“Hey, anyone sitting here?” he beams at me, his smile warm as sunshine on a steering wheel. His black T-shirt has a cheerful dancing skeleton on it, and there’s a big black messenger bag pulling down one half of his body. He’s got perky dreadlocks, a caramel-colored baby face, a misplaced goatee, shining eyes, and an eager smile.
I move my coffee cup over a little, and fold my paper. The smile flashes bigger. He sits down; the bag thumps and rumbles to the floor.
“The weight of Western thought,” he says brightly, “. . . gives me a backache!”
No one can accuse me of being a misanthrope. I chuckle with an evenly measured amount of jocularity, but in my heart I’m thinking, what a shame, what a shame.
My name is Amis Blunt, and I’m the Angel of Death.
I don’t wear a black caftan. I don’t carry a scythe. I’m not tall, skeletal, nor do I play chess. I’m actually rather short, and I have a bit of a gut. My hair is thinning. I wear glasses. Imagine someone just below middle management, destined to remain in a windowless cubicle with no pencil sharpener. That’s me.
It’s an icy winter evening, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop. I’m drinking coffee. It’s good coffee; expensive, but what do I care? I attract money. I suppose that’s how I get paid. I’m the lucky schlub who finds the twenty-dollar bills that people drop, the diamonds that fall out of their rings, the boxes of consumer electronics that tumble out of the backs of their trucks. I’ve got more money that I know what to do with. And there’s no time card to punch; no co-workers to buy stupid birthday presents for.
Nice work if you can get it.
Getting it is the tricky part, though; even I don’t know how I ended up here. I didn’t apply for the job. You don’t see “Angel of Death” in the want ads. There’s no interview where you get all dressed up and talk to some poker-faced demon who asks you dumb questions like, “Why do you think you would make a good Angel of Death, Mr. Blunt?” or “What would you say is your biggest weakness, Mr. Blunt?” or “What’s the first thing that pops into your head when I say esophageal cancer?”
Not that my qualifications are lacking. All my life I’ve had an aptitude for death. Pets, friends, family members; my childhood was a whirl of myocardial infarctions, car accidents, freak illnesses, inexplicable blunt-force traumas. They all kind of blur together. I think my mom died of breast cancer. Or maybe it was an inoperable brain tumor. I do remember how Dad went, though. He was a Shriner, and it was the Fourth of July, and he was zipping around with his beer-drinking buddies, their red fezzes and crazy little cars a declaration of joy, an affirmation of life. Unfortunately, their exuberance enraged the supposedly tame bull on the Merrill Lynch float, which broke free and trampled them all. They tried to outrun the brute, but their tiny cars just didn’t have the oomph.
It’s a crazy life. You get used to it.
I look at the kid. I wonder what his family is like . . . his large, extended, healthy family. I wonder if he had a dog that didn’t die of a rare flea allergy. He probably did. The little sonofabitch probably had fucking Lassie to take care of him.
“You a student?” I ask, swallowing bitterness. The kid has pulled out a book and is devouring it enthusiastically. He looks up, nods, dreadlocks bobbing.
“I’m a philosophy major,” he says, like he’s very proud of this fact. He closes the book, but keeps one finger in it to mark his place. I see that it’s entitled “The Politics of Non-Being” and the author’s name would sound like clearing your throat if you spoke it.
The kid doesn’t look like he’s about to die. But then, nothing makes sense in this stupid job. There’s no rationality to it, no order. It’s all randomness and chaos. Ten minutes from now, he could be thrashing in the grips of a fatal anaphylactic reaction to the chai he’s drinking. So, as I sometimes do when I encounter one whose bucket-kicking I perceive to be imminent, I try to draw him out, make his last few moments meaningful and interesting. A little customer service. Going the extra mile.
I say the first thing that pops into my mind.
“You got a strong neck.”
Of course, the minute I say it, I kick myself. What the hell kind of thing is that to say? I mean, a million things I could have said, something profound like “Life is a River,” but no. . .
The kid’s smile stiffens up, like hot melted sugar that’s cooled and become brittle. Cute kid like this, probably gets come-ons from sick old men every day.
“The neck tells a lot about a person,” I add quickly, fingers fumbling in air. “I mean, strong neck, strong person . . . you know.”
“Yeah,” the kid says, looking down quickly, hiding in his book. “Sure.”
Okay, so I suck at going the extra mile.
I take a quick drink of my coffee. My cheeks are burning. Well, it’s not the first time. It’s not like I’m good with the public. If they wanted customer service they should’ve put in a fucking phone room.
I really don’t want to watch him die.
That’s how my job actually works. It’s all about the watching. I have to witness the moment of death. I have to do the recording, though how my work product is utilized, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe I subconsciously type up an Akashic Record, maybe I submit reports in my dreams, or maybe I’m just a human filing cabinet, and when I’m full they’ll put me in long-term storage somewhere. Who knows. All I know is it’s my job to be there when the deal goes down, when cars blow tires and jump sidewalks and smash through plate-glass windows, when lunatics start chatting with Jesus and Charles Manson about ammunition. When tame bulls run rampant, there’s Amis Blunt, standing and watching and looking stupid. Again.
From the back of the coffee shop comes the violent sound of a door flung open.
“I told you, I told you, I told you, NOT WITHOUT MY HAT!” A man reels out of the bathroom, screaming, smells streaming around him like dirty gauze. He is dressed in a new nylon jogging outfit that is prominently emblazoned with a corporate logo. His face reminds me of the shriveled apple-head dolls my grandma (she choked to death on her popcorn during a Mel Brooks movie, I think . . . Blazing Saddles, maybe, or maybe the one about Frankenstein . . .) used to make.
“I said, not without my goddamn HAT!”
It’s obvious that the drunk is not talking to anyone real (though I’m sure the voices in his head don’t think they’re imaginary) and everyone in the coffee shop freezes, hoping they’ll suddenly become invisible. The only movement comes from the girl behind the counter; like me, she has a job to do. She says something to the drunk, in a tense, faux-professional tone that does little to mask her nervousness and disdain. I can’t make out what she’s saying. I don’t listen. Dammit, I don’t even look. In fact, I look away, look away hard. Because the drunk smells like more death coming, and I’m tired of watching. But I can’t keep my lips from moving with his.
Not without my hat.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the girl prop her hands on her hips and huff off toward the phone, probably to call the cops. I squeeze my eyes shut tight, and feel, rather than see, the drunk’s wide whirling gesture. I hear the whispered sound of nylon as the drunk pirouettes, lurching toward the door, lumping one foot in front of the other. There’s traffic speeding by outside. Lots of traffic, going too fast on the icy winter street. So goddamn predictable.
The drunk knocks over our table as he passes. Everything crashes to the floor. The thick white porcelain of my cup rings clear like a bell once, bounces, then shatters on the tile. There’s an inhalation of breath around us. The drunk disappears out the door and down the street, screaming like a woman in a horror movie. I let my eyes rest safely on the broken cup for a long time. Once I’m sure he’s gone, I look up.
The kid is staring after him, his eyes shining like mirrors. He’s hardly breathing.
“Hey,” I say to the kid. I have to say it again before he looks at me.
“It’s a rotten thing to die without your hat,” the kid says, quietly. “Didn’t someone say that once?”
“Yeah, everyone’s said everything, pretty much.” I reach into my pocket, flash a twenty in the direction of the coffee girl. She is standing, her chin raised in triumph, wielding the phone receiver like some kind of totem. Her sense of victory is palpable. I have to wave the twenty to get her attention. I order another coffee for myself, and another chai for my little friend.
The kid picks his book up from the floor, dusts it off sadly.
“OK?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, rubbing his finger along a torn place on the book’s spine.
“Must be a good book,” I say.
“Good?” he says. “I’ve only read it about fifty times!”
“See, this guy says that life is an oversold product, and death a bureaucratic exercise in pragmatism.” He says the words with reverence. “How’s that for deep?” I hmmmm indulgently. Bureaucratic exercise in pragmatism. Sounds about right.
“As a culture, we live in denial of death,” the kid is building steam. “We ignore it, we fear it, we paint its cheeks with rouge and lay it in a satin-lined box. We throw money at it, we hide from it . . . but we never look at it. We never just stop, and take a breath, and calmly, peacefully look at it.”
He keeps talking, but I stop paying attention. My attention span is short these days, especially when it comes to philosophy majors. Actually, I’m watching a woman who is walking past us, toward the counter. As she passes by our table, I see a secret stray bill winkle out the side of her purse, slither down her arm, flutter three times (grazing her elbow, hip, leg), then jump off her shoe and nestle snugly under the table.
I smile at the kid, but suddenly, he isn’t there for me to smile at. He bends down quickly, reaches under the table. His dreadlocks wave at me. The twenty is between his fingers when he surfaces.
“Death is as meaningful as birth, in the final analysis,” he concludes. He lifts his hand to the woman. “Ma’am!” he calls to her. “Ma’am, you dropped this!”
The bill is returned, gratitude is expressed. The kid sits back with a smug, self-satisfied look, ignoring the icy daggers I’m staring at him.
“Happens all the time,” he shrugs. “People are always losing things. I like to help. It makes me feel . . . good.”
“Yeah, it’s nice they got you to watch out for them.” I sneer. “It’s like you’re a superhero. The superhero who returns lost money.”
“Money, diamonds, boxes of stereos that fall off trucks . . .” His face is wary as he looks at me. “I mean, honesty is the best policy, right? And it’s not like I need the money . . .”
“Sure you don’t,” I say, leaning forward. “Mommy and Daddy probably got a real nice trust fund set up for you, don’t they?”
The kid looks at me with a pained expression. He looks bewildered, as if he’s just been betrayed by a friend.
“Well, yeah . . . in a manner of speaking,” he says softly. “Actually, my parents died when I was three. I didn’t have any grandparents. They all died the year I was born. Tractor-trailer accident.”
I skip bargaining. Bargaining always seemed whiny and desperate. It’s only a job, after all. I still have my dignity.
“I have to use the rest room,” I say, rising before my hands find his strong throat. I flash him an insincere smile. “I’ll be back in a second.”
He nods, opening his book to where his finger has marked. I duck around the corner, then out the front door.
Let the little brown-nosing suck-up sonofabitch pay the check. Everyone deserves severance pay, even if it’s just a cup of coffee.
I open the door without a hat on my head and I walk into the street. The boss is coming, and he’s got a gold watch and cake with my name on it. Blue-tinted halogen lights and the smell of chrome and icy pavement. There’s someone behind the windshield, mouth moving to a song on the radio, oblivious.
I feel the kid watching from inside the coffee shop, his eyes bright as headlights through the plate-glass window. His face is lit up with wonder and awe. He’s so young and sharp and eager.
It’s just a job.
Acceptance smashes through me at 65 miles per hour.