Clayton's Secret Notebook
There’s a story I want to tell you about a man I knew once.
Something happened to him, and his name was Clayton. Never mind who I am for a minute, this is about him. You know those stories people tell at parties? Fancy parties, where all the guests are wearing ties? The story, it’s always practiced. Embellished. Repeated. Every party the same story. The same guy, the same little group of people gathered around thinking they’re hearing something new, that somehow they’re special.
This story is like that. Except I’m only going to tell it once, and it’s true.
It goes like this: Clayton got married to a nice girl. A beautiful girl. Blonde, tall, great smile. I was there, I danced at the reception with some brunette. If women were silverware my date would have been a real spoon. I gave a mediocre toast. For a present I got them a mixer, one of those big bowls with the spinning claw up top. I think it doubled as a bread maker, maybe. They’ll never use it.
On their honeymoon they go somewhere different. The Bahamas, Hawaii, Paris? Nope. The fucking Grand Canyon.
They fly. Southwest from Detroit, get off in Phoenix. Rent a car. Drive out to some tourist hotel by the South Rim of the Canyon. I know which hotel, but I’m going to stop for a second to explain something important.
I know what happened out there, even though I’ve never been to Arizona. Never been west of the Mississippi, and only ever drove through Canada. So everything I know about the Grand Canyon is stuff I’ve seen on TV or read in books. Maybe Arizona is all desert, I don’t know. I don’t know a whole lot, and the little I do know I didn’t learn until a long time after the accident. After the funeral, I tried to get Clayton on the phone, to talk to him about it. I sent him e-mails, letters. I did what I could do, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. I gave up. I had done my grieving, and I tried to move on with my life and figured he was doing the same. All of us knew there was no one to blame.
One day I get a phone call, and it’s not from him, it’s from his mother. He’s gone missing. A strange development, but not altogether surprising or particularly distressing. I tell her he probably just went off to think. She tells me she’s had the police looking for him for three days. It's the second call I get from her that winter—the first one was about Imogene. Clayton's mother got the news before my parents.
When I get off the phone I go and sit on my porch. It’s February, and we’re having sort of a warm spell. All the icicles on my gutter are dripping and I’m thinking about the time Clayton and I drove to Mount Pleasant to play in a poker tournament. I went out the first round and Clayton sat there with this grin on his face, knowing I couldn’t stand seeing him win because it meant I had nothing to do but order drinks until his chips were gone. We were twenty-three. On the way home at five in the morning he drove right over a deer carcass, and the stink came up through the air conditioner and stuck on us, stinging our eyes as we retched out open windows.
You know how when you watch TV sometimes and you’re talking to the guy next to you, or your wife or girlfriend, and all of a sudden someone on the TV says the exact same thing you or she just said? Or when you’re driving down the road and you start humming a song and then you put the radio on and that same song is playing? Sort of weirds you out? That’s how I feel when the UPS truck pulls up and a big thick woman with a man’s haircut gets out and hands me a package. I sign for it, noticing that it says on the slip that it’s from Clayton. Only I feel it twice as bad, because not only had I just been thinking about him, I just got off the phone with his mom. I don’t notice the big lady get in her truck or drive away, but she must, because the next time I look up the street is empty.
I put it in the chair next to me and don’t open it. After a few minutes it’s almost as if he’s there, sitting with me. That’s nice, except I also feel like he’s trying to tell me something and I’m making him wait just so I can pretend things are like they used to be. Not that I don’t want to know what’s in it, just that I’m scared whatever it is will mean he’s gone for good.
It’s a big red notebook. Spiral-bound with leather covers. Filled with eighty or ninety loose-leaf sheets of yellow notebook paper, like what comes off a legal pad. Maybe by then I’m starting to get cold. In February, even when it’s warm it’s not warm. I should go inside, I remember thinking, but I don’t. I sit there on my porch and read this notebook straight through, cover to cover. The first page I’ll never forget. Scrawled in red ink across the first two lines are the words, “Secret Notebook.” Under that, written even bigger, “The Truth.”
I’m telling you this for two reasons. One is, I believe what I read in the notebook. It made some sense, but for the most part it didn’t. That’s how I knew it was true. Two is, I’m the only one who’s ever read it, and after I did I burned it. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea, but I wasn’t thinking right. If I hadn’t, this story wouldn’t need a middleman. I’d just have you read the notebook. Everything I couldn’t have known, all of the details I’d never imagine, all of them come from the notebook. I thought you should know.
Enough of that. This story is about Clayton, and his wife. Her name, you might have guessed, was Imogene. When they were alone, he called her his Imogenery Friend. I always called her Genie.
When they arrived, they drove to a tourist resort called The Grand Hotel, the same name as that hotel up on Mackinac Island where they shot that Christopher Reeve time travel movie back in the eighties. The Grand Hotel is part of a mini-mall called “Grand Canyon Village” on Highway 64, just two miles from where the action is. It’s where they’d spent two nights together, and while they had reservations for three…well, things happen. This particular thing, in this particular place, happens on average two or three times a year. Usually it’s a kid whose parents are looking away for a moment to tie a shoe or take a drink.
Clayton didn’t see her fall.
Those first two nights were magic. The happiest my friend had been his whole life. Sure, it sounds like hyperbole. But when you’re twenty-six and feel like you’ve found and secured the love of your life, and hey, you get to see and touch her without clothes on too? Give me something that beats that and I’ll shut up right now. If I know Genie, she was plenty happy too, but I didn't get to hear it from her.
I don’t want to leave anything out, but it’s going to happen. Clayton wrote about the fireplace in the lobby, the obligatory Western-themed restaurant and adjacent saloon with a new band every night. Mostly he wrote about the bedroom, the dimples on either side of her spine just above her buttocks. The taste of her sweat and the way she clung to him like a monkey to its mother. The way she whispered his name and how her tongue slid into his ear when he was inside her. That the dirtiest thing she could think of to say was “Give me your baby,” and how that one remark had made him laugh to the point of jeopardizing their lovemaking altogether.
When she napped he sat in a chair by the window and watched her, the corners of his mouth upturned in the slightest way, thinking he’d never be this happy again and not knowing he was right.
The first night they walked to the movie theater a block away and saw Forrest Gump. Imogene got through it fine but Clayton cried at the end when Forrest visits the tree where Jenny’s buried. He was torn between trying to hide it and being proud of being moved by a film, so he only dried the eye closest to his wife. When it finished he found she’d been watching him the whole time with a look of feigned concern.
The next day they got up early and went out on the trail with a group of tourists. They rubbed suntan lotion on each other and traded water bottles, because Clayton said it would be easier to remind her to drink than it would be for him to remember to do it for himself. She had a camera, one of those Nikons with big screw-on lenses from work (she was a Free Press photographer) and she wore out two whole rolls of film on the Canyon before sunset. She took plenty of Clayton too, but he never knew it. Imogene didn't want him to pretend happiness for a photograph - the pictures she took showed the real thing.
The next morning they took the Rim Trail by themselves, which was considered one of the more scenic and less dangerous of routes. Funny how things don't work like they're supposed to.
He was looking through the viewfinder. The sun was behind some clouds and then it came out, and he couldn't see her anymore – she had been replaced with a box full of glare. He had his other eye closed, and instead of pulling the thing off his face and resetting for the sun, he squeezed the shutter button.
He let the camera drop around his neck and squinted at her. “Why don't I take another – Imogene?” He was squinting at an empty rock face. Mather Point, one of the most popular views of the canyon. This is where she wanted her photograph taken. He turned around. She'd doubled back so she could come up from behind and scare him, or she was hiding somewhere. But there was nowhere to hide. No Imogene doubling back anywhere. A knot started to tighten in his guts.
He inched forward. He wasn't sure why, she wasn't down there. No way she could have fallen - she hadn't made a noise. If she'd fallen she would have screamed, he would have heard it. He would have seen her. So why did he keep stepping forward, six inches at a time? And then, when he got to the edge, why couldn't he force himself to look down? Why was Clayton crying already?
He didn't remember spotting her, didn't remember vomiting, calling the police, or climbing down the four hundred feet himself. When they asked him later to describe the sequence of events he told them he had walked to the edge of the cliff and then he was beside her, with two broken ankles and blood all over him. They told him she'd been dead when he got there, that she'd died on impact, but that wasn't what he remembered.
Imogene smiled at him, and her good eye moved to meet his. The other side of her skull was caved in, and her neck was turned back like a broken pencil.
“I tried to joke,” she said to him, her words somehow clear. “I wanted to trick you into thinking I fell.”
“I know,” he said, “Don't talk,” he said, and “I love you.”
“I ruined all your plans.”
“Don't worry, beautiful. We'll just go home. We'll just go back and it'll all be just how it was. We don't have to have a honeymoon, okay? I don't need one.”
“Look at me,” she said, and he did. It hit him. He wanted to hit it back.
Then there was a helicopter, and he was alone. Imogene wasn't smiling at him – she was dead.
The hospital staff left him alone, and he didn't talk to anyone. For two days he lay in bed, forcing himself to sleep, just so she could be alive again. It didn't matter that when he woke up he got so angry he tried to tear the casts off his legs. It was worth it, and he deserved the pain. His fault. His fault his fault his fault.
He flew back to Michigan with Imogene's body. At the funeral he sat and said nothing. He didn't cry. When I tried to catch his eye he looked away. My parents went over to talk to him and he turned his wheelchair around and rolled himself to his parents' car. He couldn't give anyone what they wanted, couldn't be an object of pity. Feeling was a luxury he didn't allow himself, unless that feeling was anger. His mother and father tried to get him to come back to live in the house of his childhood, but he swore at them. They dropped him off at his old apartment. It was stale and smelled like corn syrup. He thought he should start drinking, but didn't, because he didn't think it would matter.
The doorbell rang, the phone rang, and he didn't answer either. He didn't read or watch TV, and swore off personal hygiene altogether. He slept as much as he could and ate as little as possible, and in the few hours he was awake he wrote in a notebook all the things he should have said to her as she died. Then he made a list of the ways he could have saved her, and finally he wrote down all the most painful ways he could kill himself. That was what he wanted most. He even tried once, had one arm down the kitchen In-Sink-Erator to the elbow and the other on the switch, all ready to do it, when the phone rang. He didn't move to get it, but didn't want to bleed out without knowing what the message was going to be, so he waited.
It was the photo place. His mother had dropped off the camera and the rolls of film for him the other day, and the pictures had been developed. Would he like to come down and get them or should she call his mother and have her bring them to him?
He was curious. He called back, and for the first time in almost a month, made ready to leave the apartment. He showered and shaved, and when the photo lady handed him the stack of envelopes with a smile, he almost smiled back.
At home he spread them all on his bed, and spent a minute with each, poring over its details. He even smelled them, imagining he was with a part of her again, a part she'd made just for him, just for this moment. But the feeling soon passed. They were pictures. Just pictures of the Grand Canyon, like anyone else's. She wasn't in any of them.
That was almost true.
It was the very last picture in the bottom envelope, the one he'd taken even though he hadn't seen anything.
On her face was a look of exaggerated terror. Her left foot was raised and stepping back, and her arms were treading air as she pre-tended to struggle with her balance. Clayton stared at the photo for near an hour, fresh waves of despair wracking him. It was like falling in love again, and it was like being shot in the chest. He glued the other pictures to the ceiling above his bed and the picture of Imogene into the back of a red leather notebook. On the first page of the notebook he wrote, “Secret Notebook,” and under that, in bigger letters, “The Truth.”
“The truth is,” he wrote on the first page, “Some things we aren't meant to come back from,” and, on the last, “Mark, you deserved to know. I'm sorry. Tell my mom I'm okay.”
The day after I burn the notebook I call his mother back.
“What's the news?”
“They want to call it off.”
I close my eyes. When I open them, I'm looking at the picture of Imogene between my fingers. The only thing I saved, because I couldn't burn her.
On the phone, I say,“They'll find him. You'll see. Just wait, I'm sure he's fine,” but the words are hollow.
I'm holding the last picture anyone's ever taken of Genie, my little sister, in the last moment of her life before she plummets into the Grand Canyon. I can't look away.
On the phone, I say, “You'll see,” and “Just wait.”