All tagged we're all gonna die
I was riding home on the train when a stranger sat down across from me. He looked at me for a long time before speaking.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said, finally. I didn’t respond, but the man mistook my silence as interest.
“You kill my wife and I kill yours.”
“What the fuck,” I said.
The day after she died, my wife comes back to cut up my clothes: little waning moons at the hems of my dresses, the necks of my sweaters, the sleeves of a heavy flannel shirt she had once given me for Christmas. The floor of our closet—which still smells like her, powdery and clean—is littered with scraps.
A woman broke up with her boyfriend. Then she went on a few dates using a popular website but nothing worked out. Her parents encouraged her to get out of the city, spend a weekend at the family cabin upstate even though it was out of season.
The autopsy report is as follows:
EXTERNAL EXAMINATION: the body is that of a thirty-five-year-old female with no distinguishing physical marks or lesions.
INTERNAL EXAMINATION: The autopsy revealed there were three inches of standing water in her lungs.
We landed four days ago. We arrived and they met us. I told them we came with a message, but I’d forgotten it. I forgot what you told me to say.
Some people in my town died in some tragic way and some memorial trees were planted. These trees ruined my view of an office building and a Taco John’s parking lot where people sometimes had car sex so I chopped them all down.
Every human being, like every machine, was created to do something. Trains carry people over land, under sea; a fan moves air; an iron presses cloth; a mug holds tea. Likewise, a nursing mother makes milk, a doctor sews skin, a tailor sews clothes, a spy watches people, a philosopher thinks, a judge makes decisions, and Sister Mah prays. She prays all day the way some people hum while they knit or chew gum while they’re taking your order.
Arnie totally freaks. “It’s insane what women have to deal with these days,” he says, and rushes into our basement with a plan to fix it. He’s down there for two days straight. I know he’s busy because I can hear ’90s rock through the heater vent. His getting-shit-done music.
When I lived in the swamplands, rowing from one place to the next, I met the devil. The locals swear if you stick around there long enough, you see him. They say he’s tall, dark, red, with claws, with teeth; that one day you’ll feel him tapping your shoulder or tickling your ankle. So, you start to look for him in every toad that croaks, every crane that lands softly on a mossy shore beside you, every mosquito that buzzes past your ear.
PAPER DARTS SHORT FICTION AWARD WINNER: Men used to be explorers; they used to hike a county over just for ink. Like my favorite Neanderthal with his pat of ocher. He mixed his own paint with animal fat and blew it through hollowed-out bones. He was thinking of posterity—of us—as he tossed hair out of his eyes and inked a row of horses on his wall.
Some people live like this until they don't live anymore. And then their bodies are peeled from the ceiling and bundled into caskets. Charcoal-gray suits and church dresses lined with lead to hold them still. Weight created so they are compliant and present in death as they weren't in life. Sometimes during the service these methods fail and the body bumps up against the lid and wavers a little, a sideways fish tank fish rocking stiff and lifeless against the glass.
We’re pitched headfirst into a lake in a car that isn’t ours and neither of us knows the first thing about survival. We barely know how to use the Bluetooth. So we panic.
Arlene was only a year older and thought everything was out of date. She cut up pillowcases and sewed them into dresses. She said, Hurry up, and I followed. Sixteen and seventeen: We knew the bartender’s favorite song on the jukebox: “World on a String.” Home was a block away from the bar. She worked at Erotic Cabaret, where pretty girls sold lingerie. We talked on curbs while taking sips of joints. We played pool wearing garters under our jeans.
Death by a thousand cuts, the headlines read. Seventeen slashes with a paring knife. Your wife tried to carve the truth from you. But I’m the guilty one. I’m the one that dreamed of all the ways to lose you so that you could never find me.
They did not tell me her name. She was my aunt, born in what my parent’s generation of Jamaicans called the Country. She didn't cry much at six months. But I knew what she looked like. I knew because my father's family was a deep brown. Theirs was the type of complexion that held fast to its hue even in New York’s winters. She had black hair that curled on the top and lay slick below the bend of her cranium. She had almond-shaped eyes—the pupils dark enough to shine black in the night. Her feet were smaller than baby-small and her cheeks were round. And under no circumstances did they speak her name.
“Maybe we should stop,” I said, not wanting to meander further down unfamiliar little mud roads. But my mother misunderstood. Her lips clamped, and her butt shifted on the driver’s seat. The car moved on. Pebbles sent flying by rubber wheels hit the underside of the old Proton Saga and clanked gratingly.
There was a moment when he could have taken me out of her throat, or at least not stuffed me in so far, but he needed to cross the line. I helped him, I admit. He left me inside her; that is where they found me, distending that narrow passage. Covered in her cells and his.
My first boyfriend had a truck with a little toggle switch on the dash. The kill switch. “For when the Po-Po roll up.” I didn’t understand at the time, so I just said cool. I looked up example videos on YouTube later. That’s how I imagine my own switch. A silver toggle, most likely somewhere around the nape of my neck. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Probably most people have it. You’ve got it, and hopefully you don’t switch it anytime soon.
My mother began sending letters to me upon our arrival in the town. I never replied with the truth, that Dad had been crying since we slammed the trunk and I was masturbating to The Canterbury Tales. The first letter was normal, mostly about how she’d been buying almond milk lately, but in the second letter was a photo of a stretch of highway with a purple, rectangular sign near the shoulder. It said, “In Memory of Louise,” me, with a birthday, my birthday, beneath. She’d always point these types of signs out in the car and now she’d put one up for me, while I was still very alive. On the back of the photo she wrote, “Let’s both not be forgotten.”
My mom wanted to be buried under a boulder. It might have been a Jesus thing. Ma was unique, or trying to be. She picked it out years before she died and U-Hauled it onto our lawn herself. After we’d had the thing a few months, I sort of forgot about it. It was nice to sit and lean against for shade in our treeless subdivision, and it had a mostly flat side that you could sort of play wall ball with so long as none of the neighbor kids were stupid enough to miss. After a while, it was more or less a fact of life, and kind of pretty from certain angles.