A Mysterious Death

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A week or two ago, a man was sent to repair a hole in a roof in a nice ranch house on a nice street in Pontiac, Michigan. He had been sent by the bank that had foreclosed on the house for nonpayment of its mortgage. In the process of repairs he discovered a car in the garage, containing the mummified body of a woman. It was mummified because it had been enclosed in the car for six years.

The woman was thought to have spent a lot of time traveling, so she wasn’t expected to be around at any particular time. Anyway, nobody cared. As long as her bank account had money in it, her mortgage payments continued to be made by her computer. Utilities were paid in the same way. Her next-door neighbor continued to mow her lawn whenever he mowed his own lawn. Nothing appeared to be out of order. It was 2,000 normal days in Pontiac, Michigan, where $54,000 in a bank account can go a long way. As it should.

At this point, you may be shaking your head and muttering, “Look at the way things are in this modern, heartless, automated society.” But I, for one, am not muttering.

One reason is that I myself am from Michigan. The Pontiac story is a picture of what Michiganians are like. At least outstate Michiganians, meaning people who don’t live in Detroit. Michigan is full of odd expressions like “outstate.” It’s also full of people for whom it’s perfectly normal not to care about their neighbors. No, there’s nothing wrong with mowing the neighbor’s yard for her — why not? You’ve got a lawnmower. Might as well help her out. But why should you insist on talking to her? I can’t think of a reason.

As to dying in your garage: to this the Michiganian responds, “Where would you rather die?”

I remember how surprised I was when I got acquainted with my relatives in downstate Illinois (that’s Illinoisans’ dully predictable expression for people who don’t live in Chicago) and found that they actually knew what was up with their next-door neighbors. Sometimes the neighbors came strolling into the house with barely a yoo-hoo, on the mere pretext that their families had lived on the same block for a hundred years. The nerve!

Now, as to dying in your garage: to this the Michiganian responds, “Where would you rather die?” Would you rather freeze to death on your way from the house to the garage, like the old lady from the Upper Peninsula who was found frozen in her back yard (after which it was discovered that she had never been outside the Upper Peninsula of Michigan even once in her life)? No, you’d rather die in the garage, and better yet, in your car, where you’re comfortable and looking forward to a good trip. The lady in the Pontiac had her key in the ignition. She was ready to go.

But the second reason I am not muttering in protest is that I don’t find this vision of America in all its lack-of-community, bowling-alone, atomized-and-uncaring individualism (if that’s what it is) the least bit disturbing. The dead woman had planned her life and was leading it in the way she wanted. Presumably she had friends somewhere, and spent time with them. If she didn’t, she didn’t want to. I can’t see that getting together with her neighbors to scrub the curbs or neuter stray cats or attend weekly meetings of the zoning board would have enhanced her spiritual life. If there was a chance that it might have, she could have taken that chance. She didn’t. Probably she considered herself blessed enough already — blessed to live in a capitalist country where people can pay their bills on their own, without consulting anyone; a country where they can go away for months at a time without anybody “worrying” about them — anybody whom they themselves wouldn’t worry about; a country where neighbors can lend a hand without exacting the tribute of a feigned “community.”

This woman had a happy life — and if it wasn’t happy, she had only herself to blame. Contrast the millions, yea billions, of other people, people who have lived in other times and places, people who have been starved, butchered, tortured, or, as my ancestors used to say, “bothered half to death” in the circle of a close community. This woman was not a martyr; this woman was the symbol of a calm and tolerant society.

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