I am a scumbag of a runner for Death, and not just because I snagged Saint Mary’s Nursing Home in downtown Philadelphia as my territory (all runners scoff at us who choose nursing homes; it’s cheating they say, but somebody has to do it, and hey, I beat all you filthy racers who would have worshipped the gray carpets and old fragile bodies if you had gotten here first).
Here’s what happened: Death held a regional conference consisting of a thousand plush armchairs crammed in the abandoned house of a deceased millionaire. Death didn’t comment on all the armchairs, but I guessed they were stolen from old ladies who’d relinquished themselves to us in the last generation. Old ladies own the comfiest armchairs, and ours were certainly snug, smelling of stale lotion, mothballs, and prescription meds. I almost felt the human urge to fall asleep–our formless bodies sunk into the velvet or chintz–but then Death coughed politely.
“Thank you all for attending,” she said. I say she because Death looked rather feminine that day: her scabbed skin swelled over her chest like a reptilian replica of breasts, she wore a burgundy curtain that resembled a dress, and she had grown out strings of flesh-colored hair that brushed the floor. Occasionally, small gobs of oil dripped down her face like melting candle wax.
“Now, this is not a funeral,” Death chirped. I was fortunate enough that my armchair was stuffed in the same room so that I could watch a bead of oil creep down her nose. Other runners sat in the chairs that overflowed into the hallway and bathrooms and stairwell, but they could hear through the walls. “It is a retirement party,” Death said. “Our dear friend Sheyka has delivered to me seven thousand souls in his career. I release him today to join the natural forces of this world in freedom and honor.”
Our murmurs vibrated the floorboards of the house. Seven thousand? I had only picked up and comforted and delivered a few hundred homeless souls under the Seattle bridges and in the alleyways of Mississauga, whispering, If only you let me hold you, beloved Ruth or Larson or Peter or Adya, I can take you home. And then those darlings (I remember each one) would desert their spirit’s futile grip on life and clamber into my arms. If only I could feel dread, I would. Death had never told us what the requisite for retirement was, but if she released her runners based on the number of souls we delivered, then I had a long way to go.
Sheyka, it turned out, was perhaps more of a scumbag than me. I knew so because he morphed his shapeless ass into an almost-solid imitation of John Wayne, grinning and nodding with his chin pointed ceiling-ward at our chorus of congratulations, which made the sky outside rumble with synthetic thunder.
In celebration, Death beckoned a pig from a neighboring ranch, and when the pig came squealing into our parlor, we stomped and clapped and hollered until the poor thing fainted on the Indian rug. The pig was a gift for Sheyka, who was expected to humbly return it to its ranch after the festivities to symbolize the fact that he was not fired. (Over the centuries, runners had passed the irrevocable rumor that the screams of damned souls boiled in the bellies of pigs; if Death fired one of us, rumor went, she would chuck us in the mud for the pigs to eat, and though we could not die, the pig’s belly would be inferno.)
After the pig fainting, various runners asked Sheyka, “Wherever did you happen to find so many dying souls?” Each time he would say, “Pardon?” and move on to the next group of runners to talk about toilettes or clothing brands or other trivial matters.
I snooped from my armchair, picking at the frayed fabric. Sheyka refused to acknowledge the repetitive question because, I figured, he was embarrassed by the answer, which meant he had found the souls at a hospital or nursing home. Everyone suspected so, and everyone, including myself, swallowed an internal raging desire to know which hospital or nursing home was unoccupied now that the bastard was retiring. We all sat poised, waiting for him to slip up and say the name of some obscure place.
Then I saw an emblem of an eagle stitched into the crease of his John Wayne hat, and I knew from various encounters with cowboyish souls that John Wayne did not typically sew said eagle emblems on his hat. Sheyka–I would’ve snapped my fingers, had I possessed fingers–was a football fan in Philadelphia.
When the celebration ended with a whirlwind of fake laughs and pumpkin pastries we could not eat, and Death’s farewell jingle sang from greasy lips, I did not return to Mississauga–I soared on a hot wind to Philadelphia and sniffed out St. Mary’s, where I found my jackpot of dying, departing souls at last: they moaned in beds with white sheets, shuffled to the receptionist to ask when Larry would call, gnawed fried eggs with toothless gums. I would no longer have to pluck children from alleys to fill my monthly quota, and I reveled in this delicious change.
I did not know that St. Mary’s would fill me with flesh.
On my first morning, I glided to the nursing home’s breakfast hall to search for signs of ailing bodies. I would prefer, I knew, to take souls in bed (oatmeal should never be one’s last taste of life), but all good runners take note of their potentials beforehand–who had pneumonia, whose bones might snap, whose arteries were clogged? A few dozen tables stood on a gray-and-darker-gray checkered carpet. A handful of elderlies sat fingering the mush on their plates. I was examining one man with a smatter of liver spots on his neck when I felt a tingle on my own neck (metaphorically speaking, I think). I turned.
A woman sat unaccompanied at a table at the head of the hall, hand trembling as she lifted a mug of peppermint tea to her mouth. Her skin sagged, crusties ringed her tear ducts, and bald spots crowned her head. Her soul was practically peeling off its flesh, but she stared directly at me–yes, me–and announced to the room at large, “I’m going to live ‘til I’m a hundred and five!”
“We know, Matilda!” the liver-spotted man called. Then he coughed and spat some thick liquid into his napkin. Matilda paid him no attention and continued staring at me. I stared at her. A silent battle ensued, in which I knew the woman should have expired long ago if she could see and communicate with an entity like me.
Don’t you take me yet, fucker.
Whoa there, lady.
I’m going to live ‘til I’m a hundred and five. I’ve got three more years.
I can’t…you are the deadest person alive, I said. I have a job, miss.
Fuck you. It’s my personal goal. Haven’t you ever had a goal?
Oh yes, I had a goal. I craved retirement. I yearned to escape this dratted job so that I no longer had to taste sad hearts like these.
I could almost feel Death’s gaze scuttling across the carpet to my feet, and yes, in that moment, I felt as if I had feet, cold, bare feet with ten toes. Liver Spots coughed again. I braved a step toward Matilda, and another, then another, until I was close enough to absorb her hot, medicated breath. I touched her soul, which quivered like violin strings, or century-old hands holding coffee.
I’ll come back for her tomorrow, I said to myself, aware that I was breaking the biggest rule Death had given us: never let a soul persuade. Tomorrow, I said. Tomorrow, tomorrow.
So I whisked away and left Matilda alone and always said, “Tomorrow.”
Now, don’t be fooled. Over the next three years, I obediently ran old souls to Death almost every day, cradling them and singing them lullabies, or Christmas carols, when they requested it. As soon as their bodies stopped pulsing with blood, they recognized me and said something like, “Oh! You came!” or “Why, thank you, I was just wondering how many more times I’d have to brush my teeth.” Of course, I ignored Matilda, pretending not to notice the flakes of her soul that fell onto carpet like dandruff at breakfast time. But besides this, I was good, I was good–until Layla.
Layla’s husband had departed two decades previously, but now she had a boyfriend, Tom, a hunchback who lived five doors down near the painting of Jesus screwed into the wall. Every afternoon at 4pm, Tom scuffled to Layla’s door, knocked, and waited with round, drooping eyes as Layla hoisted herself up from her chair by the window, clutched her walker, and inched toward the door to open it. She never said, “Come in.” I usually waited outside with Tom and his sullenness, but sometimes I slipped through the wall (a feat which was becoming increasingly difficult) and gave Layla little motivational speeches I hoped might subconsciously register.
“You’ve got it, hon! No, don’t stop. Keep going. Tom’s waiting. I’m waiting. Get to the door, that’s it. Turn the knob. Yes, the knob. There you go. Yes! You did it, you lovely lady!”
Layla and Tom then made their sluggish way to the chair by the window and the squishy, creaky armchair alongside it (see, old ladies own great armchairs); they hooked pinkies and turned on the news, and Layla would talk about Larry. “Tom,” she’d say, “did I tell you about Larry? He’s my grandson, you know. He said he’s gonna come visit me, Tom! Oh, Tom! Larry’s coming! Tom, isn’t it wonderful?”
“Nnn,” Tom said, mouth agape at the flickering TV. A string of drool trickled from the edge of his mouth to his chin.
“Larry is an engineer. He’s very handsome, Tom. He…well, I know he has blonde hair, but it might be black. He loves strawberry shortcake, Tom! I used to make him strawberry shortcake when he was a small boy. He ate his boogers, I think, but that’s okay. Oh, Tom! Just think, Larry is coming to visit!”
Larry, I discovered after months of 4pm instances, would never show up; he always promised to visit and discarded this vow the next day. Perhaps I was no different,after all, I was perpetually promising Death that I would soon deliver Matilda,but I sensed poor Layla’s soul clinging to her skeleton only so she could see her grandson one more time. So one day, after Layla pulled a photo from her hanky drawer to show Tom, I decided I’d break another one of Death’s rules: morphing in front of humans.
I became the Larry in the photo. I was tall with sandy brown hair and an upturned nose and a tiny joke of a thing between my legs. I sauntered to the receptionist desk, scratched my balls, and signed my name in the check-in notebook.
“Room 252,” the young man at the counter said, as if I didn’t already know. I told him thank you and used the elevator. I rapped on Layla’s door. It was 7pm. Tom would have returned to his room to mope and sleep. I waited outside, Tom-less, as Layla fought the aches of her arthritis to cross the room. The knob turned. The door opened.
“Larry! Larry! Larry! Larry!”
The woman embraced her grandson after all these years, and I felt the ridges of her spine with physical fingers. My skull throbbed from morphing. I would soon pop back into my ordinary, formless existence, but for now, I carried the grandma to bed, laid her down, and told her stories. My wife was having a baby, I said. No, I don’t eat my boogers anymore. I love you too, Grandma. I love you so much. You are beautiful, yes, even at ninety-three. I held her knotted, veiny hands when a nurse bustled into the room to help her swallow tablets and powders. After the nurse left, Layla smiled, closed her eyes, and said, “Larry.”
She abandoned her body before the drugs digested, and I carried her gingerly to Death.
“I’m going to live ‘til I’m a hundred and five!”
“We know, Matilda, dammit, we know!” Liver Spots hollered. It was lunch time. The man was playing Concentration with friends while Matilda sat sipping vegetable soup at the head of the hall. At times, slices of her soul fell off of her carcass like fall-off-the-bone ribs, and I paused watching the game to pick up these pieces and slide them back in place. It was like trying to re-stick old tape onto a wall: each time, the adhesiveness faded, but Matilda would eye me and say soundlessly, Thank you. I have to make it to a hundred and five.
You will, Matilda. I’ll make sure of it. My chest cramped, and I knew I had crossed some sort of line. The pain was a warning, cold fingers pinching my imagined sinews, reminding me, perhaps, that I had a duty, that I was not human and could not make promises like these.
Sorry I called you a fucker, Matilda said. I actually like your company. And, after a moment: I had to bury my baby when she was twenty-one. I’ve got to live long enough for both of us. I promised her.
She resumed slurping soup. Upstairs, a handful of elderlies groaned, wishing to die, but I disregarded this for now (breaking, of course, a third rule of Death’s, which sent pain shooting through my joints).
I returned to the card game. I wanted Bart to win today. He was a short stump of a man, with wrinkles carved deep into his dark skin; he always lost memory games, which might have had to do with his dementia. There were only eight cards left and, as always, everyone but he had two or three matches each. So at Bart’s turn, as he flipped over a card with a circus clown on its surface, I whispered numbers near his earlobe and watched the goosebumps rise on his neck.
“Two comma one,” I said. My breath must have tickled his thoughts, because Bart chose the clown card’s twin. He remembered basic algebra, it seemed, though it took a few curses from Liver Spots for him to realize that he had his first match.
A thump from upstairs, one only I could hear. An impatient soul was whacking his nightstand over and over to get my attention. Bart flipped over a toilet-illustrated card.
“One comma two,” I said, and Bart obliged, flipping the second toilet card onto the table. Another thump from upstairs, this time louder. It sounded as if a few souls had detached themselves and were crawling to the door, to the stairs, to me. I might have sweated drops of restlessness, but lately the sorrow of losing residents had infused me like nausea.
Bart overturned a glistening image of a cupcake. I willed him to remember on his own – C’mon, remember, Bart, you can do it. Why can’t you just remember? Remember your life (was I talking to myself?). Bart only stared at the cards, dumbfounded, his interest sliding away.
“Okay, bottom-most left.” I only watched for a moment as Bart slammed his second cupcake onto the table, beam stretched wide in triumph when he registered that there were only two cards left, both of which revealed identical, snorting pigs. Liver Spots sighed. Bart hooted through cracked teeth at his first victory. Then, with the image of pigs scorching my eyes, I rushed toward the stairs, where a soul was bouncing down the steps like an angry bowling ball.
I caught the soul, collected the others, and found Death picking mangos in Malaya. She momentarily resembled an old lady with sagging skin, crusted tear ducts, and a bald-patterned head. She squinted at me while I handed over the souls, as if all the rules I’d disregarded were engraved on my face.
“Next time, I’d like to see Matilda,” Death said, tossing me a mango for the trip back.
I felt dread. Matilda didn’t turn 105 for another month. I had disobeyed Death’s commands for so long that it felt as if a cold hand kept molding me into something solid only to puncture me again and again with the ailments of those in St. Mary’s. I seared with heartburn, toothaches, diarrhea, fatigue. My misbehavior, it seemed, had peeled away my immaterial existence as a runner, but I didn’t fear the pain. I feared the pig. And, by the curious tilt of Death’s chin, I knew my end was approaching.
Rule number four: don’t break any rules. Or else.
I could not directly disobey Death a final time, so when I made it back to Philadelphia, mango juice trickling down my chin, I asked a nearby runner wafting in a downtrodden neighborhood to take over St. Mary’s for a bit. I was taking a break until a friend’s birthday, I said. The runner agreed, and I spent the next several weeks watching residents yawn and yap about infants and struggle with digestion and play card games and doze in armchairs.
But mostly, I sat by Matilda, my arms wrapped around her, holding her soul together.
On her 105th birthday, the staff at St. Mary’s Nursing Home hung purple streamers from the ceiling and ordered a lemon cake for their oldest-ever resident. All the elders still capable of walking or wheeling attended the spectacle, as did various relatives and locals who had seen the party invite in a Philadelphia newsprint. Even a journalist arrived to snap pictures for the paper.
When the breakfast hall was jammed with a hundred hot, living bodies, we erupted into a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” I hovered near Matilda as she tried to blow out her many candles. The flames only wobbled. I leaned over her shoulder and puffed for her. When the flames vanished into smoke, the hall rang with applause.
Thanks, chum, Matilda said. I’m about to piss myself, so take me soon.
I let her taste the frosting, grin at camera flashes, tear apart all the presents she would never use. Then, though Death was nowhere near, I felt that cold hand at my back, and I could no longer resist my duty. I gathered Matilda into my arms. She snuggled into my chest, humming.
Together, we left the remains of her body, zooming across the countryside to a farmhouse near the Pacific coast, where Death reclined in an armchair by the barn, knitting a pair of baby socks. She was now a youthful woman with tight, creamy skin, supple breasts, and a swollen belly, who smiled at our approach. Salty wind licked my cheeks.
“Thank you,” Death said, reaching out for Matilda’s soul, kissing her gently.
So long, Matilda. I raised a hand in farewell, fingers numb and blue.
Don’t forget to floss, she said cheerfully. And then – Here I come, baby. I lived for you.
Death whisked her away, but I remained standing in the whip of the wind, facing the empty armchair, which was white and stainless. The baby socks rested on the topmost cushion. Eventually I lifted the socks and put them under my nose and inhaled the smell of birth.
And now, right now, a pig squeals from beyond the barn.
Here I am. Now you know why I am the scum of the earth, the worst runner, a failure, a rule-breaker, a lover of mortality. I want peppermint tea. I want grandsons. I want birthdays. I’d even take the liver spots and arthritis and pang of missing someone who doesn’t quite love you back, all things no good runner should wish for, since it’s like saying, I’m unhappy with my job, I wish to die just to verify that I lived. Surely Death has noted my misconduct and plans to fire me. I should join the pig and let its mud seep into the holes St. Mary’s has drilled into me, holes that long to fill with life.
I stand immobile until Death reappears empty-handed. She takes the socks from me with soft, smooth palms. She lifts my chin until we lock eyes, hers a brown whirl of infinite warmth. Then she says, “Would you like a ceremony?”
“My dear friend, you have brought me nine hundred and one souls in your career. I release you today to join the natural forces of this world in freedom and honor.” She puts the socks in her mouth, munches on them, swallows, and winks; a thick, cottony hope rises up my throat, as if I might vomit what Death consumed. I’m not fired? She’s offering me retirement? But I have not accomplished what Sheyka did. Weren’t numbers the ultimate criteria?
“No,” Death says simply. “Now, would you like a ceremony?”
I shake my head. I no longer want to celebrate departure, releasement, finality. Instead, I ask, “Do I go where they go?” They, the nine hundred and one souls I have run to Death, the nine hundred and one and me.
“Not yet. You go where they have been. Where you have been before. Maybe you will appreciate life this time. Maybe, this time, you will choose to love like you love now.”
She spreads her arms. I’m disappointed, at first (I want to follow those souls I carried, yes, I want to touch those souls and dance with them and say, Here I am! I never forgot you, see? I never wanted to hand you off like a cardboard box in a delivery truck! Here I am, here I am!).
But Death’s hands look so comforting. I am, after all, tired. I could slip into sleep.
So I scramble into the open arms, and now I, the cradler, am cradled by Death, who smells of perfume and milk and cinnamon. She carries me to the armchair and rocks me until my eyelids sag, until sweet darkness envelops me, and I cannot open my eyes, and warm walls close around me. The squeals of the pig, the salt, the wind, it all fades…even the tightness of Death’s embrace fades, because now maternal flesh tightens in its place, flesh that wraps around me and reminds me of Matilda and Layla and Tom and Burt and all the others who are, if time condensed, both alive and dead, both here and there, both slurping soup and dreaming about Larry. Flesh so mortal, vulnerable, temporary that it hurts.
Blood pulses. Moisture. Voices from beyond a thick wall of meat and fat and skin. Death stitches my soul to a tiny fragile body, kisses me, and departs.
I manage to think, See you later, boss, Death, mother, friend.
Then I forget myself. I hiccup. I kick. I squirm in the new womb that holds me.