Will

Today I will get off of the couch. Yesterday I watched TV from twelve noon til ten thirty and then I went back to sleep. Tomorrow I will not watch any television at all. Today I will watch only a little. Yesterday I had to watch so much especially because they were doing a marathon of that show from the nineties, that silly one with the laugh track and the bad hair, the bouncy theme song and the wacky family dynamics. Tomorrow I will answer my email, finish the job application, wash my hair, check the messages. Today I will go grocery shopping because that is a big enough goal for one day if it’s anything like the days that have been blurring recently, nothing happening and no reason to do very much at all. My living room is starting to have that smell of stale human and unwashed clothes, even though I don’t leave any dirty clothes in the living room, and of the crumbs and oil that cling to the creases in the blanket on the couch. Yesterday I wanted to clean but I couldn’t, it just seemed overwhelming, so I let it go for one more day, just one day. When you’ve got it waiting one day, it’s easy to decide it can wait another. When you wake up at ten in the morning when you know you used to get up at seven, it’s easy to decide you can sleep one more hour, and then when you wake up again you make the same decision. When you stay on the couch, it’s hard to get up.

Tomorrow I think my sister is coming to visit. She’s a psychologist, but one of the hippie kinds who wants to hold your hand and refer you to a psychiatrist to give you happy drugs. She comes once a week or so to tell me that I’m clinically depressed and should get on something right away, by which she means I should take prescription medications to alleviate the symptoms of my mental illness, which she sometimes says in her professional voice when she notices me ignoring her. She clucks at me like a suburban bespectacled cardigan-wearing chicken, and attempts to straighten up around the house before she lets her fluttering hands fall and just leaves me alone again already. Today I will try to clean up a little bit so that I won’t feel that embarrassed shame in my stomach, the burn that lazily starts in my gut when she looks like she’s hopeless in the wreck of my living room. Yesterday I wanted to pick up but I only lasted as long as one commercial break. Sometimes I get back up again, and sometimes I don’t. Today I will make sure there are no food cartons or wrappers or anything on the floor. I can at least make that concession to basic hygiene so that my sister won’t be completely disgusted by my squalor. Though it’s not like she would show disgust, she would consider that psychologically damaging to betray her professional tact like that. With me my sister needs a lot of professional tact.

Yesterday another bill came from the electric company. It was marked urgent and I didn’t open it. I know I need to pay my electric bill, even though I’m scraping the bottom of my savings account. I don’t know how I’m going to pay it next month. I guess it’s a good thing I’m trying to watch less TV. Tomorrow I will write a check and put it in the mail. Actually, that’s probably the sort of thing I could just do online, even though I always associate bills with a stack of envelopes. The idea of ripping out the letters, with the amount due printed in the front so it’s easy to see, automatically makes my pulse flit harder in my throat. Today I will check to see if there are any other unpaid bills in the kitchen, which is usually where I keep them. If I can find them I will make them into a stack that will be easy to find and I will leave a sticky note on top to remind me. Yesterday at least I checked the mail and found that one. There wasn’t anything else interesting, though it did remind me that I have a letter for my aunt that I meant to send her ages ago. Tomorrow I should buy stamps when I do everything else. Lately I haven’t been doing most of the things that I need to do, or even any of the things. I haven’t been doing what I need to do. Today I will.

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Congratulations on Your Impending Doom

Peter makes greeting cards that are out of the ordinary. Most greeting cards say things like “Congratulations on your graduation!” or “Our thoughts are with you in this time of loss” or “Happy birthday to the best grandma ever!” But Peter doesn’t work for Hallmark. He works for a bigger company whose name nobody knows.

He used to work for SparkleCards. They were a cheery offshoot of some bigger company, and for them he wrote lines that ended up in flowing script to condole, to congratulate, to celebrate. There was nothing exceptional about them, though he was very good at his job. One day he came into his office and on his desk was a black business card. He couldn’t see anything written on it, the dull black rectangle on his desk, until he held it up and it caught the light. The glow from his overhead lamp lit up letters in white, shining against the black. It was a name and a number. He muttered, “Foolish way to advertise,” but he called the number. A secretary’s bright voice asked who he was, and his reason for calling. He said, “Peter Celsten, I found a card—“ and a long beep interrupted him. The phone rang again and a man’s brisk voice rattled off an address and a time. Peter never could resist a mystery.

The office building at the address given was hard to find, though not far. It was enmeshed in a cluster of apartments and the sprawling buildings of a hospital, but he made it up to the right floor with several minutes to spare. A small man in a neat suit ushered him in and thrust him into a chair almost before he realized what was happening. The man began the interview and it dawned on Peter that he was, in fact, interviewing for a job. He asked, nonplussed, at the end about it.

“Oh,” said the small man, surprise pitching his voice. “It’s for this company, writing cards. We’ll pay you one point five seven times what you’re earning now. Will you work for us?”

Peter didn’t know what to say, other than yes.

The office at the new company was slightly bigger than his old one. The secretaries were pretty, and his new boss was waiting for him with a sheaf of papers. The small man handed the packet to Peter and said, “Here is your first batch. Could you, hm, get them to me by the end of the week? It somewhat urgent, as you will notice.”

Peter sat at his desk, rolling the chair back and forth on the carpet. He studied the tracks that the wheels made, faint against the white plush, before turning his attention to his new work. The packet was thick, fastened with a metal clip. The first page looked like some kind of brief personal bio as he began to read. Annabelle Watkins, 76; Neurodegenerative Disorder (type 46B); Due Date/Day before Death: April 23rd (High Priority!).

Peter sprang up and into the small man’s office. The man looked up, unsurprised. Peter got out a few strangled words before his boss silenced him with an explanation. He said that cards are meant to mark occasions, and their company was tasked with marking the most momentous occasion a person could ever have in his life: the end of it. He described, in exacting steps, the process of creating and delivering the cards. He clarified the nature of the recipients, that not everybody received a card, because only those whose deaths were momentous of some sort or another warranted a personalized card. Sometimes, he said, lots of people who were dying all at once got a generic card, but there was less demand for those. People don’t want their deaths to be mass-produced.

It was a long time before anybody he knew showed up in Peter’s packet of bios. His mother’s friend Sarah was the second person he was assigned one day almost a year after he started working for the death card company. She was in her sixties, not that old, and she’d never had serious health problems that he knew about. Even so, there she was: Sarah Epstein, 64; Cardiac Arrest (sudden, first); Due Date/Three Days before Death: February 18th.

He put Sarah’s card in a red envelope. Heart disease went with liver and kidney problems or complications. They all got red envelopes. Brain-related deaths got blue; sudden accidental deaths were put in yellow envelopes; murder and suicide envelopes were brown. There were other colors but those were, he found, the most common. A few times he had put together the death cards for people who worked at the card company. They all got gray envelopes, though he wasn’t sure if it was because of working at the company regardless of cause of death or if, actually, they all died of the same thing. It wasn’t the sort of thing he asked his boss.

Peter mostly shuffled the death cards into the right piles now, one file for each color, and didn’t think much of it. He paused for a long time over Sarah’s card. He’d written a nice normal one for her, as comforting as he could make it. After he finished for the day, he called her up. They hadn’t spoken for a long time, not since Peter had been fighting with his mother. When she answered the phone he was surprised at the cracked dry voice that answered. It seemed to be a parched version of what he’d known. They had a nice chat, Peter and Sarah, and asked polite questions and got polite answers. It didn’t make him feel any better. She told him it was lovely to hear from him and hung up, thinking nothing of it probably, a little bemused and unaware still of the death waiting for her in three more days. Peter tossed the phone from hand to hand for a minute and then put it down and went on with his day.

Peter learned a sort of balance in his work. It caught him between empathy and detachment, between sorrow and practicality. It placed him precisely at the moment between life and death. Sometimes people he knew, or people he’d heard of, showed up in his packet of death assignments for the day. It always caused a twinge of unease, but Peter tried not to let it bother him too much. He knew that, one day, there would be a gray envelope in his own mail.

The Child and the Apple Tree

When the child was twelve, the apple tree in the backyard began to decline. The apples fell that autumn like any other year. They spread across the grass around the tree like a pebbly green sea, and when nobody was looking he picked them up and took bites out of them as they lay on the ground. Its leaves unfurled and deepened in the September sun that held out the last charms of sun-drenched summer before tucking them away with the receding heat. The apples were less that year. The child didn’t notice. He was too busy to snatch up more than one apple before he careened off through the woods, howling his strange song. He lingered on the edge of childhood that autumn, beginning to grow lanky but still clambering up trees and chasing imagined bandits and heroes. He didn’t climb the apple tree anymore. Now it was all the oaks and maples that boasted tall trunks, sturdy branches, and leaves that lost their green and gleamed with warmth instead. The child was proud that he could scamper up like a squirrel, clinging to the living wood and perching on a jut of branch too high to see.

The apples fell, and crowded on the ground, and rotted there to soft forgotten mounds of what once was crisp and sweet. The animals gouged chunks from the fallen fruit while the child fought villains too terrible to name in the clearings of the forest. He won the battle against the beasts who terrorized his kingdom. He scared himself on the highest creaking branch of the oldest swaying tree and clambered down again, sweating. He shot a scornful, guilty glance at a girl who smiled at him in the cafeteria. The child was less a child, and the apple tree died.

Its demise was slow, almost imperceptible. Its leaves fell and crumpled on the scattered apples instead of rusting red. The tree stood stark and empty in a forest of trees still bright with autumn plumage. Its green leaves and fruit moldered on the ground. In the winter, snow piled in glittering drifts in the forest, and the trees shuddered and shivered in the cold. Snow lined the branches of the apple tree and frost encased its twigs. Inside the dead white, the apple tree froze. Its wood dried and became brittle until the ravages of a blizzard cracked two branches. In December the child dragged a sled that was too small through the forest. He stopped in awe when he saw the apple tree. He gazed at the jagged pale stubs poking out from it, undignified and crude. The child picked up and tossed away the lost limbs that were beneath it. He reached a hand to the trunk, where the life of the tree was dying embers, but he moved his small warm hand away from the bark when he felt the cold grasping at him.

When the spring came, the snow shrank to wizened shreds on the dirt. The daffodils burst into color, banishing the cold. The child ran through puddles and cursed at his mud-spattered clothes. The apple tree still stood, but it had no life returning. Its wood was dry and its branches lit no leaves. While the child made new games in the chittering forest, the apple tree shriveled. The child became a hero and saved a kingdom. Sometimes he stopped to look curiously at the apple tree’s plain lines, the curves uninterrupted by green and the spiky wounds that would not heal.

In summer the forest was brilliant. The sun filled it with stained-glass leaves and light-spotted shadows. The animals whispered and cried out. The child sat in the crook of the old oak with a book, unmoving for hours. The apple tree stayed dead and cold at the edge of the woods.

When autumn came, the child was still less a child. He had less of the bright-edged certainty of a hero, and none of the duller calm that he thought must be coming. Sometimes he came to the forest and told himself stories, still. These were not described in sweeping gestures and wild rollicking. These stories crept out in murmurs. He sang less now and did not howl. In October the apple tree was white against the blood and flame of autumn. It heaved a sigh of twisted wood and relinquished the last threads of life. The not-child stayed a moment beside it, his hand warm on its creased surface, before he went on.

Just Breathe

“Hold on a minute, let me just look for my glasses. You know I just put them down on the counter right here and now of course they’re gone again, would you believe that…”

He went on. Alex ignored him. His father could talk like nobody he’d ever met. His voice was a constant low rumble, mumble of words that dripped out of him like a faucet nobody could fix. He just seeped words, wasting breath, until everybody near him was half crazy and looking for a wrench. Or something else heavy. Alex heaved in a breath and held it in his lungs, summoning patience. His father was sick and needed patience, not a surly son. The old man was still shuffling around the kitchen, leaning over the counter like he was falling in slow motion to peer at the smooth stone. “I can’t find them anywhere,” he said. “My goodness look at that they just disappear, don’t they?”

“Let’s go,” said Alex.

“All right,” his father said, dubious. “If you insist then we’ll go but you’re going to have to read labels for me, you know, I won’t be able to see a blessed thing.” The prattle didn’t cease as they got out onto the street. “It’s really a good thing that we live so near a grocery store–” Alex’s mother had died three years ago. His father hadn’t yet adjusted to speaking in the singular. “It’s really so convenient and it’s a good one too, shame about that other one that closed, what was it called? Oh look, there’s a Chevy, you know that was my first car, or was it a Dodge? Can you remember? Of course you can’t, you probably weren’t even born yet, were you? Did you know that Jonathan is coming over tonight? We’re going to heat up some dinner for him. You know I think most of the time he doesn’t eat much of anything. We’ll give him a good meal, you know I’ve got plenty in the freezer.”

Most of the time Alex could tune his father out until the words all blurred into pleasant static. He’d only been staying with his father for a week and already he felt like his teenage self, rolling his eyes when nobody would see and counting the days until he could leave the house. They walked down the same familiar street he’d known as a kid, except the barber had gone out of business and a cute stationery store had taken its place. The grocery store was almost the same. Some of the canned food was probably the same too.

His father wanted to share with everybody. It made Alex’s skin itch. They got through three aisles before his father said, “Well then I’ve had enough, we’d better go home now.” Of course, then they got to the cashier and he started up again. “Hello there, how are you, too bad about this weather isn’t it, I lost my glasses somewhere in the house and it’s very silly but I just couldn’t find them anywhere, this is my son Alex staying with me because I’ve had a touch of pneumonia but not to worry nothing serious I’ve got some medicine and it’s really very nice of him to come visit. What’s that? Oh, yes, here’s my card, sorry about that, you can tell I’m having a busy day, forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on.”

Alex shouldered the bag and they started back again. He said, “Dad, I’m pretty sure there’s milk already in the fridge.”

His father said, “No, of course there isn’t, I used it all up this morning, don’t worry.” He kept talking all the way back home and into the kitchen, where he said, “Oh, goodness, look at that, there’s half a quart of milk still in the fridge, you ought to have reminded me it was there, now there’s too much and it’s sure to spoil, isn’t that too bad.”

Alex drew in a deep breath and held it.