1. The Wanting Dead
(The Louisiana Review, vol. 6, Spring 2008)
a story from The Cities of the Dead
by Jason Phillip Reeser
My first night in the City of the Dead was a real eye opener. I was not in the least ready for anything that happened. But then, no one alive can prepare you for your first night as one of the dead. No one really tries. And why should they? I would never have listened. I never listened to anyone when I was alive. I had no idea I would learn to listen so well once I was dead. But death is full of so many surprises.
I’d like to explain how it all came about. At least how the night progressed. It is a curiosity I’d like to be able to logically describe—how I was lying in the coffin, surrounded by darkness, and how later I came to be standing outside my crypt, reading the inscription on the faceplate as if I were looking for errors in the non-erasable marble. I remember that distinctly. I remember reading over it hoping I might find some mistake I could point to and say “there, you see? They placed the comma in the wrong spot, so obviously I’m not dead. I may only be alive by a technicality, but I’ll take what I can get.” I had a vague feeling that such an idea made no sense, but it only bothered me more when I realized it made no sense to be standing outside my burial crypt as well.
Maybe, I concluded, what made sense in the world of the dead did not always translate into the world of the living.
But I have very little patience to explain anything. I want most of all to speak of what I saw. And when I think of doing so, I immediately think of this dead guy who went by the name of Dodd. I don’t remember his first name. But Dodd sticks in my mind like a migraine.
“Let me ask you something,” he said to me straight off. They were the first words out of his mouth. He just walked up to me and started up a conversation that I soon learned he had with everyone. “Think about putting a gun to your head. A big one. You pull the trigger, right? BAM! You’re dead, right? Isn’t that what you’d expect?”
I tried to think through his question. I was sure he was driving at something.
“Well? Am I right?”
“Sure. Bam—you’re dead.” My delivery of this response was greatly lacking in passion.
“That’s what I thought!” He supplied the passion to our conversation. “Jeeze Louise! No one ever said it would hurt! I mean, you pull the trigger, it should all be over.”
“It hurt?” I found myself mildly interested in his scenario.
“Hell yes, it hurt! You ain’t never felt hurt like that. I screamed and screamed. God, I must have screamed for an hour. And the whole time I was thinking no one said this would hurt!”
I watched him shake at the memory. He drew deep breaths in his open mouth and forced the air out through his nose. He was obviously more enraged at not having known how painful his death would be than at the pain itself.
“Don’t mind him, that’s only Dodd.” A thin little man stepped up beside me and waved dismissively as Dodd continued to describe his pain. “He goes on like this forever. Only the new guys listen to him. Everyone else gets tired of hearing it.”
“I’m Jack,” I said to him, offering my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Jack. I’m Joseph. Sorry, I don’t—“ he held a hand up and waved away my attempted handshake. To Dodd, he added “Yeah, yeah—hurt like hell. We know. You put a bullet in your brain, you idiot. You thought it would tickle?”
Without touching me, he reached out and guided me away from Dodd. Dodd didn’t seem to mind. He just kept on saying over and over “hurt like Hell! God!”
We walked down the rows of crypts, moving aside from time to time to allow others to pass. I don’t remember when I accepted that there were so many of us walking about in the early darkness of the evening. I knew what we were. No one had to say it out loud. In fact, that was a distinct point to be made. No one did say it out loud. No one dared to mention just what we were. At least that’s what I assumed. I came to realize later that most of them simply did not care to say it out loud; as if the whole matter were trivial. There was no spell that might be broken if our true nature was spoken of. But from my own point of view, I felt certain it would be in bad form to say anything.
Joseph led me on past crumbling tombs and one or two weary cast iron fences. I had no idea where we were going, and I repeatedly asked him where we were going. He would never give an answer.
The blue and purplish twilight mixed with the glow of white plaster and marble, highlighting our shapes with an otherworldly aura. This radiance was unnerving to me at first, for it gave off no light beyond the outlines of our bodies. It merely burned within the boundaries of our frames. The total effect gave us the appearance of being lit from within by shrouded firelight. This became more and more apparent as the night grew darker.
We crossed from one crowded lane of crypts to a more spacious avenue. Large crypts with detailed stonework stood like the stately homes in the surrounding Garden District. Beyond these, we came upon a group of low flat coping tombs. There were a great number of the dead congregating here, the coping tombs being used as benches.
I had imagined Joseph was leading me here to introduce me to someone who might explain what was going on, or at the very least he would tell me this was the best place to spend the night for safety’s sake. I wasn’t really sure what would be said, but I expected something—anything. I never suspected he would lead me there and then promptly ignore me. Once there, he spoke to one or two of the others then idly wandered away.
I stood at the head of one of the makeshift benches and watched a woman who sat on the far end of it. She sat motionless, staring straight ahead. I turned my head to my right to see just what had her attention. Across the wide avenue sat a tall narrow crypt with six squares. The whole mausoleum was done in marble. It was expensive work, this was no brick memorial overlaid with plaster. A fat milky cross sat imposingly on a thin shelf just below the name plates. An inscription in the gable of the roof read Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys with the year 1894 in its center. There was something both noble and heartbreaking at the thought of someone or some group spending so much money and effort on children who had spent their life here on earth wanting and alone.
“Have you ever spoken to any of them? The children, I mean.” I asked her.
She turned and gave me a startled and curious look. I saw right away how drawn and tired she looked. Her hair was black, as was her dress. A shadow lay across her and I could not see her hands. After staring at me for an uncomfortable silence, she answered me with a shake of her head. I felt as if I’d asked an obviously stupid question.
“They don’t come out?” Even as I asked, I knew the answer. I wished I knew why the orphans never came out, but I did not wish to ask a second stupid question.
“I knew one of them,” she said softly.
“There are no names on the plates. How do you know?” I thought I had better stop asking questions. I sensed my questions were not only stupid, but that they were becoming increasingly insensitive as well.
“He was my child. My little boy.” She said nothing more. She had no need to say more. She hadn’t been staring at the crypt. She had been weeping before it, quite possibly each and every night for God knew how many years, only she had no more tears. Her tears had run out a very long time ago. Her sobs had ceased to shake her frame as well. All she appeared to have left was the pain and despair that clouded her soul. I wished I had never spoken to her. And yet I wished to know everything; why had the boy been orphaned? Why had he died young? Unable to make such wishes come true, I did the one thing I could do and turned away from her.
“Something the matter?” A tall man stood beside me furiously cleaning his eyeglasses on his shirt tail. He held them up to the blackness of the night as if he were looking for spots on them. He glanced down to take his measure of me before returning to the task of making his glasses spotless.
“No. Nothing’s wrong. I wouldn’t have thought you’d need glasses… anymore.” I blurted that last bit out before I remembered how taboo the subject of death seemed to be. I had not meant to make such an obvious allusion to the man’s condition. I flushed at my error, but he never seemed to notice it.
“If it’s the girl that’s bothering you, don’t worry over her too much. That’s just Marie. She’s batty.” He felt for a less soiled corner of his shirt tail and smothered a lens with it.
“I can understand that,” I said with what I hoped would sound like sage understanding, “I’m sure a mother handles the loss of a child with less pragmatism than do fathers.”
“You’re not seeing things clearly,” he said after sliding the glasses on and wrapping them around his ears. “It appears to me you’re being made a fool of. It is as clear to me as my own hand in front of my face—Marie’s no mother. Never had a son.”
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, damn it all.” He pulled his glasses off and stuffed them back into the shirt tail, vigorously rubbing at the lenses.
I turned away from him as eagerly as I had from the grieving mother. His fanatic craving for spotless lenses baffled me. I hurried away. I must have rudely pushed people out of the way. With a certain detachment, I could hear people complaining as I jostled my way through them. Whether I murmured my apologies to them or not I cannot say. But I continued to push on with a total lack of decorum for maybe two or three minutes.
I eventually regained my composure and walked alone for maybe half an hour. Honestly, time for us dead did not move in the same way it did when our hearts pulsed with blood. I had not been buried with a watch, and so I had no way to prove this. But I had no illusions about how we moved through time. I could see already that the night would drag on far longer than it would have when we were alive. I didn’t like that thought. I wanted to get on with it. I felt like a sleepless man who lay feverishly in bed only too aware that he had seven more hours alone with his thoughts. But what added a great deal of unease to my mind was the realization that I was trapped not just with my own thoughts, but the thoughts of all those dead that surrounded me.
William and Thomas were prime examples of this. I found them both standing in the middle of a lane, staring at two crypts that stood close enough that only weeds were able to fit between them.
William was a large and imposing figure. He stood shaking his head at an ornate cathedral shaped memorial made of red granite. It was topped with four spires at each of its corners. A high pitched roof bridged the gap between the spires. Colonnades on both sides of the intricately carved door were covered in stone ivy and flowering vines. William gestured at the ornate structure without turning an eye in my own direction.
“Have you any idea how much that cost? Red Granite, for God’s sake. Look at it. I made no provisions for that. She must have mortgaged the house to have that erected. What was she thinking? That woman will be the death of me.”
“She must have loved you a great deal.” I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. But I caught myself in time to say nothing more.
“Loved me? I’ve got nothing to do with it. This is her way of putting on a show for her friends. She’ll play it up all the way. They’ll be shaking their heads in wonder and admiration at her sacrificial gesture. More’n likely they’ll take up a collection for her. Oh, just look at the flower vases. Four of them! Paid full price on all of them, I’d bet.”
“I’d take red granite,” Thomas said, managing to sound forlorn without serving it up too thick. “Red granite lasts such a long time. Can you believe I’ve only got brick with plaster smeared all over it? They didn’t even bother to add the fake lines that make it look like stone. And why should they have? The plaster’s already cracking and flaking off in places. See there? Just under the south eave.”
I couldn’t see it from where I stood, but I said nothing in reply. I was getting better at that.
“I won’t even mention the name plate. Unbelievable.” He shook his head. I could hear both anger and shame in his words. I thought he did have a valid point about the name plate. It was sitting on the ground in two pieces. The largest piece leaned against the crypt opening. Behind this, I could see the unevenly placed bricks which had been thrown together in a really shoddy fashion. Two bricks were missing at the top. The smaller piece of the name plate lay flat in the grass.
“Worked nearly every day for forty-three years.” William was still talking about money. “Saved everything I could. The wife spends it on this. Do you see what I mean?”
“No,” I answered.
“I refused the doctor’s last suggested treatment because I told him I’d be damned before I spent that kind of money. I hadn’t spent a lifetime saving money in order to waste it all in order to keep myself alive. And look. I can tell you, I’ve researched this. I knew what kind of costs were involved in something this grand. And I know to the penny just how much I had put away. She spent it all. It’s all right here.”
“Don’t let him get to ya,” Thomas warned me with a hand on my shoulder. “His loved ones obviously cared enough to put thought and effort into this. It’s magnificent. How they must have loved him. My people, on the other hand…” he held his hands out in the direction of his dilapidated vault and nearly growled at what he saw.
I opened my mouth to ask if his people had the money to spend on his grave but closed it before the words came out. I didn’t really want to hear his answer. I could only imagine that no matter their financial situation, he would find some way to demean the choices they had made.
I left them arguing over their troubles and found my way back onto the wide avenue where I’d started earlier that evening. I saw Joseph again. He was leading a short fat man towards the coping tombs.
“You look like you could use a friend.”
I turned towards a very young man who smiled with excitement brimming in his eyes. Despite his near manic enthusiasm, he had a pleasant face.
“Don’t get me wrong, but maybe a few answers might satisfy me more than just finding a friend.” I was sure I had just said something offensive.
“Don’t I know it? Your first night, am I right?” If I’d offended him, he never showed it.
“My first night was worse. I wandered around all night. Had no idea what was going on. I just wanted it to end as soon as possible.”
“That’s about the sum of my first night,” I empathized.
“Oh, I know what you mean. But mine went beyond that. People came up to me out of nowhere and just whined and complained as if my only purpose was to listen to them cry. I wanted to be their friend, but not their counselor.”
I saw Joseph heading towards me and I raised my head in recognition. He waved a hand towards my excited companion and shook his head.
“Don’t mind him, that’s only Carter. He goes on like this forever. No matter what you say, he’ll not only know what you mean, but he’ll have been through something even bigger than you.” To Carter he added, “Nobody cares, man. Nobody cares what you know; nobody cares what you’ve done. No one wants a friend like that.”
Before I knew it, Joseph was gently guiding me back towards the now crowded set of benches. It occurred to me he probably had no idea why he was leading me there. But I didn’t resist him. I wanted to find Marie. I had decided the eyeglass cleaning specter had not known what he was talking about.
“I’m sorry about your son,” I said softly as I sat down beside her. She didn’t say anything in response, and I gladly remained silent as well. I stared at the blank name plates of the destitute orphan boys and waited with her.
Behind us, a man complained to no one in particular that he was there by mistake. Some trivial technical error had been made in some vague far off place and here he was stuck amongst the dead. I tried to block out his voice and just concentrate on Marie and her son. I couldn’t have said why. Maybe because she was the only one not saying anything. Everyone else had something to say. Even Joseph seemed hell bent on pointing out who should be ignored. I too had felt the urge to be always speaking, even if it had always been to ask a question.
But not Marie. The few words she had spoken had only been in reply to my own questions. Maybe she had run out of words when she had run out of tears. I didn’t know for certain. And I didn’t have to.
My thoughts turned towards her son and the other orphaned boys. Why did they never come out? Surely they had something to say? They, more than any of us, had reason to complain; alone, a life of want. Had they ever learned to accept it? Maybe in fact they had. Surrounded by so many who wanted so much, I began to suspect just what set these orphans apart. They did not demand fairness; they had learned long ago how fickle life could be. They did not crave the finer things in life; the basics were hard enough to hold onto. All I had heard and seen that night had been the empty shells of men seeking and desiring what they could not have; before or after death. One desired to control money he no longer held. Another had wanted to make and impress a friend. A mother wanted her son. And even I had wanted something strong enough to pull me from my grave. I wanted to understand. I wanted to know why.
But there before us lay a tiny group of boys who wanted nothing in death, as they had learned to do in life.
I only became aware of the tear that rolled down my cheek when Marie reached up and wiped it gently onto her hand. She rubbed at it with her thumb, rolling it around until it was gone.
She still had no words to say. But for that moment, she had taken the tear and it had been enough. It was something I knew for certain, though I would never understand. And I hoped that I too could find it to be enough.
A short story of mine, Timeless in Winter, will be appearing online at bewilderingstories.com near the end of November. Keep an eye out for it!