A Community of Writers Craft Talk
by Robin Romm
Neurosis: the formation of behavioral or psychosomatic symptoms as a result of the return of the repressed.
A neurotic narrator exhibits most, if not all, of the following traits:
1) Myopia. Neurotic narrators are self-absorbed and almost always exhibit unusual self-awareness. This self-absorption can become so exaggerated, as in Roth and Levine, that it creates its own special sort of humor. (All of the writers I’m examining use first person POV to help create this sense of self-focus.)
2) An uncanny observance that one might call hyper-observance or hyper-vigilance.
3) A sense of threat; a tendency to see menace in the mundane.
4) Intelligence coupled with intense curiosity that can be unsparing and impolite.
5) More receptivity and sensitivity to psychic pain. They often seem to be missing “a thick skin.”
6) Overthinking. Or maybe more accurately put, neurotic narrators tend to think with a precision and attention to loss that leads them to indecision and anxiety.
Excerpt from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:
The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off –the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance, they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
Excerpt from Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth:
I am something called a “weekend guest”? I am something called “a friend from school”? What is she speaking? I am the “bonditt,” the “vantz,” I am the insurance man’s son. I am Warsaw’s ambassador! “How do you do, Alex?” To which of course I reply, “Thank you.” Whatever anybody says to me during my first twenty-four hours in Iowa, I answer, “Thank you.” Even to inanimate objects. I walk into a chair, promptly I say to it, “Excuse me, thank you.” I drop my napkin on the floor, lean down, flushing, to pick it up, “Thank you,” I hear myself saying to the napkin—or is the floor I’m addressing? Would my mother be proud of her little gentleman! Polite even to the furniture!
Then there’s an expression in English, “Good morning,” or so I have been told; the phrase has never been of any particular use to me. Why should it have been? At breakfast at home I am in fact known to the other boarders as “Mr. Sourballs” and “The Crab.” But suddenly, here in Iowa, in imitation of the local inhabitants, I am transformed into a veritable geyser of good mornings. That’s all anybody around that place knows how to say—they feel the sunshine on their faces, and it just sets off some sort of chemical reaction: Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! sung to half a dozen different tunes!….
Roth, excerpt displaying questioning tone:
Oh, how can, how can she spend such glorious afternoons in that kitchen, polishing silver, chopping liver, threading new elastic in the waistband of my little jockey shorts—and feeding me all the while my cues from the mimeographed script, playing Queen Isabella to my Columbus, Betsy Ross to my Washington, Mrs. Pasteur to my Louis—how can she rise with me on the crest of my genius during those dusky beautiful hours after school, and then at night, because I will not eat some string beans and a baked potato, point a bread knife at my heart? And why doesn’t my father stop her?
Roth, excerpt about the intensity of reality:
Dreams? If only they had been! But I don’t need dreams, Doctor, that’s why I hardly have them—because I have this life instead. With me it all happens in broad daylight! The disproportionate and the melodramatic, this is my daily bread! The coincidences of dreams, the symbols, the terrifyingly laughable situations, the oddly ominous banalities, the accidents and humiliations, the bizarrely appropriate strokes of luck or misfortune that other people experience with their eyes shut, I get with mine open!
Gilman, excerpt about the intensity of reality:
I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store.
Excerpt from The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath about indecision/paralysis:
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was EE Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Roth on indecision:
I simply will not enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days. Imagine it: suppose I were to go ahead and marry A, with her sweet tits and so on, what will happen when B appears, whose are even sweeter—or, at any rate newer? Or C, who knows how to move her ass in some special way I have never experienced; or D, or E, or F. I’m trying to be honest with you, Doctor—because with sex, the human imagination runs to Z and then beyond!
Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me….I mean….the nightmarish depression some people suffer at bedtime. On the other hand, even I must admit that there is maybe, from a certain perspective something a little depressing about my situation, too. Of course you can’t have everything, or so I understand—but the question I am willing to face is: have I anything?
Excerpts from Cassandra at the Wedding, by Dorothy Baker:
I would rather [that] all those others [write] their theses about me; but I have a peculiar problem in that my mother was a writer—author of two novels, and three plays, and quite a few screen plays, all quite well known, and it’s not easy for the child of a writer to become a writer. I don’t see why; it just isn’t. It’s something about not wanting to be compared. And not wanting to measure up, or not measure up; or cash in either.
Who else do you know who owns a Boesendorfer, or even knows what they are. We didn’t join Job’s Daughters or go steady with some clod, or live the Alpha Kappa Thetas, because we never talked that language or thought in those terms. How could we? We can start living where other imaginations fail.
Same thing everywhere I’d ever looked. Large amounts of safety; very few risks. Let nothing endanger the proper marriage, the fashionable career, the non-irritating thesis that says nothing new and nothing true. That’s how they do it. They go along. All but papa, who prefers the skeptics and the Five star Hennessy. And me who what. Who nothing. Who less than nothing. Who tried but didn’t.
I lay there in all the heat and wondered what it is that gets lovely, simple things so knotted and gnarled up. What makes mistletoe move in on a tree and take over, what made the wild cells move in on Jane Edwards; why do weeds flourish and flowers give up? Why does papa have to prefer drinking alone on a ranch to the entrenched inanities of the university world? Where is there to go? Or, barring that, where can you hide?
Excerpt from Treasure Island!!!, by Sara Levine:
I knew very well what Lars meant when he praised me, and held me, and indicated through a caress that he liked me just the way I was; I knew better than he knew himself, that what he wanted to ensure he never be confronted with what in his own personality might need pruning or pushing or prodding, that behind every show of support he gave, for me here, for me now, there lurked a terrified refusal to acknowledge his own potential to grow. With each endearment, with each endorsement, he tried to make me slack. Did I buckle? Dear Reader, no. I saw his white-knuckled terror, his toes clenching the edge of a perceived abyss, even when he leaned over the garbage bag of clothes and planted a kiss on my head!!!
Robin Romm is the author of three books, a chapbook, and numerous articles and book reviews. Most recently, she edited Double Bind: Women on Ambition (Liveright 2017) which collects personal essays from thinkers like Roxane Gay, Sarah Ruhl, Elisa Albert, Theresa Rebeck, Molly Ringwald, and Julie Holland, in order to understand the complicated issue of female striving. Her story collection, The Mother Garden, was a finalist for the PEN USA prize. Her memoir, The Mercy Papers, was named a best book of the year by The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner, Don Waters, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program in writing at Warren Wilson.
by Danusha Laméris
“When we pay attention to nature’s music,
we find that everything on the Earth
contributes to its harmony.”
– Hazrat Inayat Khan
All morning they’ve been screeching
back and forth between the oak tree
and the roof, bickering over bits of cat food
pinched from the metal bowl by the door.
When song was handed out,
the lark and nightingale got there first.
Who can blame the jays
for raiding the robin’s nest
its pale and delicate eggs,
for tearing the dark red plums
straight from each other’s beaks.
Who can blame the ear
in its ignorance
for wanting music and failing
to hear it?
In those days, there was a woman in our circle
who was known, not only for her beauty,
but for taking off all her clothes and singing opera.
And sure enough, as the night wore on and the stars
emerged to stare at their reflections on the sea,
and everyone had drunk a little wine,
she began to disrobe, loose her great bosom,
and the tender belly, pale in the moonlight,
the Viking hips, and to let her torn raiment
fall to the sand as we looked up from the flames.
And then a voice lifted into the dark, high and clear
as a flock of blackbirds. And everything was very still,
the way the congregation quiets when the priest
prays over the incense, and the smoke wafts
up into the rafters. I wanted to be that free
inside the body, the doors of pleasure
opening, one after the next, an arpeggio
climbing the ladder of sky. And all the while
she was singing and wading into the water
until it rose up to her waist and then lapped
at the underside of her breasts, and the aria
drifted over us, her soprano spare and sharp
in the night air. And even though I was young,
somehow, in that moment, I heard it,
the song inside the song, and I knew then
that this was not the hymn of promise
but the body’s bright wailing against its limits.
A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries
to escape by throwing itself, again and again,
against the stained glass.
Dressing for the Burial
No one wants to talk about the hilarity after death—
the way the week my brother shot himself,
his wife and I fell on the bed laughing
because she couldn’t decide what to wear for the big day,
and asked me, “Do I go for sexy or Amish?” I told her sexy.
And we rolled around on the mattress they’d shared
for eighteen years, clutching our sides.
Meanwhile, he lay in a narrow refrigerated drawer,
soft brown curls springing from his scalp,
framing his handsome face. This was back when
he still had a face, and we were going to get to see it.
“Hold up the black skirt again,” I said. She said, “Which one?”
And then she said, “You look so Mafia Chic,” and I said, “Thank you,”
and it went on until we both got tired and our ribs hurt and now
I don’t even remember what we wore. Only that we both looked fabulous
weeping over that open hole in the ground.
Danusha Laméris’ first book, The Moons of August (Autumn House, 2014), was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the Autumn House Press poetry prize. Some of her poems have been published in The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House. She’s also the author of Bonfire Opera, (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), and the recipient of this year’s Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. Danusha teaches poetry independently, and is the current Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, California.
A View From the Ridge
by Edward Fowler
Having spent the day at my desk grading fall-term exams, my body is stiff and my brain is dull. I break for a walk, something that, once out the door, I never regret doing. I’d like to say it was a daily event. The bathroom scale tells me otherwise.
Campus housing for faculty and staff at UC Irvine is a paradise for walkers. My route varies with the season and with my mood. Sometimes I negotiate the maze of hedge-lined footpaths linking the streets. More often I make my way through the community garden into the ecological preserve.
The preserve’s most prominent feature is an undulating, half-mile-long ridge that culminates in a scrub-covered promontory overlooking seemingly all of Southern California. On a clear day like today, which has turned cool and blustery, the promontory affords sweeping vistas of the coastal hills and the entire Los Angeles Basin. To the north, a good fifty miles from where I stand, the San Gabriel Mountains pierce the heavens, a crisp wall of white in early winter. The Bactrian humps of Saddleback, its twin peaks the highest points in Orange County, dominate the eastern horizon. To the southwest, Catalina Island floats serenely on the Pacific twenty miles offshore. The port city of Long Beach, sandwiched between a comma-shaped shoreline and the oil-rich mound of Signal Hill, lies due west; beyond it the much larger mound of Palos Verdes, a lush, Sphinx-like pyramid, juts seaward. The skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, tiny yet distinct, rise up forty miles to the northwest; the Malibu Hills provide a movie-set backdrop twenty-five miles beyond. In the foreground, a couple of miles from my perch, commuter jets catapult from the local airport’s short runway into a cobalt sky.
I amble up the ridge, eyes peeled for the wary coyote traversing the slope; the jackrabbit that has leapt out of a folk tale; the roadrunner, spiked crown high on its head, that appears to have flown out of a paleontology textbook. Meanwhile, my ears pick up the rasp of a cactus wren in the underbrush, the lusty trill of a meadowlark in the open field, the high-pitched squeal of a red-tailed hawk overhead. I rarely see another hiker. It is just as well, for I appreciate what is not here: buildings, noise, other human beings. This is a place to be alone.
It was on such a walk through the preserve years ago that I first noticed something not quite right with my wife Hiroko. A natural athlete and a regular in her forties at the local fitness club, she could keep pace with those half her age despite her smoking habit. I rarely accompanied her to the gym but happily joined her on walks. Hiroko usually led the way, a lively spring in her step. On that late-autumn day, however, a few months before being diagnosed with liver cancer, she lacked her usual bounce. She was getting old, I joked, prodding her from behind and reminding her of the times she’d pushed me up the hill when I was weak from acute ulcerative colitis and later from surgery to remove my colon. I recalled the much shorter walks we’d taken before I could venture as far as the preserve, and the improbable patience she demonstrated when guiding me step by feeble step. In response to my prodding, Hiroko scoffed at my joke. But she moved no faster.
I thought no more of it at the time, yet the memory haunts me. Had I taken her fatigue seriously and sent her to the doctor, might we not have discovered a problem early on? One that could be fixed? Would greater vigilance have allowed us to treat her liver, that notoriously silent organ, before it began shutting down?
Probably not. She’d had a physical around that time and nothing had seemed amiss. But then, the doctors hadn’t been looking for problems. Irregularities in the liver are detected with more specialized tests, and none were indicated. When she finally underwent them, a chorus of specialists would chant in mind-numbing unison to a patient who had only months before been declared healthy: “Nothing can be done!”
Regardless of my route going out, I invariably stop on my return at a shrub-covered island on the street above mine, just where it widens in order to accommodate a clump of houses. There, beneath the dense cover of Indian hawthorn, I place a spray of Lantana, a cluster of Bougainvillea, some bush daisies, or whatever else I might have plucked from hedges along the way. This is the spot where Hiroko, overcome by nausea on Thanksgiving Day, just weeks before her death, refused to turn back after embarking on a stroll.
Hiroko’s father and mother had flown in from Japan and were helping me care for their sick daughter, who still enjoyed the occasional outing but relied on a wheelchair. Light and compact, it enabled her to visit friends, shops, and the beach as well as the hospital. Its maneuverability made it a hit with family members, who took turns pushing its cargo. Hiroko, on the go her entire life, was usually eager for a ride. The only drawback was the nausea brought on at times by even the slightest movement.
That morning after breakfast, the four of us set out. Hiroko’s father piloted the wheelchair. Hiroko donned her standard wardrobe for such outings. Her pajamas and robe, covered by a raincoat, kept her warm and concealed her appliances. A wide-brimmed hat shrouded her gaunt features and thinning hair.
We’d gotten no farther than the island when Hiroko signaled her father. In an instant the wheelchair came to a halt. In another instant Hiroko’s breakfast dribbled onto her lap, the wheelchair, and the pavement. I stroked her back as she fought to catch her breath.
Despite the mishap, she would not retreat. I raced home and returned with bottled water, tissues, and plastic bags. We swept the vomit onto the soil beneath the hawthorn. We patted Hiroko’s face, wiped down her wheelchair and robe, and washed residue from the curb with the remaining water, saving just enough to rinse our hands. The cleanup complete, we pressed on to our destination: the grassy knoll that overlooked a housing phase just going in.
It is here that I pause on the return leg of my walks, mindful not to attract the attention of passing cars or passersby, and place flowers beneath a gap in the foliage. When accompanied by the occasional visitor, I merely nod in its direction. When with someone I know well, I might, after a brief word, make a quick bow. Regardless, this hallowed ground—subjected to the disease’s unrelenting fury, but witness as well to one mortal’s uncommon resolve—is never passed by without acknowledgment. For me it is the object of more veneration than anything connected with Hiroko’s last year save the urn on the family room shelf.
When Hiroko could still walk unaided, our favorite destination was the community garden, not two minutes away from the house on foot, and the ridge beyond it in the preserve. Situated on a narrow rectangle eighty yards long from front to back, the garden is home to a wealth of plants from near and far: sweet alyssum, lavender, and rock rose from the Old World; native California species including laurel and lemonade berry; agave and Matilija poppies from south of the border; plumbago, protea, and kangaroo paws from south of the equator. The grounds are graced by artemisia and other plants redolent of sage; and graced as well by flowering and evergreen trees: acacia, coral tree, and, no surprise, California live oak.
The Valencia orange, once synonymous with the California citrus industry, is also represented. The Irvine Company, which owns vast tracts of land in Orange County, bought interest in the fruit and once grew it on half its land. As more people migrated to the area, the fields, orchards, and pastures were ploughed under; in their place sprang up housing developments, shopping malls, office parks, and the university at which I now work.
Trellises entwined with roses and morning glory guard the entrance fronting the street. A gnarled Wisteria protects a sturdy, pew-like bench that awaits the visitor at the garden’s midpoint. Left to grow in rank profusion until more orderly minds assumed management in recent years, the grounds, even more than now, were a riot of color, especially in June.
“Damn, damn, damn this nausea!”
One afternoon in early summer Hiroko let out a holler that shook the house. She wanted to scream, she said, but not here, not from her bed. She’d hike to the preserve and shout from the granite outcrop, where she’d shouted many times before. She rose from her bed but quickly sank back on the mattress, retching. Then she was up again.
I drove her to the garden and we proceeded on foot. Deep-purple Limonium and Salvia complemented the Leonotis and Santolina’s oranges and golds. The two-minute saunter from the trellis to the outcrop became a quarter-hour trek. The toyon and elderberry had lost their bloom, and the brilliant yellow fiddlenecks that lined the trail in spring had faded long ago. Resting her bony buttocks on a knee-high boulder, she yelled with all her might.
“I hate this. I HATE IT!” The tears flowed freely down her face. “Dear God, grant me a miracle. Please make me well again!”
I gently massaged her neck. Far more aware than she of the dismal course her disease would likely take, I prayed in silence for a different sort of miracle.
“Ted, I didn’t mean to drag you down like this.”
Earthmoving equipment was parked on the open space far below, construction work on the university-owned corporate research park having stopped for the day. Two or three vultures circled lazily above us in search of carrion in the vast expanse of cacti and scrub that would one day be replaced with offices buildings.
“When will I stop being a burden?”
I wiped her nose with my hand. The late-afternoon sun revealed every crease on her face.
“You’re not a burden. Bother me all you want.”
We sat side by side for ten minutes, facing the sun, before retracing our steps.
“Ahhhhh!” Hiroko let out a parting shriek.
“We’ll be back,” I yelled, wondering if there would be a next time.
Returning home, somehow under her own power, Hiroko fell into a deep sleep.
“I’ve felt normal for just a few minutes out of the whole day,” she said upon awakening.
Our walk was now a distant memory. Hoping to raise her spirits, I recalled our dinner date a quarter century before at a London hotel overlooking Hyde Park—a date we enjoyed despite the bleak news, only days earlier, of the Munich Olympic Village massacre. That was when I presented her with an engagement ring, in a covered dish I had our waiter serve as if it were another course. She anxiously told the waiter that there must be some mistake, and accepted it only after much persuasion, more from the waiter than from me.
The community garden constantly beckoned. I implored Hiroko to join me when she could. One midsummer evening after dinner we padded down the street. I led her through the garden and up the far slope. The sun was low on the horizon.
“What a lovely view!” Hiroko exclaimed. The damp air smelled of sage and clay. We beheld the city below. Palos Verdes and Catalina loomed in the distance. A commuter jet had just taken off, and another was about to land—its approach, from our viewpoint, through a thicket of office buildings.
“Let’s worship the sun.” She clasped her hands in supplication and whispered a prayer.
“Make my wife well . . . completely well!” I did not whisper mine.
“I’m so happy, Ted. Now let’s watch the sun set.”
I held Hiroko as tightly as her slender frame and fragile appliances would allow. The jet plane, taxiing ever slower, flickered in the gaps between buildings.
The next thing I knew, an amber ribbon arced from her lips to the ground at her feet.
“Ugh, I must’ve had too much to eat.”
She wiped her mouth with the tissues always in her pocket.
“That must be it,” I agreed.
She tossed a wad of tissue onto the dirt. We retraced our steps home without waiting for the sun to kiss the horizon.
Later, after helping her into bed, I slipped out of the house, hurried to the garden, and scrambled up the far slope. Something compelled me to retrieve the tissue and otherwise undo everything that had earlier gone awry. The sun had long since set. I kicked dirt onto the vomit-soaked soil and stomped on it. Whereupon I repeated my incantation, this time in a whisper: “Make my wife well!” Then I set about waiting for the next airplane. I wanted to see one more jet take off.
None ever did. It was past the hour that commercial planes were permitted to disturb the night. No more takeoffs? The prospect seemed ominous. I continued to wait. At long last a tiny Cessna angled skyward with an insistent drone. Satisfied, I descended the slope and made my way home in the dark.
Edward (Ted) Fowler, a 2019 alumnus of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, is the author of several books on Japan. He taught for three decades at Duke University and UC Irvine, and now spends his time traveling, repairing home and body, and writing stories. He has completed a memoir about his first wife, a Japanese national, from which ‘A View from the Ridge’ is excerpted.
Death in California
by Ryan Ridge
Death waits at a desolate departure gate at the end of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. The Singapore Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur he’s set to sink into the Pacific later tonight is delayed, and he’s frustrated because Death waits for no one, at least in theory. But here, in practice, he remains at the most depressing airport in the world, perusing a copy of TIME magazine he lifted from a nearby kiosk. Death loves TIME, always has. He’s graced the cover dozens of times over the decades in various guises and disguises. Now he’s transfixed by an article about the Anthropocene entitled “Bad News for Earth!” According to the writer, our planet, once heralded as the essential life-support system of the known universe, is now in need of its own life-support system. Translation: seventy-five percent of the earth’s species are primed for extinction.
Death taps the equation into his iPhone calculator, and the math is not on his side. To scale to this magnitude, he’ll need to hire and train an additional seventy-six million staff reapers by 2076. He is filled with fatigue and vague dread. Perspiration beads on his brow. He glances at the updated data on the departure monitor, and the damn flight is further delayed, and that is enough. Death needs a vacation. When was the last time he took any time for himself? Answer: never. He calls Jobs in hell, and it goes straight to voicemail. “Steve, it’s me, buddy,” he says after the beep. “I’m going to take a little time off and thought you’d be a great interim. Pay’s nice. Robust 401(k). Benefits, too. Holler.” He hangs up. Seconds later, Steve Jobs texts back about the job. Jobs sends a one-word reply: “OK.” Death sets his work email to out-of-office and exits the airport. It’s early evening outside the terminal. Terminal. Death likes that word. He lets the final l linger in his mind as he lifts a finger and hails a cab. He prefers cabs to Uber because it’s the future now, and cabs are dead.
Riding in a taxi through Marina del Rey at sunset, Death half listens to the cabbie ranting about the end of the American dream. Death nods and stares out the window: the neon pink sunset sends soft light through the palm fronds, illuminating the handsome couples strolling on the sidewalk outside the hipster shops. An inviting aroma from a nearby taqueria wafts into the car through the crack in the cab driver’s window. The totality of beauty is absolute, and it absolutely makes Death feel uncomfortable. He sits with this sinking feeling and brings awareness to it. Let’s explore this, he thinks. Why do I feel anxious right now? The cab turns off the PCH and onto to Admiralty Way by the marina, but Death doesn’t notice because he’s too busy meditating. He closes his eyes, envisions a lightbulb exploding, and gets an idea. The idea is this: I’m deathly afraid of the beauty of life. Death unbuckles his seatbelt. “Here,” he says to the driver. The cabbie maneuvers into the Ritz-Carlton parking lot and stops. “That’ll be $27.27,” the driver says. Death says nothing and hands him his Amex Black Card. “I can’t take this,” the driver says. “My machine is down. You have any cash?” Death says, “Negative.” A lie. He, in fact, has a fat stack of hundreds folded in his robe pocket, but he doesn’t budge. “I can’t accept cards,” the driver says again, returning Death’s black Amex. “Well,” says Death, “then I guess that means I’ll have to take you.” At this, the driver turns his head, and Death sees his own reflection in the driver’s mirrored sunglasses. And so Death takes him. He takes him into the mystery.
Death Dines Alone
He orders takeout from his favorite Thai place and settles into the faux-leather sectional in front of the Apple flatscreen with his green tofu curry and avocado spring rolls with peanut sauce on the side. By now, Death is a California resident. He’s got a little bungalow in Echo Park. Tonight, he’s watching for the first time Ingmar Bergman’s classic, historical fantasy, The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight encounters Death by chance on a cinematic beach in Denmark. The knight, who’s been erstwhile playing chess alone, challenges Death to a match. Death accepts. The knight takes the white pieces, and Death gets the black ones. Death pauses the film midscene to balk at Bergman’s representation of him as a pale, cloaked figure. Sure, I rock a black cloak, he thinks, but underneath it, I have a shredded bod and a much better tan. Death unlocks his iPhone and downloads a free chess app on iTunes. He plays the computer and loses. Plays again. Loses. He savors the feeling. He loves loss. He plays again. This time he kills the computer. Bummer.
A More Comprehensive List of Casualties
God is dead.
The self is dead.
The selfie is dead.
Surf is dead.
Turf is dead.
Love is dead.
Latin is dead.
Liberalism is dead.
Neoliberalism is dead.
Conservatism is dead.
Advertising is dead.
Marketing is dead.
The press release is dead.
The dollar is dead.
Bitcoin is dead.
Net neutrality is dead.
The blog is dead.
The vlog is dead.
Web design is dead.
Silicon Valley is dead.
The gig economy is dead.
The sharing economy is dead.
The shopping mall is dead.
The supermarket is dead.
The video arcade is dead.
The video store is dead.
The DVD is dead.
The CD is dead.
The guitar is dead.
Punk is dead.
Disco is dead.
Death metal is dead.
Pop is dead.
Rock is dead.
Gender is dead.
Irony is dead.
Modernism is dead.
Postmodernism is dead.
Minimalism is dead.
Maximalism is dead.
Print is dead.
Stationery is dead.
Poetry is dead.
The novel is dead.
The author is dead.
The auteur is dead.
The audience is dead.
And on and on until the end when everything is dead, including the sun.
Death is dead, too, of course, but checking himself out in the IKEA mirror just now with his shirt off and his pecs flexed, he thinks: Damn, man, I look alive! Don’t I?
By the end of the fiscal year, Steve Jobs calls and says, “Your job sucks. I quit.”
Death says, “Joblessness is the best job, Jobs. This is the future. Everyone is history, bud. Mostly thanks to you and your damn innovations.”
Jobs begins bawling. “Thank you for the kind words,” he says, and hangs up.
Death considers getting back to work. He’s confident he can build out the business, scale up in order to take folks down. Ultimately, killing is his calling, he knows it, but first, he’ll black out another week on a California bender.
Death orders another Bloody Mary at the Gold Room on Sunset. It’s a quarter till one on a Sunday afternoon in sunny Los Angeles. The place is empty except for a C-list actor in Ray-Bans indoors who says he’s leaving town after this drink because he’s had enough of California for one lifetime. Death asks the actor where he’s going.
“Home,” the actor says.
“Where’s that?” asks Death. “Kentucky.”
“The dark and bloody ground,” Death says. “Sure, I’ve been there a bunch. I practically live there most Februarys.”
The actor nods. He finishes his beer and knocks back a shot. Then he stands up and tosses a tip on the counter. “See you,” he says.
“Not if I see you first,” says Death.
No Captain, No Ship, No Sea
That night, Death dreams of a ship in a bottle. The ship in the bottle is floating between yachts at Marina del Rey. A storm. Lightning. Thunder. Huge waves crash into the bottle until the glass cracks and it’s just a tiny ship in the stormy Pacific. There is no captain. Then there is no ship. Death watches the small ship float for a miraculous moment before it’s swallowed by a wave. Then there is no wave. Just sea. And darkness. Endless darkness. Cue thunder, an iPhone alarm. He is risen.
Death Goes Fishing II
He rents a pole at the Santa Monica Pier, but he doesn’t catch anything all day. He speeds back to his bungalow in the Mini at dusk. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult jangles through the speakers. Death catches his reflection in the rearview. He is many things, but he is not afraid.
Me? I am very afraid.
Ryan Ridge is the author of five books, including the forthcoming story collection New Bad News (Sarabande Books, 2020). An assistant professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, he codirects the Creative Writing Program. He edits the literary magazine Juked and lives in Salt Lake City with the writer Ashley Farmer.