Tag Archives: death

Call It

 

By Matthew Woodman

 

The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical discourse, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence.” – Donald Barthelme

 

This is death.” The man reaches into his chest pocket, extracts a black balloon, places it to his lips—mouth to mouth—and begins to blow. As the latex inflates, a white skull swells and takes shape. “This is death,” the man repeats, tying the end. “Be back in twenty minutes.” We took death by the neck. Outside, sunshine and squirrels and people carrying backpacks from one corner of campus to the other.

Mark, feeling self-conscious and put on the spot, feigns nonchalance and bats the balloon with the tips of his right hand and then his left as if it were a beach volleyball. After three minutes of this back and forth, death bursts with sufficient force to exceed the speed of sound and—to the right of Mark’s temple—forms a small sonic boom. The people carrying backpacks who are not already watching Mark now turn in his direction where he, startled, stares at the torn rubber at his feet. It is now when Mark begins avoiding contractions, for example repeating to himself “I cannot” rather than the colloquial “I can’t.”

Though Greg’s balloon fails also to return intact, it does manage to keep its form longer than Mark’s. Greg cradles it, skull side out, under his arm down the hall. Greg has a girlfriend named for a country in Asia, though the spelling differs. Chyna keeps him company. Or perhaps he keeps her company, one finds these things difficult to judge. Anyway. One could argue the balloon is theirs, as in the plural possessive. They have time to stop and chat with people they know from other rooms, other schedules. When these people inquire as to the balloon, Greg informs them it’s an assignment they have to complete. They ask him what kind of class is that, and Greg agrees but continues, nonetheless, to stay on task. There is no warning before their balloon pops. It just pops.

Carla is more careful. Not that Greg was careless, but still. In the middle of the quad, a grid of booths and informational tables has been assembled along an x- and y-axis, Carla’s path the slope. A volunteer hands Carla a sticker in the form of a pink ribbon, one-and-three-quarters inches long, produced in sheets of twelve, with a self-adhesive backing. The volunteer looks at Carla’s balloon but doesn’t ask any questions, and Carla doesn’t volunteer any answers. Carla considers affixing the sticker to the balloon but chooses not to. The volunteer continues to distribute pink ribbons, and Carla continues to carry her black balloon along her twenty-minute trajectory.

Rayna takes her balloon and finds a man giving out free ice cream sundaes. Just vanilla and a dollop of chocolate fudge, but a sundae is a sundae, and a free sundae even more so. What’s with the balloon, the ice cream man asks. It’s supposed to be death, I think, Rayna replies. Huh, the ice cream man says, that’s weird. I know, right? Rayna agrees, thanks for the ice cream. Rayna is halfway through the sundae by the time she has to return, her arms full, where she began.

Kason arrives late and doesn’t get a balloon.

When the twenty minutes are up, we return to the room. The man leans against the white wall. He wouldn’t be out of place blindfolded, smoking a cigarette, hands tied behind his back.

Now what?” we ask.

That’s right,” the man confirms, “now what.”

 

Matthew Woodman teaches writing at California State University, Bakersfield and is the poetry editor for the Chilean journal Southern Pacific Review. More of his work can be found at www.matthewwoodman.com.

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Is, Was, Will Be

By Mallory Chesser

 

Death will catch Gloria naked between the wall and the toilet. Everyone’s aunt and nobody’s mother—a choice she’ll make early in life, without caring who will take care of her at 65, and never really expecting to achieve old age—she lives alone. She’ll be wedged in the crevice overnight while flesh frees itself from bone, while blood and water separate for good, while breasts sink irrevocably. By the next morning, death chill will set in.

Fifty years before, she rides her bike through the middle of the street, coasting from lane to lane with hands in the air, taking corners too quickly, playing chicken with cars, neglecting a helmet over her long, wet hair, a dull brown until the wind dries it blonde. In the sun she is brilliant, stopping traffic at sixteen. At night she rides without reflectors. This is a body to bare, to share. Now she thinks of the new turquoise bikini under her sundress and pumps the pedals faster. She’ll be the last one to the lake, but she’ll make the biggest splash.

Gloria dies on a hot summer, like this one. Not breast cancer, as she was expecting, or consumption, the romantic death she’d imagined in childhood, but a heart attack on the toilet. Within two days, putrefaction will begin. After working their way through Gloria’s last meal—tuna fish sandwiches and a bottle of cheap wine she would not have chosen had she known it would be her last—the bacteria will start on her organs, on her blistering flesh. Eyes will bulge, tongue will unfurl, gases will leak. Mouth will cringe at the lack of dignity.

Gloria at sixteen thinks about the party tonight, the party last night—parties all summer. Pasture parties, bonfires, volunteer work for the resume; days at the beach, kickbacks at the doctor’s house, part-time job at the library. Eli’s father is the doctor, but Eli likes to be called Doc. They all have aspirations. Life is beautiful. This summer Gloria has graduated from white wine to red, from Billy to David to Doc. She believes in the power of names—Billy will be a mechanic, David will go to law school, but Doc will take seven years just to graduate college, because his name is tempting fate. Billy’s arms are warm, like the sun on her skin, and David wears cashmere sweaters in fall. Doc has the biggest house and the father who is never home. If she ever meets a Stuart, she will forget about all of them. She passes the county line and the road opens up before her, stretching out for miles.

She’ll have a fenced-in porch, a screen door, a room she can call a library, and a chocolate Labrador. She and the dog and the house grow old together. Life was, is, will be beautiful.

 

Mallory Chesser is an MFA fiction candidate at Texas State University. She serves as managing editor of Story|Houston, a Houston-based literary journal, and teaches composition. She is currently working on a collection of linked stories set in little-known parts of the Lone Star State.

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Open Wide

 

By Caitlin McGill

   

Cut the cobbler into exactly twelve slices. Measure a sheet of aluminum foil. Sixteen inches wide. Cover. Seal it tight as you do coffin lids. You know when people accidentally see inside they hanker for more, crave another peek. Don’t make that mistake again. Remember: your meticulousness is why they say you’re the best. Don’t lick the caramelized sugar off your fingers, either. You don’t even like cherries. Plus, you’ve only washed your hands twice since the last client.

Count your steps as you walk—one, two, three four five—down to the basement where Mickey lies. Tell yourself six days isn’t so long. You’ve stored them for weeks before, especially for non-religious kin. They’re never in a rush. This time, for triple pay, you agreed to keep the body off the books. You let Mickey’s wife keep her secret but wonder why she told you so much, why she told you Mickey’s favorite was cherry and that the last thing he did on this earth was pull a fresh cobbler from the oven, red oozing over the crust. You wonder why she trusts you. It’s making you anxious. But when aren’t you? Inspect the body again. Ensure the powder hasn’t caked onto his hardened skin. Ensure the lips are that perfect shade of alive that wins you compliments—and clients. Don’t fret about the skin blistering yet. You’ve got at least three more days, but the smell—that’s becoming a problem. Worry your grey split-ends in your naked, bony fingers. Button his slate dress shirt up to his neck, to cover the gash. The casket she chose reminds you of the snake-bark maples in your backyard. Run back upstairs and spot them outside, scratching the ashy fall sky with their purple-red branches, bark covered in silver, sinuous veins. Count. Seven. Same as when you checked two hours ago.

The doorbell sounds. Pull your apron over your head and leave the mixing bowls in the sink despite the anxiety this causes you. She’s early. You’ve never understood why people don’t care for precision like you do. How lovely to see you, Mrs. Donovan. Please—come in. Lead her to the kitchen where you reveal your thoughtful surprise. Peel foil from the tin and claim two pieces. Seal it tight. Don’t forget the forks. Take three steps to the right so you can’t feel her breath on your neck anymore. Thank yourself for using the knife before she arrived. Take her down to see Mickey again—you’re especially proud of your work this time. Let her stare. Let her try to exonerate herself—why couldn’t he remember I hate cherries? Why couldn’t he ever remember anything about me at all? Say you’ve never liked cherries much either—never liked people much for that matter. Assure her you understand until she insists you eat, in his honor. Feel the fork slice through cherry. Open wide.

 

Caitlin McGill is the 2014 winner of the Rafael Torch Nonfiction Literary Award, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Digital Americana, Solstice, The Southeast Review, Short, Fast, & Deadly, Sphere International, Spry Literary Journal, and several other magazines. She is also a writing instructor at Emerson College, where her students continually remind her of the power of language. Currently, she is completing a collection of essays that explores identity, race, class, addiction, war, empathy, and the destruction that results from ignoring those very issues.

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Garbage Day

 

by Arman Avasia    

    

The man and the woman had names but they often forgot them. Both still had a living parent who missed the dead one, so they weren’t yet old, and their memory problems should have been a cause for concern but there was just so little they cared to remember. They knew Tuesday was garbage day because their neighbor always knocked on the door and reminded them. If she didn’t remember to remind them they wouldn’t remember to put it out. She knew this because when she didn’t, they wouldn’t, and the smell of the garbage drifted down the hall to her apartment like a lingering ghost. Once, in her younger and wilder and more indifferent past, she had lived next to a corpse for more than a week before notifying the proper authorities. She tried to last the full month, but her cat started to look at her with a hunger that would not be confused with desire, so she sullenly called her landlord who frantically called the cops. Neither she nor the cat ever really forgot about what had transpired between the two of them.

‘Jordan,’ the neighbor would say, in a quiet but firm but polite voice. ‘Jordan, it’s Henrietta. It’s garbage day.’ The man and the woman would look at each other blankly, trying to figure out if either one of them was Jordan. ‘Jordan. Jordan, it’s garbage day.’ At this, the woman would nod and the man would nod and he’d unlock the door with a simple grace that never failed to make the woman stare with wonder. ‘Thank you Jordan,’ Henrietta murmured. ‘Thank you,’ the man muttered, and shut the door.

In the moments after garbage day, the atmosphere of the studio apartment was happy and accomplished. The woman stood beaming by the stovetop and the man sat contentedly in his chair. A quiet bliss floated lightly between them and held their gazes together. It never lasted long. The moments after the moments after were maddening. Neither knew quite what to do with their hands while their faces held themselves in grim parodies of the easy smiles that had earlier graced their lives. Inevitably, they fought. The woman and the man did not fight like you and I do. They did not use words or fists. They did not use guns because they did not have guns and they didn’t use knives because there was only one. What happened between them was something beyond language— something that came before. It happened on a physical level and also an emotional one, so of course it happened most of all during sex. When they fought, they fucked like people who didn’t care about each other because, when they fought, they were people who didn’t care about each other. There was no winning or losing but if there was, it would have been the woman who won more, since she was the one most often left unsatisfied and awake. It was only when she finally fell asleep that they were truly together again. They lay next to each other and dreamt different versions of the same dream. The woman dreamt of the man before him and the man dreamt of all the women that would come after.

The man and the woman lived like this for a long time. If it wasn’t love, there’s no other word for it.

 

Arman Avasia lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. His poetry has appeared in Folio and Glass Mountain and his music criticism can be found at Inyourspeakers.com.

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The Long Flight

by Rhoda Greaves

They ask if you have anything to say. You look up towards us in the gallery, and I hope you can feel me there with you, holding you. I think you’re going to say something, just for me. And I’m trembling. I want you to. But I don’t want to be recognised. Not that I’d deny you. Not even here.

My aunt and uncle lent me the money for the flight, even though they thought I was crazy to come. I spent it drinking mini wines and trying not to tell the nice man in the smart grey suit next to me, why I was travelling to the States alone. My parents gave me the money last time. But made me pay it back when they found out why I’d gone.

You shake your head, and my heart falls back into line. The journalists take out their pads and scribble. And to my right she flops into her hands, weeping. An older man props an arm awkwardly around her shoulders, but instead of it soothing her, she just gets louder.

My babies,’ she wails. And as she pulls her hand from her mouth, tendrils of snot contaminate the arms of her long black jacket: she clutches herself in a hug. Pushing her silver-threaded hair back from her face, she looks towards you; her eyes ragged, her cheeks streaked with sticky black makeup. And I can’t understand what you ever saw in her.

Why aren’t you sorry?’ she shouts at you. It comes out a slur; as if she’s drunk.

Evil bastard,’ the old man says, like he’s just taken a gulp of raw sewage. Evil? I just know you as you: letter writer, lover. You’d said that if you’d been granted one final wish, it would have been to spend half an hour alone with me, so we could be like the Bible says; as one.

Your face remains impassive. You can’t hear them. But if you could?

Another woman, a younger, better kept version of her, kneels at her side and offers a tissue: she blows so hard I almost shush her.

You stand. You walk proudly like you told me you would. And I want to tell all of them: ‘That’s my husband, you murderers.’

I look away. You’d warned me it would take longer than I’d think to make the pronouncement; more than just the flick of a switch to turn the body off. There are some like her, weeping for their own loss. And others. Men, whose blood-baying eyes shine in the falsely bright lights. I wrap my scarf a little tighter to better hide my face, then glance at my watch, and wait. For their cheers.

     

– Rhoda Greaves is a PhD Creative Writing student at Birmingham City University, dog blogger, and Mum. She was awarded second place in the flash fiction competition Flash500 (2011), was longlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize (2012), and shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize (2013). Her work has been published by The View From Here and Litro Online.

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