THE OFFICE (previously published in Arts & Letters)
Excerpt from Martin Lammon's Editor's Note to the Fall 2004 issue of Arts & Letters:
As I write these words, I am astonished. Our colleague and friend, Susan Atefat-Peckham, died in a car accident only eight months ago. She and her husband, Joel Peckham, were teaching as Fulbright scholars in Amman, Jordan. One evening, returning home from a weekend excursion, Susan and her son Cyrus died when their van collided with a maintenance vehicle parked on the road. Susan was thirty-three years old. Cyrus was six. Susan's mother and another son, Darius (three years old), were slightly injured. Joel's injuries were serious but not life-threatening. Everything that night is impossible to understand or explain ...
In this issue, Poet Alice Friman remembers Susan for all of us. Alice had joined our community in the fall of 2003, moving to Milledgeville with her husband, Flannery O'Connor scholar Bruce Gentry. ... Alice had been using Susan's office, and after February 7, found herself surrounded by photographs of Susan's family, toys her children played with, even the lingering scent of her perfume. In her essay "The Office," Alice remembers Susan in a way that, for me, offers a kind of consolation.
Three Days After (February 10)
I am sitting in Susan’s office. Around me, her books, her photos. Cyrus smiles at me from a wooden frame. Darius, a baby. Susan—no, it must be her mother, they look so much alike—on what looks like a Parisian Street , although I don’t know that. But let’s say Paris . Maybe I want it to be Paris, who knows.
Under the desk, a lady’s umbrella, Susan’s I guess. A plastic toy playhouse about eighteen inches high for the boys to busy themselves with if she were occupied. I should get on my knees to look in the windows. There must be a little family waiting inside. I tell myself I’ll look next time. I lie a lot. Hanging on the back of the door is her academic regalia wrapped in plastic, ready to go.
Her computer is still on. I don’t touch it.
There’s a toy elephant on the desk, one of those two-inch plastic jobs whose limbs are connected by elastic, and if you push up from the bottom you can make it bend and dance. If you push up hard enough, the elephant collapses. Just like that. There’s also a collection of tiny painted turtles. If you touch them, their heads wag from side to side. No, no, they say. No, no. There are twenty-one of them. She’s positioned them in pairs, some kissing, some sniffing. She was funny, yes? The odd one, balanced on the keyboard of the computer, is positioned to look at me the way he must have looked at her, her beautiful face reflected in the screen. Instead, there’s mine. This is like one of those trick photos where you stick your face in a hole connected to a painting of someone else’s body. You know, be Napoleon or Charles Atlas with big muscles. Be Marilyn Monroe. Be Susan Atefat-Peckham who disappeared off the face of the earth.
Two Weeks and Three Days After (February 24)
Seventeen days now since her death, eleven and a half weeks since she left for Jordan and our farewell lunch at Café South when I told her I wished she weren’t going, that we were all worried about her. And still the office smells like her, is haunted by her. Funny about smells. I can’t figure out what it is. Some sort of incense, I guess, or candles. At first the students, especially the grad students who knew her best, were reluctant to enter, and we had to hold conferences in another room. But they’ve gotten used to it now—that is, seeing my face here instead of hers—or at least they’re kind enough not to say. But the smell, so elusive, like the light now at six o’clock , a faint glimmering out this small window, too low for stars. I am reading her books: Persian Mythology, Elements of Fiction, her copy of Rumi in which she wrote, placing posted notes to mark favorite passages, and yet the book still looks new: Snow White pristine in her glass box.
Coffin, I should say the word. Coffin.
We have had one memorial service and are planning another more formal one. The students are writing their poems. One wrote how she found one of Susan’s long black hairs in a rose. Funny how death when it comes so quick and unexpected takes so long to die. Funny how tonight the wind sighs outside this window as if it were heavy with injury. I pull down Susan’s Persian dictionary—Farsi dictionary—open it in my lap. Perhaps if I stare long enough, if I study those squiggles and leaping arcs intently enough, it will all make sense.
Six Weeks and Three Days After (March 23)
Sitting here in the office, I’m reminded of a story: It was the first week of the fall semester, and we were all in the Arts & Letters office—the faculty, the graduate students, some of them new as me. Because I was due to teach one of Susan’s classes in the spring and work with the grad students on Arts & Letters while she was in Jordan , it was important for me to attend the meetings, get acquainted. Being a stranger, I did so want to be included, be part of the scene. And too, it was important to me to allay any possible resentment if I could; after all, I was using her office and, in a sense, taking her place.
There must have been at least twenty of us there, and we were supposed to go around and introduce ourselves. Susan was wearing a white dress, I remember. Eyelet or something lacy with a shawl? a scarf? A splash of color around her shoulders. We went around the room counter-clockwise. Joel was on the other side of the room. When it was his turn, he did not smile as if to give it away that he was going to crack a joke, or at least say something unusual, but with a straight face and in a perfectly serious voice, “My name is Joel Peckham, and I am married to the most beautiful, talented, most wonderful woman in the world.” There was a pause in the room. He did not look at her. She didn’t look at him, but looked down to adjust the color around her shoulders. Did he do that often? Was it rehearsed? Had they had a tiff, and was this his way of making up? What a cynic I am. The amazing thing was not what he said, or even that he said it, but that no one looked surprised.
Ten Weeks and Six Days After (April 23)
It is 11:30 a.m. , the last week of school, seventy-three days since she died. It is Honors Day, and right now she would be marching in full academic regalia in the “parade.” As it is, her costume is still hanging on the back of the door zipped in plastic and waiting, along with the turtles, the collapsible elephant, the computer, the black umbrella under the desk. Ah, the patience of objects, their inordinate faith.
Talking about faith, last night was the launch party for The Peacock’s Feet, GC&SU’s undergraduate creative arts journal. It was an especially fine issue with its color cover and art reproductions, igood, well-crafted poems and stories. The reception featured cakes and strawberries, chicken fingers with dip, and lots of faculty and anxious students excited to see their names in print. The journal, dedicated to Susan’s memory, featured quotes sprinkled among its pages, excerpts from things she had written or said. Quotes like, “After September 11, I felt that something broke loose in my chest. In a matter of half a minute I knew that if I did not speak, then I was not being responsible.” Or this: “Literature, the visual arts, and music are a way for us to connect to one another. Art is empathy. Empathy and compassion are what we need most in times of grief.” The inserts were tastefully done, not a jarring word among them. Then we were instructed to read this:
I am not afraid of death. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about dying is leaving my children, and causing anyone any sadness or feelings of abandonment. Otherwise, I know where we come from, and that this place is just a short stop back home. I think that souls come here to learn lessons, and once the lessons they came here to learn have been learned, they go back home. I think our purpose is to love one another. I don’t have regrets—I keep learning.
When she said this and what the circumstances were I don’t know. I only know others seemed to think it a fine sentiment. A lovely sentiment. Why did it bother me so much?
I have occupied this office, her office, for most of a whole semester now, sitting in her chair, handling her books, living with her things, everything still waiting for her hands, not mine, to come back. Am I to believe that she had learned all her allotted lessons at the age of thirty-three? Or that Cyrus had learned his at six? Could she really have believed that? What a difference there is between the idea of dying, which is complicated but relatively easy to speak of, and the fact of it. For the fact of dying—that is, death—is impossible to speak and simple as a steel door slammed shut.
Eleven Weeks and Six Days After (April 30)
I climb the fifty-two stairs to the third floor, turn the corner and see the office door wide open, Susan’s mother and father packing things up. I gasp and turn away. Later, I count what’s gone. The toy house, the cap and gown, the twenty-one turtles, the collapsible elephant—boxed up and moved out. The books, the papers, and everything personal, gone except for the name on the door. Even the smell is gone, packed up with her things as if it couldn’t bear to be parted from them. Strange, in the same way, I imagine her breath hovering in the dark around her Cyrus, ever close to his cheek or in the lank leaves of his hair: the breath left over from the morning kiss of February 7, while she was brushing his hair in that sunny kitchen before they left the house.