Notes Left Behind


By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999)

A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck.

Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.” I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window.

I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could understand it I would be in possession of something profound.


description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge) use of motion

introducing characters (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or action,

description or inner response that identifies the opposition

dialogue: summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden

                   dialogue (subtext)

                   Dialogue “do’s and don’ts


                        1.         point of view for each character (attitude)

                        2.         impression of natural speech

                        3.         use  structure to shape the sequence of what is said                


                        1.         let characters make long speeches

                        2.         put in dead dialogue

                        3.         write dialogue in which nothing is left unspoken (no subtext)                       

 developing characters:  pick minimum characters to convey scene                

events trigger action, action leads to discovery