I Love Death
My wife Maggie helped a bird-like woman on a walker down a blind alley the other day.
“What are you doing?” I called after them.
“Meet you at home,” Maggie said over her shoulder and shooed me away. “Be there in a minute.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets and whistled my way back to the house. Maggie came in a little while later and washed a slight coating of ash from her hands.
“Um,” I said, standing idly outside the open door of the bathroom. “What was that?”
“What, dear?” She inspected her eye makeup in the mirror.
“That woman, a few minutes ago. She didn’t look like she was doing too well.”
“Oh. That. That was a work thing.”
“And the other day, the red faced guy in the car… I saw you reach into the window. And then, I don’t know what I saw.”
Maggie sighed. “Sweetie, there’s something I need to tell you.” She dried her hands and looked at me. “It’s about my job.”
“It’s my new position. At the firm.”
The firm was housed in a boney white skyscraper that cast an ominous shadow over downtown. I tried not to ask too many questions about it.
Maggie walked into the living room. Motes of dust swam in a shaft of light between us. “You know how it is, when you’re the last one on the conference call and you get stuck with the job that nobody else wants to do?”
“What’s the job that nobody else wants to do?”
“I’m, well, I’m now responsible for…” she smiled. “I’m, like, you know, I don’t know how else to say it. I’m the Grim Reaper. I’m Death.”
“I said I’m Death, dear.”
“But. But I thought…I thought you had something to do with the disposition of bodily remains on a state, on a state-wide, um…level.”
“Yeah. Well. Death. That’s me.”
“You kill people?”
“Well, no, I just help them along through the process, you know, of dying.”
“Help them? You mean, like holding some guy’s head under water for him until he stops breathing?”
“No. No. I just help people transition. I don’t murder anyone.”
“Not even a little bit of murdering?
“No, darling. Not even a little bit.”
“What if you think you’re Death, but really, you’re like some crazy mass killer? I mean I love you, but shouldn’t I call the police?”
“Please. You have to trust me.” And then she gave me that look, that damn wide-eyed, eyelash fluttery look that I cannot resist. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you,” I heard myself say. Of course I did. Sort of.
“Try to think of me as Death. Just give it a try.”
“Okay,” I said. Death shrugged. Death looked cute today. Death had gotten a new haircut. It was short and curled up at the ends. Also, Death was small. I think about five feet two, maybe, in heels. But still Death. And married to me. Crap.
“Maggie. I don’t get it. Are you still you? I mean. I don’t know what I mean.”
“Of course I’m me, silly. What do you want for dinner? I’m starved.”
How could she be hungry at a time like this? And what does it mean if Death gets hungry? I tried to think of something that didn’t have to die for us to eat it. “How about pasta?”
“Too heavy. Let’s just make a big salad.”
We ate dinner and I watched her chew. And we went to bed and I watched her sleep. And we got ready to leave the house the next day and I watched her fix her hair.
And then, from several blocks away, I saw her take out a homeless guy, a sick old man, and a young woman with a malfunctioning heart. She didn’t stab them, or shoot them, or beat them over the head with a lead pipe. She just sort of touched them, and the living part went away.
I was on the other side of a bank of parked cars when she got two, no three, no, actually, four different teenagers who had made small bullet holes in each other over an argument about their masculinity, or their pride, or their something else really stupid that wasn’t worth dying for, that had been stewing since homeroom the day before.
It was over so fast. Nothing was left but the bodies. Maggie kept antiseptic towelettes in her purse to wipe off whatever mysterious effluvium was left on her hands afterward.
She really was Death. It freaked me out. I mean, like, what the.
Also, it dawned on me that Maggie was a danger to me. I mean, she could roll over in her sleep, brush up against me the wrong way, and that would be it.
“What are you doing?” she asked, in bed, in the dark.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve got all the covers and you’re squirreled way over there on the edge of the bed.”
“I’m just comfortable this way.”
“And you’ve built a wall of pillows between us.”
“My back. It’s a little stiff.” I pretended to fall asleep behind my pillow fort.
“Okay, but. Well. Okay.” Maggie lay back and pretended to fall asleep too.
I tried to tell her how much she terrified me, in a little dark restaurant, on date night, but instead, after my third Negroni, I said, “What do you do about all those birds that are killed by all those cats that are killed by all those cars?”
“I don’t really want to talk about work,” she said. “I’ve been at it all day and there’s this new supervisor who wants to make all the heart attacks happen on Thursdays. What an idiot.”
“Supervisor? Who’s your supervisor? I mean is he, or she, or it some sort of, you know, deity? Or demon? Or angel? And what happens after you die? Is there a Heaven? A Hell? What are the rules? And, and, what’s going to happen to me?”
Maggie popped one of her martini olives between her teeth and chewed thoughtfully. “Well, I guess you deserve some answers, but I warn you, you’re not going to like them. First, my supervisor is just this ordinary guy who is trying to change everything without even knowing the system. It’s all because he wants to put his ‘stamp’ on things. And he wants me to do all of his work for him. And then he takes all of the credit. Typical ‘Y’ chromosome bullshit. And as far as the afterlife, Heaven, Hell, God, and maybe the Devil, well, I hate to tell you this, but I have no idea. It is all just as big a mystery for me as it is for you and everyone else. I just know my job and that’s it.”
“And as for you.” She shrugged. “You should enjoy each moment. That’s all I’m saying. But that’s what I’d say to anyone.”
I kept chugging Negronis until I threw up.
Maggie began to come home at odd hours, her face flushed, and out of breath. Often the alarm would go off at three in the morning, and she’d slip out into the mist, when the traffic lights had all turned to blinking reds. We’d go to the farmer’s market or hiking on Saturdays, but Maggie always scheduled work in between our plans. Half-way through a wine tasting, she’d nip off, do some dark deadly deeds, and be back in time for the Pinot.
And at the end of it all, she’d process her day with me. “I had a rough one this afternoon. A runner. Everyone knows you can’t outrun Death. And I was wearing heels, too.”
“Can I give you a foot massage?”
“Yes, please. Oh, and then I had to hold him down. Boy, did he wriggle. He got so worked up, I swear, his left eye almost popped out of his head. Oh, yeah, that’s it. Get the arch.”
Although I was still super anxious around Maggie, particularly in bed, sometimes I’d get so horny, well, I’d go for it. And then, like immediately after, I’d kind of panic about how close to dying I had come.
“Are you okay, Sweetie?” she asked and stroked my shoulder.
“Yeah. Fine,” I said, and trembled and held my breath and waited until she got up to go to the bathroom. While she was gone I rebuilt my pillow fort.
“You in there?” she asked when she returned.
“Yes. Fine. My back,” I said, my voice muffled by goose down and cotton and foam rubber and whatever else they put in pillows these days.
We both lay there and stared up at the ceiling trapped in our thoughts and me too chicken to actually say anything.
To make it even more difficult, Maggie started doing her work right in front of me, all up close and personal. “Don’t worry, this will all be over soon,” she said to a paunchy middle-aged pawnbroker who had clogged his arteries with saturated fats. He backed away from her and stumbled into a glass display case edged with brushed aluminum, grasped his chest through his striped shirt, listed to one side, and sank to the floor.
Maggie bent over him. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
He looked at her with wide, watery eyes, full of fragility and fear and hope.
Then she touched him and he was gone.
Sometimes, I’m sure it was totally against the rules, and despite my secret fear of her, I helped. “Don’t let him slip out that back window,” Maggie yelled as we tore through an old warehouse. “This place is a maze.”
I sprinted down a corridor of exposed heating ducts and spools of cable piled on the floor. My sneakers squeaked a complaint as I turned a hard right through a sheet rock doorway that hadn’t been taped and all of a sudden there he was, pale, sweating, with a black handlebar mustache that moved around spastically on his upper lip. His hand rattled the latch of a window that wouldn’t open. “He’s over here,” I yelled.
“Keep him there.” Maggie’s voice reverberated from somewhere close.
I danced back and forth on the balls of my feet like an offensive blocker.
His eyes got wide and he shoved past me in a panic as easy as every other kid did back in grade school and disappeared down a corridor of cardboard boxes that were stacked to the ceiling.
Maggie showed up, out of breath, in stocking feet with her pumps clutched in her right hand. I nodded toward the boxes.
“That’s a dead end, Frank,” Maggie called.
“It’s Farrokh,” he yelled back.
“What was that, Frank?”
“My name is Farrokh.”
“Really?” Maggie poked in futility at her iPhone and shook it like a magic eight ball. “Farrokh, that sounds like a Parsi name.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Um, Farrokh. Do you practice Zoroastrianism?”
“Oh, crap,” Maggie muttered under her breath. She put down her shoes and started to peel off her black business suit.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“It’s an Armani. I don’t want to destroy it.” She handed me her jacket, skirt, blouse, and then her underwear. “Careful, that’s my good bra.”
She stood before me naked, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Look, I’m really sorry for what you’re about to see. If I knew about this, I’d never have brought you.”
“About to see what?” But she had already turned away from me.
“Don’t worry,” she yelled. “This will all be over soon.” She took a deep breath, hunched her shoulders, and turned a blackish blue. Curved tusks erupted from her mouth and dark eagle’s wings sprouted from her back. Her eyes became red and wide and spun in her head. She exhaled a gust of smoke at the stacks of cardboard boxes and they blew away like a handful of so many feathers to reveal a shivering Farrokh pressed against the far wall.
The ancient and terrible thing that was Maggie marched toward him and grew in height and fury with every step.
Farrokh’s mouth shaped the words of a silent prayer. His eyes rolled back in his head and his eyelids fluttered.
The demon Maggie bent over him and reached out with talon tipped claws.
I covered my eyes, but peeked between the fingers, and waited for her to tear out his heart and rip his body into little pieces.
But as she touched him, she glowed a blinding white and was Maggie again, only a very tall Maggie, with golden skin, and silky black hair that fell to the floor. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her more beautiful.
“It’s okay. Everything’s okay,” she said, and cradled him in her arms until he let go.
And then, one time, when we were walking home from some kind of party where we both had a little too much to drink, I couldn’t resist her satiny lips, so I pressed her up against a brick wall, and made myself forget, for the moment, her lethality.
“Wait, wait,” she said and pushed me away laughing. “There’s something I’ve got to do.”
“No. Really? Come on, you work all the damn time.”
Her smile slid off her face and she got dark and stormy. “I’m sorry if my job has so much responsibility. I wish I could take it easy, but I can’t. I just can’t. You don’t understand.”
“No, no, wait. That came out wrong. I just think your job is so hard on you. You’re going round the clock. I don’t know the last time you got a full night’s sleep. I just wonder whether it’s worth it. I mean, is there some other job you could take? Could you step down, or something? Go back to your old position?”
She folded her arms and shook her head. “You don’t know how hard this is.” Her eyes got wet and she turned and walked away.
“Hey, don’t be like that,” I said and chased after her, but she just kept on walking.
I followed her under an archway, through an open courtyard, and up two flights of grungy, carpeted stairs. I trailed her into an empty, squalid apartment, stepped over a bunch of liquor bottles on the floor that clattered and pinged and rolled together, down a hall, and caught up with her inside a bedroom that was wallpapered with cowboys.
There was a small boy in the middle of a bed. He was skinny and his hair and eyebrows were gone. Maggie sat down on his green bedspread. “Does it hurt?”
“It’s not so bad,” he said.
“You’re a good boy, Michael.”
“I’m not in trouble, am I?”
“Course not,” I blurted out.
Maggie looked at me, somewhat surprised, and then back to the boy. “Of course you’re not in any trouble.”
“But I’m dying.”
“Yes,” Maggie said. “You are.”
“Are you an angel?”
“Do you want me to be?”
He nodded his head.
“All right,” Maggie said. “Then I am. Don’t worry. This will all be over soon.” Wings, white and long, stretched from her shoulder blades and spread out and down to the floor. She glowed with a soft amber light. Maggie leaned forward and kissed Michael’s forehead. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay,” she whispered.
She held him in her arms for a long time after he had passed away. Beads of tears worked out of the corners of her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand.
“Yeah. I’m fine. You?”
We walked home hand in hand, the fight forgotten, nothing but us feeling small against the dark.
That was the way things were with us. Nothing could break us, because we had each other. Our time together was our real life. Everything else was just what happened in between.
But there was one inescapable fact that I could not get out of my head. No matter what happened, there would come a day when our time together would end. And on that day, on purpose, or by accident, possibly rolling over in her sleep, Maggie would reach out and take my life away.
“Where’s the coffee?” she asked one morning from the kitchen.
“Oh, I think we’re out.” I was checking the weather on the laptop. It was cold with a chance of a storm.
“Do you want to just go out and get some breakfast?”
When we got to our favorite breakfast place, there was a line of about six people waiting on the sidewalk. “Damn it,” I said. I hadn’t realized I was even hungry.
Maggie put her hand on my arm. “Don’t worry. This will all be over soon.”
I jerked away. “What did you say?”
“I said, don’t worry, we’ll eat soon.”
“No,” I said, backing away from her. “That’s not what you said. That’s not what you said at all.”
“You know what you said.”
“Wait a minute.”
I ran away from her. Ridiculous. I ran away from my own wife. Who was Death. I cut into the woods near our house. I could feel her right behind me.
“Roger,” she called.
That’s me. I’m Roger. I ran faster, but tripped over the tree roots that were wet from the morning fog.
“Roger, slow down,” she called. “You’ll fall.”
“Ha!” I ran even faster. I was on a loping path that edged along the coast of the bay. The land dropped off a hundred feet to the rocks below. The fog was rolling in. They call that place “Land’s End” I think. How appropriate.
“Roger, we need to talk,” she said. She was right behind me.
“I don’t want to talk.”
I slipped on the soft gravel of the path and my feet flew out from under me. Maggie caught me and pulled me away from the edge.
“Roger,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Am I going to die now?”
Maggie wrapped her arms around me. “Oh, Roger, my crazy, crazy man.”
I let her hold onto me, but, “I don’t want to be afraid of you,” I said.
“Don’t you know? Don’t you know how much I love you?” she asked.
“Yes, but you’re…”
“I know, I’m Death.”
“And Death comes for everyone. I know you’re going to come for me. I know it. Every time you turn toward me, I think, this is it. This is the moment of my death. That’s why I hide behind that stupid pile of pillows. I can’t bear it. I’m a nervous wreck. Can you at least tell me when it’s going to be? That way I won’t worry so much all the time.”
Maggie sighed. “I have a confession to make. I lied to you about this job. I wasn’t forced to take it. In fact, I volunteered for it.”
“What? Why would you do a thing like that?”
“For you. I took this job for you.”
“Because, Roger, this was the only way I could keep you with me.”
“What…What do you mean?”
She put her hands on my face. “Roger, you were my very first one.”
I looked down at her and the world inside fell silent. “But how am I still here?”
“I’m holding onto you, Roger. I’m holding onto you as hard as I can.” She looked at me with that soft sad smile, closed her eyes, and leaned her head against my chest. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay,” she murmured and we swayed together against the wind and the velvet shadows spread out and deepened and grew all around us.