin’s blood on the wall?”
No, I say, I can’t. I never really had to deal with that sort of thing in my family. Then again, my family isn’t the Shopwells.
“We mopped most of it up,” says Mrs. Shopwell from the other room, where she’s waiting for us. “You could barely see it, that wall was so green.”
“I just tried to stay focused on the rubber ducky,” Ellen says. Ellen, my fiancé. My fiancé with the family full of suicides.
Ellen grew up in a house that had, at any given time, between thirteen and, once, for the entire month of December and halfway through January, thirty-four people in it. That sounded like a dream to me. I grew up in an apartment with two cats and half a father. She explained to me that no, it wasn’t a dream, and it wasn’t just the mutual use of two bathrooms or sharing a full bed with three sisters until she was eighteen that made it a nightmare. But she was always vague on any details after that.
I believe we gain wisdom throughout our lives and it’s our job to pass that on to the next generation. So I will tell my son, or daughter, assuming I have either: If your significant other evades questions about her family’s deep dark secrets, be sure you get some clarity on that issue before you, oh I don’t know, ask her to marry you.
They used to call it the Shopwell Solution, Ellen tells me.
“Who?” I ask, wondering who ‘they’ are.
The town, she says.
“What do they call it now?”
“You said they used to call it that, implying they don’t call it that anymore.”
“Well, I don’t live here anymore, so now I don’t know what they call it.”
Probably still the Shopwell Solution, I think, but I don’t say that.
“Oh,” I say.
“Shh,” says Ellen's Uncle Ernest from inside the bedroom Ellen’s sticking her head out of. “Some of us have work tomorrow.”
“Uhnghhghuuggh,” says her Aunt Wendy, from where she’s lying next to Ernie, Wendy’s husband, on one of the two beds inside the bedroom Ellen’s sticking her head out of. The other bed, across the room, Ellen’s supposed to be in right about now at one fifteen AM the first night of our visit. Me, I’m not supposed to join her. That point has been made very, very clear.
“Ellen,” says Mrs. Shopwell around the dinner table earlier that night, “you can sleep in Ernie and Wendy’s room, and I suppose, Sam, you can sleep with Shane.” I say around the table like the table itself round, but it’s really more of one long bench populated with twelve Shopwells and myself. So Mrs. Shopwell says this butted up against one end of a very long bench on which there’s food, food that makes me think maybe the dual culinary ideals of down-home and country-fried are overrated.
I’m sleeping with Shane, and at dinner, butt aching on this stupid bench, I’m thinking, if there’s one person I had to figure was next to try the Shopwell solution, it would be Shane. Jet-black hair, clearly from a tube since the rest of the Shopwells are straw blonde, Cure shirt, black nail polish. At the mention of his name, Shane gives me a nod and returns to bludgeoning his mashed potatoes with a fork. And I’m thinking, there’s more fat on the plate than on the kid. But Mr. Shopwell, the patriarch, beats me to the punch.
“You gonna eat your food or you gonna beat it in a staring contest?” he says from his place at the head of the bench.
“The food doesn’t have eyes, dear,” says Mrs. Shopwell from the other end. “We have Wendy to thank for that.” Ernie’s plump bride grins from her seat across from me. I pick at my chicken thigh, just to make sure. And I’m thinking of Ellen telling me about all the safety precautions Randall tried to put in place.
Randall, some Shopwell Aunt’s second husband.
“I bet I can guess what happened to the first one,” I say when Ellen first tells me this, wondering if it’s okay to poke fun at the girl hardwired for suicide. Ellen doesn’t laugh, but she doesn’t go hang herself in the closet either.
He, Randall, I mean, moved in with the family and took all the locks off the doors. Snuck all the steak knives out of the house one by one. Got all the Shopwell men fancy electric razors for Christmas one year. Thought he was clever, top-secret, covert.
Meanwhile, his new wife was top-secretly slipping her every meal to the family dog under the table. You’d think someone would notice her gradual transformation into a bad Halloween costume, but you’d be making the same mistake that Randall did. The Shopwells, Ellen tells me, have resigned themselves to the fact that most of them seem to have a switch. When it’s flipped, all the counseling and all the happy-pills and all the force-feedings in the world won’t turn back the inevitable.
“It’s not that they wanted Claire to waste away and die,” Ellen says. “It’s that hundreds of years of this have given them the hint. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done.”
I’m thinking of Claire and the dog while I watch this country-bumpkin-wannabe-Goth fiddle with his potatoes. And I’m wondering if Mr. Shopwell is dispensing some gentle paternal ribbing, mocking the skinny kid, or if he’s trying to turn back the inevitable. Un-flip the switch. And I’m wondering if it’s ever something I’m going to have to do.
The first night, after I kiss my fiancé goodnight and go to my room three doors down, Shane is already asleep. Although that’s not the first thing I notice. The first thing I notice is the utter lack of anything that would ever tell you a teenager lives here, especially one of this sort. I miss immediately the Cradle of Filth and Marilyn Manson posters, there’s not even a token portrait of Morrissey. Just wood-paneled walls and a couple of beds with itchy quilts.
The window has bars on it. Another manifestation of Randall’s failure to understand all this, I think, staring out into a snow-covered moonlit field. I sympathize, Randall. I don’t get it either. You just didn’t want some poor Shopwell kid hurtling out three stories face first into a night like tonight. You didn’t realize that they’d actively seek an alternative. Maybe just trudge out into the snow, lay down, and wait for morning in not much more than their hand-knit underwear.
I want to ask Shane if that’s his plan. But he’s already asleep.
The next morning, it doesn’t look like the next morning, at all. It just looks like the same dark world I laid down in. Maybe because it’s the dead of winter and maybe because only four or so hours elapse between the time I close my eyes and the time Mr. Shopwell wakes me up to go hunting.
After a shower that makes me think maybe the belief that the country has cleaner water than the city is a dirty brown lie, I meet Mr. Shopwell in front of the gun cabinet downstairs in his study.
“This one used to be Jimmy’s,” he says, handing me one of the shorter rifles, in a manner that makes me think that this wasn’t something Jimmy just outgrew. “Pretty good for a first-timer.” I know nothing about guns.
“Yup,” I say. “Looks like it.”
We trudge off into the woods to the north, across a snowy world over which the sun has not yet risen.
We barely talk, and we’re both holding guns, and by the time the horizon is getting pink I’m wondering why Ellen thought this would be such a great time for me to inform Mr. Shopwell that I’m going to marry his daughter. Especially since the tradition is, usually, to ask the father before you pop the question. And especially since, like I said, you know, the guns.
Mr. Shopwell fires his gun three times the entire morning. Every time he does we end up with a pheasant. I fire my gun once, when I see something rustle in the bushes. The gun cracks and the muzzle flairs and to that something rustling in the bushes I think: next time tell me your family has a history of fucking suicide before I fucking ask you to fucking marry me. The squirrel gets away.
“It’s alright,” says Mr. Shopwell. “You’re just got the jitters.”
“Yea,” I say, now that we’ve broken the silence. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
The upstairs bathroom of the Shopwell house doesn’t have a lock on it. Neither does the downstairs one in the hallway. These are all Randall reformations. But the other one downstairs still does. The one adjoining Mr. Shopwell’s study. The one he’s been locked in all morning since we came back from the hunting trip.
“What did you say to him?” Ellen asks. Her mother is pounding on the door, Ellen and myself and seven or so Shopwells are all gathered in the study.
“I just…I just told him we were getting married, like you said.”
“You guys are getting married? Oh, why didn’t you—Congratulations!” shrieks a female cousin who’s name I’ve forgotten.
“Who’s getting married?” says Aunt Wendy, whirling around from her place by Mrs. Shopwell at the door.
“Ellen and Sam!” the cousin says.
“ROGER, ANSWER ME!” Ellen’s mother screams into the locked bathroom.
“Well, did he say anything after that?” Ellen asks.
“‘Good for you.’” I say.
“I think we get a group rate down at the funeral home, so it’s no big deal,” Shane says.
That night, the second night, Shane’s not asleep. We’re both lying awake, looking at the circle of light the lampshade makes on the ceiling, and smoking some cigarettes he had stashed in the folds of one of this room’s many quilts. Most attentive future husbands would probably be spending this time comforting their soon-to-be-spouses, assuring them that their father has gone on to a better place. But that would be hard, since my soon-to-be-spouse went to the movies with one of her sisters, and I wasn’t invited.
“He just died, he didn’t, you know,” Shane says, making the gun-to-the-head motion. “But it’s pretty much the same thing. Either way, he won’t be at breakfast tomorrow.”
“Yea,” I say, as the smoke wafts through the light-circle from the lamp. “I see what you’re saying. So when the time comes, do you think you’ll…you know…” I say, mimicking the motion, finger-gun to the head.
“Ha. No. That’d be kind of like, you know, buying into it? You know? Like if you come from a family of Marines and then you go be a Marine, or…I don’t know. Lame shit like that.”
“Shane,” I say, “you have just become my favorite Shopwell. Maybe even moreso than the one I’m supposed to marry.”
“Oh, shit, you guys are getting married? I didn’t know.”
“Well, neither did your grandfather,” I say, “and look what happened to him.”
And we laugh and smoke more and I’m not really sure when Ellen comes home.
I’ve just met Roger Shopwell, so it was no surprise that I’m not crying at his funeral. But neither are people he provided one half of the genes for. In fact, I don’t think a single tear is shed in that entire church that day. The priest says a few words, and we just sort of mosey out to the parking lot. Me following Ellen following her family.
I look at Ellen’s back, the back of the black dress, the black of the shoulder-length straw-blonde, and see a tearless funeral for me in fifty years. I look at her back and I think, hard and loud:
I will never kill myself. I will try my damndest never to die at all. Just please let this mean something.
Then I think, hard and loud, of my family, with our two cats and half a father and our custom of abandoning each other in the emotional, legal, and physical sense, and how somehow we seem downright traditional.
And then I look at my fiancé’s back and the backs of all the Shopwells, and think of how tradition seems sort of overrated.