Death and Mr. White is a collection of short stories, gifted from those who have gone, to those who remain.
Death and Mr. White
by J. Wilkerson
I. Mr. White had stopped smoking back in ’85, when the first grand girl was born. It wasn’t because of the grand girl–she lived in Kansas and would only be seen every other Christmas. Sandy had bought him a coat for Christmas that year–camel? Had searched the city for it. Sandy wanted to be a doting daughter, she wanted him to be a loving father. She had always wanted the coat for him, but he could not figure out why. She bought the coat and he dropped the cigarette on it. It wasn’t the fault of the cigarette of course; it was that or the glass of scotch, and the sacrifice of the cigarette seemed obvious.
The ash of the cigarette fluttered down onto the sleeve and settled like snowflakes. Mr. White supposed then that he really should give up smoking; he could not finish this thought, as he was jostled and the cigarette fell, right onto the sleeve, burning an immediate hole into the hair.
The Yarborough’s were having their Holiday party and their obnoxious music was only surpassed in stupidity by their sweaters, the noise of the crowd almost oppressive, but still. Sandy seemed to hear the whisper of the fabric above the cacophony of meaningless chatter as the fur sizzled and died away. She materialized before him, fixed him with his ex-wife’s doe eyes before she vanished, tears in her wake.
He picked up the cigarette, made certain it was out and for many years did not light another.
Two years ago he picked the habit up again, as easily as he used to collect the paper. Griffin was in the hospital room just beyond the window, his body still warm but the Griffin he knew long absent. He wanted to think about other things and not the loneliness.
In the remnants of the unforgiving midwestern winter he found himself entirely alone, save for his thoughts. From Griffin his mind passed easily to years past, years he had not considered relevant until now.
For a moment he was again a boy, and he imagined in his mind Grace. Grace with her pigtail twists and bobby socks. Grace with her dark eyes and gray skin. Grace with her dress coat and stiff, two-dimensional dress. Grace was the sister he had seen so often, the sister he had heard about so often that she seemed a memory and not a two-dimensional figure captured forever in memory not belonging to him and in photograph. She seemed much more than the figure that he never got to meet, much more than the sister that he had been required to replace.
There were so many of them. Never another girl. Now he is alone entirely; he can share the memory of youth with no one who remembers the other side of the story.
How strange it was to be the last of the old guard not faded away. He imagined he felt Griffin’s soul pass him on his way out and it scared him a bit. So he stepped into the hall and walked out. A woman squinted into the sun and did not look down at him. He watched her, though, and she felt his eyes. She let the smoke curl about her face twice more before offering him a cigarette wordlessly. He accepted with a nod of his head that she did not care to see.
He smokes a pipe now, as he relaxes on the park bench. A woman sat there before he, and the bench is still warm from her. When he arrived he hobbled before her–although he did not normally do so, he was quite capable for eight-and-a-half decades–and she leapt to her feet apologetically.
As Mr. White tugs the smoke into his lungs he considers her haste and its cause. He decides that he was not dishonest–her guilt is her own affair. And besides–she should probably be on her way.
A speck of tobacco settles onto his tongue, and Mr. White plucks it away, staring down at it before wiping it onto his pants.
Ruby would be furious if she saw, but then she has been furious for awhile. That is her way. Ruby had been a good homemaker. Mr. White had never worried about a meal or pressed khakis.
He never had her lipstick smudge his cheek, either. He supposed the emptiness in his bed was not so bad as an empty belly might have been. He wonders if Ruby and Sandy will ever get along. Sixty-four years had not settled their mutual animosity, but he always held out hope. Ruby would never be Sandy’s mother, but he had hoped…
The tobacco burns down as he contemplates her. Sandy. His only child. His baby girl. He ponders her as he is prone to do in the silence, and it seems silent all the time now.
He thought that he did right by her. He’s certain he did. What does a girl need? Food. Shelter. Comfort. He made certain she had an abundance of each.
She isn’t a girl anymore, but when she was he was gone. She doesn’t remember the nights he came home late. In her memory there is a gap where he should have been. She doesn’t remember him whispering stories to her or smoothing her hair.
He told her he loved her, he swears that he did, but he only said the words to the dark.
Into the dark was not enough.
He sat between them at the breakfast table, Ruby staring sternly ahead–“the breakfast table is for eating, and we do not speak while we are eating”–Sandy defiantly humming to herself. Often he felt “I love you” bubbling up, a sickness desperate to relieve itself, but the room was too cold to receive his words.
So he did not say them aloud.
Even now he wonders if he doesn’t have time enough.
The shadow of Mr. White’s thoughts is matched by the shadow that falls over the bench. He draws his cardigan tighter over his shoulders, bristling at his own involuntary reaction. He glances at the man to whom the shadow belongs, but the man’s words stop his assessment.
“How often do you come here?”
A strange question formed from the lips of a stranger, but Mr. White feels compelled to answer.
“Almost every day now.” The man beside Mr. White is silent, a still, unnatural silent.
“When will you leave?” The man asks carefully. Mr. White considers the question for longer than he should.
He could leave now, he supposes, but Ruby would not be home and it would be lonely. He could meet Sandy for lunch, but she would ask about the appointment, and she would sense the paper in his pocket in the same way she sensed the hole in the camel jacket.
She had that way about her, the ability to sniff out the mundane. She would not consider this mundane. She would be angry with him.
She would blame him. Why didn’t he do this thing that she said he should do? Why did he spend so many years here in the middle of the country?
She would look at the barn that they were to convert years ago and the dust settled on the RV and the passports that expired last winter. She would hurt, a palpable hurt, because this is not how she envisioned this.
After the blame and hurt she would be afraid. She would be like a child again and he would not have the energy to raise her again. He isn’t certain he did the job right the first time, although she turned out beautifully. He should tell her that. He should tell her that she’s beautiful.
The paper singes his fingertips to spite him. It taunts him with its finality and its threats. It tells him, as it will tell Sandy–no. There is no time.
“In a few,” he responds to the man. The man seems to wait for his answer. Mr. White feels that the man would wait for forever, if required.
Of course, he is no man.
Mr. White turns to stare upon him. He stares back.
It is as if looking into a mirror. He looks as Mr. White looks, and more.
He looks healthy and strong and well-traveled. He has the lips of one who has said “I Love You,” perhaps even too much, the lips of one who kissed the grands just this morning.
His hair is an earned gray, dusted by sun and rain and snowmen. His legs are stiff from horse and doggie and an errant game of hide and seek.
Mr. White sees Sandy is his eyes, and Ruby too. Even here they are not perfect. But the words were spoken, haltingly and at the wrong time. He gave them to them in disrepair, yet they discerned his meaning.
Mr. White imagined Death many times. He envisioned many forms. He did not anticipate his jealousy, how angry death would make him.
“I’m not ready,” Mr. White declares.
“Aren’t you?” Death replies.
Mr. White is uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than he’s been in a long while. A warmth settles over him, and he knows that the warmth belongs to Death. It is different than he imagined.
More comfortable and soft.
“Can I ask you a question?” Mr. White asks.
“Ask,” Death answers.
“Why are you here?” Mr. White demands.
“You sent for me,” Death demures.
Mr. White ponders this. Did he? Certainly he was exhausted–the business of dying is exhausting. Every night he imagined two things–Ruby discovering a paper that he did not shred, somehow reading between the lines and discerning the winding down of the time he was given. The second imagining is always death–cloaked and grave, sweeping him from his body with a well hewn scythe blade.
Yet he did what he could to avoid both of those, he is sure. He kissed Ruby just this morning, and she seemed to warm to it. They are not happy–happiness left years before, but they are comfortable and at his age comfort is more than most people expect.
He shuddered when he considered every sunrise might be the last he laid his eyes upon–surely he did not long for death.
Death must be mistaken.
“I didn’t,” Mr. White assures Death. Death stares into Mr. White, unmoved.
“Then send me away.” Death commands. Mr. White moves his lips, but the words will not out.
Mr. White stands abruptly. He makes his way to the entrance of the park before turning. He can discern only Death’s shape from a distance, but he knows that Death’s unseeing eyes are focused on him. Mr. White returns to the bench.
“I don’t want you to follow me.” Mr. White declares.
“Why would I have to follow you?” Death asks.
“Why do you look like me?” Mr. White asks.
Death stares again into Mr. White, but he offers no answer.
“I want to see Sandy first.” Mr. White states.
“Why?” Death asks.
Again Mr. White considers Death’s question.
“I want to tell her that I love her.” Even to his aged ear Mr. White knows that his response sounds flat.
Mr. White opens his mouth to pose another question, but a sharp pain dulls his senses and stops him.
When the pain passes he gazes at Death, his face so sure and clear.
“Will they be alright without me?” Mr. White asks. Death gazes at Mr. White, but again he does not answer.
“Is it wrong for me to want to go?” Mr. White asks.
Death pauses before replying. “You were always on your way to this moment.”
They will miss him. They will be angry with him. Sandy most of all.
He wishes he could send words to her, but there are none.
Mr. White is selfish, he has always considered himself so. In death he had hoped it would be different, he hoped that his life would be laid out linear and bare, and the essence of who he was would be picked through and presented to those he left behind.
He turns to tell Death that he is ready, but he finds himself alone.
Dinner is with Sandy and Ruby. They do not speak to him. He considers telling them, but there are no words. There were never enough words.
At the door he pulls Sandy to him. She stiffens in his grasp, but she at least does not pull away.
He says, “I love you,” but only in his grip and in his eyes. He hopes she can understand.
Selfishly he is glad that he will not be required to witness the depth of her anger and despair.
Sandy stares into his eyes for a long moment and he imagines the child in there.
“I love you, Daddy,” she mutters. She turns away before he can answer, and his fingers feel hers long after she has gone. He wants to hold this moment and her love and take them with him.
When Ruby goes to bed in her room Death is there in his room, waiting for him.
Mr. White felt brave and well-lived as he pulled Death to him, and as he began to chill he considered Death’s familiarity and comfort. How close Death had been all the while. How sweet it felt to close his own eyes, and draw himself into eternal sleep.
II. Barbara Jean
She supposed (at least for awhile) that one could never have too many skirts. Good skirts could be as old friends. They were sensible and well made. They were easy to pack for long trips; this part she assumed, as it had been a long while since she and Vern had taken any trips. Even when they did she could not remember packing skirts or anything at all. Though she must have done this, as Vern never did anything domestic.
This, the inability to remember, was Vernon’s fault. Vern ruined. Everyone thought it, she knew they did.
It wasn’t even Vernon’s dementia. He was cold, always. Dementia only exacerbated who he was, it did not make him a new person. But before the dementia he at least wanted. He wanted to travel. He wanted to spend time with their boys and later their men.
Now Barbara had an empty house (she could not be responsible for him, and besides, he could not remember where he was half of the time, let alone where he should be, but she visited as often as she could) and a hundred skirts she could not wear. Barbara selected gingerly a faded, blue jean skirt. She tugged it over her ample hips, sighing heavily. She wouldn’t look in the mirror this time. It took so long to put on any foundation–forget the rouge–and somehow looking in the mirror made her face wet. The last time she considered cracking the mirror-she would have succeeded, were it not for Paul’s daughter being in the room.With the room empty save for her and her mirror it was hard for Barbara to keep the revulsion from her own face, even without looking at her hips pulling the seams.
Vern had looked at her that way, too. That was the worst part. Getting rounder and lower isn’t so bad; it’s not great, but there are worse things.
That cold stare, the unspoken revulsion. It splintered Barbara’s soul.
He wasn’t having an affair now, of course. He did not know who he was, and he would not know to be repulsed by his wife. He had affairs when he was younger–several. One of his lovers called once. What was her name? Barbara tried to remember, but her mind was blank.
The girl called the house just as if it were a movie. Barbara remembers it that way, a low melody playing their silent dinner, the phone startling them. Barbara folding the napkin and placing it on the left side of the plate, then the right. Barbara plucking the phone from the receiver, lifting it to her ear. Barbara not having the chance to say “hello,” because the woman (clearly much younger than even their youngest boy) began crying. The name “Vern” laced with “love” and “leave” was cast out at Barbara like a fist; she crumbled under the weight.
Vern was there, Barbara sees now. He stood sternly, pulling the phone from her hand. He listened for a few moments before barking, “do not call me here.” He hung up without a goodbye. He stepped over Barbara and took his place at the head of the table.
The boys and Vern looked on. Barbara could see even then the very clear choices she could make.
She pulled herself up heavily, narrowing her eyes at Vern.
She righted herself, lengthening her spine.
“After sinner–dinner we’ll have cookies. I’ve forgotten the milk.” She sat at her place on the opposite end, her face burning. She was glad then that her face was dark enough to hide her embarrassment, wondering if the girl from the phone blushed. She wondered if Vern liked it.
Vern offered no explanation and Barbara did not request one. Vern was not violent, but he was cruel. She thought, often, that the cruelty was worse.
He did not apologize and Barbara didn’t even leave the bedroom that time.
Or even the next two. Vern did not hide them, and Barbara pretended not to care.
When Jon left, she left. The house was already cool, and the spare bedroom was much warmer. It was a sensible move. For a moment Barbara wondered if Vern would ask her back.
He never did.
Their vacations did not taper off. They stopped abruptly, mid-sentence. One year they went down to one of the Carolina’s–North? And the next Vern purchased a new subscription to the local paper and a membership to the country club for each of them, but did not plan the trip.
Barbara wonders now if she should have. Vern did those things and she would not have known how. It would not have been proper, and besides, what would people think?
With trembling hands she pours cream into her coffee, counting out eight sugar cubes. No one would walk through the door to stop her, but she looked over her shoulder as she stirred, just in case.
She glanced at the clock on the wall and waited. Intuitively it rang, shrilly and metallic in the small room. She picked up the receiver and spoke, “Good morning, Jon.”
This was their routine. Jon, her youngest, calling to check on her. This was his way.
He loved her. Usually they spoke about their plans or a funny story they had heard.
Today she thought of his daughter. Not the oldest. She was in Pittsburg and would be home for Christmas. She thought of the other.
The one they didn’t mention.
She wasn’t dead. Barbara knew that sometimes families didn’t mention the ones who died.
In the beginning she wished that she had never been, but she never told anyone.
She didn’t even think God knew.
Barbara rifled through her memory, but she could not remember the last time her eyes touched his other daughter. In her mind the girl was still a child, but that wouldn’t be right.
She would be a woman now.
Barbara wondered if the girl hated her. She supposed that this was a bit presumptuous, to think that the girl would remember her.
She did not hate Jon’s daughter. She was just…a nuisance. A forgotten thing that, once remembered, drained and beat you. Barbara’s life was large by anyone’s standards and there was simply no room for the other girl. Barbara tried to leave the thoughts, but they followed her.
There were so many spaces to be filled there, so many unaccounted for pieces in this puzzle that Barbara had created. Barbara had always hated the mother–that was still true. The mother was just so right. Always so right.
And better. She didn’t say it. But it was there, in her eyes. She looked at you as if she knew you. She knew what terrible things you thought. She would tell you what she thought and no one checked her. She had freedom and she was a new woman.
She was nothing like Barbara.
Barbara thought of the conversation she had years ago, when Jon wondered if he was wrong.
She told him he had done all he could. “You can’t do anything. Her mother is crazy. You’ve done everything.” Barbara’s voice soothed him. Barbara’s lie sated him.
But there was the nuisance. She existed out there. Barbara’s friends did not know. Family had forgotten. She told them that it was the mother–crazy. Took her all the way to Georgia. Changed her number.
Barbara swallowed heavily. The burden of the lie lay at the forefront of her mind and she could not release it.
“I’m tired,” she offered Jon. He replied as she hung up the phone.
She entered the bedroom again, ready to discard the skirt. She did so.
She stood in front of the mirror, transfixed.
Her reflection wore a skirt.
Her reflection was her. . . And not her.
Her reflection spoke.
“Why?” In the back of her mind Barbara considered the absurdity of this. She considered that she was finally going crazy. Vern didn’t like animals, so she didn’t even have a brave dog that they speak about in the news, one who would call the emergency services when she invariably passed out and did not awaken.
And yet she answered, “why what?”
“Why did you think about her now?” Her reflection demanded.
Barbara responded with a question. “Who are you? Am I dying?”
“Yes,” her reflection replied. It did not mince words. It was cold and unsmiling.
“Why do you look like me,” Barbara asked Death. Death did not answer.
“What if I’m not ready?” Barbara asked. Her reflection–Death–stared into her, unwavering.
“Make yourself ready.” Barbara blinked and Death was gone.
People thought of her as a good person. She was a good person. She wasn’t perfect but she was good.
In her mind the words turned to sawdust and were meaningless.
She formed an apology, an explanation, but nothing came.
Death returned. Death returned while the words, “I’m proud of you” hung on Barbara’s lips, while they stood around and begged her to stay. She prayed the words off and she left.
A thousand miles away the girl, now a woman, felt an unfamiliar chill cross her cheek.
Sweat would bead hot on his brow; it would skirt through the deep crevices of his leather face. The ropy veins of his once firm arms would rise and his unused muscles would burn awake, tearing through him as lightening. His eyes would water and burn, but he would not lose the light. When his knees finally buckled and his heart rapped quickly to its halt, he would tear a lasting piece from his accuser; he would not move forward easily and without sound.
The soundlessness and quiet traveled easy with him, but he would not end this way. When he rose again his voice would pierce the veil and his accuser would kneel; he would meet Death as an equal.
Vernon harbored no illusions. Death had come for stronger men. Death would assuredly come for him.
He preferred The Others on their knees. He would grip them and they would tear at the wall and he would pull their faces gently towards him at his moment–theirs always came first–he would whisper to Them “open your eyes” and They would, wildly, and he would gaze into Them, Their faces broken open and Their souls exposed for him, and a piece of him would break away.
Vernon did not kiss The Others. This was before the film that made Barbara uncomfortable; he did not kiss The Others because he did not want to see their longing for more. He was comprised of pieces, and he could not offer them more than this. He did not wish to.
He would not kiss them, but he would hold them after, for a brief moment. When he first began seeing The Others he would shower. He would scrub his golden brown skin until pink shone. Barbara was fascinated with the paleness of his skin, how close to White he might have been had he only avoided sun. He would consider this, her fascination, as he scrubbed the traces of Them from his body; he removed the scent of them from everywhere but his mouth. It was vulgar, he understood. He kept that souvenir cruelly for her, Barbara. She would not kiss him, Barbara, even before. She did not like the way mouths moved against each other, she did not want that caress. She did not want his eyes to meet hers. She did not want him rooted in her soul.
After, he would return home to find Barbara in the kitchen. She was always in the kitchen, fretting. She would meet him at the top of the stairs and her eyes would meet his for a moment before darting away. She would smooth down her apron self-consciously. When the boys came she would gaze at him over their heads in a way that she believed was loving. He would capture her eyes then and he would remember The Others and his breath would catch. Not guiltily, of course. He needed something and he could not remember what, and in the moment that he captured her eyes all thought of that need vanished.
He would move close enough to touch her, Barbara, but he would not. She would not think it proper, and he was uncertain their bodies would still complement. He would be close enough to touch her, to ghost his fingers along her dress, but he would not. He would allow his breath to dance along her neck, and for a moment he would remember and she would remember.
Barbara was poor and dark skinned and unpopular. She was cute enough, but Vernon was handsome. His skin was a light golden brown, his eyes hazel. Barbara sat at the front of the room and to the left, and when he was bored Vernon watched the way the sunlight glinted from her long, pressed hair. She was prim and shy even then, and when he finally spoke to her she would not look at him.
Barbara walked home with her sisters; Vernon drove his car. He drove slowly beside her, yelling out of the window, his friends crying with laughter. Barbara tucked her head down and did not respond to him, only pressed her mouth into a firm line. Vernon sucked his teeth at her and sped off; in his rear view mirror he saw her wipe her cheek.
Vernon heard from her cousin that Barbara’s family hated him. He bristled at this; how could he be hated? He was wealthy. Handsome. He had a future. Barbara was poor and homely. He was better than she. He began to watch her. She held her head at an angle because she was shy, but even then she expressed defiance. There was a fire suppressed within her, and Vernon wanted to root it out. Barbara did not keep her head down because she believed him better than she. She was uncomfortable with their eyes meeting. She did not want to want him more than he wanted her.
Vernon chased Barbara because he could, at first. He could have any girl he wanted; they all wanted him. He wanted Barbara to want him.
She did not. She was studious but she was not brilliant. She was sweet and she did not want to be seen with him. He obliged her and met her in secret. When he had her she made him turn down the lights so that he could barely make her out. Her eyes captured his and held them the entire time. There was still a fire there, just below the surface. He wanted to out it. He would out it.
Barbara’s uncle begged her not to marry him. Vernon was not present for the conversation, and Barbara never shared this. Rather a cousin spilled it over a cocktail and a Persian rug.
“He offered her a car if she said she wouldn’t marry you.” the cousin revealed snidely. Vernon’s vision dimmed then and he swallowed past a deep lump in his throat. He wondered–he should not–how long it took Barbara to turn the uncle’s offer away.
“She thought about it for a week,” the cousin continued. Later, as Barbara slept next to him, her fingers lightly grazing his, he burned.
“Do you love me?” Vernon demanded. Barbara jumped at his sound–he spoke rarely, but authoritatively.
“I do love you, Vernon.” She offered her love as a plea and he accepted it without knowing why. Had she loved him? He was certain she did, but he did not believe she was in love with him. She loved him as one loves a savior–obligatory love. A self-sacrificing love. A love that placed Vernon above and Barbara beneath.
Their years were measured by a dance that both understood, but never at the same time. Vernon began searching for Others as anyone does–because he was bored. He could find Others easily. In his early forties he was still trim and desirable. Barbara desired him as she always had–silently, and in the dark. On her back she would peer up at him and she would bite her lip and he only saw her fully here, she only offered her soul, and only then in pieces, here.
He engaged the attention of Others because he wanted her, Barbara, to feel desperate; he wanted her to consider how lucky she was. It was this luck that drew his attention when he met Death for the first time.
He was engaged in an affair with an Other when he received the call. His father was dead. The body must be identified. He must do it.
It did not occur to Vernon to call Barbara. She would be home, in the kitchen. She would be devastated; she liked his father. She would not weep, though. Her tears would move softly, and she would look to Vernon for direction.
The face presented on the cold steel was indeed Vernon’s father. Vernon shared his father’s nose. It was strange to see his father there, unmoving. His father was a strong ,statuesque man. He exuded life and power; his shadow covered the world entire. Vernon crumbled into himself on the bench outside of the morgue. He felt the presence before he saw it, and when his eyes moved he only met a blur, first.
“He went easy,” the voice offered. The voice was cold and wet, but not unkind. Not kind either.
It simply was.
“What was easy?” Vernon demanded, his voice gravelly and not his own. He blinked firmly, wanting to be strong even before this stranger.
His father was never as clear as the face before him. Vernon started, gasping. The eyes pierced him, deep green with flecks of gold.
“Your father,” the man with his father’s face stated. Vernon’s heart throbbed in his chest.
“You killed my father?” The man did not answer, only stared at Vernon. Vernon’s throat constricted with knowledge.
This was Death. He wondered, faintly, if Death had come for him.
“Not yet,” Death offered Vernon.
“I wasn’t considering it, yet,” Vernon lied. Death nodded knowingly. Vernon ached with the knowledge that his father moved into the next easily. Why did he not fight?
“I’ll fight you,” Vernon stated. “When you come, I’ll fight you.”
Death stared into Vernon. He grazed Vernon lightly as he passed; when Death looked upon Vernon, Vernon felt the weight of himself lifted for a moment.
The moment passed, and Vernon was alone. Vernon wept.
Barbara responded to the news as Vernon knew she would, and he hated her for it. He wanted her to cry, to scream at him. He wanted her to mourn his father, to cry for him, to beg him to stay. Why would she not fight?
She collapsed into herself and he could not reach her.
When she finally asked about The Others, Vernon was unprepared. Barbara poured his coffee as she always did, offered him two cubes of sugar. She folded her apron neatly and sat at the table across from Vernon. Jonathan was still sleeping, and the gray at Barbara’s temples was pinned back. Barbara, as always, seemed self-conscious. From the corner of his eye Vernon saw her playing with her ring. The light glinted from the silver in her hair and he thought her beautiful.
He wondered if he should tell her. He had not said the words aloud before, and he wanted to, desperately, but they solidified like cement on his tongue. He swallowed his coffee without tasting it and he heard her words, whispered into her lap.
“How many women have you gone to bed with since we married? Vern? How many?” Startled he dropped the cup. His ears burned and he rose from the table angrily.
He had wanted her to ask all the while. He wanted her to notice. He wanted her to lash out, to feel, to defy him.
Instead she mumbled the words into her lap.
“Shut the hell up,” he shouted. He didn’t know those were the words he would cast at her, but they were out and he did not want to reclaim them. Her eyes darted up and met his then, and he saw her fully. She was proud but still fragile; in her eyes he saw the poor girl from the other side of the tracks. The fire that once was was dim, but it was not out.
Barbara did not leave him then. Even when The Other called at dinner she did not leave. Her eyes met his again, and he saw the light again dim, but it did not fade.
Barbara left quietly. She packed her things and moved to the room across the hall. A thousand times he called her back, he responded to her shouts in the dark.
But she did not shout, and his lips did not move.
Their years passed slowly and without sound; days crashed into each other, and Vernon found himself missing time. He forgot her birthday, first. Then their vacation.
Then the girl. Not one of his. Jon’s. He’d forgotten that she was supposed to be hidden. He asked about her, would have sworn that she was ten; just the day before he’d told Cheryl to keep her.
“She’s a blessing,” he revealed, his voice shaking. He did not see the blessing for many years, and they pretended the blessing did not exist.
But then he forgot. “Where is Jherine? Is she coming?” Barbara’s eyes narrowed and heat flared from them.
“She’s gone,” Barbara’s mouth formed the words and they dripped like venom. The fire that he had long desired whipped forth and burned him; Vernon recoiled.
“Where?” Vernon asked. He could remember, vaguely, something about her, the child.
“Just gone,” Barbara stated.
When next Vernon saw Barbara the heat was present again. Jon’s mouth was moving, but Vernon could not quite make out the words.
Barbara’s fire had made it to the surface. She would not accept this.
She would die if she did not, but the fire could not be contained. There was something that he wanted to tell her, he was sure, but he could not remember the words.
Vernon thought Death would come for him first. But it swept Barbara softly, and the fire in her dimmed and then outed.
Vernon remembered. “You are beautiful,” he wanted to say. He searched for her but he could not find her.
“Jon,” Vernon gripped the boy close to him. “Tell your mother she’s beautiful.”
Jon swallowed. “She’s gone, Dad,” Jon sighed.
“When she gets back. Just tell her.”
“Alright. I’ll tell her.”
Death came while Vernon was sleeping. He could feel the presence looming over him. When his eyes opened he saw Barbara. She gazed at him fully, her eyes dancing. He wondered. . .
“Did you know that I thought you were beautiful?” He begged. She nodded, silent. He wondered, with his leathery skin and his weakened arms what she thought of him. If she still thought him handsome. If she loved him.
For a moment he considered fighting. But Barbara was here, staring into him. She allowed him to see her, in the light.
“I–” he wanted to offer her an apology, to give her the last piece of himself, but she shook her head.
She held out her hand for him to take, and he did. He gasped at the familiarity.
“I said that I would fight,” Vernon stated. Death nodded.
Vernon leaned into Death as a lover, and they moved from life easily, and without sound.
Terence would miss her the most.
Teresa would grieve in her way–wildly and destructively, leaving all the rest to clean up after her.
Nicole would cling to Terence and she would lose her footing and she would not regain it again for a very long time.
Lamar would grieve as a child would–selfishly and away from them.
Terence would be angry. His anger would swallow him and everyone else. He would rage against them, beat against them, because he could not rage against her. He could not beat against her, he could not tell her not to go.
Could he, would beg her not to.
Mama stay, his voice would crack. It hadn’t deepened as much as he pretended, and the lilt at the end would pierce her soul.
She would, if she could. Not because he needed her–he didn’t. But she wanted to be there.
Helen looked down at TJ, asleep at her chest. He had fallen asleep at Cheryl’s breast, but she took him and he slept against her just as soundly. She loved him. He looked like Terence did at his age. She loved him more for it. She wished she could see him always. She hoped from somewhere she might.
As she clutched TJ to her a shadow came over her. She gazed upon it, but she did not start as others might. She knew this face. It was hers, but more beautiful.
Helen was a handsome woman. She was beautiful, though, once.
Her beauty had not faded; it resided beneath the surface, saved,like all of the things she wanted to do, for later.
She saw this beautiful face–her face–not a month before, after Yvette died. A courtesy, Death said.
Helen was a girl, not yet six when she met Death the first time.
Ms. Rosie lived in the shack about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road–Helen didn’t think of it as a shack, not in those terms, but that is what it was. It was a shotgun shack, more cluttered yard than house, with more kids than anywhere else in the neighborhood. There were at least eleven at any given moment in Helen’s childhood there. Joe said there were more, he’d seen them himself, but that they’d taken to killing the rest, babies and kids alike. Joe said not to go over there without one of the older ones, just in case Ms. Rosie thought she’d missed one.
The summers in Eutaw were hot–not Georgia hellfire hot, Helen didn’t yet know that kind of heat. The summers in Eutaw were blistering and the kind of heat that tired you. It was the kind of heat you didn’t escape from, the kind you just melted into.
There was no pool in the colored part of Eutaw. The only water outside of the bath came from the creeks. There seemed to Helen to be thousands of little creeks for exploring and fishing when Joe and the boys let her come. There was only the one lake, though. Lake Hanged Man, the one that Joe said the White boys used to throw all the colored bodies into after their rallies. Joe said it was man made so you couldn’t find the bodies, that the white boys from Birmingham, some of Bull Conner’s boys were sent here into Eutaw just to build this lake.
If you went into Lake Hanged Man you would drown. There were 20 kids between Ms. Rosie and The Jones’, and the only one that was rumored to swim was Rufus, Ms. Rosie’s oldest boy. Joe said he could swim, but Helen knew he was full of shit. She said it, too. He slapped her in the face and pushed her. He towered over her threatening to tell everyone that she still pissed in the bed and she was almost six. It wasn’t true, but she didn’t say a word.
It was the first of a thousand times she was struck without a sound.
Joe and Rufus left Helen and LuBelle, Ms. Rosie’s fourth or fifth daughter, in charge. The older girls were sneaking into town while Mama and Daddy played cards with Miss Rosie and Mister (no one could remember his name). Helen thought he was alright, but LuBelle said she was glad all of them stayed in one room. She wouldn’t want to be alone with him.
Five times the threat, “you drown in Hanged man and they won’t find your body till it dries out and they pick out the rest of the colored bones.” It worked. They’d all seen the picture of Emmit Till, and that wasn’t but a year ago.
But it was so hot. Helen and LuBelle frowned through the dusty haze at the boys diving into the lake from the bank, spluttering and sinking, but laughing joyously. They were so hot.
They would hold hands.
The bottom of the lake was squishy and cool, and Helen thought she could feel worms beneath her feet wriggling into the mud. She turned to smile at LuBelle, who beamed back. Helen took the next step
And sank. Invisible hands ensnared her neck, tentacles shackled her, gripping her to the bottom of the lake. Hundreds of hanged men leered up at her, skeletal arms reaching out. She struggled, her lungs burning with muddy water.
No. Not nothing.
LuBelle. LuBelle was there with her, in the lake. Helen could discern her as clearly as if she were viewing her through glass. She looked smoother than she had, and Helen stopped struggling against the water. LuBelle reached for Helen and Helen gripped her icy palms. LuBelle carried Helen to the surface, cradled her firmly in her arms, and it was then that Helen realized, vaguely, that she was still holding LuBelle’s hand–a different LuBelle entirely. Her LuBelle was floating face down in the muddy water. Helen began to struggle, but LuBelle was strong.
Helen knew that it was not LuBelle that held her, but Death.
“Am I going to heaven?”Helen asked. She was not afraid. She was tired. LuBelle shook her head.
“No. I’m not here for you. Not yet.”
The second time she met Death was at Grandaddy’s funeral. She saw him on the front row. He saw her–he was Grandaddy and it made her smile–and he tipped his hat to her.
She smiled harder.
She thought he’d come for Jimmy before her. She didn’t tell anyone, she just assumed. She didn’t think he’d recover from the stroke.
He was not a good man. She would get better, one day. She would choose right.
At Yvette’s funeral she was numb. Yvette had received her letter. She had called and they had talked. Yvette had turned her life to God.
Helen didn’t know what Yvette said to him. She wished she did; part of it was being nosy. But more than that she wanted to know what other people said when they talked to God.
She talked to God about Terence a lot. She didn’t have a favorite child.
But if she did, Terence would be hers.
He protected her.
He was the best part of her life, the only part that she didn’t feel was unfinished. She wondered if she told him that often enough.
Death was there at Yvette’s funeral. Sitting between the kids looking just like their mother. Death turned and stared at Helen and she knew.
It was the equivalent of your life flashing before your eyes. Suddenly everything makes you sick, and when you think about all of the life you thought you’d have time for, all the summers you would never see, you could become overwhelmed and stuck.
There are millions of things–billions of things–you could do with time left. When the clock is running down and Death is kind enough to let you see it, you can go places and see people and do things.
Helen ordered a cake. Teresa and Terence’s birthdays would be months away, but everyone should have a cake on their birthday.
Helen wanted to be there for all of their birthdays, but she would not.
At 45 Helen knew she would not live to see 46.
That morning, her fourth time seeing Death, she visited with him on the porch.
“Death,” she greeted him shortly.
“LuHelen,” Death replied. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. He knew she hated that name.
“I’m 45,” Helen announced. Death nodded without sound.
“But I have lived.” She declared for Death. He did not need her declaration, so he said nothing.
She had. It was not fancy and she would always be poor. But she was rich in love. In the ways they said and more. She had been loved.
Helen had loved, too. It had not been easy on her bones. They were sweet at first and Helen did not like the way she looked for so long…her beauty was tucked away, and yet Death made her relinquish it.
“What will you say to them?” Death asked her. Helen could measure her life in things she should have said.
Rains she should have walked in.
Sunlight she should have bathed in.
Beatings she should have prevented.
She wanted to say, I’m sorry, but there was no one to offer the words to.
“Will they be alright without me?” she asked Death. Death was an old friend and would answer her truthfully.
“No,” Death responded.
Teresa would unravel and would never reach 46.
Lamar would never be one of them.
Nicole would be ground into the hard road, but she would eventually out.
Terence. Terence would disappear, the sweet light that she knew would flicker and it would out. He would sleep for many years. He would miss her with a numbing grief, a blind, desperate longing for that which would be lost.
But he would out, too. Not unscarred, but he would not leave the world untraveled. In this Helen found solace.
She did not ask for an easy road. She wanted a road wide enough for a companion, and peace at the end of the journey.
Hours later Helen found herself cradled in Death’s arms, missing them. She gazed over Death’s shoulders, her promise, “I’ll be on my way” still warming the air where she left it. Death paused and stared down at her, silently asking.
She nodded, once, and with the confidence of old friends, met her eternity.
Death could only bear to visit her once. She had only just learned to laugh–not giggle, the way the younger ones did, but laugh. Saliva would dribble sweetly down her face and her eyes would brighten only for her mother and she would laugh.
Death did not take Lily easy. Death did not take a form for it could not bear it. Rather, Death appeared to her suddenly as both mass and void. She faced him directly, laughing, her sweet sound piercing the veil and ringing cruelly throughout the inbetween. Death swept her from her short life gently, cradling her as the baby she was. Death passed her mother, her eyes themselves voids of despair, and Death was afraid. Death would take Lily and there would be no other. Her mother would not bear it.
Death found solace in this.
Death held Lily close, then released her to her eternity.
VI. William Jamar
He startled awake from a dream, his heart hammering hard in his chest. It was a dream, he was certain, but the reality drenched his shirt.
He was afraid.
He turned to the body next to him, a dim moon cascading over her full body. She slept on, unknowing.
William rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to cast away the dream, but it clung to him.
In the dream he stood at a crack at the edge of the world. The edge of the world in his dream was dark and ragged, shredded skin and spent blood. It was cold at the edge, and the deep beyond it was certain. Behind him fingers like the digits of a sun-brittle skeleton scratched at his back, tearing at his skin. He was there at the end of the world wearing only his skin, and the beings behind him wanted even that. He stretched out his arms, desperate to reach over. He lost his balance and fell into the nothing
and righted himself in bed. It was so real, the dream. He would not call it a nightmare. It was a dream that he did not think he wanted, but then he did not dream much these days.
William’s sleep—when he could sleep—was haunted. He felt more than heard the comings and goings of those just beyond his reach, and his heart rate was always slightly elevated. If he happened to fall into a deep sleep his body would betray him and he would awaken, hands clawing at steel comfort.
Now he glanced at the woman sprawled out unknowing next to him, wondering if he could wake her. He could, but she would be angry. Her temper was volatile, but he was accustomed to it. Now he wished he could talk about his dream. What did it mean?
He would go to Grammy. The answer came to him as though spoken aloud. He crept from the bed and made his way across the cramped house to the lone bathroom. He checked in on the boys, the youngest with his mouth ajar, drool covering his brother’s arm. He wished they were awake so he wasn’t quite so alone.
In the dark of the bathroom he ran cool water over his eyes. He stared at himself in the mirror for long moments before startling.
His mirror was not his reflection at all. William was bone-tired, the kind of tired that hangs over the body like a pallor. He was covered in ink and his hair could use tidying.
His mirror bespoke youth. His eyes were clear with mischief, his mouth drawn up into a pleasant smirk. His mirror had not lived the same life.
William recoiled in horror, but the mirror spoke.
“Stay,” It commanded. William obeyed.
“What do you want,” his mirror asked him. William shook his head. This must be a dream. He thought he had awakened, but he was still trapped in the dream.
“You are not sleeping, but you are not awake,” the mirror revealed. “What do you want?” The mirror repeated. William swallowed hard.
“I want to rest,” he responded without thinking. The mirror nodded slowly.
“Who are you?” William demanded of his mirror shakily. “Are you an angel?” The mirror smirked at him.
“Are you death?” William whispered. The mirror did not reply. In the mirror’s silence William knew that he faced Death, but he was not afraid.
“Not yet, though, right?” William asked hopefully. Again the mirror said nothing.
“You will receive your rest soon,” Death revealed. He spoke the words as a promise of something grand, and William took the words with ease.
When William awakened again his bed partner was gone, the house empty. He made his way to Grammy’s house, formulating the question in his mind.
He couldn’t come out and ask her—she wouldn’t appreciate that. She would roll her eyes and brush him off if he didn’t warm her up first. He dragged out the lawnmower, pushing it across her tall lawn, still moving his mind over the question.
He would not ask, of course. He opened his mouth to ask her through the screen, but her words—I don’t like William at my house. He steals.—clawed his skin so thoroughly that he jumped. He mumbled words of goodbye and left before she could see the tears stinging his eyes.
He couldn’t be angry with her. That was her way.
He imagined his time as in an hour glass, running out. He could not imagine himself not here, but he could not imagine himself old, either.
The stories he and his sisters would tell about becoming old were always one-sided. It would not be his journey, he had always known.
He considered this as he spoke with the women in his life. His mom would always be first.
Her eyes were tired and she could not hide her disappointment. She did not express disappointment in him, but in his choices, she would say. He wanted so badly to tell her about Death, but she would not understand. She would want him to hide from it, she would not understand why he wouldn’t hide.
He would go to church with her so that she would see him enveloped in Christ. This would be a salve, he was certain. In the dark and the gloom of his absence she would hold the image to her like a portrait, something hopeful.
He wasn’t sure about Asia. She was so difficult to read, she would probably laugh because she was confused. Angie would ask him if he was ready, and she would bear the weight like a warrior.
Whitney would have a hole ripped in her universe. This he felt guilty about. She would lose her right lung when he was gone, and he could not think of a way to mend her.
They trying to take me out, is all he could muster, to prepare her for the inevitable, but it wasn’t enough. It would not nearly be enough.
William thought of the things that he did not do, and he felt immense sadness. At the park he gripped his sons to him, told him that he loved them. He watched his youngest—so much like William—with worry in his heart. Someone would need to watch him. He would have to remember to say that. He did not tell his children goodbye—he could not.
“See ya later,” he said.
The reality never meets the expectation. Though he knew his time drew short, he was surprised. One moment he was alive, and the next moment the veil was drawn.
He thought he would be alone in the end. He was not. Death brought to William the giants upon whose shoulders William stood. He lowered his head remorsefully, feeling guilt for what he did not do.
“Hold your head up,” Grace commanded. “We’re here because of who you were, not who you pretended to be.”
Death held out Death’s arms to William, and William stood. He sloughed off his worry and his tired like a coat too small for wear. He left them behind; they would not fit in his new world.
“What’s next,” William asked, but Death shook Death’s head.
“The journey is long. Rest William, and be at peace.”
William lay cradled in Death’s arms surrounded by those that loved him, and he rested and had peace.