Helping Death

My first death was a fortunate accident. I saw a kid get beat to death in seventh grade.

One minute he was running down the hall screaming at us to get out of the way. Next minute some Special-Ed kid with a wrench beat the shit out of him. Blood went everywhere.

While teachers pulled them apart, the dying kid looked at me and his eyes faded from shock to… to nothing at all. Just like that.

My second death showed me my path

Senior year, me and some friends cut class and walked to the drugstore to get cokes and smokes. When a car screeched at the red light, I looked around in time to see an old bum arcing through the air, all coats and beard and long hair flying.

It felt like forever before he come down on the street. Hard.

The driver jumped out of his car and ran over to him. There was nothing he could do. The bum was coughing blood out onto the asphalt and trying to sit up. He had the look of a man kicked out of bed during a dream.

Me and other folks moved in closer. His eyes flicked through the crowd of rubberneckers and when he settled on me I couldn’t turn away. Time unwound and all I could do was stand there, staring back as his life slipped away from him. I smiled at him, the way I think Jesus would’ve; a mixture of comfort and peace.

Somebody stepped in between us, and that moment was gone. He went ahead and died. Wasn’t nothing anybody could do to save him.

My friends headed on to the drug store but I stayed. I found a spot on the lawn of the baptist church and sat there for hours, while cars drove through the blood. Nobody cared. They just kept going their own ways, didn’t know how lucky they were.

I kept thinking about how I helped him into death. Felt like I done something good. And Death appreciated that.

I had a purpose in life.

Somewhere between the death of that bum and this train wreck, things changed. I changed. It wasn’t enough to watch a man die by accident. I knew Death was satisfied with my work, the way I helped people move on, but I worried.

If I didn’t keep Death satisfied, he’d come for me instead.

I took a job at the drugstore and kept an eye on our oldest customers. When they didn’t pick up their meds, I’d pay them a visit. Most times it was nothing; they just forgot. Or I’d get there, and they’d already died in their sleep.

But twice I got there in time to watch them die. I sat by their beds, and helped them let go.

That second time, I finished up and was slipping out the back door when headlights lit the driveway. The car rolled halfway down, and then turned off the engine. I stepped back into the house and stood still while my heart blew up my chest.

Somebody rang the bell and banged on the door. When I heard keys jingling into the lock, I ran out the back and escaped into the woods.

It was the next week when my boss, Mr. Johnson, figured me out. He saw the way I slipped out early to check on Mrs. Langdon.

She was 96 and her home was four blocks from our store. She’d drop off the scrips every Sunday after church. We’d fill ‘em, and she’d pick ‘em up the next day.

When she missed her pickup on Monday, I knew it was up to me to help her. I got off work and all but ran to her home.

I walked down her driveway to the back porch. Most old folks around here left their back doors unlocked. I could go in, help them die, and nobody on the street would interrupt us.

But Mrs. Langdon, she was on the porch on her rocker, watching the birds eat scraps of bread.

“See ‘em all out there?”

I jumped a little, didn’t know she’d seen me.

“You hear me boy?”

“Yes ma’am,” came out of my mouth before I knew I was saying it.

“Everyday they pick up my scraps. I bet If it wasn’t for me, they’d starve to death.” She clapped her hands and cackled.

“You think so?”

“Lord yes! They’d up and die. I’ve been feeding them for sixty years. Not these exact ones, but you know what I mean.”

She smiled at me and I said, “You ever seen one die? Or seen ‘em after they died?”

“No.” She said it in a way of wonder. “No, I never seen a single one of them die. That’s odd, ain’t it?”

Before I could answer, Mr. Johnson called out behind me.

“There you are, boy! What you doing here, bothering Missus Langdon?”

My pulse jolted through my veins. “Making sure she was alright, that’s all.”

Mrs. Langdon said, “Don’t beat him up, James, we were just talking!”

“Hmm.” He said at me. “Mrs. Langdon, I can bring you your meds by tomorrow if you’d like.”

“Don’t worry.” She said. “I’ll be by to pick them up. I just got sidetracked today is all.”

His bony hand settled on my shoulder. “Give you a ride home. boy?”

I climbed into his pickup and he said, “Lately, I notice that when our older customers died, you slipped out early the same day. That seem strange to you?” The flap of skin below his chin waggled with every word.

“I’m not saying you killed nobody, but I’m saying it’s a damned odd coincidence. A coincidence we can’t have at a drug store.”

I didn’t hear his words, he sounded so far away. All I could think of was Death getting closer, catching up to me.

Hidden in the woods, I heard the train whistle coming. The warning arm was down with lights blinking and bells ringing, but the train hit that truck just the same.

I found the conductor on the ground beside the engine. His face was a mess of blood and skin and his hands opened and closed at me while he snatched his last couple of breaths. I helped him let go.

Then in the first passenger car, I stepped over the dead, looking for ones who were still moving. I was able to help seven people into death. Not a one of them thanked me, they just groaned and had that surprised look on their face.

Once I heard the sirens, I slipped back into the woods. The ambulances and police arrived, picking apart the dead and the living. When they came back to the truck, it took them awhile, but they pulled out Mr. Johnson’s body. His snapped neck would look like the train done it.

In just one night, I’d put death far behind me.

Just like that.

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This week’s story was prompted from an Oscar Wilde quote, “Moderation is a fatal thing; nothing succeeds like excess.”

I’m not sure how this story came out of that idea. I wanted to write about some guy getting frustrated with taking his time to achieve something or other. And then on the way home one day I remembered this kid that was attacked in 7th grade. He didn’t die, I don’t think he did, but everything else from that part happened. He went running down the hall screaming, but that happened everyday at O’Keefe. This time though, there was a second kid going after him with a wrench or a lead pipe. When he caught up to the kid, it was right in front of me.

So I guess the story kind of went from there. And the part with him meeting up with the old lady in her back yard? I have no idea where that came from, I was doing that thing where you just put your characters in a place and let things happen. I kind of think it helped push up his sense of urgency, wanting to get Death moving back and instead chatted with this old lady who’d spent her life doing the opposite thing – worrying about people dying if she didn’t keep feeding them.

In my original version, the trainwreck was futile, because the train was hauling empty boxcars. But then, if that was the case, the Oscar Wilde quote wouldn’t have applied, in fact the opposite would have been true; excess didn’t help him succeed at all.

Being a writer is a bitch, yo.