I met Death on a Monday. In the City. In the rain. They say that life moves faster in New York. They mention the stampede of sidewalk traffic. How stiff shoulders and jabbing elbows can sweep you beneath the jungle-gyms of scaffolding. They talk about the bike messengers who Tour-de-France 53rd and 6th. They forget to say how the ultra-rich run red lights. Are sometimes drunk in their Bugattis. They forget to say that Death moves faster.
They say before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. Every instant, in an instant. This is a lie. In the small seconds before Death takes you, all you can think about is what’s coming to save you, what lucky circumstance will break your fall.
Not to spoil the end, but nothing comes to save you.
I met Death after being pushed off the curb, after dodging a bike messenger, after my spine and legs were shattered by a luxury sports car. When I met Death, I was a smear in the road.
I remember Death pulling me up from pavement painted Pollock style with my insides, feeling his words come to me from miles away, you okay, pal? Anyone ever tell you to look both ways before getting shoved in the street? I remember seeing the mangled mess of my old body on the ground, the darkening of my tattered clothes as they drank the liquid gore, the blood exploding in tie-die swirls with every rain drop. My face rubbed raw, the blank stare in my bloodshot eyes. The scent of warm iron and wet concrete. I remember asking Death, who is that in the street? What happened? and his cold clap on my back, his cheerful reply, congratulations Dr. Dan Fischer, you’re dead!
All the old books say that Death wields a scythe, wears a hooded robe. Is a fleshless body of moving bone. This is propaganda. Death looks in his mid-twenties. He drives a car most people would kill for (he says people have). He could be a movie star, with his big gray pupils and high cheekbones, the smart smile hung over his strong jaw. His hair is slicked back and silver-gray, for the job, he says. Death is known for his style. He sometimes models for Givenchy. He says all of fashion is a joke, though, that what people are really after is youth.
When I strut down that runway, I give you peasants a glimpse at youth eternal. Death is pissing off of the Great Wall when he says this.
I tell Death there are people buried inside this wall (I know that he knows this). I ask Death, how many people exactly? and, he says, y’know that fat joke about having more Chins than a Chinese phone book? He taps his foot, this place– more Chins than a Chinese census. When he shakes them off, the last drops of his urine fall and hit the rampart in bright green flares, burning black blotches on the ancient stone. That’s not right, I say, eat some Goddamn kale. Death laughs with his cock out and jumps down from his perch, the musk of burnt piss heavy in the air. He says, you’re grumpier every day, Dr. Dan.
Death is the elephant in every room. At work, school, at Christmas dinner. We say things like seize the day or you only live once and eat all your vegetables and don’t run with scissors but what we really mean is we’re all gonna die. Death says the key is positivity, see this oncology ward? Poor bastards are tired every damn minute but they really live in these minutes, man. Positive chakras and shit. Death always has these happy maxims when we take.
I say we but all the taking-life-mojo belongs to Death. He just drags me along for the ride. A reanimated body for him to talk to. Death says I’m a great listener and I tell him psychiatrists often are. In the highrise office of my practice, in hushed tones, in furrowed brows, patients regularly broached the topic of dying. What it meant, how it might feel. In those quiet talks dying seemed like such a sacred thing, the final condition in the lease of life. But when most people die, Death yells booyah! and shoots finger-guns, or he hums Another One Bites the Dust, and sometimes he just counts to himself, client five-hundred-twelve-thousand-four, done, ending with a fist pump.
Death says you’ve gotta make work fun.
That thing people say, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. Those people haven’t seen ten dead bodies. Let alone a hundred-thousand. They haven’t seen the stupid gape of an empty face, eyes half shut but bulging, haven’t smelled all the gasses we dissipate in to. They haven’t felt a warm body petrify beneath their own fingertips, see blood blacken beneath pale green skin in cloudy pools. They couldn’t stand it. This is my Tuesday morning.
I hated Death for forcing me with him. For placing me front row in this freak show of human suffering. I hated him for making our dying his game. We’re better than this, I say when Death draws a mustache on a dead woman’s face, we’re not toys! We’re made of stars! Death looks at me with the kind of smirk big brothers save for bratty siblings before moving her dead mouth like a puppet, ok, Carl Sagan, you’re star stuff and someday you’ll be star stuff again. But before that, you’ll be worm shit. When I ask Death why he kept me, why he didn’t let me sleep like all the others, he shrugs, everyone needs a shrink. When I beg him to leave me alone, he cuts me off, you’ll go when you understand. Anyway, what do you think about that dream I had? Is she into me for sure, you think, or is it that my subconscious is feeding off a desire to– sorry, listen to me babble, you talk, you’re the professional. Death waits days for me to stop crying. To stop jumping off bridges, to stop drowning myself. To stop trying to die again until, with defeat and professionalism, I reply, usually these thoughts are spurred by the guilt of inaction, so the next time you see her, you should just go for it.
Death says I’ll get it someday, this whole dying-thing. I’m starting to believe him. The places we go, the things I would have never seen.
We’re running from sporadic gunfire on Gaza Strip when Death shouts, we can’t die but that shit hurts! The city block we’re crouched in is dusty and war torn. Despite the shooting, there are children just a hundred meters away.
I catch Death’s eye, you said no kids today!
Death laughs, chill out. They’re not ’til next month. A concrete slab the size of a mini-fridge cascades from an upper story wall and lands squarely between us. Okay, he says, they’re not ’til next week.
As we sprint through the ruined city over garbage and burned bodies, between cars twisted from explosive heat, I’m surprised at how many people are here while guns spray and bombs blow. On the news Gaza always looks empty. Death leads me to a cramped alley and points to a small girl sitting on the stoop of a battered building. She waves at Death as we walk through the doorway then returns to the smiling face she shaped with five rusted bottle caps in the dirt. She’s filthy as the city, but when she smiles I’m dumbstruck that something so pure could sprout in this chaos.
Inside the building there’s no light. There are muffled wails.
Y’know how suicide bombers think seventy-two virgins wait for them in Heaven? Death asks, leading me, in the dark, to a back room. This is where the virgins come from. Death opens a trap door hidden beneath a twin bed and the cries are much louder.
We walk down a set of smooth stone stairs that curve sharply to the left on descent, leading to a large basement segregated by huge metal cells. Inside are crying women. Some wrapped in burkas putrid from urine and tears. Some naked and bloody, curled fetally on the ground and barely breathing. Some are only twelve years old. Some reach for us, others cower. Some stare fierce.
I ask, what is this? and Death says, this is how the sausage gets made.
I walk the small space between the black barred cells, trying to pull them open, but their locks sit fat and heavy. When your city goes to shit, Death says, the first to go are the innocent. Always. But don’t you worry, they’re the reason we’re here. Then I hear the whistle. It’s like a boiling kettle spitting steam, only deeper, with real weight behind it. I turn to Death and he’s standing on the stairway, fingers shoved in his ears. I see him mouth the word boom before flailing in to blackness.
After the explosion I wake to a ringing sound and pressure on my chest. Death is screaming something I can’t comprehend but as the ringing gives way to far-off sound I hear him, whe-he-hew! Freedom! Freedom like the Fourth of July! Pushing off rubble, I scream at Death but he’s laughing and counting his fingers.
Seventy-one, Death says, scratching his head, the dust only starting to settle from the drone-strike, where’s seventy-two?
But I see her. I see her in the burned bottle cap at my feet. I see her on the alley floor and on the walls that still stand. I see her like a rag doll torn by some rabid dog, her body splintered in four distinct pieces. A little arm with crisp, black fingers. A pair of legs tossed twenty yards away from a one armed torso. I see her in pink mist and deep blots and mud.
Seventy-two! Death says, coming beside me, good eye, doctor.