Though I’m sure that as the author of this blog I’m supposed to wait until everything is readable by at least editing and editing again, I promised that I’d write 1000 words daily and here they are and then some. Given the quality of the post, I might be better quitting while I’m ahead.
Regardless, below is a short story for Essay-a-week topic number eight: would you rather lose all of your memories, or not be able to make any new ones? I tried to warp the question and have someone relive their memories exactly as they were (though not knowing it at first), and in doing so found that they were not being able to make new ones. As a result, they live their first memories, the last ones, and then none at all.
Like the topic suggests, I wish I could forget I wrote the whole damn thing – there is just so much wrong with the piece from the botched double narrative flashbacks to my obvious authorial presence in a tale that requires anything but; the fact that I think it mirrors parts of Mitch Albom’s One More Day, which I haven’t read in years but rings a bell as I finished it – yet it’s done, or at the very least it’s been exorcised from me, and I’ll write something worth remembering tomorrow.
And if by some slim chance you like it, dear reader, I guess it makes whatever I wrote enough for the both of us. Though only barely.
It started with a kiss.
When Kenneth Clearly dipped his finger into his second bourbon, he didn’t expect to see a pair of wire-thin lips swirling around in the sticky liquid. Like drift wood in a river, they moved to the edge of the glass and then back again to the center, gently circling Kenneth’s dirty finger. Though his tired, old eyes stared at them with disbelief, they felt real against his skin, and as he drank, he felt a cold connecting oneness just like he used to.
Everything was different, and Kenneth knew that. If at the beginning of the night he would’ve known about these aqueous lips, he would have cleaned himself up first. Before he entered the bar, he would have shaved then showered then brushed his teeth. He would have combed his hair, worn a new shirt, and put on pants that didn’t sag over his shoes and tear each time he stepped. He would’ve ensured that when he saw them – those lips once painted an unending red – he really did see them and always would.
But instead the lips came as soon as the drink did, and he was camped in a barstool with a slouched back, a gapping mouth, and a smell that suggested burnt pizza.
He couldn’t do anything about it, so he ordered a third bourbon and the lips were still there at the bottom of the glass. How did he get here on a Friday night with a loose tie and sweat stains? Kenneth couldn’t remember. All he was certain of was this moment, where lips were waltzing with him and he with them.
Cranky, garrulous bar tunes didn’t interrupt the rhythm or grace. Together the two swam until the fourth bourbon came. After that, the only evidence of a human mouth was his own. A smudge of rancid breath and saliva stuck to the rim of his glass.
His head was a gyroscope without its ball bearings. A fifth bourbon came and went and then he saw nothing at all – liquid blindness. No lips. No hands. No Kenneth, or least, none that he could recall.
The last thing Kenneth remembered before finding himself in an alley with his clothes tarnished was trying to find those lips again, and in the blurred recollection of the night filled with outdated disco tunes, peanuts for sustenance, and the sound of the regulars playing pool, he remembered that though it may have started with a kiss, it ended with one too.
She had an unreadable tattoo behind her ear, her hair was bright red, and Kenneth Clearly, while watching this her shop around at Foodland in a bright green dress that was much too short and a leather jacket that would’ve clashed with any article of clothing, stood there wondering why he fell hopelessly in love with every girl he saw.
The supermarket lighting was less than gracious, and yet Kenneth looked at her as he would a ballerina on stage – untouchable and uninterruptable. It was her clothing and swagger that made him ogle; she seemed foreign to the idea of norms and conventions, almost as if those terms didn’t belong to her. It wasn’t that she was weird or trying to do away with conformity, she just seemed to be every fashion at once, somehow merging their unique beauties and aesthetics with a smile.
Starring at her as she moved with her grocery cart, Kenneth knew she was beyond him and probably most of the people in the store. Compared to her, their eyes were glazed and faded; mirrors rather than lenses.
But she was light years away from Kenneth even though he saw her through his glasses. She inhabited some other world that he himself would never know. Kenneth, on the other hand, was burdened by millions of daily problems, comfortable in an insignificantly significant life with decisions like whether to buy Cheesits or Cheetos.
He found himself at one of those moments. Weighing the packages in his hands, he gauged the air to processed food ratio. Even though both were practically the same to Clearly in their taste and consistency, he liked the idea that such a trivial choice could make a difference in his life. He let out a sigh.
“They taste the same, you know.”
The voice crept from behind like an echo. Slowly, he turned to face the girl with a tattoo behind her ear.
“They’re both equally unhealthy, if that matters to you.”
Months later, Kenneth later that it in fact did because it did to her, and he learned that the tattoo said Wait until you hear what I have to say, and months after that, he heard a lot and would continue to listen to her day after day after each lovely day.
When the fireflies of inebriation sparkled no more, Kenneth woke up to chunks of coloured goo and stale smells. Neither aware of where he was nor caring all that much anyhow, he felt the weight of sleep again. The unidentifiable puddle of vomit didn’t bother him. In fact, Kenneth saw the puke as bodily confetti; his insides were partying with him.
He was weak and his knees cracked as he lugged himself to his feet. Most of his body was sore, but by now, he was used to the pain of dehydration and the occurrence of random bruises. Through blurry eyes, Kenneth thought a particular nasty knick on his leg looked like Elvis Presley if he squinted hard enough.
Each night followed by each unique morning brought with it a new cause for celebration. Last night, the festivities were because of those luscious lips drowning in his drink. He recalled their feeling and how he fished for them at the bottom of the glass with his own chapped lips. Unlike his, they were plump and firm, just as he remembered them.
But today was another day, and they were nowhere to be found. Where did they go?
Where did he?
Kenneth tried to recall both and instead was greeted by a white curtain and a beep, beep, beep. His eyes closed and his clothes felt clean and everything smelled of vomit – his own, hers, others.
The feeling left as quick as it came and no matter how much he tried to recall that night, he couldn’t any longer. Part of him thought it was because he didn’t want to, but the white imprint on his finger suggested otherwise. He fingered the place where his wedding ring used to be. A cold, pale knuckle prickled his fingertips.
Kenneth was so tired, and he couldn’t remember why. Every day, it was the same. He awoke, he was tired, and he fell asleep again to awake tired at some other date. Through red and worn eyes, Kenneth figured he was just sick and exhausted of where he found himself day after day. Today, it was in an alley with Elvis Presley bruise for company. Tomorrow, it could be something entirely different.
Quite suddenly, Kenneth saw the line of his life stretched in front of him as though it was drawn with a half-broken yellow crayon. An inconsistent flurry of mornings in places he didn’t recognize nor ever would formed themselves on his left. His right was a haze of nights forgotten and endless bartunes that creeped into his day when he least expected. The two came and went with the permanence of a flickering light bulb.
One of those songs whispered to him now. I can see clearly now that the rain is gone.
Kenneth knew what he had to do. It wasn’t raining. It was clear as day. And Kenneth Clearly, a memory of a man dreamt once upon a time, was going to go home and kill himself.
The relationship wasn’t made in heaven or hell, but here on earth in a happy accident of questions with answers like why is this all so easy and why don’t I know anything about you but somehow, I do.
Her name was Vanessa, and after the supermarket they made love. Kenneth wasn’t used to the idea of such rapid movements, and he hesitated with each word and each kiss. His hands moved like maple syrup and in between each passionate make out, Kenneth gasped for air.
Vanessa was his first, though he didn’t say it right then and there. They had barely just met, and she smoked a cigarette in his car, her face stuck with a smile to no one in particular.
How have we met before, Kenny?
Kenny? No one calls me that.
I do. You can call me Vanessy, if you want.
But Kenny, I don’t believe you when you say we haven’t before today. I mean look at us.
And he did. In a car riddled with old newspaper and forgotten fast food containers, a girl he met this morning, who had chose Cheesits instead of Cheetos, and who now called him Kenny, sat naked on an old, crinkled Maxim magazine. He joked to himself that maybe she had come out of the magazine itself.
I mean ya, look at us.
Beautiful, isn’t it Kenny?
Ya, I think so.
Two people who know nothing about each other somehow manage to fall in love.
She looked into his eyes and Kenneth saw himself reflected. There he was, sitting at the edge of someone else’s pupil, and he looked comfortable, happy even.
And here I thought I’d never be a cliché, she said.
Kenneth smiled. Falling in love is not a cliché, but saying I love you is.
He couldn’t remember who told him that, but she laughed and told him she loved him. Kenneth hesitated. It wasn’t that Kenneth was afraid to say those words. He was afraid that those brown locks buoyed with red, that, and those lips, those lips that seemed to whisper a silent million different things at once and that broke hearts and mended them with a pout, weren’t what they were meant to be.
He was afraid that she wasn’t exactly what he built her up to be in these brief moments, and maybe, worse yet, that she would think the same of him.
But here he was in an experience entirely different from the one he imagined this morning. For once in his life, his eyes were open – really open – and he saw the world for like it could be. He saw how even though the Earth was big and he was small, he could feel part of something greater than himself, how even though he felt mundane in his job as an electrician, another person could make him feel important, and how even supermarkets, with their blindingly lights and lifeless aisles and whirlpools of consumers, could be happy place at the right in the right moment with the right person.
All it took was her, Vanessa, a girl who he had just met, and a lover. She was names and roles in that order. And now in the car with its dirtiness and smelliness summarizing Kenneth’s life, he exhaled and so did she and it was like they were connected through their lungs. Though no one said it, both thought the inescapable cliché.
Both thought that they finally had a reason to breathe.
Kenneths’ breaths were short and painful. He couldn’t remember being this exhausted in a while. Even the sun hurt his eyes, and as he hobbled home with shoes that dragged and tore against the pavement, Kenneth raised his hands to block the light.
It had been months since he had been back home – his alcoholism demanded a vagrant lifestyle – and the neighbourhood looked different than Kenneth remembered. Where once stood row upon row upon row of houses with people he knew and lives he had had the pleasure of meeting now collapsed empty shells with rafters banging in the wind and dark, empty rooms. Vines crept across the sides of the ghost towns, waiting patiently until they consumed the buildings completely. Somewhere, Kenneth was sure he heard a dog barking.
Much of the walk was blurred in residual inebriation, but Kenneth somehow found himself at his home before night came. It looked at all the other homes on the block, and Kenneth wondered if maybe he had made a mistake and really didn’t live here. The steps creaked like crickets as he made his way to the door.
Rough hands did their best to search for the key. Once found, it barely fit in the lock and Kenneth let out a grunt as he turned the knob.
Whatever sun remained now illuminated his home. A muddy welcome mat and the smell of stale cheese greeted Kenneth. Various dilapidated shoes were thrown around in front of him. Nothing else could be seen save for Kenneth’s shadow stretching into the darkness.
The house had been empty for a while, maybe even forever. That brought comfort to Kenneth now for he remembered where he placed the gun last. Originally, it had been purchased as tangible form of insurance. Though the neighbourhood was by no means awful, Vanessa had demanded that they buy the gun because it made her feel safer. “You buy a fire alarm, don’t you?” she implored.
That’s where it was now – attached to the fire alarm with ductape. Vanessa laughed when Kenneth did it but couldn’t argue with the logic even if it wasn’t practical. “Double safety,” Kenneth smiled way back when.
At the moment, Kenneth wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t feeling much of anything at all. It was just another day, the last certainly, but a day nonetheless. Kenneth saw it like going to work but without all the drama and inconvenience of tomorrow. His paperwork could be left and no one would mind, most especially not him.
Navigating the dark corridors of his home, Kenneth found the fire alarm and gun still coupled together. With a stool, he reached to the heavens of his ceiling and tore the duct tape off. Just as he did, the fire alarm went off and the gun fell to the floor.
His hand reached towards the gun, leaving the fire alarm ringing throughout the house. At the very least, the alarm would eventually signal for the fire department and someone would clean up the mess he made of himself. Besides, Kenneth seemed to like the sound. It suggested a final urgency as though there was a fire somewhere in the home. Kenneth knew that the fire was long gone and what was left now was the smolders of everything he had once been. The charred remains of his inky black house were the remains of a fire that consumed him, then went out, and then, somehow, still consumed him.
Vanessa. The name rang one his tongue as he picked up the gun that was heavier than he recalled. His hands shook as he carried the weapon to his bedroom. Unlike the rest of the house, the bedroom was clean and kept. The bed appeared in perfect condition, as though it had never been used. White covers spread without wrinkles and the pillows were impossibly plush.
It was as good as a spot to die as could be, Kenneth thought. It was home.
A record player, a gift to Vanessa, stood in the corner of the room. With the fire alarm still ringing, Kenneth felt that a change of music would dampen the sound of the gunshot. Sweeping his dirty feet across the clean carpet, he moved to the phonograph and played whatever record was laying there.
As the needle circled its way to the first track, Kenneth sat down on the double bed with his back on the headboard. It was time. He breathed gently, carefully almost. Even Kenneth’s exhales were planned now.
Music filled the room. Debussy’s Clair de Lune swam and Kenneth held the gun tensely. It was cold and his left hand was probably just as cold now, thought Kenneth. Again, an exhalation.
Kenneth closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and placed the gun like a mishapen toothbrush in his mouth. Another breath. He was sure if he brushed his teeth now, they’d bleed all the same anyways. An inhalation. He tasted iron.
Do you always breathe so loudly, Kenny?
Surprised by the voice, Kenneth pulled the trigger but after waiting a while, he exhaled again. He wasn’t dead. It must’ve been a blank, thought Kenneth. He hadn’t even checked if the gun was loaded and this botched planning made Kenneth feel worse – he couldn’t even kill himself properly. Instead, Kenneth was lucky to be alive.
Kenny, what are you doing anyways?
That voice. He often heard it during drunken nights but never had it been so lifelike. Vanessa’s voice in the flesh, in his ear, in his bones. It was here, on this bed, and though he had a gun in his mouth and was talking to no one at all, he mouthed the words Nothing as if to answer his wife.
Kenny, don’t answer me like that.
A typical response. Vanessa never liked bullshit from him, and even now in his mind, Kenneth was surprised at the accuracy of this fantasy. Imagination dwarves reality at the best of times, and Kenneth was hardly at his best. Still, the voice rang above Clair de Lune and the fire alarm with the nuanced anger and self-important respect Vanessa commanded.
Open your eyes again, Kenny.
Out of a forgotten instinct, he did, and in front of his dirt-patched feet wasn’t the blank wall that he was used to. It was Vanessa, and she was smiling.
It smelled of a sickness and health, one always slightly overpowering the other. Kenneth shuffled his feet and they squeaked across the hard hospital floors. A TV roared off in the distance. Kenneth’s dismantled car was shown on the news, though Kenneth wasn’t listening much. Staring off into the distance, Kenneth saw his face appear on the screen along with his wife. The newscaster in a completely deadpan voice said something about driving past a narrow pike and Vanessa being thrown from the car. The word critical condition stung the airwaves. Kenneth coughed.
Then a story about teen heartthrob Taylor Lautner came on and Kenneth blocked out the sound fully. Part of him thought he was going deaf, or at the very least, dying here at this very moment. It was completely silent and Kenneth placed his head into his hands. Both were shaking.
Kenneth emerged from the world contained by his hands where each word was weighed and each thought was filtered to meet a man with a stethoscope.
Yes that’s me, though Kenneth sounded anything but himself. Kenneth stood to shake the doctor’s hand. The doctor didn’t accept the handshake; instead, he kept his arms crossed.
I’m Dr. Nafeez. Unfortunately, Mr. Clearly, I have some bad news.
The doctor waited for a pause or a nod of recognition, and Kenneth did his best to say Okay without his voice trembling again. It sounded good enough to Kenneth’s ear, at least.
Mrs. Clearly, due to an internal jugular vein laceration, suffered a loss of blood leading from her brain, in addition to cuts along the strenocleidomastoid and the common carotid artery.
The doctor pointed towards a model that appeared to be printed off an anatomy textbook. This was not Kenneth’s wife. It was a lifeless, theoretical picture. Still, Kenneth followed along with the diagram.
Because the internal jugular connects with the brachiocephalic veins and ultimately leads to the heart, not only has her brain succumbed to atrophy but her heart has as well. About 40% of her brain seems to have shut off, so to speak, and her heart has followed suit. She is currently on life support.
I know it’s hard to swallow, Mr. Clearly. I’m sorry.
What are my wife’s chances?
Well we first did our best to reduce the bleeding by feeding an alternate artificial artery, kind of like new path, for the current blood flow to reach the heart and brain. While this has certainly cut back the amount of blood loss, it’s resulted in some complications.
Complications, Kenneth mirrored.
You see, Mr. Clearly, because the common carotid artery along with the sternocleidomastoid has been cut, if only slightly in comparison to the other lacerations, the alternate path has increased the pressure of the blood flowing through the two arteries. As a result, the cuts have increased in size and blood has begun seeping into the surrounding tissue.
Kenneth was silent for the second time. Dr. Nafeez continued.
We have tried stitching the arteries in such a way to minimize bleeding, though this hasn’t worked very well. We believe that arterial transplant may be necessary. This obstacle says nothing of the apoptosis that has already occurred in some of the brain and heart.
Nothing, Kenneth repeated.
We are currently waiting on a heart transplant, though little can be done for the brain at the moment, if anything at all.
Kenneth found his voice in the back of his throat. What do you mean?
Even if the next procedures are a success, it is unlikely that your wife will ever have the same cognitive functionality.
What are the chances of those operations being successful?
Kenneth was surprised at the sounds from him. Who’s voice was this? His? It couldn’t be. Kenneth was at home, watching TV, holding hands with his wife. He was sure of it. Where else would he be? That was paradise.
Assuming a heart comes in and we are able to stabilize and repair the jugular system blood flow, then she has about a 10 percent rate of survival.
Ten percent, Kenneth whispered. He began to cry. Never had a number meant so much and so little at the same time.
I’m so sorry. We are trying our best.
And Kenneth couldn’t help but muffle out through tears, That isn’t good enough.
The doctor sighed.
If you want Mr. Clearly, we can bring you to your wife now, before we begin again.
Please. Please Dr. Nafeez.
Follow me, then.
Doors opened. They closed. And sometime in between, Kenneth found himself in front of Vanessa. She was bruised seemingly all over; blood swam from one tube to another.
Kenneth ran towards her.
Mr. Clearly, please do not touch her as she’s in a fragile state.
Even though every nerve told him to move forward, he stepped back. He spoke, though he wasn’t sure what he was saying.
Oh god I’m so sorry Vanessa. Kenneth’s tears continued to fall.
A machine replied for Vanessa. Beep beep.
Don’t go Vanessy. Please don’t go. I need you. I need you, Vanessy.
It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.
You’re so beautiful, Vanessy. Where would I be without you?
If you go now, then you’ll ruin every promise of getting old with me.
You can’t go. I can’t let you.
Kenneth’s hand instinctively went to brush Vanessa’s hair. A voice from behind Kenneth began to warn about Vanessa’s porcelain-like condition.
I killed you, Vanessy. I killed you.
The doctor stopped his speech midway and said nothing at all. For a while, no one did. Even Vanessa.
A hello would’ve been nice.
Vanessa looked as she did when Kenneth first met her. She was dressed in a fragile green dress that seemed to release the wind when she twirled. Strands of inky black hair stretched in front of her face, and as she moved from side to side slightly, her blue eyes glimmered even in the darkness.
But this makes no…
She pulled her hair away from her face and Kenneth saw those lips move again.
Says the man with a gun in his mouth, Kenny.
Kenneth spit it out like a sour lemon. The gun fell to his lap with a bang. Though this was certainly the least of Kenneth’s worries, he was sure there would be a bruise.
Kenny, look at you. Look how bedraggled you are and how torn your clothes are and those feet, oh gosh, those feet. We need to clean you up.
Vanessa’s hands stretched towards those same dirtied feet, and Kenneth was prepared for the apparition to just disappear. Reality would be restored, Vanessa would go away, and Kenneth would resume his life again, or at the least, ending it.
But instead of disillusionment, Vanessa’s fingers picked at Kenneth’s heel. She warped her hands towards
How did you get these scars on your feet Kenny?
Vanessa, this doesn’t make sense.
What? Your feet or me?
Oh Kenny, those dirty feet got to your head. It’s all mush now.
Kenny, let’s clean up. Okay? We have a lot to do today.
What do you mea… but before Kenneth finished the question, he found himself in a bathtub knee deep in billowing bubbles. The water stung his skin; it had been weeks since he bathed. Instead of the usual alcohol grit, Kenneth smelled of roses.
That’s better, isn’t it?
Years had passed since Kenneth had purchased this soap – Vanessa’s favourite. Stranger yet was that the entire bathroom was different than the disarray Kenneth remembered. No longer could he hear Debussy or the fire alarm. Instead, the only sound was Vanessa’s hands rubbing Kenneth’s back with a loofah – scrub, scrub – made any noise at all. Something seemed so familiar about this routine, this entire experience. Kenneth was sure it happened before – maybe a life time ago – but it occurred once already. Sure he was different now with his beard, his gruff, and his now eroding uncleanness, but Vanessa, she was the same. If anything, she was even more beautiful than Kenneth could recall.
Vanessa, not so hard.
Kenneth couldn’t believe the words from his mouth. The Vanessa he knew was dead, but yet, here she was. Her flesh was still soft and still forceful. The loofah continued to scrap his skin aggressively.
I’d go softer if you didn’t let yourself turn into such a big mess. What happened, Kenny?
Kenneth thought about the irony of answering a dead woman why he ended his collective life. He smiled, and said, You did – the best and worst I’ve ever had.
Vanessa brought her chin towards Kenneth’s, the loofah fell into the bathtub, and in an instant like lighting, they kissed. Her lips were just as hot as thunder.
It was a brief kiss, but Kenneth was sure it spanned lifetimes. During it, he saw his eighth birthday and first kiss – a small peck on the cheek by a girl whose name escaped him now; he saw the first time he told a girl he loved her and wondered if he knew what those words meant two months after; he saw Vanessa and knew that he didn’t have to say anything at all because he didn’t have the words. Anything he said would be clunky and incomplete in his mouth. It wasn’t that the feeling was inexplicable, but rather he found himself in surprise most of the time.
Now in the bathtub was among the most shocked he had ever been. So, he said nothing, and having kissed the lips of death, having felt that they were warm instead of cold, he went in for another.
The hearse had a flat tire on the way to the cemetery.
It took weeks to plan Vanessa’s funeral. This wasn’t because Vanessa requested grand and complex last rites but instead because of Kenneth’s inability to accept her passing. Hours after she died while in the hospital, Kenneth asked if he could take her home with him. He told the nurse that they just finished a cabinet in the kitchen and Vanessa wanted to use it once before it was too late. The nurse apologized and Mr. Clearly apologized too, though it wasn’t to anyone but the ceiling.
Now as the hearse shuffled to the side, Kenneth apologized again to the empty space around him. Unlike the few friends and family that stayed in a congregation behind the hearse, Kenneth sat up with the driver – a Latino or maybe an Indian, thought Kenneth. The man said nothing at all even as he pulled to the side of the road.
A few of cars in the procession moved ahead of the hearse unaware of the mechanical complication. They never stopped.
Do we have a spare?
The driver looked at Kenneth and pointed to the back of the hearse near the coffin.
The driver muffled something. He swooped his left hand under his right.
You mean underneath the coffin?
The driver nodded.
Kenneth looked back at the wooden coffin, back to the driver, and sighed.
Alright, well do we have a jack?
The driver shook his head no.
For the second time, Kenneth apologized to no one at all.
Well do you mind if I go to a hardware store?
The driver shrugged his shoulders as to say that it was Kenneth’s choice.
The door clicked as Kenneth opened it, and he walked in no particular direction at all.
Hours later, Kenneth came back with a jack. All of the other cars had since left, and only the hearse driver stood smoking. Night had come and as the driver inhaled, the cigarette looked like a star fading away one breath at a time.
I had to borrow it from a nearby farmer.
The driver didn’t seem to hear Kenneth over the highway roar. As Kenneth approached, the driver looked at him as though he had never seen him before. Smoke escaped his mouth like speech bubbles in a comic.
Do you mind opening the back?
A nod answered Kenneth. After reaching into his worn suit, the hearse driver pulled out his keys and the car flashed to life.
Kenneth remembered the last time he heard that similar sound, and dragged his feet towards the back of the car. The trunk was heavy and once opened, Kenneth could barely see inside. No light surrounded the car except for the amber of the driver’s cigarette.
Kenneth’s voice echoed through the hearse, Do we have a light?
No answer, though Kenneth could see the driver’s silhouette through the darkened window. His mouth appeared to glow.
Kenneth shuffled around in the hearse, careful not to disturb his wife. He felt that underneath the coffin there was a stowaway for the tire. In vain, he tried to lift the latch but could not; the casket was too heavy. The coffin would have to move and Kenneth would have to lift his dead wife out of the hearse.
Setting the ramp down to the back of the hearse, Kenneth propped the trunk open. Slowly, he shifted the coffin left then right then left again in an attempt to shuffle it out of the hearse. With each inch, Kenneth imagined his wife rolling around in the wooden overcoat. Twice he thought he heard a knock from within.
It took two hours to move the coffin to the side of the road and Kenneth was drenched in sweat. At first Kenneth tried to be careful but as energy escaped him and the coffin swung on the edge of the car, he was unable to maintain his scrupulousness. Throughout it all, the driver continued to inhale his cancer stick, only seldom looking Kenneth’s way when the coffin bumped the car or scratched against the asphalt.
There they were: Kenneth with the spare tire hung in his hand, the driver glued to the side of the car, and Vanessa stuck halfway in between grass and the dirt of a ditch. All three were silent.
Kenneth had never changed a spare before and he fumbled with the equipment. Oil splattered his hands and the white of his dress shirt was covered in miscellaneous spills. The jack squeaked when he used it and twice it ceased lifting at all.
Rain came, though Kenneth claimed he never noticed. In fact, Kenneth saw the rain as a blessing of sorts: the mosquitoes that flew overhead, latching on to whatever exposed flesh they could find, would be washed away. The driver did the same: he went inside the hearse and continued to smoke from his endless supply of cigarettes. Kenneth heard him sneeze once.
Vanessa and him worked throughout whatever remained in the night. Most of the equipment slipped through his hands. But after cursing, mumbling, and trying tirelessly, the tire finally came off and the new one was slipped on with little difficulty. Kenneth thought that maybe the spare was a tad loose, but nothing could be done now; the job was the best he could do, even if it might not be enough.
Kenneth, exhausted and drenched, plodded back to where he placed Vanessa. He couldn’t see her; never had a night been this dark. His dirty hands held to the hearse in order to find his way to the trunk. Then with a clunk, he found Vanessa at his feet. Kenneth let out a cold hard laugh, one reserved for complete helplessness. He had stubbed his toe.
The coffin was easier to put in than out. All the way back into the hearse, Vanessa never made a noise. Either did Kenneth. The only sound was the rain hitting the car like a pulse.
When Kenneth sat back inside, the driver didn’t even look his way. He put his cigarette down and placed both hands on the wheel. If it wasn’t so dark, Kenneth would be sure that they were shaking. He knew his hands were; they were so incredibly cold. Kenneth’s breath, a mist of frost escaping from his mouth, seemed to be the only evidence that he was alive.
It was a command – a careless, impossible command – and the driver turned on the ignition and the car coughed and it began to clunk its way to the cemetery. The spare tire bounced up and down, and throughout the ride where they would find that the priest had long since left and a hole filled with water remained and Kenneth would drag the casket into the water and he would do his best to fill the grave with soil and the driver would watch and smoke and both would wish they were home right now, the car jostled up and down. The coffin knocked in the back of the hearse.
Their lips parted and Kenneth cracked into a smile.
I feel much better, though I could do with another kiss.
We have a whole day of kissing if we want it.
Kenneth had fantasies over moments like these. It couldn’t be real, but somehow, it was.
Vanessa, can I ask you something? The water sloshed around as Kenneth moved his feet in the bathtub.
How is this possible?
Because it is, isn’t it?
Am I dreaming?
Does this feel like a dream? She kissed him again.
Kenneth blushed, No.
So that must make it real, then.
I know, Kenneth.
I watched you die.
Vanessa smiled again, And how did I look?
Kenneth hated the joke, but he couldn’t help but laugh. Great as always, he replied.
I thought maybe I was a little bit too beat up, what do you think?
I don’t know.
Well, I’m here now.
Yes but Vanessa…
Kenneth, you don’t have to say it.
But I want to.
For the first time, Vanessa frowned.
I was the reason you died, Vanessa.
No you weren’t, Kenneth. You loved me to the end.
But I was at the wheel.
And you were holding my hand as you took the turn.
I should’ve had two hands on the wheel.
I didn’t let you.
I should’ve known better.
I didn’t want you to.
I’m so sorry, Vanessy.
We both are, and yet, here we are. You should be sorry you let yourself get so scraggly.
I didn’t have a choice.
We all have choices, Kenny.
And I wanted to die than rather be alone.
You were never alone. I mean look at us now.
But I was. I am.
No – I was there even if I wasn’t.
Kenneth thought back to the nights spent after she died. He had seen her in every little thing. Faces of strangers took on her look; their eyes held her stare. Any woman seemed to speak like Vanessa with her nuanced speech and unabashed nonchalance for the things she said. Never had she cared what others thought of her; that is, until she met Kenneth.
What would you have me do now, then?
Spread my love.
Kenneth raised his hands and held Vanessa’s fingertips. Their eyes met and she looked at him with the same eyes he had come to see himself in and yet instead he saw a stranger. A grizzly man grinned at him with rickety jaw hidden behind a brown, bushy beard. His eyes, green and faded, seemed to stare at nothing at all, and in the bathtub, his naked body looked no more than skin and bone held together by papier-mâché.
Kenneth, you’re bleeding.
The man disappeared and Kenneth felt a drop of blood swivel down his chin into the bathtub. It spread like bacteria, and the clean water began to turn red. Kenneth reached for his lips where he had felt the blood first drip but all of a sudden, his mouth began to pour blood. It oozed from the back of throat and squeezed through his teeth. Kenneth desperately tried to cover his mouth with his hands, but it flew through the cracks in his fingers effortlessly.
Kenneth gurgled, Help me.
But in between the time Kenneth had looked down at his first spot of blood to the waterfall of red, Vanessa had disappeared. Kenneth was alone somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. And it was here where Kenneth was dying again.
Kenneth submerged himself in the water. Life was flowing from Kenneth, he knew it, but unlike before with the gun, he did not share a hopeless reservation. He wanted to live. He wanted to see Vanessa again.
With fleeting strength, Kenneth swallowed water. Ruby red came back into his mouth as the blood continued to ooze from the back of his throat. Some managed to reenter his body, but it was a losing battle. Kenneth would die.
He closed his eyes, and in the last breath he could muster, he mouthed the words, I’m sorry for everything.
Kenneth’s eyes bounced from the perfect kept lawn to the immaculate hedges on the grass. One was shaped as a giraffe. Dressed in a white blouse and tanned pants, the man stood beside the giraffe bush with a toothbrush.
Beautiful day, eh?
The man grinned wildly, and he seemed to beam brighter than the sun. Kenneth had a headache just listening to him.
Some global warming, huh?
Kenneth didn’t want to continue the conversation; god willing it would end after a short reply about dogs or cats or kids or whatever else people spoke about nowadays, but Kenneth couldn’t understand if the man was asking a question or offering a statement.
I mean the weather hasn’t been this good in the while. So much for all the hell and high water of global warming, right?
Kenneth was wearing a black sweater and black dress pants. He hadn’t changed in three days. Kenneth wondered if the neighbour thought he smelled bad; Kenneth certainly thought that he did.
I see that your lawn has been growing a bit haywire. Need some help mowing?
Kenneth looked at his lawn. Most of it was stained yellow save for a few blotches of unkempt tall grass. The neighbour shuffled his feet, waiting for a reply. Kenneth thought about how the man was ruining his own grass by standing on it.
It’s okay. Thanks.
Well alright, anything you need just ask. How’s the Missus?
She died. Kenneth’s voice remained monotone and he fingered his wedding ring as he spoke.
Oh, I’m so terribly sorry. We heard some rumors around the neighborhood, you know how they chatter, and I just wanted to make sure you’re alright and all and if you need anything you can ask.
You’ve said that. Thanks.
No worries. That’s what neighbours are for, right?
Well, the Missus and I are having a few friends coming over tonight. We’d love if you came. The Missus is making turkey tonight. It’ll be a blast.
Well, if you change you’re mind, you know where to find us.
Kenneth nodded to the man, then to the giraffe and turned his heels to his property. Like the rest of the houses on the block, Kenneth’s was painted yellow with a blue garage. Broad windows stretched across the front and back, streaming bits of light into the home. His porch had faded in the sun, and a few potted plants appeared to be wilting, if they weren’t dead already. A cloud billow overhead.
Vanessa hated the neighbourhood; she felt that suburbia was where America came to sleep, eat, and die in that order. Each person was a lifeless copy of a copy, a mere by-product of astute advertisements and cult-like brainwashing. The American dream was a nightmare and Vanessa preferred her fantasies – a unique mix of horrors, danger, and happily ever-afters.
Kenneth insisted on this house, however. With the artificial parks, the nearby school, and the incredibly minimal crime rate, he said it would be a good place to start a family. Vanessa said definitely; the area was like putting a child in solitary confinement.
But this home and these plants – the etherized sum of a life summed up in a moment – was all Kenneth had left and all he wished he never had.
Everything was foreign. In front of him, he saw the blurred lines of when he first purchased the house with Vanessa and their first meal on unpacked cardboard boxes and the times spent fruitlessly trying to pick an inside coat of paint come together and coalesce. He was forgetting them – they seemed distant, almost dreamlike – and in doing so, he was forgetting Vanessa.
He was forgetting the first time they met and the last time they did. He was forgetting his first kiss and how it felt. He was forgetting what made her smile and whether or not she snorted when she laughed. He was forgetting her likes and dislikes, her periods of happiness and sadness, the way her breath felt against his neck, how she danced, how she slept, what her parents were like, what she liked in him, the music she listened to, the art she collected, a million of different quotes from books she had read, her ambitions, her deepest secrets, the touch of her fingertips, those Tuesday mornings when she made breakfast and then launched off to work with alacrity only to be held back by one more kiss one more time. He was forgetting a lifetime of hugs and tickles and talking softly then yelling then silence. He was in that last stage – nothing at all, not even a voice – and it was longer than he ever could recall.
Kenneth needed to remember. Turning away from his house, he began to walk downtown. He wasn’t sure where he would go, but that was okay; as long as he was anywhere but his home.
Months later, Kenneth found himself remembering through the lens of a bottle and a few months after that, he drunk in an alleyway and he planned to kill himself.
A telephone rang.
As far as Kenneth could tell, he was no longer in the bathtub. Air surrounded his naked body and his lungs breathed easily. He felt the oxygen entering and exiting almost as though the air was something palpable.
Kenneth’s eyes felt heavy, but he opened them to a dark room with a spotlight shining on a buzzing telephone. It was black and no matter where Kenneth looked, the phone was in the center of his view.
Kenneth’s clumsy hands reached for his lips, though he felt them in tact. Lapping over them with rough fingernails, there appeared to be no evidence of blood or swelling. Even his teeth seemed free from any source of red stains.
Vanessa? Kenneth’s voice croaked into the darkness. Save for the telephone, there was no answer. Even the gurgled of sound from Kenneth didn’t seem to echo; it just moved further away from Kenneth’s ears.
Knowing not what else to do, Kenneth began to make his way toward the phone. His feet stepped weakly, and halfway to it, Kenneth began to crawl. The floor was hard and cold against his naked skin.
After what felt like an eternity, Kenneth arrived at the phone. The endless light from above warmed his skin. Brushing himself off and looking around, he saw that there were no connecting wires to the telephone.
Kenneth extended for the phone. His hand glistened slightly as he picked it up and placed it to his ear.
MR. CLEARLY. CAN YOU HEAR ME? MR. CLEARLY?
The telephone blared.
HOLD ON, MR. CLEARLY. DON’T LET…
The sound was overwhelming and Kenneth slammed the phone back onto the receiver. The telephone resumed to screech immediately.
Kenneth’s head pounded. The voice, whoever’s it was, still bellowed in his ears. Besides that, the phone continued to ring but he could not hear it. Up and down it went and Kenneth followed it again with his eyes.
It was a call for you, Kenny.
Yes, it’s me.
Where are you?
Here, as I promised I always would be.
Kenneth looked around and as he did, the telephone shook from his view until he saw nothing at all. He was surrounded in darkness.
I can’t see you.
You don’t have to, Kenny.
Kenneth stretched his hands in front of him, hoping that she would be there. Instead, he found only empty space.
Vanessa, what was that noise on the telephone?
It was a man you’ll never know who is doing his best to save you.
What do you mean?
See Kenneth, this is where you are dying. It is where I died too.
This is the in between of life and death. It is a place of nothing at all except a phone to listen into – a one way call, so to speak. You’re in our bedroom bleeding to death.
What do you mean? I felt you, Vanessa. I was with you just a second ago.
Kenneth, you shot yourself.
It was a blank, though.
It wasn’t; only you were. You were a ghost of yourself.
Suddenly, blood began to drip again from Kenneth’s mouth. He shot his hands to his lips and controlled the bleeding. Droplets escaped from his the spaces between his fingers.
Vanessa, I’m so sorry. I never wanted you to see me like this.
It’s okay, Kenneth. You always remai… her voice trailed off. Kenneth’s ears rung more than before. Some liquid fell from them. Kenneth assumed it was blood.
Vanessa, I don’t feel well. I can’t hear anything. I am going deaf.
You can hear me, can’t you?
Yes, I can now, and you sound so beautiful.
And what about this? In an instant, Kenneth began to hear faint music.
I hear a song of some kind. A piano, maybe.
It’s Clair de Lune.
Do you mind if we dance, Kenny?
But I can’t see anyth… Warm light surrounded Kenneth. Where the phone used to be, a silhouette approached. Footsteps shuffled. Fists clenched. And Kenneth held his breath.
Hi again, Kenny.
A pale wisp of hair and bruises wrapped up in a hospital gown stood in front of Kenneth. Whatever wasn’t covered by the paper-thin gown, red-stained bandages were visible. As the silhouette hobbled forward, the hospital gown shackled her legs and she moved as if she would collapse any second. It was Vanessa, and she looked as she did in the hospital the last night she was alive.
When I died, Kenneth, I thought you would kiss me and be revolted. I thought you would want to tell me that I looked beautiful, that everything would be all right but you wouldn’t be able to, and you’d squeeze my hand, and I’d wince in pain, and you’d let me go.
That didn’t happen though. You died the same day I did.
She reached out and held Kenneth’s hands. They were cold and Kenneth could see little holes where various needles had entered her body.
Shall we dance?
Kenneth took hold of whatever remained of Vanessa – the decayed and the dying and the etherized – and he never felt more alive. Here she was, and here they were, together again. A million of different lives passed by them and the aggregate of their memories passed along with them. Kenneth saw his and Vanessa’s wedding and how she was dancing exactly as she was now. A car flew by them and Kenneth saw himself and her roaring by with the windows down and the radio blaring. Two people laid on a coach and one asked if the other was tired and both said they weren’t but they fell asleep in each other’s arms – it was Kenneth and Vanessa too. Kenneth saw their lives, and at both their ends – his and hers, a gun and an accident – he saw that they were together throughout it all.
I love you, Vanessa.
I love you so much, Kenneth.
She placed her head on his shoulder and he tightened his grip. And they swirled around for an eterninty in the light until it became dark again.
Sounds muffled their way to Kenneth’s ears. His eyes were anchors and they could not be opened no matter what strength he could afford. His fingers were clamped in some cold, plastic material.
Kenneth was sweating. He felt so incredibly weak. He mouthed one word.
No answer. He tried again, but despite his best efforts, he couldn’t and he fell asleep instead.
Kenneth awoke to light flooding his eyes and a TV firing off somewhere in the distance. Feet shuffled outside and voices blurred together.
Fighting away the exhaustion, his eyes fluttered open. At first, everything around him seemed to bask in a haze. Nothing was distinct. He thought he saw someone staring overtop of him, but when he blinked, the shadow was gone and he found himself alone in a hospital room.
Various tubes seemed to be entering and exiting Kenneth at random places. One entered his mouth and Kenneth found it hard to breath with it connected. He reached for it and moved it slightly. Suddenly, Kenneth’s mouth and his entire throat seared with pain. He tried to scream but couldn’t and for the second time, he fell asleep.
The pain was gone and Kenneth heard clicking of a pen on a clipboard.
Mr. Clearly, please be careful with your breathing tubes. It would be best if you just stay still while you recuperate.
The doctor in front of Kenneth tapped his foot slightly, almost out of boredom. He was middle-aged and despite his best efforts, gray sprouted at the roots of his hair.
You’re very lucky to be alive.
Kenneth wanted to laugh at the irony, but his throat was too sore.
We’ll check on you within the hour. Until then, rest Mr. Clearly.
Kenneth flashed his eyes towards the doctor as if to agree that’s all he wanted to do now, but the doctor walked out without a hint of recognition.
With more strength than the prior days, Kenneth surveyed his room. On his mantle was a single card. Get well soon, it said. It was signed by no one at all.
Besides that, his room was plain. It had the hospitality of countless lives moving in and out due to one complication or another. It was a comfortable tombstone, thought Kenneth.
Kenneth looked at the source of the noise – a heart rate monitor. As it electronically crooned, Kenneth was brought back to the last time he heard it – the night Vanessa died – but he saw it only as a faded memory. Unlike then, this was not a count down to death. While it looked no different than Vanessa’s, the cardiac song was a count of life measured out in beats.
For the monitor, with it’s sounds and gadgets and plastic, was Vanessa, and it was him, and she was saying she loved him.
Beep beep, it rang again.
Kenneth whispered back, I love you, and though it was night, the room was filled with the glint of the moon. A janitor walked across the hospital room and his radio played Clair de Lune.