If aliens want to inspect the Earth and take a quick snapshot of mankind, don’t send them to New York, London, or LA. Send them to San Francisco at noon. We’ve got all colors of the rainbow of ethnicity and race, sexual preference and gender, living and dead. Every kind of person you can imagine all trying to find a decent place to eat lunch. Except the Amish, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any Amish people in San Francisco. Maybe the aliens could make a detour to the Midwest.
I didn’t always fight the whole of mankind to eat a rushed lunch during the workday. I used to just eat at my desk, taking a break from staring at number columns to stare at news headlines on my computer. But after the edges of my vision started going blurry and an optometrist prescribed me -4.25 lenses, Lisa insisted I leave the office at least an hour a day to give my eyes a rest. Even after she is gone I still find myself wandering out of the office at 12 noon sharp, ever the creature of habit.
I wonder which will be more crowded, the French café on Marigold or the Vietnamese place down near Central?
At the stoplight outside my building I step off the curb when everyone else does, not bothering to check the light. I move with the security of the crowd to the other side and find the wave taking me left. Vietnamese it is.
The crowd carries me thirteen blocks before I muster up some force of will to cut across to another stop walk. The Vietnamese place sits across the street, its red lanterns waving in a slight breeze I can’t feel through my suit. A cop stands next to me, waiting on the light, and I feel the strangest urge to grab his gun. I always have this urge whenever I see a cop. It’s not that I have violent fantasies; I don’t even want to use the gun. I just want to see what would happen next. It’s like when you stand on top of a bridge and wonder what it would feel like if you jumped.
The light turns green before I can figure out if today is the day I’ll finally act upon this whim and the cop is gone, chasing down some criminals who have parked too long in the metered parking.
I don’t know the name of the old woman who works at the front, but she smiles in recognition when I open the door. “Meester Yames, seet anywhere!”
I grab a table for two near the back and pick up the menu, thinking maybe I’ll order something new for a change but everything is written in Vietnamese. Instead of asking for an English one, I just give the waitress my usual order. She returns a few minutes later with a bowl of noodles and a smile that I don’t know if I return.
A couple next to me expertly feed each other with chopsticks and suddenly I feel self-conscious about slurping through my fork.
“If I wanted to eat with sticks I would go live in the fucking woods like a cavewoman,” Lisa used to say loudly. I would turn red at the glares from the Vietnamese servers. They’ve gotten much nicer since I started coming here without her.
It doesn’t take me long to finish the bowl, and by the time I pay I’ve only used up twenty minutes of my hour-long break. I’ll walk to the park. I do the math. Seven minutes to the park, ten minutes to sit, fifteen back to the office and a two-minute elevator ride should put me back just in time. Another cop stands at the corner and I shove my hands in my pockets as I pass.
I find a bench in the park with difficulty, and now I only have six minutes to relax. The weather has turned nice today; the breeze hits this corner of the city making it an oasis and everyone is out to drink hungrily from the coolness.
A teenager with a Mohawk sits with a Stiff girl across from me. I politely avert my gaze, but somehow every time I find something new to focus on, my eyes drift back to the teenagers. You don’t see too many young Stiffs. She’s freshly dead; the decomposing process has barely begun. I can still tell that her eyes were a light color, maybe blue or green, but of course they’re opaque now, glossed over with a whitish film.
The kid with the Mohawk is reading poetry to her. Something by Shelley. The wind tugs a piece of brown hair from her scalp and sends it down the sidewalk, but neither of them notices.
I wonder what happened to her. Most teenagers are killed by car accidents these days, right? There are no deformities, no missing limbs or gaping wounds like most accident Stiffs have though. Maybe a disease? The wind picks up and I see something flutter at her wrists. Skin. Oh.
The scene reminds me intensely of my mother, and for a minute I’m ten years old again sitting at the table watching her hold a book two inches from her nose. My mother loved to read. Well, she didn’t so much read as she breathed in words, like air. She consumed everything, from books to magazines, Hallmark cards and coupons, all those words filling her until I thought she would burst. But she was a quiet woman; she always seemed like she was holding her breath. When I was a child, I would watch my father come up behind her as she read and place his hand on her back. I was sure he was checking to make sure her lungs were still operating.
When my mother died, the words stopped trickling out, but they didn’t stop flowing in. She continued to devour everything mechanically, her eyes consuming all the words until they, too, decomposed. Even then, she sat at the kitchen table, staring at books day after day until eventually dad took her to an At Rest home. He had stopped putting his hand on her back.
“He should have done it ages ago, really,” Lisa said when I hung up the phone with him. “My grams kept gramps around until there was no motor function left. Made a fucking horrible smell.”
An elderly couple walks by and glares at the teenagers. It’s not really proper form to take a Stiff out in public but it’s becoming more common these days. I don’t judge the kid with the Mohawk. How could I when my own father kept my mother around, letting her read for months after she could understand what she was reading?
“Just promise me, when I kick the bucket, you’ll put me straight in an At Rest home until I get planted in the ground,” Lisa said one night at dinner, after watching a woman with her Stiff husband dining next to us. The woman ate and chatted while the man stared blankly at the flickering flame of the table candle. “Everyone’s last memory of me is not going to be some disgusting corpse. They’re going to remember me as the beautiful and perfect angel I was in life.”
“You’re allowed to embellish when someone’s dead. I expect an entire speech about my virtues at my funeral, James Keller.”
Of course I promised to follow through on all her wishes, just as she knew I would. I don’t consider myself a sentimental person. Even when we signed the divorce papers she left me as her emergency contact because she knew I would put her away, and not dress her up and put her on display the way her mother probably would.
When I leave the park to return to the office the boy in the Mohawk is still reading, and the Stiff girl is still staring at the lamppost, not hearing a word.
Back at the office, the only sounds come from the clicking of computer keys. I take seven silent steps to my seat and sit down. No one looks up or asks me how lunch was. I awaken my computer, and go back to work.
There’s something comforting about typing on a keyboard. I barely have to pay attention anymore; I just let my fingers do the work while I think about other things. I used to daydream about Lisa, our plans, our jokes, her smile. Now these long hours are torturous as I try to think about anything else, fail, and then try again while my fingers mechanically punch in long columns of numbers.
Sometimes I worry I’m already dead. I mean, how would you really know? Do Stiffs think they’re still alive? Think they’re moving and talking and eating when really they’re just sitting there decomposing?
I suddenly think of Roger. He’s a Stiff, and the oldest one I have ever heard of. He still works in the office, though he’s shut up in a back room with twenty air fresheners decorating his door. He retained his motor skills far past decomposition. In fact, he’s mostly skeleton now; someone removed some of his excess skin to make it more even. Now only his hands remain and he uses them to continue typing numbers over and over again. There has to be a joke in there somewhere about death and taxes but Lisa was the funny one, not me.
Does Roger think he is still alive, clocking in his hours and going home to his wife every night and not a government-funded At Rest Home for Post Mortem Employees? I wonder how things look from his perspective.
He’s dead, I have to remind myself. Things don’t look like anything from his perspective. His eyes are gone. His brain is a pile of mush. He doesn’t have thoughts or dreams. I’m really losing it today.
At 5pm on the dot I stand up from my desk and look around, my neck popping as I do. No one else moves, too absorbed in their work to realize the day is over. Even as I pack my things I wonder why I’m rushing to be the first one out. It’s not like I have anything to return home to.
A seventeen-minute walk later, I’m back at an empty apartment that is exactly the way I left it this morning. Nothing’s been moved or cleaned. Nothing has even been added to the slight mess. That’s one of the weird things about finding yourself suddenly living alone. I could leave the kitchen counter clean and it would stay that way for days. No paprika spilled and caught in the crevices of the tile, no half-washed pan with the remnants of a failed cooking experiment in the sink. Not even an empty coffee cup on the table or a pair of shorts left on the bedroom floor.
I change out of my suit and think about going to the gym, but end up sitting on the couch and watching some sitcom about a guy and his Stiff twin brother playing pranks on people. There’s something comedic about watching actors portray Stiffs on TV. Their chests still move up and down with breath and despite the contact lenses, you can still see a light in their eyes.
I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting there watching episodes roll right into another, when the phone suddenly rings. I reach for it, dreading seeing the lawyer’s number on it again, but instead the caller ID is long and strange. I cautiously pick up.
“Hi, is this Mr. Keller?”
“Uh, yes, may I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Antony Ward from San Fran General. We have a female Post Mortem here whose family we’ve been trying to track down for a while. It appears she might belong to you.”
My first thought is Lisa and my entire body goes ice cold.
“What…what was her name?”
He doesn’t seem to hear my whisper and keeps talking.
“…a trolley and three cars, lots of Sti-I mean Post Mortems just standing around, we don’t have anywhere to put them. They’re getting in the way of the living patients. We know it’s a delicate situation, but we really need family members to come as soon as possible to claim them. When can you be here?”
It takes me a full thirty seconds to respond.
“I’m on my way.”
I take the bus to the hospital because I can’t remember where Lisa last parked the car. It hits me that she might never drive again. The whole way there my mind spins in twenty different directions and every train of thought ends in despair. I resort to numbers, hoping their simplicity will keep me sane. If the bus stops for twenty seconds at each stop and the hospital is seven stops away I’ll arrive right at 10:13.
I am only off by thirty-six seconds, according to my watch, because I underestimated the speed to which dread would propel me. When I arrive at the hospital and walk in the front doors I’m greeted by a dozen Stiffs, some standing, some sitting, but all staring as if they have been assigned different points on the wall to study meticulously. All bear the signs of the gruesome collision. Bloodied clothes, a few missing limbs, gashes. The living patients in the waiting room huddle in a corner opposite them, nursing their various afflictions and trying not to look at the Stiffs. Trying not to think about how they might join their ranks if their injuries aren’t treated soon.
With difficulty, I make my way to the front desk and give the frazzled nurse my name.
“Collecting a Stiff? Post Mortem, I mean. Sorry, still getting used to the politically correct. Name?”
“No, the name of the deceased?”
“It’s all right I have it here. Keller. She’s this way, follow me.”
I swallow and let the nurse lead me to a back corner. Each step weighs a million pounds. She positions me in front of a slender Stiff woman with black hair and numerous tattoos lining her arms, which are grazed with shallow gashes. Her clothes have been mostly ripped away in the accident, and now she wears tiny black shorts and half a shirt, with torn stockings down her legs. Her shoes have been lost apparently, but she still has a pink band-aid wrapped around her big toe, which pokes out of a hole in the tights. The outfit was once black, but has faded to a dull brown color, stiffened by blood. She’s dead, but you can still see she’s gorgeous. She wears bright red lipstick, and dark eye shadow rims her eyes, which have glossed over and do not see. A short, round, metal pipe protrudes from the side of her skull.
It is most decidedly not Lisa.
“I’m afraid there’s been some mistake,” I say with difficulty. The sense of relief is so strong, I can hardly speak.
“Right, the pipe, sorry about that. Doctor said removing it would cause the entire cranium to collapse and he wanted to leave it up to the family member.”
“But I’m not…”
“It took us forever to find a contact. These types of women, they don’t…well, they don’t typically give their real name in their profession, if you know what I mean.”
She looks incredibly embarrassed and I realize that the woman’s outfit was in fact not destroyed in the accident.
“But she’s been in before for…uh…medical testing, so we finally found the name Amelia Keller. She put you down as an emergency contact.”
“She did?” I study her again, but no recognition comes to me.
The nurse’s face softens. “I’m so sorry for your loss sir. I have to go attend to other patients now, just fill out these forms and custody of the deceased passes to you.”
She hands me a clipboard and pen and bustles away, carefully nudging a Stiff in a shredded business suit back into place against the wall as she goes.
I turn back to the dead girl and examine her. I’m fairly sure there is no one named Amelia in my family. Certainly no hookers named Amelia in the family. So is this merely a coincidence? Was there another James Keller, or was that simply a random name she exchanged on paperwork for medical treatment?
She stands next to me and offers no answers. She seems to be patiently waiting for me to decide whether or not I want her. It strikes me as the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Like a puppy at the pound trying not to get its hopes up when you walk in the door. Trying to look indifferent if you leave.
Before I know what I’m doing, I sign my name at the bottom of the clipboard and deposit it back at the front desk. I can’t say for sure why, but I have a feeling if I don’t claim her, no one will. I take the Stiff by the hand, and lead her out of the building.
As I put one foot in front of the other, I’m surprised by how calm and confident my steps are. It’s as if my body knows what it’s doing while my mind panics.
I have no idea what to do with her. Put her in an At Rest Home? How much do those places cost? A Stiff Homeless Shelter? I could just dump her somewhere on the street, let someone else take care of her.
I pause at the bus stop. When I stop, she stops and I think how odd it is, the way she follows me. Like a shadow. How do you just dump someone like that? Someone who can’t help but trust and follow.
What are you thinking James? She can’t trust. She’s dead!
When the bus pulls up, my legs automatically step up two stairs and I dig around for some extra change. I’m not sure where we’re going yet, but it’s an action I feel I can trust.
“No Stiffs allowed,” a gruff voice says.
I look up surprised at the bus driver. “What do you mean?”
“No Stiffs. They stink up the place. Decompose all over the seats. Can’t tell you the number of times people have just left a Stiff on the bus. Driven them around all night and had to take them to a Shelter. Too much hassle. No Stiffs.”
I glance back at the girl, wondering if I should just leave her on the bench, get on the bus and go home. The way she stares at the street it’s almost as if she knows what I’m thinking. Knows she’s powerless to persuade me one way or the other. All she can do is stare and wait for my decision.
Again I’m struck by the fact that this woman’s life (or death) is in my hands. It’s a responsibility I’ve never had before. It’s unnerving, and as irrational as it is, I feel like I can’t let her down. I know I’m being ridiculous. She doesn’t care one way or the other. I have no ties to this Stiff. But I signed for her, like some strange package. In that action I assumed at least partial responsibility. If I just leave her, who knows what kind of person will find her? She might sit here for weeks before someone moves her. I can at least get her somewhere safe before I take off.
I step off the bus, still uncertain but at least partially decided. The driver shrugs and closes the doors in my face. As the bus speeds away, I peek a glance at the Stiff’s face to see any sign of relief or thanks, but it is carefully indifferent, watching the streetlamp. Stiffs always seem to be attracted to light. I never understood why.
The Stiff doesn’t reply.
I start walking in the general direction of my apartment, and again the Stiff walks with me. I’m hoping that somewhere in the next forty blocks an idea or burst of inspiration will hit.
Everything I walk by becomes an option for a way out. I pass bars already crowded with drunks. I could leave her in there. Surely the bartenders have dealt with a few Stiffs left behind before. But I keep walking.
I pass a park, mainly occupied by the homeless. I could leave her on the bench, like the Stiff listening to poetry. But a sudden image of a child discovering the Stiff during his morning play horrifies me.
In a seedier part of town, I pass a Stiff brothel. A man in a black jacket slinks out with a sweaty forehead. There are laws against necrophilia, but it’s hard to enforce rights on dead people who don’t even know what’s going on around them. I could drop the girl there. It’s not like she would care, and judging from her outfit and the nurse’s implications, she would probably feel right at home. But even as I think it I know I’ll walk right past the joint. Disgusted with myself.
I feel the strangest urge to call Lisa. For some reason I just know she would know exactly what to do. But I don’t make a move to pull out my cell phone. I don’t make any movements except to keep walking. I am as incapable of action or decisions as the Stiff who shadows me.
Suddenly the answer appears, ironically, like a miracle. A Church! The towering spirals of St. Mary’s are like a beacon of hope. Surely a church will know what to do with her! They will take care of her, find a place for her, pray for her, all that other saintly stuff. There’s no way I could feel guilty about leaving her there.
I guide the Stiff up the stairs and knock on the towering wooden doors. A tired looking priest sticks his head pleasantly through the door, but when he sees the Stiff with me, his smile falters slightly.
“Another one? This city is falling apart.”
“Uh, right. Can you take care of her for me?”
The priest is reluctant. “It’s just…we already have so many tonight. So many people bring their deceased to us to care for, pray for, until their earthly bodies are retired, but we’re a little overwhelmed. Is there anyway you could…just…keep her for the night?”
“You see, we have volunteers coming in the morning to help us. They take the Stiffs to safe places. They’re a true blessing. But tonight it’s just me and I already have six…”
Seeing the look on my face, his takes on a pitying expression. He pats my arm sympathetically. “I know it’s not easy for some, to be forced to endure their loved ones in this state. Take heart, my son. Her spirit is with the Lord. This empty shell, this earthly form, is not really her. Watching it decay is difficult, I understand. But be comforted that her spirit has been freed from fleshy limitations.”
“Right,” I say, never really being religious myself. “And you can’t take her…fleshy form tonight?”
“Of course, I would never turn away someone in need. The Church bids me to accept and I…”
“You know what, it’s fine,” I say suddenly. “I’ll bring her back in the morning.”
“Bless you, son. We all have our crosses to bear. But in the morning, we’ll make sure your friend is well taken care of.”
He seems so relieved to not have to take in another decaying body. And I can’t blame him. Her unrelenting stare and putrefying flesh are started to wear on me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend the night with multiple dead all alone in a big dark church.
So the Stiff and I end up back at my apartment. It feels rather like that time my cousin Claire asked me to babysit her one-year-old daughter. I had no idea what to do with the child, who lay in her crib and stared at the ceiling much like the Stiff is doing now. Eventually, the baby was hungry or needed changing, but the Stiff just stands still while I run around, trying to clean up the mess (though she can’t see it or care), turning the AC on full blast (I read somewhere that keeping it cold helps keep the flesh preserved better), and laying dozens of blankets on the couch before I help her sit on it.
Just like with the baby, once she’s settled I sit staring at her staring at the lamp in the corner. Now what?
I take a breath. What would I be doing if she weren’t here? So I flick the tv on, to the marathon of the show I was watching earlier. Her eyes slowly (and if I’m being honest, a little unnervingly) travel to its bright blue glow.
“Right.” I say the word slowly, testing out the noise in the silent apartment. “Well, this isn’t the best show, and I know because I watched several episodes earlier, but it has some funny moments.” Once I start, I can’t seem to stop. “Sorry about the couch. It’s uncomfortable, I know. Lisa, my ex-wife, she bought it to match the coffee table. I mean, who buys a couch to match the coffee table? It was her grandmother’s coffee table, apparently. And now she’s gone and taken the table and left the couch, and I’m stuck with it because I can’t shell out hundreds of dollars on a new one when this one is here and functional.”
The Stiff doesn’t reply. I don’t expect her to, which is one positive sign that I’m not going crazy. Seeing her sit there as the temperature drops in her half shirt brings out an old, almost forgotten instinct in me. I slip into the bedroom and dig through the closet until I find an old sweater Lisa left behind. I awkwardly wrap it around the Stiff’s shoulders, brushing her cold skin. Strangely, I don’t feel the urge to shudder away.
“Hope you don’t mind that this was hers. She never came to collect the rest, and though my attorney says I’m well within my rights to trash it all, I just couldn’t bring myself to. I’m not sentimental, really, I just kept it in case she ever wanted it back.”
I take a seat on the armchair, awkwardly fidgeting. I try not to look at her too much.
“Oh, this one is pretty good. The living twin dresses up the Stiff twin and tries to make him take his place in a spelling bee.”
I force myself to watch a few episodes of the horrid comedy show. It’s incredibly uncomfortable at first, but as each new episode starts I find it easier and easier to relax. My body adjusts so quickly to having someone home again. It’s surprisingly nice. It reminds me of the nights Lisa and I would just sit and watch TV. In the good days when we didn’t argue. When the silence was an indication of our familiarity and not anger.
Eventually, my eyes start dropping. I stretch and yawn, glancing at the Stiff out of the corner of my eye. She makes no movement.
“I’m heading to bed,” I say, a bit louder than normal. “I’ll leave the tv on. I’ll take you back to the church in the morning.”
I wait a second, and when she doesn’t reply I cross over to my bedroom. I consider locking the door, but decide against it. She’s not going anywhere. I crawl into bed and think about how it’s going to take me forever to fall asleep knowing there’s a strange, dead girl in my apartment. But surprisingly, I’m out within minutes and have the best night’s sleep since Lisa left.
In the morning, it takes me a few moments to remember everything that’s happened. To remember that there’s a Stiff girl sitting on my couch watching TV. For some reason I feel more nervous, less confident in the morning light. Thank God I’m taking her to the church today. I can’t imagine having her hover all day, sitting in the corner like a decorative ornament or side table. I dress quickly in my suit and tie, brush my teeth, linger in the bedroom, before opening the door to the living room.
She’s moved. She is not sitting upright on the couch watching the morning news as I expected her to be. Like a moth, she’s drifted to the kitchen table, to the window next to it where she’s watching the blinding sun peeking over the tops of the buildings. The sudden anxiety I feel at her movement quickly gives way to something else. Something much harder to define.
I think that if she had stayed where she was, perched on the end of the couch blankly watching tv, I would have gone through with it. I would have taken her to the church, given her to the priest with the sad eyes, and that would have been the end of it. I might have called up Lisa to tell her that story. Maybe we would have shared a moment, or maybe she would think I was crazy. But it would have been over and I’d be back at my life.
But seeing her at the kitchen table, I know I won’t do it. Because something changed in the night. It wasn’t huge; she didn’t make a mess of the kitchen or even flick off the tv. But she moved. The apartment is not exactly as I left it. Here is proof that there is someone else here. Someone dead, sure, but someone.
And so I take off my tie and pour myself a bowl of cereal. I sit down across from her at the kitchen table. She doesn’t look at me, keeping her eyes on the window and the sun. But I eat my breakfast and start thinking about where I can take her for lunch.