The Art of Living

D.C. Nelson

It was late when Mark picked Death up on the corner of State and Main. Death was tall, thin, and his neck badly needed another pass with the razor. He was wearing a ratty black sweater and dark Levis with a jagged gash displaying a white and angular left knee. He had been standing in the rain, his thumb pointed vaguely north.

“Where do you need to go?” asked Mark as Death folded his lanky frame into the passenger seat. Death smelled of wet clothes and the acrid taint of rotting leaves.

“I’m going toward Shelton,” said Death easily. “I have an eight-thirty appointment. Or,” he considered, “maybe eight forty-five. I’m not particular.” He flashed his wrist at Mark, displaying bare white skin where his watch should be.

Beth would like him, Mark thought. Beth would find something to like about him. “The devil is in the details, Mark,” she had said that morning as her hand brushed back her hair. “Or, rather, the angel is. We always hate people in general and love people in particular.”

“What do you mean?” Mark fumbled with his tie.

“You, you idiot,” his wife said affectionately. “You live your life in a grey haze. You’re a wonderful man surrounded by wonderful things, and you never notice it.”

“I notice plenty.”

“Like what?” Beth formed her lips into a dramatic pout.

He kissed them. “Your hair is the exact color of the morning sun shining through a glass of ginger ale.”

“Idiot,” she said again, and kissed him back.

In the car, Mark flipped on his turn signal. “Where’s your appointment?”

“Oh, wherever,” said Death. “I’ll know it when I see it.” He clicked his head to the side, a sudden, birdlike gesture. “What’s your name?”

“Oh, sorry,” said Mark, extending the hand closest to Death. “Mark Connors. I’m headed into Shelton, so you’re in luck.”

“Thanatos,” said Death. “It’s Greek. But Nate’s easier.” He shook Mark’s hand. His hand was cold and left Mark’s fingers tingling. His fingerprints dragged on Mark’s as he pulled his hand away.

There had been five clients today in his cramped accountant’s office, and thinking back Mark couldn’t remember what order they had been in, or even the particulars of their faces and mannerisms. He did all right in the moment, he thought, but he couldn’t sustain an appreciation of people and things for long. He tried to appreciate Death, caught for the moment by the way Death’s hands splayed over his spare knees. Death was humming a song that conflicted in both rhythm and tone with the woman’s voice singing a quiet love song on the radio.

Mark cleared his throat and pulled the gearshift into drive. He eased into the flow of traffic on Main, his tires squelching on the wet street. He disliked small talk. “So, what do you do?”

“I collect souls.” Death watched the cars swim by. “I’m the Grim Reaper.”

Mark raised his eyebrows. “The Grim Reaper.”

“Indeed.” Death grinned. “Do you mind if I turn off the radio?”

Mark shrugged. Death reached over and flicked the knob with a flourish of his hand. The music died in a crackle of static.

“Don’t like music?” asked Mark. At Death’s flourish he had noticed, with a stirring of unease, that Death was slightly effeminate.

Death shrugged, an awkward, rolling movement. “Human contact, that’s what I like. That stuff—” he waved his hand at the radio “—is fake, a trick. It’s just a copy of the original.”

It was a mistake to have picked Death up, Mark decided. Still, it had been his choice—it was foolish to think of Death as an annoyance, a disturbance, or something apart from everyday life. He realized he was clenching his jaw and slowly relaxed it. “What’s the original?”

Death smiled an eerie, quiet smile that burned in his pale blue eyes. “You are. You’re living. That’s a music of its own. Your heart beating, your blood scraping across your cells like a tambourine. Even your brain has—a vibration, a tone. Music. Haven’t you ever heard it?”

“Not really,” said Mark. Beth would like Death, he told himself firmly. Beth would not let herself get flustered by the birdlike scrutiny in Death’s gaze.

“Pity,” said Death. “You have a nice heartbeat. Primal. It’s one of the reasons I let you pick me up.”

“Well.” Mark squirmed carefully and quietly in his seat. “You don’t look like the Grim Reaper.”

“Oh, costume,” said Death, wrinkling his nose. “I haven’t done the robe and scythe for centuries. People no longer expect it, you see, and it’s inconvenient and unnecessary. After all—” Death scratched his neck with a rasping sound “—all I have to do is show up and that is that.” He clapped his hands together for emphasis and then shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what I look like.”

“Do you like your job?”

“Love it,” said Death, chewing on the words. “I get to interact with people in a rather—ah—unique way, and I provide a valuable service.”

Mark shook his head. “A service?”

“I suppose it’s hard to see it that way from your position,” said Death. “But I like to think of myself as a sort of glorified garbage collector.”

Mark laughed, a barking, humorless sound.

“It’s a good job,” said Death, “though I appreciate a break as much as the next man. It’s nice to have a moment with you, even. I don’t get to talk to many living souls. And I like the music of the living—it’s a change.” His head went to the side again in that jerky bird movement. “The dead are—well, the dead are different. Few of them are prepared for the—the one-sidedness of being dead.”

“One-sidedness?” The freeway was busy, the lights of the cars confused in the watery air. The rain was beginning to clear up; the drops were falling in sporadic clusters onto the windshield.

“Well, when you’re dead, there’s only death to think about,” said Death. “Continual death, continual dying—there’s an art to being dead as much as there’s an art to being alive. Most souls aren’t prepared to be dead; they don’t realize dying never stops. And after a while, their thoughts begin to take on a pattern, a repetition—a beat, even—until they’re just howling over and over again the great eternal fact I’m dead.” Death chuckled. “It’s all very poetic, but it doesn’t make good conversation. It’s nice to get away from it for a while.”

“It sounds like Hell,” said Mark.

“It may be,” said Death, sounding intrigued. “I don’t know. I don’t really have any religious affiliation.”

“So everyone ends up the same?” said Mark. “That doesn’t sound too hopeful.”

“Well, not exactly the same,” said Death. “But without life, without living, there’s nothing to—to distract you from yourself. And when you’re dead—well, you’re dead. Everyone is focused on themselves, focused on being dead.” Death chuckled and shook his head. “Poor souls.”

“You’re not very cheerful,” said Mark.

“No one expects me to be,” said Death, flapping his hands negligently. “What I’m trying to say is that, compared to your music, the dead are like children singing ‘Ring around the Rosy’.” Death pursed his lips. “You’re more like Beethoven and Shakespeare all in one.”

Mark grunted uneasily.

Death sighed. “Pity you don’t recognize it. You can let me out here.”

“Here?” Mark looked at Death, who smiled back benignly. “It’s in the middle of the freeway.”

“Well, obviously you let me off on the side of the road,” said Death. “But this is where my appointment is.” Mark slowed, glancing across the soggy landscape. There was no marker or place where anyone could meet. “Look, I can’t just leave you out in the rain.”

“It’s not raining.” Death pointed outside. “I’ll be all right. Besides, you’ll feel better to have me out of your car.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Mark weakly. “Let me at least take you into Shelton. We can find you someplace warm to stay.”

“We’re going to miss it, and I don’t want to have to walk back,” said Death.

Death was staring out the window, his hand resting on the door handle. Sighing, Mark turned on his hazard lights and pulled to the side of the road.

“Thank you, Mark,” said Death, unbuckling his seatbelt as Mark pulled to a stop. “You make a very nice music. I hope I run into you again before the end.” He opened the door. A cold, misty wind seeped into the warm car.

“Your end, I mean,” added Death as he climbed out of the car. He gave Mark another eerie smile. “I’m forever.”

“Wait,” said Mark loudly, putting the car in park and opening his door. He pulled himself out of his seat into the chilly night air. “At least let me give you some money or something.” Death looked at him from the other side of the car. His smile widened. “Are you trying to bribe me?”

“I’m not—” said Mark.

There was a metallic scream from the road in front of them, and Mark turned just in time to see a large black pickup truck careen across the lane of traffic, ricocheting off a small semi truck in a long stream of sparks that shone in the dark like a photographer’s flare. The force of the semi knocked the truck over, and it barreled sideways in an insane somersault. The truck crunched its way toward Death and Mark, the top of the cab crumpling a bit more in each revolution. The smoking debris came to a halt five feet from Mark’s car.

With a shudder, Mark realized he hadn’t even considered moving.

Death was looking at Mark, a connoisseur’s smile on his lips. “You sound even better when you’re startled, you know,” he said. “Allegro movement.” He sighed and turned to the ruined truck.

“Back to work. Thanks again for the ride.”

“Who are you?” cried Mark.

Death just smiled, walked over to the truck, leaned over to peer into the shattered windshield, and disappeared.

Without thinking, Mark followed Death, but he halted a foot from the truck. The driver of the truck was still alive, slumped against the broken window—Mark could see the yellow fabric of his shirt pressed up against the spider-web mesh on the glass. His eyes were ringed with red, his blond-streaked hair slick with dark blood. He was young, Mark thought, his jaw working, almost impossibly young.

Mark crept closer, bending over the window. The kid was gasping loudly, dryly. Mark leaned closer, trying to catch words, but all that escaped the kid’s mouth was a pink string of drool. Mark watched, his mouth hanging open, as the pain-tormented self-awareness in the kid’s eyes drained slowly away and the kid went limp.

“A pity,” said Death from behind Mark. “He was young. The young always take it the hardest.”

Mark spun around. “You—”

“Just a garbage man making his rounds,” said Death, smiling. Whistling, he began to walk away, his hands stuck in his pockets.

“Are you afraid to die?” Mark had asked Beth on their fourth date.

“I think so,” she had said, puzzled. “I enjoy life, I wouldn’t want to stop—well, noticing things, I guess. Does that sound stupid?” It had, at the time, but he had smiled and turned back to his hamburger.

Death was farther away now, and he was sticking his thumb out to the passing cars. Mark took a breath in and noticed that the cold air tingled in his nostrils like carbonation. In his chest, his heart thudded, the dim echo of a distant symphony.