by Liam Scheff
3 of 15×15
It’s too personal. I’m not going to talk about that.”
“What do you…you mean, you’re not going to talk about it with me? Or you’re not going to –”
“Talk about it?”
“I’m…I’m going to. I’m just not going to talk about it today.”
“Sense…Sensitive. Too sensitive.”
“Too sensitive? You’re afraid I will judge you for it? Or, you’re afraid of the feeling?”
“The feeling. Overwhelming.”
“Okay. I understand.”
He sits in silence for a moment, then offers, “It’s about. When people. When they leave here. It’s…I can’t believe I’m asking this. But, where.” His mouth closes to a crooked slit, he presses his jaw forward, and barely whispers it, “Where do they go?”
“Oh. That’s…a big question. A big question. Many cultures have…I’m trying to remember some of this. I used to study it, after my father died. ”
“Your father died?”
“Well, yes. Fifteen years. I was 27. That’s considered young to have a parent die.”
“Yeah, I can see that. I mean, I’m 29, so…I can see that.”
“I studied something called the Tibetan…well. Let me start before that. First, we had a wake, I should tell you that. And we viewed the body. We sat with my father. He was young. Fifty-four. That’s considered young to die. He had a heart attack. He was laughing, among friends at the market. Where we grew up, in the neighborhood, we had an old-fashioned open market, with vendors and stalls. It was a favorite pastime of his. His cousin owned a stand in the market, with cold cuts and European bread, olives, coffee, things like that. They were very old world. My father loved that. He was from the intellectual side of the family, but he loved his cousin who represented…oh, something…earthy and real. That’s how, I think that’s how he felt about it. ”
“And he was there, laughing, having a good time, and he and his friends were smoking cigars and sharing some whiskey, which was their way of having fun. It was pretty harmless stuff, they were mostly happy, horny old guys who laughed and joked and flirted with the young woman who just kind of…tolerated this old crew of has-beens. ‘Oh, Mr. Fenti, oh, you’re too much.'”
“And then he…he was walking to the exit with his cousin Al — my uncle — and he…they tell me he dropped to his knees very quickly, and was on the floor, staring but not really seeing, and then, he was just…gone.”
“How old…you were…oh, 27. Twenty seven years old. That’s…too young.”
“It was too young. I was. We were all in shock. All of us. I wanted to just die, just…I couldn’t believe life was so cruel, to take a man still in the height of his powers, still teaching, and loving it, still in love with life, with my mother. With so much to give, so much…vivacity, so much zest in him. Such force. Such laughter and love and wit — and that life could…rob us all. That God could rob us all. I was incensed. Mom was destroyed. I didn’t want a funeral. I wanted the whole world to stop and apologize for…”
He interjects, “For taking someone so good, and –”
She picks up, “And leaving all the assholes. All the bastards. All the louts and losers and lazy …
“Fuckers.” he says, with more force than she expected.
“No, it’s okay. I felt that way. But we had a wake — tradition. You hate tradition, and then later you’re glad for it — that it made you wait to get married, or wait to have sex. Or, that it forces you to be with family, in misery, together, and not kill yourself, and hold the funeral.
“But, that’s not what happened to me. To, to Mary-Ellen.”
“Oh. I know. It is different. I’m not telling you how you should feel, I only wanted you to know –”
“It’s alright. I”m just…touchy.”
She says nothing. She sits attentively, earning her fee, 50 an hour, a sliding scale because FEMA asked for therapists who had dealt with mass casualty – or at least were intimate with death. That’s the term they used. “Intimate with death.” She found that shocking, hilarious, for a government form. To be so metaphysical. She was “familiar,” not intimate, but she wanted to help. So, she sits attentively. He looks at her, through her, and out the window.
“Mary Ellen. Died. Trapped in a building that froze. I don’t know if she suffered, or she…just passed out. I know she cried. I know she panicked, at least a little. I know she lit candles. I know she huddled under blankets. But by the fifth day, the blizzard, 20 feet of snow sliding down the hills onto the bridges. twenty below. No electricity.” He pauses and clenches something inside. “How do you hate a power-outage? Where is it in the Bible? Thou shalt never inhabit a north American city during a power outage. Thou shalt. Thou Shalt not.”
“Are you, were you religious, Matt? Were you as a family?”
“Yeah. No. We believe in Jesus, but…the church lost us a long time ago.”
“Matt. There are no easy answers. The government asked us to be involved, as a community. And…you were suicidal.”
“I am suicidal.”
“I don’t want medication.”
“But, it –”
“What was that book?”
“I’m sorry? I –”
“Book of death. I heard of that.”
“Book of…oh. The Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
“Right. So…did it help?”
“It’s very old. It’s ancient. Over a thousand years. I didn’t read ‘it,’ per say, I read modern translations. But. It was interesting. I…I wasn’t ready to lose my father. I wasn’t…prepared for death. I…needed help.”
“Why didn’t you go to a shrink?” He stares at her, an eyebrow suddenly raised, his mouth straight, deadpan.
She almost smiles. Is he joking? For the first time, she sees something like a glint in his eye, a spot of bright wry wit. Something his Mary-Ellen knew about him. She remembers why she does this job.
“It’s a good question. I did, in fact. I did, but it…it wasn’t enough. I needed to know. It will sound strange. But I needed to know how long people had died.”
Matt laughs. She looks at him without expression. He says, “I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. I think I understand the question.”
“So, I read this book. This ancient book that talks about souls, and passages, and the journey through the many levels of the spiritual world. Because, Matt, people…people have always died.”
She feels her voice swell a bit, more than she expected it too. He looks down, his face turns slightly sour, his mouth is hanging slightly open, pulled down at the corners. He breathes a shuddering breath in. Something hot leaks out of his eye, falls, clear onto his jeans.
She says, “People die, Matt. And we go on, and we pray to whatever we pray to. And if you believe that they’re with us, I think they are. I think my father’s here now. I think Mary-Ellen is here.”
But she doesn’t. It’s not in her job description. She doesn’t say any of it. She says nothing, and lets him cry for a moment, a hot, hissing, silent cry.
She hands him a box of tissues. Matt puts his thumb and index finger against his eyes, wiping away tears. He breathes in a long settling breath.
“That was good work, Matt. Breakthrough work. Very courageous work.” She pauses and waits for him to nod, to acknowledge that what he did had value. It’s hard for these people, she thinks, to imagine that digging into wounds has a use. “Same time next week?”
“Okay,” he gets up, brushes himself off. Pulls down his ruffled shirt. “Thanks.”
He walks out of the office building and sees the sky, long and light blue, fringed with the pale horizon, over the thicket of woods along the highway.
– – – –
This is Story 3 in 15×15. A story written and edited in one to two hours with no major revisions.