July 17th, 2023
My Last One.
I spotted him quickly once I arrived. Eyes bloodshot and drooping, back slouched over the bowl of a toilet. The feigning, drowning, once king of rock and roll, was sitting helpless before me. He leaned back slowly, eyes meeting mine. I watched as they glassed over, all fear gone from his gaze. I slowly pulled off my dark hood and sank to the floor next to him.
Most people see the best moments of their life pass in front of them before they go. The drugs were helping him as well, to slip away seamlessly. "Mama," he mumbled, "I just miss Julie." He said quietly, with a small, somber smile. Tears burned down his cheeks. He looked up at me again with tender eyes, his rock and roll façade had faded away. In this moment I could see the young boy he once was. A kid with big dreams and a heavy heart.
I opened my arms to him, he slumped over in relief and folded into me. I felt as he breathed a long sigh, releasing years of sorrow. The man was covered in layers of dirt, sweat, and stage makeup. As I brushed away his falling tears he nuzzled into my chest like a child. This was the worst part. He sensed something, smiled up at me and said, "My Julia." His smile drifted, and I watched as the last fog of life passed through his eyes. They closed softly, then the last breath escaped his lungs. Before I knew it tears began to stream down my cheeks as well.
As I held him there on the floor like a small boy, I wept as I thought of all the souls I had swept up throughout the century. How many mothers I coddled in their final moments, listened as they cried out for their children, begging not to go. The elderly who climbed willingly into my arms, tired from life's long journey. The soldiers that wished for one last goodbye. Or the ones that trekked over calmly, tired and having accepted their fate days before. The babies and toddlers I needed to take, my sorrow consuming me. I watched them for as long as I could, watched the drool pour over their chin as they slept. Or watched as they clung to their favorite stuffed animal, looking so small in their hospital beds.
I wept for them. All of them. There is no judgement in death. I look down at the man in my arms. A filthy drug addict, that cheated on girlfriends, and stopped calling his mom. A man who questioned God, and wished for a father, who missed his sister, and loved his friends. I gently laid his body down, positioning him to look as peaceful as possible. I leaned down and kissed his cheek, trying my best to remember that feeling of stubble on my lips.
I rose, the lost singer's soul still clinging to my body. Now I'd take him away, leaving him in a waiting room of sorts, never to encounter him again. I took my time, appreciating and reminiscing all the gentle souls I've carried. My time as the Grim Reaper of life is finished. I will hang up my cloak and resume my existence with the others, indebted to the gods for giving me this generous opportunity to right my wrongs.
I’ve always hated the smell of blood. 100 years of being dead hasn’t changed that.
I stand in front of the door, preparing myself for whatever scene I’d be getting myself into. After a moment, I push the door open. It's heavy and opens slowly, but when I walk into the room, the stench hits my nose, hard and fast. I would gag if I could.
It all smells rancid. The alcohol, the dirty scum that's built up on the off-white tiling. It's not much worse than what deathbeds I had arranged before, but it's not glamorous either.
I stand still, bracing myself for the disgusting scene I was stuck in. A dirty bathroom in a dirty bar wouldn’t be the ideal place to die, but after this long on the job, I couldn’t be bothered to set up anything better.
I step forward. Apart from my clipped steps, the only sounds that rang through the room were the lights buzzing as they flickered and this awful gagging sound. I keep walking to the end of the room, all the way to the last stall.
I knock on the door gently. My knuckles rap against it 3 times. I let the sound ring through the room. An awful groaning sound comes from inside the stall. I take that as my cue to enter.
I push on the door.
He looks disgusting.
The victim looks up slowly, his hands twitching slightly as he takes me in.
“Do you mind?” he slurs, choking on his own saliva.
The smell was bad enough but god, the sight of him was even worse.
“Get out” he groans. Sick spills down his face and dribbles into his beard. His hair is knotted and covered in his own bodily fluids and sweaty pit-stains cover his shirt. “Get out” he retches as he swats at my legs, slowly and disorientedly.
I take no notice, and I keep watching him. It's pathetic really. Had I not taken the time to see my victim the previous night, I would have never recognised him. This stupid, drunken and rancid mess of a human was of somewhat entertainment to other people of this decade. I can’t see why he was revered as any “king” of any sort.
His music was bad enough, but this display of inhumanity was worse.
He keeps getting sick as he leans over the toilet, letting it spill all over him and the ground as he slumps over. The vomit is clear, pure alcohol spilling everywhere.
I don’t know why I bother coming to these jobs early anymore. My shift is almost over anyways, it shouldn’t matter at this stage.
“You’re dead,” I say.
His head turns towards me. The more I look at him, the more I want to quicken his death. Not out of pity, but out of sheer disgust.
The eyes that were previously glazed over hardened for a moment after registering my words. He looked me up and down with this sneer. Ironically he looked more repulsed at my presence than the situation he was in.
“Piss off” he spits, spraying dirt all over my leg. I stay silent for a moment, holding my tongue.
After a moment of deliberation, I kneel to meet his level.
“You were dead the moment you thought of taking the pills” he groans hearing this, covering his ears and letting his body fall to the floor.
He doesn't register the feeling of broken glass hitting his side, or the sound of the pills scattering all over the floor.
“You are dead” I repeat. His eyes are starting to twitch and roll back. “You’re not real,” he mutters, curling into a ball. “You’re not real” he whispers as glass crunches into his side.
I say nothing in return. I watch him as he convulses and twitches in a pile of his own bodily fluids. Whether or not he thinks I’m real doesn’t matter.
I stay standing as he slowly stops twitching and turns into a comatose mess. I stare at the body for a moment and then cross my hands across my body in a small prayer. That was the most dignity I’d give him during his passing.
I keep watching his body to check when it would be safe to collect the soul. Although this wasn’t the most glamorous end to my job, when I take his life, his spirit, my shift would be over.
It was about time that I clock out.
A Final Task
His eyes glimmer with hope as silver droplets trickle down his cheeks and soak the powder lining his nostrils. Dripping hair falls past his ears and dangles over the lip of the toilet seat.
"Is... it r-r-eally you?" His speech is slurred as his eyes glaze over and he tips his head over the seat. He spews, then straightens up once more, taking his final puff of white dust. Pathetic for someone known to be the king of rock and roll.
"Let's get this over with. Do you want the scythe or do you have another method in mind?"
It has been almost a century since I was forced into the role of reaper, but all I need to do is glean this last soul and I will be free to live peacefully in heaven.
Usually, they beg or ask for mercy, sometimes even going as far as to try and glean me. I hesitate, but very well, he will have his chosen death. As he blinks, I neatly pry the soul out of the fleshy casing and watch as the carcass slumps forward, head now fully submerged in the bowl of the toilet.
"Thank you," I hear as his soft light slowly fades - up or down, I do not know.
"What do you mean, 'thank you'?" I reach to pull the glow back, but it is too late, it has already gone.
My final task is completed and I feel myself being tugged upwards, yet an ache is anchoring me to this world. Why did he thank me?
I fight against the tug, and finally pull back hard enough that I can chain myself to the scythe. I need just a bit more time here. Why did he thank me?
My body of bones claws against the marble tiles as I creak the bathroom door open and slither out. Midnight's moon cloaks me as I stalk the shadows creeping around the mansion. There is a tang of blood coating the air before I see it. Why did he thank me?
The kitchen floor is blanketed in the maroon liquid I have come to know like a best friend. In the centre of the puddle is a corpse, a chef's knife puncturing the stomach. The tug upwards becomes stronger as I drift forward. It is a girl's body, no older than 14. Why did he thank me?
I reach in and gently lift the soul out. The glow is cautious, then slowly darkens as it realises what has happened. I try to comfort it, but it disappears too soon. Please let it go up. How much powder must he have consumed to do this, or was it done before the first snort?
The wrenching upward becomes unbearable and I give in to the deafening pull. My soul rises and I find myself facing long awaited reunions, but I cannot endure the welcome for long and start wandering - where, I do not know.
I pass countless faces, but still do not stop. I search for a being I have no idea is even here. But I do discover him, obscured in a sea of many.
His celebrity status protected him from so much, but I was the one who ultimately stopped him from having to face the consequences of his horridness. I know why he thanked me. Behind the mask of a rock and roll legend lay a self-appointed reaper. I know what I must do.
I march towards him and begin to tether him to hell.
In the Lap of the Grim Reaper
It's a fallacy. Men create myths so as to empower themselves. Even in Death-- suggesting that I come to them! The reverse, my friends. The reverse. You will come to me, and you will do so willingly, as a submission-- to all Eternity.
The legendary black cloak? You'll be trying, desperately, to wrap yourself in it, when your Time comes. A coverlet for the bareness of the soul, so newly stricken, as to still be shivering-- postmortem.
I am gargantuan, and yawning; a Centenarian, whose face changes every hundred years, an easy chair of black sheep skin reclining with Life's remote control in hand. The "Grim Reaper," is what my Chairmanship, in syndicate, is called.
And your pilot is on---
Roger Arnold Blattman. January 20, 1945. Rock and roller since 1968 and a half. Ashamed of his name, his body, his hair, his family, his neighborhood... so plain and insignificant a rodent, gnawing at his own psyche. Trying desperately to carve out a passageway to immortality.
To the world, he would be Ray Mondo of the Blaizers.
Cray Cray. Brooding man of Mystery. Wild do, mealy attitude, ladies, booze, drug paraphernalia... all in a strange Facade; one his Manager said was, "necessary."
"Ray Mondo, we give the world what it wants to believe, goddammit... in Substance. In abuse. You know-- In the Devil, itself. The Artist, Mad and Possessed. Nobody is interested in the unsexy story of a yoowho practicing arduous hours, day in and day out, to polish off some incoherent lyrics. Dude. We're selling an after Image. An effen' Story-- of Success," slapping his protege Rog in the back of the cranium to kickstart the next big album.
He'd always had these misgivings, about his potential Following and the inevitable dappling in pseudo creative "behaviors" that posers would try on, in the wake of his live band sets. Ridiculous acts sported like ludicrous underwear-- with a striving for that sideline lick of Infamy. Misunderstanding that, behind the scenes, he was nothing more than a Slave to his craft. An ordinary joe X in boxers, abstaining from all the bullshit, so he could fully focus on the nuanced delivery, of Performance.
Hell, the early sacrifices meant he'd abstained from Eating, as well as drinking; from Heating and cooling; from taking Weekends; from true Love, or the generic Companionship of people, or animals even.
The work, that was the thing. The Fix.
The only drugs he'd taken, were the ones he was on today--prescribed by his doctors.
Chasers for anxiety, high blood pressure, low insulin and hormone irregularities. The pursuit of something in the distance had drained him. It took less and less make believe to project this gaunt mask of the famed Persona. His cheeks were sunken naturally, and the dark circles around his eyes were real. So was the rasp in his voice.
From my perspective, he was ready to succeed--
Sitting now, on the toilet, staring out the midnight window, wondering where it all went wrong. Crusading after windmills. Carrying the imbalance of priorities on his conscience. Feeding vultures at break. The future always laughing. Teasing. Things falling out of existence; as the loose teeth of reoccurring dreams. Sinking and rising with the crocodiles in the bayou. Like would-be friends waving from behind the watery windows of moving vehicles. The rain pouring in ever-present Champagne commercials. His glasses falling over the bridge of his nose. Slipping and fogging up in the sweat of the sultry Alabama evening.
He sensed himself vaguely, and his audience, on either side a heavy screen. But he could still hear the cheering of that expansive blackened amphitheater. Spotlights blinding him from actually seeing anyone out there in it.
"There must be one more song in you," he whispers to the empty roll of TP, detached and straining.
His mind, darkening. He doesn't know it, but he's hemorrhaging.
He'll lose consciousness shortly.
"Stacy??" he says in an inaudible voice, and she calls out to him independently.
"Rog? you alright in there?" shuffling up to the door in her slippers, diligent in her house keeping. Multi savers-pack of toilet paper cradled in her arms. "I ran to the store yesterday." Tap, tap... sweeping the loose strands of silvered hair out of her face. Concern amplifying her wrinkles.
"ughh..." so quietly as to be mistaken for the house walls settling.
He's doubled over. He sees the circular opening--- the sound hole of his rhythm guitar. That darkest part. A portal. Safety. No longer the butt end of a joke that he'd always feared of being or becoming. He's climbing out--
--and I am waiting, to cloak him, in the comfort that only I can provide. He'll sit well here for the next 100 years.
A Doctor’s Chosen Field
“I don’t know what it is. Even a barn like this that’s never had a cow in it, my mind somehow tells the olfactory that I smell dung.”
I met him all of twenty minutes ago and already I could tell he was a master at the power of suggestion. When he’d pulled the barn door aside and we’d entered, I was hit with this wall of close air, that broad block of space that should be no differently breathable, but had somehow presented with most of the oxygen and moisture baked out of it. The interior didn’t ring true to any particular aroma, but as soon as he said ‘dung,’ I could swear I smelled it.
His mental device was impressive, given that I was only half listening. I’d thought rich guys were into collecting classic cars or devoting entire rooms to Portuguese frescoes painted in melts of gold bullion with brushes made from the virgin hairs of war orphans. Not this guy. It was throwing me. We hadn’t walked past a pool, a fountain, not one topiary of a stallion rearing up or a ballerina carved in the leafy likeness of his first lay. Apparently, this guy just liked to spend his dough on property, and plenty of it.
“750 acres. I mean, that’s what you’re thinking, right? You want to ask how far back my property goes, contiguously. I can show you the deed. A lot of people don’t believe it. Ten wide and seventy-five deep, clear back to the border. From the house it just looks like it goes on forever.”
Realistically, I’d moved on from that question to the next vagary, the fact that we’d skipped his part of our introduction.
“So, do you prefer I call you Mr. Thabaddon like on the mailbox, or is that just a made-up name to keep solicitors away from the white pages?”
“It’s Dr., actually, Dr. Nicholas Thabaddon, a pleasure. But feel free to call me as the neighborhood children do. They call me Tabby. I didn’t like it at first. Made me sound like a housecat. They used to shout it when they’d TP my front gate at Halloween and before long that’s how I started introducing myself when I’d spot them at the grocer or offer them a hard candy after peeling them from under a crashed bicycle, wheelies versus oak trees. I guess it grew on me. Anyway, I’ve been called worse.”
“Sorry, Doctor. Dr. Tabby. Sounds weird to me. So, um, that’s like a medical doctor title in your case?”
“No, no, certainly not. Don’t get me started on those folks, out there extending lifespans and cheating nature with organ transplants and transfusions and such. I mean, I get it. They’re personal heroes of the people, and all. But, you know, sometimes a person doesn’t want to spend life’s winter gumming fatback sandwiches and unable to scratch that itch between their toes without breaking a hip. The dictionary’s going to tell you otherwise, but I guess a younger me saw a relationship between the Hippocratic Oath and more than a few hypocrisies.”
I’d never thought of it like that. I’d gotten an extra fifteen years with my Mom when they put in her pacemaker, but she did spend the final five of those freezing cold and unable to stomach anything more flavorful than plain, dry Cheerios. Her miracle of science and medicine suddenly seemed like my own ego and not much else.
“Fair enough. So, what do you do, Doctor?”
“Let’s just say for the sake of laying this to rest that I earned a decent doctorate back when such things meant something. I’ve an esteemed degree my field, well, we’ve just met. I’ve a doctorate in some very bad things.”
I became intrigued. Cryptic responses always turned me into a Hardy boy. The doctor’s house was sizable. His front gate at the mouth of the long, winding driveway was adorned with wrought iron dragons and a likeness that he’d let on was Hephaestus, hammer in hand, a dead giveaway as to his income even if I didn’t know who Hephaestus was. Everyone knew this man was the rich guy who lived on the hill. But here, out on the estate, there was nothing flashy, nothing that advertised sciatica from sitting on too fat a wallet. No remnants of a party gone berserk were spread around an opulent firepit, embedded in a hot tub, lashed to a turntable that swung you through life-sized dioramas of ancient Greek battles or famous sex scenes the way they should have happened on the silver screen. It was just plain wheat waving in the breeze as far as the eye could see, interspersed every so often with the presence of a plump, knotty tree or the crease where one hill met another. Even the barn looked out of place. Now, not only was he holding his wealth close to his chest, but his career too? I thought maybe he was a doctor of criminology, one of these guys in charge of figuring out how a murderer thinks. He was older. Could he have been a part of Oppenheimer’s crew? Was it elicit statecraft, ’Nam kind of stuff? Tabby was one man, one mystery, and in my opinion, the unlikeliest guy to have just saved my life. Matters had me trying not to speak in riddles.
“Well, I’ve got a B.F.A, myself. Metalwork. I know I drive the tow truck and all but that wasn’t originally the plan. Hard to feed your family when your greatest claim to fame is a half-assed cobalt and steel commission called ’Olallieberry Flame” sitting outside of a Tower Records in Nashville.
“Metalwork, indeed. Then you, my good friend, will have mustered at least some ancillary appreciation for my antique treasures.”
It was quite the introduction for whatever had been hidden behind the overly clean paddock door. The outside of the barn was a plain and faded wood brown, nearly gray, splits and grooves carved deeply into every plank. It was clear that decades of angry sun had had its way, beating endlessly down on the structure to the point where the wooden boards just preferred to gash into rifts and crannies rather than to keep warping in on themselves.
Inside, the paddock doors were bright red, adorned with purposely protruding slats, white exes in squares over each half door, up and down. I couldn’t decide if they’d remained virtually untouched or if they’d all just gotten a fresh coat of paint. They were pristine and that was unbarnlike in my estimation. The good doctor opened the lower half first, adding to the strangeness. I thought I heard windchimes. Then the top half swung to the left, mine and his, and he stepped broadly aside for his reveal.
He actually said ‘ta-dah.’ Well, he suggested it, and I’d heard it, but did he say it? Strangenesses were now brimming. What I’d otherwise heard were not chimes, not even really sprung from winds. From the ceiling of the paddock dangled dozens upon dozens of pre-industrial farm implements, some simple like hoes and pitchforks, others that had me stretching for a word, a scythe, a hand sickle, steel pruning shears, variously shaped blades and sharp edges capping a multitude of poles and hafts. The vibration of the doors, maybe even just the vibration of our presence, was enough to disturb the lot, swaying them gently on the hooks that bore them, causing each to glance off another and suggest a whispered score in sharps and flats.
There was an almost gloating expression on the doctor’s face. Clearly, I was meant to be impressed. I already had a problem, though. I did not want to be discourteous, but his supposed antiques, at least the metal portions of them, looked absolutely fresh out of machining titanium for aerospace, brand spanking new. They were more than brand new, glinting, shining in those bright whites and blues that only show up in moonlight on water or on displays of ceremonial armor in castles. Whatever space age grindstone he had pressed these pieces against, whatever charlatan had convinced him that a true patina or maybe even a little bit of rust was a bad thing, he’d scraped away any value they could have had. It was like looking at over-polished silver. Apart from a groundbreaking for a new Arthur Treacher’s location, who in their right mind needed a plain, old spade gleaming like a pearl in a Hawaiian sunset? I measured my words.
“Oh, you’re a collector, then. Well, I suppose I’ve seen stranger assortments in the rear windows of just about every other roadside Chevelle. Are these, like, of a personal value to you?”
”Oh, I assure you, good sir, these are more than mere forgotten contrivances in an old man’s shed. Every handheld device in this prickly little hanging garden carries with it a depth of meaning and sagacious inclination the likes of which most folks will never know. Sorry, I guess those are the ten-dollar words of an aficionado. I haven’t shown these to anyone in quite some time. It’s an exciting day. Still, in truth, you could navigate five hundred lifetimes and never come across any of their like.”
I was pretty sure I had seen at least two of them at Woolworths last week.
“Is that so, doctor? Okay. Maybe I spoke too soon. Congratulations on your heirlooms. I didn’t immediately take them for rare. I suppose that old tiller is actually kind of interesting. Can you imagine what it must have been like, working with these sorts of things day in and out? Is that one a machete? I’ve never actually seen one of those.”
The doctor rubbed a finger over the unsharpened backside of the specimen closest to him.
“It’s a panga, actually, but that’s exactly my point. Without an interested party asking after these matters, the distinctions of them, one and all, could be lost to history or even to myth.”
I’d never heard of a panga, and I’d seen just about every episode of that Mutual of Omaha show. Those guys went all over the world. He must have been making it up. I tried to change the subject.
“Alright, doctor. Panga got me. I’m sorry. I’m out of my depth here. I want to show some greater appreciation, but I’m really just curious about why you’re showing your treasures to me. Why now exactly? Aren’t we supposed to be settling up?”
“Oh, well, of course, this is part of our last week’s deal, you and I. You don’t just get to see them, you’re going to get the chance to use them.”
What was mostly a casual conversation batted suddenly at the nerves in my temple. I hadn’t thought about last week for going on a half hour now, pretty much the length of this conversation. Eliminating it from my mind somehow let my lungs fill normally. Now I was back at his doorbell again, like a short while ago, my stomach eating itself, shoulders up around my ears.
Last week, dispatch sent me out to collect this old F600 workhorse from the 60s. Said someone had dumped the beast mid-U-turn near the entrance to the dam and I was the only wrecker rated for five tons this side of Dyersburg. That’s barely within specs, but I was game. I get there and it’s the 700 series, grain truck body with a modified rear axle and half-filled with barley. So I put on my 9th-grade arithmetic cap and I started thumbing through the greasy manuals that had been sitting in my glove box practically since I’d gotten my license. Before long I’m dropping mud flaps on the curb to lose weight and I’m breaking in on the CB chatter looking for the driver and otherwise begging dispatch to dump the grain. Traffic was backed up clear around the bend and I was getting back noes on all counts. So, I made like Mr. Wizard, using the grade to my advantage and tow-chaining the base of my boom to my chassis to ease some of the stress on its bolts. I took it easy in low gear and I hauled the monster out.
Fifteen minutes later I came to be on that downhill out front, windows open, the incomparable Styx rockin’ the 8-track. Taking it slowly, I was, maybe, a few seconds shy of the rich guy’s gate and the hairpin switchback it decorated. Couldn’t see it yet. There are no sidewalks on the hill, no hiking trails that I know about. But, there was a guy out there, standing alongside what I thought was the worst place you could stand on a road like this. Summer had been braising the rest of us like briskets, but he was settled in that spot, wearing a long black trench coat like it was nothing. I adjusted the wheel, a tweaked little cinch that breezed me past the guy, just close enough for him to say aloud, like he was in the cab next to me, “Cut it.” I heard him.
Here’s the thing. If he’d said something like, “Stop,” like a normal person, I probably would have ignored him, thinking that he was blaming me for his own clueless ass being so close to the road. If he was like anyone else and had yelled, “Slow down,” or “Look out,” or even “My baby,” I likely would have slammed on the brakes, fishtailed and jackknifed the whole unbalanced haul, probably winding up either in an early grave or on death row, oddly similar results. But this guy calmly said “Cut it,” like I’d heard a million times learning to back up with a Buick LeSabre strapped to my rear. “Cut it,” like it was my Dad come back from the afterlife still angry about the driving lesson when I’d pitched the heft of his Plymouth Fury straight through our neighbor’s chicken coop. It was a phrase that immediately keyed me in to cut the wheel, operate on instinct, no thought, and one that, around the blind turn a split-second later, pushed me to narrowly miss the young girl in the plaid skirt who was spinning bubbles from a plastic wand, smack dab in the middle of the street. I saw the wind from my fender arch her backwards into the gravity at her heels and pull her straight down with a scream and a thump. Then I crashed into the rich guy’s gate.
I woke up to an underweight paramedic tending to the extra head that had grown on my head and a blurred vision of that man in the street whom I now know to be this rich doctor, Tabby Thabaddon. He was giving a statement to an officer, one that looked young from a distance. The gate was destroyed. Stone pillars were toppled. Its iron designs were completely mangled, some of them crimped into a Jugendstil grimace up under my wrecker, much of the rest exploded forward so that the once expensive curves of it now looked like wool in a cheap sack. Barley was everywhere, including my mouth. The Ford was upside down, disconnected. I supposed the young girl had been collected by her parents. She was nowhere in sight.
My first flash of relief came from the stickman poking at my lump with a long, gooey Q-Tip. He said I was lucky to be the only one who’d gotten hurt. He claimed I’d be home in time to watch Soap. I could breathe again. The girl was unhurt. The man, the same. Even I was going to live to see summer reruns.
Second relief came from cop two, an older badge with a porn star mustache. He’d strolled over as if giving me a gift when he mentioned that he was foregoing the field sobriety test, pursuant to my injury, but also because the owner of the destroyed property was willing to not press charges, not even involve insurance. All he sought was recompense. I figured the gate for some $100,000 deal. My kneejerk was an immediate snap to attention from the waist up, but the paramedic settled me back into my sore slouch as the cop held up a reassuring hand indicating he’d not yet finished. He told me the man only needed some odd jobs done around his house and that if I was willing to let bygones, I should come ring his bell when I felt better. He handed me back my license. I didn’t know he’d taken it. His summation added that if I ever wanted to make kids piss their pants again, I should stick to high school bullies and budding Tarheels fans, making sure to literally steer clear of adorable little eight-year-olds like Grace. I nodded. Pretty name. Matters could have been so much worse. The sweat equity he’d suggested seemed more and more reasonable to me as the week had gone on, perhaps only because the authorities had taken down both our addresses, passively holding me to it.
The doctor’s impetus in showing me his prized and seductively glistening tool set turned consequently to be about the chores that I had been warned were coming. It was to be yard work, a lot of yardwork. I got it.
“I’d been meaning to ask you about that, actually, last week’s deal and all. I’m not backing out or anything, but at risk of tipping a bad hand here, Doc’, you kind of had me dead-to-rights. I was trying my best to be careful, but overloaded on the downhill, music blaring, carefree elbow out the window, near fatal misses. That had to look really bad. With respect, don’t folks like yourself usually Huey in a bunch of lawyers and begin suing people from the closest phone booth to the mess? Why the trade?”
The doctor curled the lower half of his face into a simper.
“That’s right. There was music, wasn’t there? Oh, well, you know what they say, my friend. Rock-n-roll is the work of the devil. Maybe next time you put on a little Earl Scruggs bluegrass and just go with it. Or not. What do I know.”
We both laughed at the rock joke. My laughter ended before his.
“So. Well. Okay. I guess I’ll let you in on a few secrets. The landowner back that way…”
“Your distant neighbor, you mean? The guy at the county line on the other side of your back border?”
“That’s him, yes. Well, he and I don’t much get along. Bad blood, you could say. I used to work for him back in the day. But since we acquired adjoining fields, everything’s gotten a little competitive. Now, a lot of my assets aren’t what one might call, liquid. They’re tied up in all kinds of emerging commodities and offshore interests. And you’ll forgive an old academic for not wanting to run to Manufacturers Hanover in town every other day and deal with their born-cranky bank tellers. It got to the point that I could borrow against future financial yields in checks large enough to bring on teams with an army of tractors and a commercial grade thresher, but I didn’t have enough change in my pocket to grab a dog at the ballpark. Imagine, a well-to-do guy like me hounding Little League fans for a spare quarter. And then, of course, there’s my desire for a little quiet. Have you ever been to a playground full of kids on a Saturday? You can call it youthful joy or whatever you like, but with due respect to the innocents, it’s just a day of non-stop, endless screaming. A fellow can scarcely hear himself think. A lot of my other properties face spots like that, screams and wails and yowls. This place is my solace. I wasn’t too keen on bringing aboard uproarious tank engines to constantly vibrate the earth beneath my feet, thundering away over the hill. I don’t even have a gas lawnmower. Let’s just say that when the opportunity arose for my neighbor and I to share a common employee, bad blood or not, I jumped. I would let him lay out for the daily wage, upfront, and when enough debt had accumulated to match one of my more standard transactions, the check would be in the mail. I could do one guy. One guy is quiet. One guy is manageable. In fact we had Morty working here for what seems like ages.”
Dr. Tabby had an odd body language. I remember my grandfather, when he’d blather on about cheese in The Great Depression or God-forbid dove into other salient recollections of warm sweaters, his eyes would scan away to the wall or the ceiling, as if searching for the details that would hook me in and ask him to tell me more. The same could be said for a number of the elderly customers who stunk up my side-seat with Ben-Gay while I towed their Bonnevilles and their Studebakers. Advice offered to you was done with dead-on eye contact. Stories about themselves meandered seemingly without a point, always grabbing their chins and their foreheads as if physically extracting the memories with a pinch or a pull, a stroke of the beard or a paw at the back of a neck that ached just thinking about the past. And while they’d tend to the individual muscles in their faces; always, always, always they’d peer around in every which direction as if they were beset by hungry ghosts kept at bay solely with a lurid stare.
The doctor was just the opposite. His eyes hadn’t left mine for his whole story. While I suppose that might not have bothered me otherwise, his eye-contact contained this morose quirk. He glowered at me even when he moved, even when he tilted his head to this side or that. Picture a wolf locked on to his next meal, head down, gauging the distance, but slowly moving sideways around some obstacle in his path. I can’t say I liked it. I wondered if the doctor had missed a dose of his own medication.
“Don’t tell me this Morty guy worked your fields until retirement age.”
“Oh, no, no. He’s moved on, dealing blackjack tables in Vegas, I heard. I can’t say for sure though because, in truth, that weaselly Mickey Mouse on my back forty altered the deal without consulting me. ‘Our’ employee. What a joke! Morty hadn’t come by in a dog’s age and I can only suppose he got suckered into my rival’s malarky about harvesting techniques that don’t stress the stalks, something about it yielding a better crop next time around. Seriously?! What kind of bull must he have been slinging for a full-grown adult to buy into that happy Earth Day stuff?! I’m sorry. Where are my manners? In any case, I didn’t have to worry terribly long. Morty may not have shown on my doorstep in years, but eventually he hops a red-eye in Laconia and not a day later, kismet. There’s a job opening! Just one. I’d like to fill the position before you-know-who finds somebody, maybe hire someone who’s strapped to my side of the fence for a change. Let his fields go fallow a while. Didn’t think my checkbook issues were going to quite facilitate that. Still, it’s kind of hard to ignore a sign from above staring you right in the face, though, eh friend? In my case it was barley grain raining down all over my driveway. Barley…wheat; tomato, tomato.”
He pronounced “tomato” the same way both times, the rich guy way. Finally, his stare broke for another venue. It loosened me up enough to rejoin the conversation.
“That explains why it looks so wild, overgrown. I can’t even see where your rows used to be. You plant all this yourself?”
“Heaven forbid. This was all kind of here already.”
“Really? Okay, I can free-up weekends for a while. I figure I should start slashing it clear so you can sow new. How many acres do you expect would pay for your gate, Doctor?”
I reached for the scythe, mainly because it was the biggest implement that I thought I could swing on my own without pulling something important. Tabby swatted my hand away, like an electric shock had bolted through his system.
“I’m sorry. Truly sorry. It’s just that, from a trim-the-verge perspective, that one’s more like an epidemic or a holocaust. I’ll implore you to start with something smaller, more careful a pluck. Besides, that one kind of belongs to Morty. I should retire it like a jersey. Let me help you make a choice that will see some of my experiments through to fruition.”
“Yes. Here, come. Let me show you.”
Tabby led me off, downfield quite a way. We ended up in a shadier spot beneath a hackberry tree, set in a crescent-shaped stand of scragglier boughs he called aralia spinosa. The cooler splash of shadow beneath the leaves had formed open ground from which we could observe the wheat from the edge of its growth. The whole walk he’d gone on about his neighbor and Morty’s absence and the growing seasons in this part of the world getting longer. Once, he interrupted himself as if it was imperative to point out this crooked old log on the ground, whipping out a phrase in a foreign language he pronounced something like etz hadaath. You didn’t get a lot of that in my part of Tennessee. It reminded me again that he was a doctor of something, but it wasn’t clear to me if I was supposed to be looking at the log, the concave depression around it, or one of the multitudes of oversized insects that were boring into it. Nonetheless, his oration took a quick and evident turn when we’d reached our destination. The doctor was getting down to business.
“So, here you can see some of my experiments. When Morty left me without my daily bushels, I used those years to try out a few techniques of my own. It’s kind of scientific, actually. See, over there, that I didn’t touch yet. Kind of a control group. Amber waves, yes? Then, that patch to the left that is kind of all dilapidated, that’s where I mixed into the soil some torn papers and custom inks, old contracts and scratchpads and such that I didn’t need anymore. This near mess I mixed with pineapple bark and a bottle of hemolymph from imperial moths. Sounds exotic, but they’re local. Tricky to come by that much though. I jokingly call it imp blood. I mean, anyone can fertilize with droppings, compost, eggshells. What have I got to lose going a little awry? This broken patch just here, that’s been covered on and off with a bearskin. Don’t ask how I came by that. But this selection to the side, this one lonely varietal, bloated at the center, tanned over the whole of it. Nothing matches it. It is singular, unique. You can see a tiny bit of blight forming at the tip of the kernels. Notice on the beard, those little hairs around the spikes, they’re supposed to be sort of blonde, but these are reading jet black. There, look, see those sort of jailhouse stripes on the main stem when the sunlight refracts over a cloud’s edge.? You can’t explain that genetically, congenitally even, anymore than the tiny crystallizations forming on the leaves. When the light hits them just right, they glimmer like rhinestones.”
The doctor was in his element. There was no arguing about that. I knew he was going to tell me anyway, but I asked just to show that I was listening.
“And what went in the soil here?”
“This one was a true concoction. I churned into the dirt under this baby a full jar of Skippy and a slew of Chiquita bananas. There are a couple sticks of butter under there and some toast points I fried up myself in bacon grease. It may not sound like much. I’m not splitting the atom again. But look at it. It’s only a single blade of wheat, but so, so special.”
I saw another weekend disappearing in the length of our back-and-forth. I thought well to turn the topic back to what I owed the man.
“In all seriousness, doctor, I’ve never worked a farm before. But blight is what you don’t want. You should have me hacking down most of it, and fast, so that it doesn’t spread.”
“And make waste of my discoveries? I don’t think you understand Mr. Metalwork. I want the blight to spread. I want more of it. I want to understand it, cultivate it. This isn’t just any blight. This needs to be carefully identified, studied, plucked delicately from whence it came to preserve the full force of its nature before being transferred and proliferated and perfected. I don’t need the money. I’m not taking grain to market. I intend to bask in the limelight of innovation, to pierce the medicinal interlude that is the host and the parasite, grafted together, each looking to prevail. I want to bottle their fight, capture the essence of how they are drawn together. It’s not too subtle a statement to claim that this could be my gift to the world. Left to your previous devices, you would have come in with the handheld equivalent a stump grinder to mulch it all away in bulk. That can’t happen.”
It didn’t make sense, but I supposed penicillin hadn’t either. A week ago I almost ran over a kid with a tow truck. Yet it was today that I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do. I think the lump on my head was making a comeback.
“Doctor, how do you know it’s this blight that’s your golden ticket? How do you know that’s the one? That could be the bug that wipes out your whole place, hell, the town’s entire crop.”
“No, no. Again, this is special in ways that defy description. Look closer. Look very closely with the kind of eyes that have forgotten you might have anyplace else to be later. Think as if the mouse might never run down the clock. See what previously could not be fathomed.”
I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking at, what I was supposed to see. I’m thirty-three and standing in a field with a stranger, my ridiculous gaze focused on a blade of grass. It was growing where nothing else was near it. I thought that was weird. There were no spotty patches of wheat around it, all poisoned with this guy’s pantry leftovers and his super icks. They probably all died off. I could see the tan of it, the black hairs, like he said. This one was freer in its surroundings. All the others nearby would sway uniformly in the breeze, the drafts between trees, but this one seemed to twirl oddly at its center, abruptly jutting in offbeat directions in the middle without the top or bottom bending with it, sometimes even moving their opposite. To whatever degree a plant can, off in this raw dirt by itself, it did look tender, lonesome, heartbroken. There were these tiny beetles sneaking up behind it. It grew close to this practically ancient root that had also breeched the ground and, given its proximity to a blade of wheat without contemporaries, had likewise been exposed to the elements year-round. That was all I was getting from this exercise. None of it seemed enough to warrant anything particularly unusual about a sight we’d just walked a quarter mile to see.
I looked to the doctor. I turned back to the wheat. That I did twice, searching more for words to lash from my tongue than the doctor’s repeated explanations. It wasn’t helping. As one does, I craned an eyeball up toward my brow, part sarcastic expression, partly as if interrogating the sky for answers. That’s when it happened. It was in my periphery. It was blurred, but I saw it.
A few color variations and blemishes weren’t what the doctor was talking about. I inhaled sharply and threw my gawk back down to the ground. It was the rest of the wheat. All the wheat he hadn’t touched, his control group patch, the verge we’d traipsed through, all the natural wheat covering the hill clear back to his house…no matter where the wheat was, it was all bending over, slightly, in a way that pointed them straight at this one freak stem. It was like they were bowing or beckoning, wheat that should have been upright and coaxed only into subtle waves as air currents traveled overland, they were lurching at it; slanting, tipping, leaning, doing whatever they could do to be closer to this one enigma in the sunlight. The roll of the hillside, a stationary beast by all rights, seemed to wag and to rock all the wheat in pulses on a million unforgiving trajectories toward the anomaly. I began to shake, bodily, with some harsh realizations.
“You see it now, don’t you? Yes. You can’t unsee it. Don’t try. You can’t untoll that bell. A minute ago you’d have come back here with a wrecking ball. Now you understand the precision required, the singularity of it, of what you are about to do. An employee doesn’t just brazenly start with the biggest tool in the shop. They have to know. They have to connect to what precisely it is that they are accomplishing and what it means thereafter. Walk over to it. Listen to the rhythm that takes you there. Prepare yourself. Envision it.”
I approached the plant. Doctor Thabaddon drew a shiny utensil from the breast pocket of his shirt. He gestured slowly, but with insurmountable purpose. It was a pair of nail scissors, like from a travel kit, polished to absolute perfection as would be the sword of a king, its fine metal edge folded a hundred times over in a great forge. They were tiny. I could barely fit my finger and thumb into the loops. Oh, but they were sharp. I tested them with a trivial touch to my opposite index and watched blood pool in the swirls of my prints and drip down into the waiting soil. There was a sudden redness to the sky and stinging tears evacuating ducts in the pinches of my eyes.
I gestured to return the device, but the doctor struck no posture to indicate reclaiming it. With one hand he reached into my own breast pocket and pulled from it the seed head from another wheat plant. I had no idea how it got there or how he knew it was present to be drawn. He held it flatly on his palm and spoke to it.
“Come, Grace, it’s time we found a place for you while the nice man starts paying back his debt.”
With his other hand, scissors still stuck at my knuckles, he guided my own toward the specter of this lone blade of tanned wheat. I heard a heart throbbing. I spotted more blight. I smelled dung. I didn’t want to do it. Blue Suede Shoeswas my Mom’s favorite song. The doctor brought his nose mere inches from mine, sniffed disgustedly, and caught my gaze, forcefully prying at me with only his deepened, malevolent squint. But a moment before the last girder in me would have summoned spine enough to resist, he smirked and spoke in a whisper.
Two years later, a recently collected Duke was still in my pocket when disco charted its best week on record. Two thousand years later, I still hadn’t graduated from my clippers.
One last party
How do you want to go?
I ask every single one of them that question. I give them all, no matter who they are or what they did, that courtesy and then I arrange it like that.
What is life anyway but a series of arrangements? We enter into arrangements with one another. Contracts. Promises. And so there are accepted upon exchange rates the world over, under, above, and of course, below.
Why do you think I was destined for hell in the first place?
He asked go where.
The amount of them that ask go where would surprise you. It is not nearly as high as you would think. Most people get it. I give off a certain vibe.
You've seen me. I usually do recon by inhabiting people nearby for a bit before going in and you know me because you've seen me in people. You can feel me when I go by and you can smell me in the air.
This particular iteration of me is less than ideal.
Last century has been lackluster in terms of the death and destruction given that I'm literally only inhabiting the body of the Grim Reaper and his consciousness to avoid being hell-bound myself and when I was in the business of taking life on Earth is was for monetary gain, pure and simple. It was business'. I took no pleasure in it and if I had been born with a silver spoon in my mouth then maybe I wouldn't have reached for a gun with my hand.
I'm worried about the next guy they got coming up; apparently he is already looking to extend his contract. Trying to be Rookie of the Year Reaper. MVP. Says, "big things in 2024, huge."
But I still got one last King of Rock and Roll to show the door before I go so as I was saying I asked how he wanted to go and once he understood the concept I was assuming he would say something like, giant rock and roll party which would be easy enough.
But he didn't want that. He wanted to die by a single gunshot wound to his medulla oblongata and he wanted to donate his body to the organ transplant list and he wanted me to promise him, to promise him on my word of honor as a Grim Reaper, as a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler who has walked the dark and lonely path, that his liver and lungs and heart and kidneys would all be used by someone.
He said lots of other stuff but it was mostly around how we could get more drugs and alcohol in the meantime before we had to do the whole dying thing, he wasn't fussed about it, but he did have a fairly decent buzz going and he was rather keen to keep that apparently.
Everyone knows that if you meet the devil at a crossroads and he offers you something the price will be your soul.
Everyone thinks that when the Grim Reaper shows up you get a chance to play him for your soul like that painting by Retzsch.
When I show up it is checkmate. I take your life and bring you whether you like it or not.
There is no debating moving on with a Grim Reaper. Flee a Grim Reaper, wind up in Samarra.
There is no fighting a Grim Reaper.
I will arrive to the King of Rock and Roll. A Grim Reaper always arrives and takes life. I will arrive as a heart attack or an aspiration from an overdose or an armed robbery white tile stained red .380 casing clatters like an 808.
Except, in the event that a Grim Reaper offers a choice. Then the arrangement changes and even I can't change it back.
If I offer you a choice then I can only take you if I take you according to your wishes otherwise I can't take you.
But most people don't know second part. In fac, we actively discourage people knowing that part. You should forget about that part and you should definitely not tell anyone. For sure, do not tell more than 13 people about it otherwise, you know what, never mind, you do you boo-boo.
Anyway, in 99 out of 100 times thus far this has not been a problem.
I mean basically, here is how it goes, broken down in steps:
1. I show up.
2. I look like that.
3. Not like that.
4. Like that.
5. They believe right away or they need to look into my eyes and then they believe immediately.
6. I tell them I am here to take them. Some ask where, even though they know where, they still ask, which is why the number who ask is not as high as you would think. They are asking after they have looked into my eyes. They know where exactly where they are going.
7. They plan their exit.
Now, drug addled or not this guys exit wasn't the problem. It was, in my corporeal form, the easiest culmination of 100 souls a guy could ask for, I mean, come on, I had a nice little Glock 17 in the Mitsubishi Eclipse outside and he was literally already in a seated position in a place where it would be easy to clean up.
I had no qualms about the killing or how he wanted it done but I knew that there was know what I could honor stipulations that would follow his demise.
His kidneys wouldn't fetch a nickel on the black market, that heart was worth only the memories it held, those lungs which would have carried ten other men to Everest ten times over were all spent from pumping tar back and forth, and the liver; well, the liver was basically chopped liver.
My Ma used to say, "what am I, chopped liver?" when she felt ignored. God, she was a great Ma. Worked hard to put food on the table.
But anyway, I can technically send him off packing but his meaty parts aren't worth dogmeat scraps and because of that I can't fulfill the second part of his request necessary for the requiescat in pace to work now that I offered the choice and changed the arrangement.
So anyway, we are hitting 90 meetings in 90 days and then we will see how the recovery tour goes, hopefully we can generate enough revenue through that for the surgeries and treatments.
I, personally, can't wait till this guy gets his career in order, gets healthy, gets sober, gets happy, gets his body right so I can fucking shoot him in the back of the head and get on with my afterlife.
The Next Soul...
My name is Lisa. I'm psychic. I am so sorry. Truly, I don't mean to confuse.
I know this may be difficult to comprehend, but I am about to tell you something that happened a long time ago. I hope to explain it as plainly as possible.
Decades ago, a man was born who would be King.
He was born to save our souls, on January 8, in the year 1935, Anno Domini.
The Angelic sound of his voice, from Gospel to Rockabilly, would captivate the world over. He would be recognized Universally... simply as the King of Rock and Roll.
A man who, like other redeemers of the Spirit, would need no introduction.
At the time of his birth, the entirety of his career and destiny were pinned into the rotation of the Stars. It was determined that he would be successor to the then current Exorcist Angel. *The identity of which has been obscured from Conscious. As is customary. Please know that not all souls depart the Earth immediately. Some remain to ferry the still-living, until their spirits may rest, full filled.
What I am hoping to show is that there are no mere coincidences.
Elvis Presley, was born, suffered, and died, so that our collective soul may be further raised and glorified. *Music being among the holy most languages of the Almighty.
You see it is the order of the Cosmos. To prevent spiritual fatigue, each Century, a new reaper is appointed (by predestination), according to the need of the People. So that all may be elevated.
What is needed is always some extension of freedom. Freedom to experiment, in mind and body. An unleashing of creativity, to bring pure Silver out of the tarnished steel chains that have oppressed. Black and White, Men and Women, Young and Old.
Elvis would be part of launching a part of that Revolution.
*When I say "Century," please understand that I do not mean the turn of the Century.
That would be too literal, dismissible. No, it occurs exactly on August 16.
August, you'll note is 8. It is the sideways turning of the Infinite. Spinning, within itself, and again, at the center pivot of its axis. It is "august," with full force of meaning. Esteemed. Spiritual.
Likewise, 16 carries a heft to it in the Biospheres. It cannot be written off as arbitrary. You might chance to look it up in Numerology, or not. Know in brief that it signifies simultaneously Completion and the Endless New Beginning, Individual growth and Infinite possibility.
The Decade is always 77. Whatever the Century. Of course, 77, because that is the Palidrome of the Archangels, the check point at which it is ensured that the track of Humanity is coursing in the direction of the Righteous.
Towards Heaven. By which I mean the ascension of the Holy Body. The Universe maybe expanding or contracting, but always aiming towards Its own Perfection. Neither in nor out; left nor right; nor up or down.
To continue, it was on that very date Aug 16, 1977, that Presley became Grim Reaper.
It is most unfortunate to retell his story. Similarly, as in describing the life and death of Jesus, his account is laden with woe and misery. However, not since that Crucifixion, have our saviors in death "known" their destiny.
Elvis Presley, the man, mercifully suffered in ignorance of his ordained purpose.
Know that every reaper is, naturally, by designation Special. That is why I am writing.
At inception, it is commonly the story of a seemingly Ordinary Man, in Ordinary Time. Few people know that Elvis had a Twin brother, born 35 minutes before him. Stillborn. Jesse Garon. Identical. Yes, this body that emerged second, was reinforced with two souls. A heart with two flames. A passionate love of Music, and a love serving the Lord. He was given the strength of two voices.
It had been prophesied.
His Great-great Grandmother, Morning Dove, was full Cherokee Indian.
She had once spoken of a dual redeemer that would draw together the Peoples. *Gladys Love, would be born to her daughter, and then to Gladys a son would be given, carrying Indian, African, and European blood: Elvis Aaron Presley.
He would be Beautiful and Ugly. Revered and Ridiculed. He would be KING.
On August 16, 1958, Elvis buried his mother, who he referred to forever after as his Soulmate. Her love burned as a third flame within him, and his heart and voice swelled with captivating emotion. *She died reportedly of heart failure on the 14th. Across cultures, a number signifying Balance.
That is accurately said to be the beginning of his transfiguration. The world watched with horror as the Rock 'n Roller, pushed with performance demands, tumbled from beauty and grace to rotund delirium in Graceland. Pumped with medication to keep up in the "show business." For the "show" is everything, to the demon devoid of the holy ghost.
The failing swollen body begging to the world for Grace in silence. Not for himself. Metaphorically. For those of us who are born, and deemed already "ugly," without "talent," or useful "skill." Discarded out of hand. Not fit for Light of day, or life, as it were. A falsehood that has bled dry many a soul.
Presley stands as another rock along our path of evolution, a pillar, a reminder of the importance of caring for Oneself in the service of others. Suffering. Carrying his cross of Sound, and Silence.
To push the allegory further, he died upon that most reviled throne, the Toilet. A man, obese, on top of the charts, time and again, yet so utterly isolated. Fallen.
His woman at the time Ginger, was there.
So young, and flourishing with life, a girl like Mary Magdalene, drawn to his eminent power in ability and resource, even in the potency of Death.
She drew aside that door to the bathroom, like the stone to the tomb.
And he was no longer there.
His predecessor had already arrived. Had swapped the shroud. And they had risen. One to retirement, and the other to serve for the next 100 years.
Yes, that's right. Since 1977 Elvis has been reaping the souls across the world. He has reached into the body, singing: "...my heart was captured, my soul surrendered..."
It's Now or Never!
He'll be singing it till August 16, 2077.
That is how long it will take for it to be accepted that the Grim Reaper could be...
* * * *
Becoming the Grim Reaper
Upon dying, Leyla arrived, she thought, at the place we long for even if we don’t believe it exists. She saw angels cradled in their own wings wafting peacefully around her. Then, a voice said, “You must earn your place to avoid a hell far worse than your most vivid imaginings.”
“What?” she asked, looking around to find the source of the voice until she realized it was in her head. (Wait, I’m dead. Do I still have a head?) “How do I do that?”
“You must fulfill the task of the Grim Reaper for a term of 100 of your years.”
“The Grim Reaper?? It’s real?”
“More real than the angels upon which you gaze with such longing.”
“And I have to be it? I’m the Grim Reaper? Taking souls while sporting a hooded black robe and carrying a, dare I say, deadly, scythe?” She laughed. “I must be having a nightmare.”
“That can be arranged. For eternity.”
“Woah, no humor around here, huh?”
“Death is a very serious matter.”
“Tell me about it. One second you’re shaking sheets with your spouse, the next your heart decides to stop functioning and you find yourself seeing angels and having conversations with a voice in your head about becoming a robe-wearing, scythe-wielding skeleton.”
The voice sighed audibly. “You will not be a skeleton. The robe, when necessary, allows the Reaper to have the appearance of substance. Being. You no longer exist in the realm of humanity. You are in that indeterminate space between finite existence and infinity.”
“And the angels?”
“Your perception of the desired afterlife.”
“And if I decline reaping souls for a century, I get to endure my perception of an undesirable afterlife?”
“You lose the privilege of becoming one with all that was, is and ever shall be.”
“Hey, I remember my science: Matter cannot be created nor destroyed.”
“Would you like to fulfill your destiny or take a chance on the veracity of human knowledge?”
“I’m just making conversation. Of course, I’ll take the robe. How does it work?”
99 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 50 minutes later
It wasn’t really a bad gig. No one ever saw her coming. She’d just show up when it was somebody’s time and escort their essence to the Hold. From there, she assumed it was judgement time, but she didn’t really know. She’d never gotten that far herself. Turned out her Reaper had finished serving with her so…Tag, she was it. Anyway, the robe was for those instances few and far between when someone had “the sight” and could actually see those who exist between being and non-being. Or, between physical existence and infinity as the Voice explained it to her all those years ago. So, for all intents and purposes, the Grim Reaper, Leyla, was invisible. And she didn’t carry a scythe. She carried a butterfly net. That’s what she called it. It was really just wisps of dust that collected the particles of infinity that remained when the body ceased to carry life. She kind of swept the “net” over the dead body to reap the essence. The soul, if you prefer.
At least, that’s how it had worked until tonight. Tonight, she came face to face with the biggest rock star she never knew. She saw his entire life in the moment she came to him (one of the perks or punishments of the job). He’d clearly had great success once upon a time, way too many lovers leading to a great many unfortunate illnesses, not the least of which was the disease eating his brain in tandem with the drugs and alcohol he used to forget the disease and the emptiness by which he always felt consumed. Except when he was making music on stage in front of adoring fans. But the sales dwindled, he was back to touring small venues he could no longer fill and his label was letting him go. He had hit the bottom. Almost literally: He had his head in the toilet bowl when she entered.
At which point he looked up and slurred, “…the fuck are you supposed to be? It’s not Halloween.”
She was silent. I mean, hello, no mouth. No nothing. She was thinking wildly, “Well, here we go. What do I do now? Not only is he not dead yet, he can see me! He can see me?”
“Of course, I can see you, dumbshit. I’m high not blind.”
At which point she thinks, “Oh, he can hear me, too. Like the Voice.”
“That show isn’t on anymore. More’s the pity. And yes, I can hear you.”
If she could breathe, she would have taken deep, fortifying breaths. She tried not to think but she can’t help but think, “What am I supposed to do now?”
To which he responds, “Oh, I don’t know, how about get the hell out of my bathroom? How did you get in here anyway?”
“It’s your time,” I think.
“What? The show was over an hour ago. No fans allowed in the dressing room. Especially wearing medieval monk robes. I do rock, not Gregorian chant. Now, if you don’t mind, get out!”
He tried to get up but slipped (he’d missed the toilet at some point apparently and had been kneeling in the puke). He cracked his head on the sink, then the floor.
And that was that.
She swept the net over his lifeless body to collect his essence at which point everything went dark.
“Your term is complete. His essence will be offered the same choice as you were to take your place. You, however, are now free to rejoin all that is, was and ever shall be.”
“Any chance I could just stick around here for a while? Check out the sights…”
“Not an option.”
With that, her memory slipped away as she slid into the ether.
One last stop and I can rest in peace.” I thought to myself while holding the file of the very last soul I must dispatch, so I can at long last escape my eternal damnation. This moment made me think back on the first day I got here, to the afterlife. The last thing I could remember before being transported to the afterlife was trying to numb my pain. That is all I had been doing for years after...
I shut my eyes and took a deep breath. Let’s just say, it was not a shocking revelation when I was told that I was being condemned to hell. However, the people in charge of the afterlife took pity on my situation me. They gave me an ultimatum that if I work for them for a whole century as a Grim reaper, transporting souls to the afterlife, they will retract my judgment and allow me to rest in peace instead. I remember finding it very intriguing as I was always into paranormal shows. However, as it turns out, real life is definitely not how we see it in the movies. My century in this job has been an emotional rollercoaster, being responsible for tearing families apart, taking people away too early, or causing lots of heartbreak. To think I spent years on earth trying to numb that pain, but then having to relive it constantly for a whole century here in the afterlife. Regardless, this was the job, the only way to save my soul, and if that meant sucking all the emotions in and grabbing this last person so that everything I have been doing this past century could be worth it, then so be it.
With a determined mind, I charged out of the office where I got my new task and as I was about to enter the elevator that will take me to the exact location of whoever was on that file - I decided not to waste my time reading details, he was dead, I would only cause myself more devastation if I saw exactly how he died – I was stopped.
“Going somewhere so soon?” The person who stopped me said.
Ah yes, the last person I wanted to see on my way to secure my eternal peace. The one in charge sure has a way of making me rethink my decision to end the contract. The thing is, I could decide to keep going if I want but that’s the key word, IF I WANT. And there is nothing they could do, not even her, to make me want to stay and continue this emotional and mental torture.
“Yes, going to retrieve a soul. I’m sorry Jane, but this is going to have to be goodbye” I told her. “What we have shared for the past few months has been amazing. I feel sad about ending this, but you know how I feel about this job and how much I want to end it and also avoid hell. This is finally the time”
Jane sighed. I could see her eyes were starting to tear up. I couldn’t blame her, mine was too. “There is nothing I can say except I will miss you and I will see you there in a few years” She closed the distance between us, and I could feel her lips lock with mine. This was not a goodbye kiss, this was more of a promise, a promise of a peaceful future together.
I jumped into the elevator and before the door closed, I cleared my teary eyes and smiled at her, she nodded and smiled back. The image of her standing there remained in my mind as the elevator transported me, and even when the door opened and disappeared. However, that image immediately disappeared from my mind when my eyes met with a familiar but confused gaze.
“No, no, no... this can’t be” I kept saying as I opened the file. I took staggered steps back as I saw the name on the file. Drew Wilson. The same name, the same face, the same eyes.
“D-dad?” Drew called out. The voice brought back memories. Memories I had been trying to bury while alive and even here in the afterlife. His scream... the last thing that came out of his mouth before...
I rushed to him and hugged him, not caring that he reeked of booze or that he was sitting on the toilet seat, or that I was actually hugging his soul and not his body.
“I am so sorry, it was my fault, it was all my fault” I kept saying through tears. It was indeed my fault. I had a huge fight with my wife and because of the distractions, I got into a car accident that killed my wife and left my son in a coma. I wanted to escape from everything including myself and I ended up overdosing which led me to the afterlife. “Wait... overdosing,” I thought, remembering I saw those words in his file. I opened them again and saw that he died from a drug overdose.
“You woke up?” I asked but was also sad that he died the same way I did. Maybe he felt the same pains I felt or even worse. It led me to do crazy things, some illegal, and seeing that his file had big red words that spelled hell, it meant he shared the same fate I did or worse.
“Yes. You and Mom were gone when I woke up. I should not have forced you guys to take me back to school to watch my stupid rock and roll performance, it was all my fault” he said crying into my shoulders
“No, you did nothing wrong. I am so sorry I left you so soon son” I responded hugging him tight
“So... Why are you here? Am I dead?” he asked, releasing me from the hug I wanted to go back to so badly, but his question brought me back to reality.
He was my last soul, my only chance to go to peace. I cannot do that to him, not my son. I also cannot just leave his soul hanging here because another grim reaper will come and just finish the job. This left me one last option, an option that can send me to the place that I have spent a whole century fighting not to go to, hell. But he was my son, he deserves a real shot at redemption. I took a deep breath and made my decision.
“No, son. You are not dead. This is only a dream. But listen to me, you have to live a good life from now on, for both of us. Make your family proud and I love you so much” I said, hoping he believes that this was a dream. And with a last look at how much my son has grown and how handsome he had become; I shoved his soul back into his body.
A Rocking Death
I never knew someone could be excited by the smell of shit, but here I was: ecstatic about it. My scythe glimmered in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. This was it, the final soul. Some idiot who decided to call himself the King of Rock and Roll.
I look down at the mortal below, who clearly thought this was a bad trip or a dream. They always did. Their world could never prepare them for something like this, even with all the religious books combined. I don't pity them though, most mortals are annoying anyway. I'm just doing my job.
"Potty training's over, get up unless you want to go out like Elvis." I chuckled lowly.
The mortal blinked, still in disbelief, and then looked at me with an incredulous expression. "Wait a minute, you're telling me that out of all the ways to die in this universe, I'm going out because you found me on the toilet? Seriously?"
I couldn't help but laugh, my bones rattling with amusement. No mortal has ever connected the dots that fast. "Well, you know what they say: When Death comes knocking, you gotta go!" I paused for dramatic effect, then added, "But don't worry, I promise to make your final moments memorable..."
The mortal's face contorted between confusion and resignation. "Great, just my luck. But, hey, can we make it quick and painless?"
I tapped my scythe thoughtfully, pretending to mull it over. "Hmm, quick and painless? Let me check my handbook." I pretended to flip through invisible pages before looking back up with a grin. "Ah, here it is! It says I can offer you a choice—classic beheading or spicy spontaneous combustion! What will it be for the king?"
Mr. Rock n Roll gaped at me, not expecting to be offered options for their demise. "Seriously? I get to choose?"
"Absolutely! It's your special day, after all," I quipped.
The mortal pondered for a moment, and then decided, "I guess I'll go with spontaneous combustion. Sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience." I noticed a glimmer in their eye.
"Excellent choice!" I said, raising my imaginary hat. "Let the fiery fun begin!"
With a wave of my bony hand, sparks flew from my fingertips and surrounded the mortal. They looked down at themselves, half expecting to burst into flames, but nothing happened. Instead, I had conjured up an adorable little firework show around them, with colorful explosions and tiny smoke rings. I guess in a way, it was a celebration for me too.
The mortal burst out laughing, watching the spectacle in amazement. "Well, this is not what I expected! If only I had my guitar."
"That's the spirit! Enjoy the fireworks, my friend. They're the hottest thing you'll see in this bathroom tonight!" I said with a chuckle.
As the last firework fizzled out, the mortal's laughter subsided, and they looked at me with newfound acceptance. "You know, Death, you may have a creepy exterior, but you're not so bad after all."
"Why, thank you! I do try to keep it light, you know, despite the whole 'grim reaper' thing," I replied, flashing a thumbs-up.
As they took their final breath, a sense of peace washed over the mortal's face. "Well, it's been an interesting ride. See you on the other side, Death."
"Looking forward to it! But take your time—I've got all eternity, after all," I winked.
And with that, the mortal's soul departed, leaving behind a faint sparkle in the air. I watched him go with a sense of fulfillment. Being the Grim Reaper wasn't always about doom and gloom; sometimes, you had to bring a little humor to the table—death—where the laughs and final acts intertwined in one bizarre dance of eternity.
I chuckled to myself, thinking of all the souls I had guided throughout the ages, each one with their unique quirks and personalities. Maybe being the Grim Reaper wasn't so bad after all; it was a never-ending comedy show, one soul at a time.
With a skip in my step (or as close to it as a skeleton could get), I vanished, ready to find my next soul-sucking adventure; and make it equally unforgettable.