How Sweet with Fall and Fish Got its Name

 

cemetary at night

Do you dream?

“Excuse me?”  The waitress pauses at the edge of my table, coffee pot in hand, eyebrows raised.  I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud.  I haven’t been sleeping.

“Do you have cream?”  I tip my steaming mug toward her, like a toast.  My hand barely shakes.

“I thought you said black.” The waitress is older than me, edging out of pretty.  Her wry lips soften her tone but her eyes tell me she doesn’t put up with much.

“Changed my mind?”

She grunts a laugh.  Her hair is long, reddish blonde, tired and straggled.  She has wide hips, lines just forming around her eyes.  Not a career waitress. . . yet.  “I’ll be right back, sweetie.”

I love it when women call me sweetie.  I know that was a big thing for feminism back when it was called women’s lib, the sweeties, the honeys, the babes, but I’m a guy so I never had to worry about that stuff, whether being called baby diminished me.  Besides, something in me needs mothering right now.

When I say I haven’t been sleeping it’s not quite true.  I could be sleeping right now.  When I sleep I dream, and when I dream it’s terrible, so I do my best to not sleep.  Right now things aren’t particularly horrible so I’m probably awake.  Still, my vision is sepia-toned, my hearing is fuzzy.  Every so often something cuts through the fog – a clatter as the loner at the counter drops his fork, the reddish tint to the waitress’s hair – then everything fades back to neutral.

I rub my temples, the hard knuckles digging the hollows of my skull.  It feels real, so I press deeper, relishing the pain.  The pain tells me I’m awake.

I don’t know when it started.  Time has blurred, like my senses.  But somewhere along the line my dreams started feeling more real to me than my waking life.

When I sleep, what I dream is this.

You die, and there’s a hallway, a door, a line of people waiting to get in.  You know what’s behind that door because you’ve died before and you’ve seen this same hallway hundreds of times.  You didn’t remember it until you saw it but once you saw it you wondered how you could have ever forgotten.  No one speaks; no one is impatient.  The line is endless but doesn’t feel long.  Like everyone, you concentrate on your question.  Considering, revising, rejecting.  You reach the door and open it and walk through and close the door behind you.  You’re inside a small room.  To your left is another door but you can’t go through it yet because sitting on a chair that is also a throne in front of you is God.

You get one question before you go through the second door and see what your next life holds.  Hopefully the question, or rather the answer, helps you live your next life better.

God looks a lot like you – same age, same race, same sex, same hair color – but God isn’t you, God is God, and God is smiling, waiting.  You open your mouth to ask your question, but God cuts you off.

“Listen, my ass is getting numb sitting here all day,” God tells you. You blush, thinking God said ass, then you feel stupid for having such a thought; God made ass and what comes out of it and the words for all of it as well so God can say whatever God wants.  “I’ve gotta stretch my legs; would you mind sitting here for just one second?”

How can you turn God down?  God is smiling, reaching out to you, and then you’re sitting down.  There’s no cushion but it’s not too bad.  Still, you see where God would get uncomfortable after a while.

“I’ll be right back,” God tells you, going out the second door, the life door, and you smile.  Take your time, you think.  You are special.  God has chosen you to hold the seat.  God is taking a cosmic refresher.  Your question will be the first one a rested God hears, and the answer will be amazing.

Soon the door opens and your heart leaps into your chest but it’s the wrong door.  The person that stood behind you in line steps through, looking at you, trembling with fear, awe, love.  He looks like a little child and you have to smile, telling him to relax.  He breathes a sigh of relief that moves his whole body.  He can’t seem to tear his eyes away from yours.  He opens his mouth, licks his lips.

“Yeah, uh, before I go back, I wanted to know . . . am I in control of my life or is everything fate?”

You panic.  There’s been some mistake.  You open your mouth to tell him but the look on his face.  He’ll fall apart if you don’t answer.  You have to answer.  Your mind races, a hundred bumper stickers, a dozen posters hanging on schoolroom walls, a thousand clichés, but nothing seems to fit.  Finally, you lean forward.

“Yes,” you say softly.  Then you settle back into the chair, trying to look wise.

Anger, confusion, realization, all swirl across his face.  He looks dazed as he makes his way to the second door, mumbles a thanks, and goes through it.  Hope flutters in your stomach when he opens the second door, but God is not there.  When is God coming back?  The door closes and you wait.

You run a hand over your brow and the door opens and you almost say, thank you, a little celestial joke, but it’s the wrong door again, a woman looking pained, hopeful, frightened.  You smile, trying to put her at ease, and she sighs, her eyes mesmerized by your face.

“What I need to know- before I can live again, I need to know . . .”  Her eyes crinkle, like she wants to close them to gather herself, but she can’t, she’s too busy staring at you.  “How many lives do I have to live before I reach Heaven?”

Her heart, her soul, her mind are eggshells.  A harsh word from you and she’ll crumble to dust.  It’s all on her face.

“You’ll reach Heaven when you’re ready,” you assure her, smiling the whole time, keeping your words soft, your tone gentle. “You lived this life better than your last, and the next life will be better than this one.  Don’t worry about the future, just try to be awake to each moment.”

She’s trembling as she reaches for the second door, her eyes still locked on your face.  She doesn’t thank you but the need is choking her.  You nod your understanding and she leaves.  Your heart leaps as the door opens but God is still not there.  You settle back and you wait.  The wrong door keeps opening and they come, and they keep coming.

“How old will I be when I die?”

“Is AIDS just a disease or are You punishing us for our sins?”

“Why did You let them execute me when You know I didn’t do it?”

“Am I supposed to improve the world by living for others or by living for myself?”

“Why would You make someone allergic to his own skin?”

“If I don’t eat meat but I wear leather shoes, does that make me a hypocrite?”

“How come You let daddy touch my private parts?”

“What’s the point of all this?”

“Why did You make the world?”

“Did You not hear me crying that time in Cleveland or did You just not care?”

“What’s the answer to the question that I should ask to make my next life better?”

And on and on and on and you finally realize God was never sitting in this chair, or maybe God was sitting here at one point but it’s been a long time because you are God, you’re responsible for all of it, the misery, the suffering, the pain, and you can’t sit here and answer any more questions, even if you never got to ask yours, so you ask the next hopeful a question of your own.

“Would you mind sitting here a second?  My legs are killing me.”

“You’re crazy,” she says, and it’s a real voice, not a muffled echo of background noise or a memory of sound but honest-to-God lips and tongue and vocal chords.

“What?”  I try to keep my tone even, merely curious instead of panicked, but I feel my eyes bulging.  Was I talking out loud?

“Your cream.”  The waitress sets a little crock of half n’ half in front of me.  Is she repeating herself or correcting herself?  If I heard right the first time then she thinks I’m crazy.

She laughs.  “I think you’re lonely, maybe.”

“What’s your name?”  Other than a white button-down shirt, black pants, and an apron, there’s no dress code, no name tag.  It’s not a chain so she didn’t go through some phony, “Hi, welcome to blah-blah-blah home of a thousand smiles my name is so-and-so and would you like to start out with a drink and our delicious chili cheese fries for only $7.99?”  It suddenly scares me I don’t know her name, like she’s trying to fool me.  She must sense my desperation because she doesn’t answer, asks me for my name instead.

Two can play at that; I tell her she can read it on my credit card when I pay the bill.  Then I ask why she thinks I’m lonely.

“Are you meeting someone?”  She has one knee up on the empty booth across from me, her arm draped across the back of the seat.  She’s totally relaxed, like she has all day to chat. From what I can tell she has a table of four businessmen all the way across the diner, and the lone man, wrinkled and grey, at the counter.

“No.”

Her nod says this isn’t news.

“So what?  At least I’m not that guy.”  I point toward the senior at the counter, slowly moving his spoon through his soup.

“Not yet.”  She smiles at me.  I think of how I had her pegged for a lifer and my face heats up.  I wonder if she sees the lonely man at the counter looking back at her.

“I have friends.”

“Me too.”  Her hair is pulled into a ponytail but it’s still long enough to drape over her shoulder in the front.  She tosses it back.  “Are you going to order something?”

I hadn’t thought of it.  I hadn’t thought of talking with a waitress like we were friends, or enemies, or however it is we’re talking.  I don’t make decisions, I just drift.  I’ve drifted to this booth, this cup of weak coffee, this waitress with the cynical eyes who won’t tell me her name.

“Give me a minute.”

She nods and leaves.  I lied to her.  I used to have friends.  I used to go to dinner parties and weekend get-togethers.  I used to have a girlfriend.  None of them talk to me because when I talk to them I say too much and what I say is this.

You die and when you wake up you see blinding light, shadowy figures bent over you.  You realize you’re on an operating table.  The procedure is radical but the doctors assure you that you’re part of important work, very important work.  They try to explain but you’re doped up, hazy on the details.  This isn’t your when.  It’s later.  The elephant is nearly extinct and they’ve tried everything to breed new ones.  Every female elephant died so you’ll have to fit the bill.  They apologize for keeping you awake for the procedure but it’s important that you remain conscious so they can monitor your brain function and be sure the grafts take.

They remove your arms and legs.  Looking down, there’s a moment where your limbs are part of you, still attached, like they could be saved, then a small cut later and they’re pieces of meat, cast aside into a bin with dozens of others.  Spare parts for some other experiment or food for some beast?  You never can tell.

They shave your head.  They remove your sex organs.  They pump what’s left of your body full of fluid and your torso swells, so much fluid it beads like sweat from your pore.  The fluid leaks from your nipples, your belly button, your anus, the wound where your old genitals lived and your new genitals will go.  The smell is medicinal, bitter.  Despite the drugs making your head fuzzy, it occurs to you to protest.

It’s all the luck of the draw, they tell you; you’ve been chosen.

You say you want your arms and legs back and they tell you that you’re saving a beautiful species of life, that you’re a hero.  They bring large cylinders of twitching meat toward you.  It takes four doctors to carry each one, they’re as thick around as your waist.  They’re pinkish grey, thick and rough, branches of blood vessels and nerve endings waving from the ends like sea fans.  You feel them sink into your flesh, sucking onto the missing parts where your arms and legs were.  There has been no pain and no physical discomfort until now, this madding itch under your skin that you can’t scratch.  The limbs are too big for you, you lay spread eagled like a toddler bundled in a snow suit.  The doctors bring more grafts, flat slabs of flesh they lay over your chest, your groin, your stomach.  The weight is crushing, the new reproductive system like a fist, the itch is maddening.  You protest some more but they’ve stopped listening, stopped caring about keeping you calm.  This is the tricky part, lifting your body up so they can lay you on a bed of pinkish grey flesh the size of a queen bed.  Either the grafts will adhere and create a new you, or the experiment will fail and you’ll fall apart.

They lay you back, using a harness because of how much weight you’ve gained.  It’s like being enfolded in a huge pair of hands.  Your body swells to fit your new arms.  Your tiny head is still perched on top.  You’ve stopped protesting and starting crying, not because it hurts but because you feel violated, like electric shock.  Electric shock doesn’t hurt but it courses through you and your limbs move but they’re not your own and this is like that, your body responding to impulses you haven’t created in your head but in your flesh and you know the truth, that you’re a machine, spare parts, just the way they’re treating you.

The doctors stop supporting your head.  You lay back into a neck and a set of floppy ears, grafting themselves to you like a massaging shampoo.  They use a crane to lower the face, the trunk that will be your new mouth and nose, the mask that will be your new eyes, and you stop being lulled by the graft attaching itself to your head, you scream at the top of your lungs as those sea fan nerve endings and blood vessels search for your face, scream at the doctors to stop, stop, that this is enough, but your cries are muffled as the elephant face sucks itself to your head.  At first it’s like having a dentist try to force both his arms into your lungs, then it’s like sucking long breaths through a straw, then your new mouth falls open, the jaw heavier than your entire head used to be, everything is heavy, heavier than you should be able to lift, but somehow you do, stumbling away from the doctors, knocking equipment into ruin.

Now the guards come because you’re something dangerous.  The doctors apologize for rushing things.  They’d like to give the grafts more time to heal but the bull elephant is quite crazed so there’s no time, it has to be now.  If you could become accustomed to your new body then you’d crush them all, but they use cattle prods to force you into another chamber which quickly seals shut.

Across the chamber is another door, the pounding of some huge beast on the other side.  The doors, the floor, the walls, all thick metal, but still when the beast pounds the far door, blisters appear in the side facing you.  The door opens and there’s a mighty, trumpeted roar that somehow sounds like a man howling in rage.  The bull elephant steps through on two legs and you see what all these doctors and scientists have wrought, not saving the elephant but creating some wild human-elephant cross.  This abomination eases toward you, its huge eyes glazed with lust.  Its trunk reaches for you and you stiffen but a voice comes over a speaker telling you to relax, the scientists watching to see what will happen.  The trunk sniffs you, blows against your neck, your thighs.  The fear is like urine trickling down your legs, only it’s something you feel in your spine.  The bull elephant rears its head back and its roar of loss and betrayal vibrates in your bones.  The blow across your face is like nothing you’ve ever felt, in two sets of nerve endings.  Your vision doubles, triples, you can’t believe you’re still awake and you’re screaming but it sounds like a roaring elephant.

The doctors tell you to stay calm but it’s too late.  The bull elephant twists one foot into your trunk and rips the head the doctors gave you off.  Like a waxing, the pain is intense but brief, followed by a burning sensation.  Liquid runs down your face, maybe that strange fluid, maybe blood.  The elephant uses its teeth, rips your new body apart, then rips your new limbs off, then you’re just a rapidly deflating torso and a head, exhausted, skin raw and burning and oozing.  The bull elephant leans you against the chamber wall.  You try to twist away but end up slumped in a pool of spreading liquid, whatever fluid they pumped into you leaking out, tinged pink with your blood.  The ground shakes as the elephant bounces on all fours to the opposite side of the chamber.  It faces you again, then it gathers itself.  Roaring, thick trails of spit flying from its lips, mad eyes rolling, it thunders toward you.  You scream, almost toppling over with the force of the great beast’s steps.  The scientists mutter apologies over the loudspeaker but you can’t make out the words over your screams, the elephant’s roar, its pounding approach.

The elephant’s foot smashes your head and upper chest into a red spray, a gory dent a foot deep in the thick, metal wall.

Better luck next time.

The old man at the counter coughs, bringing me from my haze.  It’s a deep cough, phlegmy.  Either a veteran smoker or a man just getting over an illness.

The elephant.  I drew a crowd with that one once.  Then with others, faces going from amusement to discomfort when they realized I wasn’t joking, and to horror when I refused to stop.  No more invitations.  My girlfriend stopped returning my calls.  The only message she’s left me in . . . weeks?  Months?  This morning, a text message, two words.

Get.  Help.

Had I called her again?  Did I tell her more about my sleeping life, about what happens when I close my eyes?  Or worse, did I pound on her door in the middle of the night?

“What’ll it be?”

Slowly, I understand what the waitress means.  I look at the menu and the first thing I see is a club sandwich.  I ask if it can be whole wheat instead of sour dough, and if they have those pickle stackers they can put inside the sandwich instead of a pickle on the side, and chips instead of fries, and whether they use real bacon or turkey bacon-

Her eyes glaze with amusement, her head cocks to one side, and I can’t seem to shut up.  I have no idea how long I talk.  I peter out somewhere around the brand of ham they should use.

“So, a club sandwich?”  She doesn’t use a pen or paper, everything from memory, filling her thoughts with other people’s wants.

“No.  A sundae.  Chocolate.”

“How about a banana split?”

“You die and you’re running down a dark hallway, the stone throat  so narrow and crushed with bodies you’d be choking for air if there was a ceiling, but there’s only towering walls that end in shadow.  There are no children or old people so right away you know it’s going to be a bad one.  You wonder if anyone’s looking down at you from the darkness, at you and the rest of the rats.  People are screaming, crying.  Nonsense babbles from your lips and you don’t know what you’re saying but you can’t stop saying it, can’t stop exhaling the language of pure fear.  You’re wearing rags but you don’t care because everyone is wearing rags.  You never know exactly what it’s going to be but in a way you always know because you’ve done it a dozen times before, a hundred, everyone crying and running and praying because they know-and-don’t-know what’s coming, too.  It doesn’t feel new, if feels like a memory, one you only remember as it happens.  You try denial, you try to reject everything you’re seeing and smelling and hearing and feeling, but you keep on seeing chaos, keep smelling sweat and urine, keep hearing the drums, keep feeling the cold stone against your feet, the rough fabric against your skin, all of it familiar and foreign.

None of you want to reach the end of the corridor but you’re being driven.  What’s behind you, the fact of your death, is too much to turn and face so you’re forced forward; that and the press of bodies at your back as more people die and come here.

The hallway widens into an area lit with torches, the burning pitch obscuring the sharper odors of the people around you.  Opposite you see a great stone slab of wall which is really a door sliding toward the floor.  You get a vague sense of noise, of space beyond, before the stone door closes.  If the cries around you are a storm-blown ocean, the cries behind that door are a hurricane.  Your heart pounds even harder and you realize that you can be more afraid than you already are.  You wonder if, when they open that door, your heart will simply burst.

You’re not going through that door.

People crowd around you, press against you, and soon you’re riding a wave of bodies forward, everyone is crushing forward, driven by the incoming bodies pouring through the hallway.  Ten people die worldwide every fifty-eight seconds and some of them are bound to come here. Somehow, no one touches the door.  No one wants to go through.

You lock your knees and your bare feet scrap against stone, slipping forward.  You try for a better stance and lurch ahead several feet.  Your stomach rolls.  You can almost touch the door.  There’s no use scrambling for leverage, for anything to hold you back, there’s nothing around you except writhing flesh, panicked bodies, all of them moving forward against their will.  A man standing head and shoulders above the crowd catches your eye, his thick arms hanging from the shreds of a tunic, his broad chest stretching the fabric.

It occurs to you that he’ll do well and you’re not sure what that means but you realize you’ve lived your life completely wrong.  You should’ve been a grunting Neanderthal.  No shoes that match your belt, no meditation, no sharing your feelings, no 401K, no volunteer work.  You should’ve told strangers to fuck off, changed lanes without signaling, gotten an illegal cable hook-up, you should’ve burned, you should’ve raped, you should’ve robbed, you should’ve pillaged.  Stoicism, hard drinking, street brawls, and bar fights.  You should have lived your life in a prison yard instead of a Starbucks, maybe then you’d be able to walk through that door instead of being forced.

The drums grow louder, one note pounded over and over.  You’re in front of the door, then the the rough stone is under your palms, colder than you thought it would be.  You brace yourself to keep at arm’s length but it does no good.  Your arms buckle and your face is touching the stone.  The drums beat like your heart, each moaning crescendo of the crowd, each chorus of misery rising into another pounding beat that vibrates through your bones, your teeth.  The spaces between notes shorten.  Bodies press harder against you.  The pounding beat comes faster now, you struggle to breathe, crushed between the crowd and the great, stone door, the drums reach a fevered pitch, the crowd shrieks and your throat hurts and of course you’re shrieking with them, adding your voice to the din, and the drumbeats come so fast it’s one long, heavy vibration, a gale of sound, and the silence when the drums stop is so alien it takes some time for the screams to end.

Your ears ring in the new quiet, your hair stands on end, a woman cries, a man keeps saying, no-no-no-no-no without stopping for breath, and you’re still babbling but it’s just a whisper.

Tears trail down your face and you wipe them away, wondering how long you’ve been crying and realizing it doesn’t matter.  When the drums come again it’s the thunder of an angry god, the beating heart of some mythic beast enfolding the world.  Beneath your fingers, the stone door lurches up about a foot.

Another pounding beat comes and the stone moves again.  Everyone is quiet except the sobbing woman and the “no-no-no” man, but with the next beat it starts.  The door is at waist level and you can see shadows, things moving beyond the door, and the screams start again, the protesting, folks claiming they’ve led good lives, that they were good Christians, good Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, that they’re atheists and anarchists and they reject the whole idea of an afterlife.

They’ll die first, you think, and then you wonder why.  The crowd pushes away from the door, fighting the tide, the rush of incoming bodies.  It’s useless.  Bodies like seals wallowing in mud are thrown against the door.  The drums sound again, again, returning to a steady rhythm, and you’re thrown trough the door with the rest of the crowd.”

“My name’s Linda.”  She’s sitting across from me in the booth.  I have no idea how long she’s been there.  Only that, as before, her voice slices into my consciousness, present in a way that the rest of the restaurant isn’t.

“Matt.”

“Matt.”  She nods and her jaw works like she’s tasting my name.  “Then what happens?”

Dreams are almost impossible to describe, like trying to explain to someone when something is you-had-to-be-there funny.  I tell her I can’t.

“Try.”

The clock hanging behind the counter ticks the seconds off.  It’s so loud I can’t believe I haven’t heard it before, that someone hasn’t complained to the management.

“If you had kept your feet you may have died with the rest of them around you.  Instead, you fall to the floor, only it’s actually sand, the screams echoing in your ears, the drums, the cheering crowd.  You flip onto your back and you’re in a vast stadium, an arena beyond measure, the dome peaked in shadows impossible to light because they’re so high up.  The crowd is on their feet, cheering, screaming for blood.  Guards, maybe a dozen, maybe a few dozen, force people to keep moving through the door.  They’re heavy with muscle, sweating, wearing helmets, half again as high as the big man you spotted earlier in the crowd.  You wonder what you’d see under their helmets, whether they’re human.

They keep the ragged masses flowing through the door with barbed whips, spiked poles, maces, morning stars with iron balls the size of your head.  Those in the first few rows don’t survive their encouragement; the rest of you get the idea.  People hit the sand running.  They’re going wild, yelling, kicking up dust, waving their arms.  When they run into someone else, they punch, they grapple, they wrestle.  The meaty sound of flesh against flesh.  When enough people fill the arena the door slides back down.  By the time it meets the floor, puffing up a cloud of sand, loose clusters of bodies have formed, slapping at each other, throwing glancing blows, testing the waters.  You look around, wondering who’s beating the drums, but you can’t see anyone.  The crowd has gone silent, waiting.

Your breath is heavy.  The drumbeat vibrates every fiber in your being, every nerve ending thrums with energy.  You don’t want to stand, you don’t want any part of this, but your body has to answer the sound.  You all stand there, hearts pounding, chests heaving, fear giving way to anger, to rage, to murder.  The beat grows louder, more urgent.  No one speaks but a scream rises up and the killing starts.  Only the guards have weapons so you use your fists to punch, your feet to kick, your nails to claw, your fingers to choke.  Your knees and elbows become instruments of violence, your teeth are deadly weapons.  You fall on each other like animals.

On your left two men have their hands locked on each other’s throats.  The man on top hooks his thumbs into the flesh of the other’s neck.

To your right a bloodied woman circled by men.  She lays limp, her eyes glazed, her arms and legs askew as the men wait their turn.

A hairy arm wraps around your throat.  You smell sweat and fear, yours familiar, your attacker’s sharper, more acrid.  You try to grab the arm but it’s slippery with sweat.

Your eyes roll back to the two men fighting on your left.  Blood sprays from the bottom one’s neck.  With his dying breath, he hooks his fingers into claws, tearing his attacker’s eyes out.  The man on top stands up, screaming, hands flying to his wounded face, his blood mixing with the dead man’s.

Your vision darkens.  You claw at the arm around your throat, leaving shallow cuts, curls of his flesh hang from your fingernails.  The muscles in the man’s arm tighten.

You look right and see the limp woman was playing possum.  She wraps her legs around her first would-be rapist, her arms around his head, and breaks his neck in one swift motion.  His body goes slack and she pushes him off.

The forearm you’re fighting runs with blood.  Your vision blooms black.  It’s like clawing steel wrapped in rubber.  Your lungs start to burn.

A woman tackles the eyeless man on your left, forcing him to the ground.  Her face is wild, one ear hanging by a ragged flap.  She pushes his face into the sand, choking him, sand filling his nostrils, his mouth, his empty eye sockets.

You reach behind you, low, find your attacker’s swinging genitals in all those rags, wrap your fingers around his balls, twisting, pulling.  The scream in your ear isn’t louder than the din around you, just closer.

Another man tries to rape the woman lying on your right, falling full weight on her.  He pins her arms and she bucks wildly, her head connects with his chin, his eyes go glassy, her teeth rip his throat out.  The men gathered around turn on each-other.

Despite the scream, the hairy arm tightens around your throat for a final second, then falls away.  You draw a strong, ragged breath that burns your throat and you keep pulling and twisting until you can see again and you’re standing above the big man you saw in the hallway and he’s rocking back and forth and screaming and you’re holding something squishy and hairy and you throw it at him and run.

The drums pound faster.  There are more people lying in the sand than fighting.  The guards herd you and the other survivors toward each-other, forcing the killing to a fever pitch.  You swing wildly to keep people from touching you, from getting close and getting a hold.  Soon it’s impossible, you’re slapping at flesh then pushing at flesh then embracing flesh as you’re all hurdled together in a rough pile.  A finger goes into your eye, another in your nostril.  Some hairy slab of flesh, a forearm or a shin, pushes itself between your buttocks and stays there.  One of your hands is locked between two writhing bodies, the other pokes into a wet, warm orifice you can’t identify.  You try to pull away but you’re piled together like trash, like maggots teeming over a corpse.  Your breath becomes shallow panting.  You screw your lips together, not wanting to taste what you’re smelling.

Again the drums stop.  This time the crowd doesn’t hush, it screams with one voice echoed from thousands of throats, screaming for blood.  When the drums start again, the guards raise dull clubs over their heads and smash them down, again and again, pounding into the mass of bodies.  The flesh, the heat, the pounding drums like a beating heart, it’s like being born.  You scream along with the others, the chorus of sound deafening, but you still feel the drums vibrating in your guts, the thudding of the clubs.  Your arm shatters and you can’t be sure if it’s you they’ve struck or someone above or below you.  One leg is ripped from your body and you’re screaming yourself hoarse and your remaining foot shatters, and your ribs poke shards into your lungs and through your sides, and then there’s too much injury for you to keep track of and you wished you hadn’t fought so hard to come to this but it’s too late, you wanted to live a little longer and so you have and you’re being pounded flat so they can throw more sand over you and invite more in for the slaughter.

“It’s all the luck of the draw,” I tell her.  “It’s all pointless… how you live your life, it doesn’t matter.  That’s what’s waiting at the end of it for presidents and chamber maids, for murderers and nuns, for rapists and relief workers.  None of it matters.”

Linda looks at me in silence, her mouth open.  Her eyes are shining and she’s here with me in a way she wasn’t when she was taking my order.  “Is it always that way?”

“Lately.”

“Does it have to be?”

“I can’t make it stop.”

She looks around as if seeing the wear of the place she works for the first time.  The cracked counter, the rips in the vinyl, the filthy grout between the floor tiles.  Maybe she’s wondering what a few more years in this place might do to her.  The businessmen leave, the lone man is lost in his soup.  No one misses her so she learns toward me.  She gives me the first real smile I’ve seen from her, the first smile I remember seeing in ages.  Even though she should take better care of her teeth, the smile brings her back into pretty.

“How about this?  You die and there’s a bright light.  It surrounds everything, and in a way you’re part of it.  You’re not sure how long you’ve been staring before you realize it’s the sun.  You close your eyes because you don’t want to burn them.  Yet somehow, you know you could stare all day and never get burned.”

Her words are hesitant at first but she quickly gains confidence.

“You smell clean air, with a crisp edge like fall is coming.  There’s a little fish smell but it’s okay.  It makes you more aware of how sweet the air is.  You feel dry, warped boards under your head, your shoulders, your butt, and the backs of your arms.  You look down and see you’re naked, lying on a long dock in a huge lake.  Your feet dangle in the water, keeping you cool even though the sun is warm on your skin.  The sun shines on parts of you that haven’t seen sun since you were a little kid running around naked, back when no one cared if you ran around naked all day long.  It feels so good you wonder why you ever bothered with clothes.

“There are little cottages all around the lake.  They all have docks and little rowboats of their own.  Maybe people you know live in the cottages, friends you haven’t seen in a while, family you’ve lost.  Maybe there are famous people you’ve always wanted to meet, or dead people from history you wish you could have met.  Probably all of that.  It doesn’t matter, there’ll be plenty of time for visiting.  You’re looking forward to it, in fact.  Right now it’s enough to feel what you feel, this warm contentment that’s like nothing you’ve ever known.

“You make a basket with your hands and rest your head inside, looking up at the sky.  You take a big breath sweet with fall and fish.  It doesn’t matter that you’re naked.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t know how you got here.  It’s all new but it feels like home.

“Your cottage is behind you…”

Her voice soothes me.  Her eyes become soft, the cynicism drops away as she describes how nice my after-death will be, how beautiful and peaceful.  While she talks I believe her.

I wonder what might be between us once the check is paid, if anything.  Maybe I’m supposed to be with her forever or maybe she’s just my guardian angel for this moment.

Tonight, maybe I’ll sleep sweet.

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