Winner of the Fiction Prize: A Visitor

He tells us the story over dinner. We called him Andrew, because he didn’t remember his name.

He tells us this: he says that in 1925, there’s a fire at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Marylebone Road, London. The results, he says, are as one might expect. The London Salvage Corps, a sort of reaper team for the aristocracy, storm the museum after the fire brigade has quelled most of the blaze. He says that they begin dragging out luminaries from British past and present, most armless, some only heads, placing them on the street against one of the building’s exterior walls. He says that it’s an eerie little scene; he says they’re all such high-quality representations of people that you have to convince yourself they’re not people. Even with the wires exposed.

We ask Andrew how he knows about it, but he can’t say. He just knows about it. Since the moment he showed up, unannounced, Andrew had always been a bit hard to pin down.

“No era is without its horror,” Andrew says, and we agree. “You can imagine what anyone old enough to have experienced that time period might have thought about seeing this little menagerie,” he says., “We’ve been on the verge for a while now,” he says, of that great leap in human development, but you’ve got to wonder sometimes if we still know what we’re looking at. When we look.” This last bit is the most ironic thing Andrew had ever said to us, until the thing with Lucky.

Andrew asks us, “Know anything about Marie Tussaud?”

And we say, “Whatever everybody else knows.”

So he says that Marie Tussaud got her start by searching through the corpses rendered by the French Revolution. There were a lot. They were just sort of there, he says, unclaimed. So she decided she’d do something with them, this conscientious woman. Something for the people. What did she do? She began making death masks. Made of wax, these death masks were paraded through the streets of Paris, he says, so the people could reclaim their dead, could find what they were looking for. She was taught by a Dr. Phillipe Curtius, a talented wax modeler whose main interest was making anatomical models for study and who was admired by many, including the Prince of Conti.

“She was a good pupil,” he says, “so you can imagine that every once in a while during these death mask parades, a sister or a husband or maybe a daughter would see one of these death masks held aloft and recognize perhaps the curve of a nostril, the puff of a lip, etc., and felt…what?”

We couldn’t say. “It would probably depend on what the overwhelming essence of the person was when they were alive,” we say, and Andrew agrees with that.

“So,” he says, “maybe you got a condescending scowl; or that immaterial sensation of innocence; or maybe there were those that said to themselves, What, a half-effigy? Couldn’t get the tits right? Or maybe if they were really patriotic all they saw was another shiny, martyred soul, which has no need for details.”

He continued:

“If you’ve ever been to an open-casket funeral,” he says (and here we got a little squeamish), “you know what most people prefer to see, or at least what most undertakers aim for. It’s preferable death put on a good face. If they all looked like the wax figures after the Madam Tausseau’s fire, we might think twice about being dead. We might try to do something about it.” We laughed at this, because there was something funny about it, coming from Andrew.

And then he says, “There’s no better way of knowing someone than after they’ve kicked the bucket. It’s the only way to get some perspective.” And Andrew would know, because Andrew’s one of those self-aware ghosts.

Andrew didn’t tell us this in our dreams, as you might think. He doesn’t like dreams; he says if some dead loved one comes to you in your dreams, it means this dead loved one has mistaken your subconscious for some sort of eternity it assumes it deserves, and will soon regret this mistake. None of us can possibly think of a dead loved one we have in our past that in some way “resembles” Andrew, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s better that he is, in a way, anonymous. No good can come, we reckon, out of getting close with a ghost, even if it’s our ghost.

He says he has all his limbs “intact,” if that’s how we’d like to think of it. Though none of us has the slightest idea how he died, he says that he was not some heretic quartered during the Inquisition, he was not the victim of a freak turbine accident, he did not succumb to plague. He died whole. Though even he can’t remember how he died. We say, “That’s impossible. How can you not remember how you died?” And he replies, acerbic as ever, “I died. Do you remember how you were born?”

Though we’ve never actually seen his face, if he still has one, we can tell by how he talks that the main emotion he feels being dead is, in fact, boredom. But maybe boredom isn’t it; maybe it’s neutrality.

Andrew lived, so to speak, in Rashida’s room, because he said there he was most comfortable. At first, Rashida was freaked out by this because, as she admitted later, she didn’t want to think of herself as someone who had something that was naturally comforting to dead people. Rashida is a positive person; in other words, she tends to understand life as a series of propositions that, if fulfilled, tend to lead to more propositions, which can be tiring for the rest of us who most of the time are more content establishing rhythms broken by the occasional bar fight or unsatisfying fling, and which are not supposed to lead in the slightest to the ultimate proposition, which of course for us is Andrew, or whatever Andrew represents. (Though, to be honest, we don’t think Rashida thinks this either, which is probably why she was at first, as mentioned above, freaked out). Rashida, as Andrew likes to say—when she’s not in the room—is like ghost catnip, so he found comfort in Rashida and Rashida began to see in Andrew an inversely kindred spirit, a yin to her yang, a total negation giving fruit to her propositions. Sort of like cow shit to a cornfield, said Jonathan, but Jonathan takes pleasure in being rude.

When at first we could only talk with Andrew in Rashida’s room and we asked him why he had chosen her room and he said he didn’t know exactly why, we ransacked it, over Rashida’s mild protestations. We pulled up floorboards and put holes in the wall looking for clues. And some of us even went to the library and looked through the archives and ordered property deeds from the city stretching back all the way to the 19th century and studied them in the mornings with our coffees and at night before going to bed, placing them on a poker table in the living room. We thought maybe we could pinpoint Andrew’s death for him and in that way liberate him, though we didn’t know from what exactly; but finally after a couple of weeks the noise and the dust and all the inattention must have been too much because Andrew started to pop up in other rooms and ask what all the fuss was about in his monotone and somewhat accusatory way. We all said sorry to Rashida and promised to pitch in to repair the room, which we did with a team effort and Andrew applauded (figuratively) our sense of communal responsibility. He even said that whatever it was that put him in our house, he was glad it had happened.

And we were all strangely gratified with that.

And what’s more, we were fairly happy about it too, because first and foremost (we all talked about this at dinner in the backyard with the fire going) we all now knew that there was something after death. So it made life in general a little easier to take, except there was one caveat. The one caveat was that we had all agreed that night at dinner next to the fire that whenever and however Andrew had died it must have been a peaceful death, maybe even a desired death, because Andrew was so self-aware and so good-spirited, if a little bored (or neutral); and that despite knowing that there was something after death, even “knowing” someone who was currently dead, there was still no way of knowing when our deaths were going to occur. This created a problem, as Jonathan, the one who liked being rude and the one of us least likely to make it to middle age, put it with a sad and surprising awareness. He said, “So you never know when you’re gonna conk out, and we might not all be as lucky as our Andrew, and I for one have always been told, and have always said, that I would probably go in a hail of what from the outside may be described as glory, but which will probably be painful and lonely and frightening. And I don’t want to be that ghost, the one all the other ghosts avoid.”

And though it made all our hearts break, we had to agree with that. Rashida looked the most worried out of all of us, but Leslie also said it gave her a bad taste in her mouth, thinking about it, and Lucky actually started to tear up, thinking about how his uncle passed, and we all understood, because his uncle’s passing was indeed terrible and drawn out. Though none of us said it out loud, we were all thinking that Andrew was a blessing, but that also there was something darker about his presence, he was a mask in and of himself we thought (but didn’t say), and maybe there was something underneath?

But if there’s one thing about living with a ghost that’s essential, it’s that you absolutely must, at all times, recognize its humanity.

So for fear of offending Andrew, because really you never know how ghosts are going to take things even if you’re being sincere, we all said the only thing we could do was to strive at all times to not let death catch us at the wrong moment. Because we all agreed—and really believed—that you could get thwacked over the head by a falling branch, or electrocuted by the Christmas tree lights, or end up one of those CNN obit victims of a theater shooting and if you were in the wrong mindset at the time…

So we all aimed to find the humor and the beauty in everything, at all times, and we were especially polite and gracious to one another, and we all looked for jobs that fulfilled us and ate only the healthiest, most non-processed food we could afford. We called ourselves The Salvage Corps, in honor of the brigade that saved all of those mannequins from that terrible blaze that Andrew had told us about. For a couple of weeks, we were all on cloud nine. It is amazing what positive thinking can do. We laughed like crazy people at each other’s jokes, at tiny holes in the wall, at a dead fly on the kitchen counter, at the rain. We found poetry in the angles made by our bedroom walls, we listened to the dialogues of easterly and westerly winds as they discussed their encounters with the acacia trees, we braided each other’s hair. And yet, despite, or because of, all the good vibes and light-headedness we started to crash after the second week, which is only natural, and Jonathan, we’re sure it was Jonathan, he said the only way we’re ever going to keep this up is if we find alternative ways to keep ourselves “happy” because you never knew if Rashida was going to be the victim of a rabid dog tomorrow or if Lucky was going to get bit by a black widow next week. What he suggested was that the best way to keep everyone happy was to take all our clothes off and fuck.

And so we did. We all fucked each other. We bought a few gallons of water and put together a small stash of synthetic male-enhancing and inhibition-reducing pills, and snacks and three large tubes of lubrication and holed ourselves up in Jonathan’s room, taking turns, swapping partners, some of us in the closet, others on the desk, under and over the covers, under and on top of the bed, lights off and lights on, grabbing and pulling and gnawing. This went on for three days. Andrew watched the whole scene, floating through the hallways of the house, checking in every once in a while to offer advice, “Pull your right leg up just half a foot. Good. Perhaps you’d feel more comfortable, dear, if your back were straighter?” And every once in a while he would make a comment that was supposed to be light and flippant but really came off as cutting, deeply cutting like “You living are so crazy about continuing to live,” and so we’d have to do our best to quash it, ignore it, grab at the body nearest us and grope for its reason for continuing. Only Lucky, the shyest of us, looked off afterwards (not satisfied, not psychotically content), so Jonathan slipped an E in his soda and that did the trick.

After we all fucked, though, we had a much harder time sustaining the happy feelings and so we all said to ourselves out on the back porch next to the fire, hardly able to look each other in the eyes, we all said that we were exhausted. This put quite a damper on the evening and after a couple of minutes we all realized at once that we were in imminent danger of becoming tormented spirits and said to ourselves, “Corps, we have got to find a solution to this.” So after a long think where we avoided eye contact and slipped into our own private worlds, remembering things we would rather have forgotten, Leslie suggested that instead of trying to maintain the good vibes we should focus more on being safe, on taking as much of the random out of the equation as we possibly could. Therefore, we might not be happy every second of the day but we could at least significantly diminish the possibility that when we were not in a state of bliss or at least a state of contentment that that would not be the final moment of our lives.

We consulted Andrew on this new strategy. “It’s as good a plan as any!” he said.

We decided that the best way to maintain our perpetual safety was to stay within a very limited range of the house at all times. Sure, we said, the house has its dangers, but we know the house. It’s our house. We don’t have to worry about other people who neither share nor understand our commitment. So we all quit the jobs that fulfilled us because they required travel outside of the borders of the front and backyard and got jobs that we could do from home, like making house calls for gubernatorial races and taking consumer surveys and working as phone sex voice models. We took very good care of our teeth and all gave up smoking and alcohol and drugs at the same time, sustaining our commitment through the tenants of The Salvage Corps, tenants that were loosely defined but nonetheless adhered to rigidly. We put surge protectors on all electrical equipment and started taking a regimen of 65 daily vitamins like some of the futurists do and like them did our small part to boost the life sciences market, producing a healthy if minor stock portfolio that Rashida set up on one of those stock market websites advertised to lonely empty-nesters, dedicated exclusively to regenerative genetic technology and GMO firms and buttressed primarily from the largesse Lucky’s uncle had left him after his tragic yet hardly unexpected passing.

We asked Andrew for tips on a Bull market but he calmly told us that being dead means you only know about the past, not the futures. This was a joke that went so far over our heads it had already traversed heaven and earth before coming back to us, sometime after the thing with Lucky when things were grim and we really needed a bit of “Andrew humor,” and hit us, then, as cruel.

For a time the money we started making and reinvesting gave us a sense of accomplishment, until we realized we’d been trapped in a bubble so large we couldn’t see its edges. The burst took down everyone, not just us. By the time we lost it all, Andrew had moved to Leslie’s room, then Lucky’s room because he said there was something, he couldn’t pinpoint what, that was getting uncomfortable about the house. Though we didn’t say anything, we all felt it too. There was a cramped feeling; there was the sense that the world was getting smaller. We’d already confined ourselves to a very small plot of livable existence, we knew that, but we had always been relatively comfortable in that house; even after the awkward orgy stage had passed there was enough room so that if we needed some time alone to re-center ourselves with Yoga or astral projection exercises there was space for that. But now we felt what can be best described as a squeeze, or maybe an implosion. We started to get angrier with each other, and more quickly; and though we had fool proofed the house, well, you never know. You can’t prevent everything. And so not only had we given up trying to be happy all the time, it seemed like we had started to give up on being happy at all, and that just wouldn’t do.

So we met in front of the fire pit one night and we thought about a new approach. And we knew we were all thinking the same thing, which was roughly, “How the fuck do we get rid of this goddamned ghost ruining our lives?” But the thing about Andrew was that you never truly knew if he was around or not so we couldn’t just come right out and say it.

So we all had another big, long think, under the huge, gaping night sky, which always displayed a glorious, crinkly sheet of star and stardust now that we’d cut the branches of the little oaks which were overhanging the porch and which could fall and crush us at any moment.

We thought and thought and finally it was Rashida who had the solution. Rashida, who had had so many reservations about the whole thing at the beginning.

She said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about what Andrew told us. And it’s like, why do you have to make death masks at all? Why did Tussaud make a place where you got people made of wax? It’s because, like, people are so aware of their existence, you know? Like, animals aren’t aware right? Because they don’t think about death. But we do, right? It’s like the only reason we understand that we exist. Because someday we won’t exist.

“But we know that we will exist! So, like, why put it off any longer? Why continue to be wax models of our eternal selves?”

“Hmm,” we said.

Her plan was simple but very elegant, we all agreed. It was this: we would all throw ourselves a big party and forget all of the little inconsequential spats we’d had over the last few weeks, all the hurt and embarrassment and absurd memories that were like, yes, ghosts that wouldn’t leave you alone, and at this party we’d get drunk together and eat together and get stoned together and laugh together, and then at some point when we were exhausted with our perfect camaraderie we’d all take a bottle of Xanax and a few last sips of wine, and we’d all go into the next known and haunt our old stomping grounds with Andrew, as equals.

When we asked Andrew what he thought it seemed for the first time that he was really emotionally shaken, truly touched, by the beauty of such a noble idea.

We all told Rashida how great the idea was and that she had really hit upon something there; all except for Lucky, whom we couldn’t quite convince. Lucky had reservations. What those reservations were, he couldn’t quite articulate. They were feelings was all. And the really frustrating part, at first, was that how do you argue with feelings? Jonathan, of course, said it must be because of his uncle, but that he was a selfish prick and so was Lucky and that when he was dead he was gonna haunt the shit out of him, and it wasn’t going to be like Andrew, it was going to be a good and proper haunting. But Jonathan was always getting himself off on being an asshole.

And though we all thought Jonathan was an asshole, we also knew being an asshole let him say things that we were thinking but wouldn’t say. Not about Lucky’s uncle being a selfish prick, not about Lucky himself being a selfish prick, no, we didn’t think that. But Jonathan was probably right about the uncle part, Lucky having had the unfortunate fate of witnessing someone dying slowly. Not dead, because we all had Andrew, but dying. The story, you see, is that his uncle was a miner, an honest-to-goodness miner that worked long, physically exhausting days extracting mineral from what must have felt like an eternity of dumb ugly stone. Lucky told us that his uncle didn’t particularly like his job but that if pressed on it, he could be very loquacious about the whole thing. He would say that while many attempt to live out metaphors and pat themselves on the back for it, he, Lucky’s uncle, had inverted this existential construction in order to reconstitute it as the very essence of life. We were somewhat amazed and also jealous and also ashamed to say that we both did not expect such recursive wisdom from a miner but also that we didn’t fully understand it. Lucky explained that his uncle, whom he idolized as the epitome of man, and to whom he knew he would never live up to, had a habit of drinking too much at family gatherings and holding forth on this very topic. “So we cut through a lode deposit and there the stuff comes. We had a guy, Joey, lose an arm last year checking a faulty explosive, and this is bad news because arms are the rational part of the operation, they keep you from running into the dark parts where you may never come out, ‘specially when the eyes are blind. He works desk now, lucky bastard. Anyway, so we break through and I’m aching like a motherfucker trying to keep the drill rig steady, I can feel the veins in my forehead cuh-cuhing, about to burst, and it is just at that moment that we finally dig into it, like right at that moment that the epiphany pours down upon me like invisible, divine rain, and I am certain of the truth of everything for two seconds or so. Which definitely is something.”

When he told this to us on a visit, we sat out on the porch with the fire going, mesmerized to tell the truth, and Lucky was beaming like a kid who had just made his overbearing parents proud.

What was the truth of everything, we asked him. He said he couldn’t tell us.

“Aw, come on, man!” we entreated, aware Lucky was embarrassed by our being so overbearing.

“No,” he said.

“Please?”

And then, slightly exasperated but still good-natured, he said that if he could remember it he wouldn’t still be cracking rock for a living.

“Hmm,” we said.

So when Lucky’s uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer and spent those six months in the hospital with blood on his chin and glassed-over eyes, we all felt bad for Lucky even though we reasoned that what with his uncle’s illuminated nature he perhaps wasn’t as scared of dying as we thought he might have been. And Lucky’s uncle must have felt a tenderness for Lucky, leaving him all that money he’d saved up, which in the long run wasn’t much but for Lucky and our purposes was a significant sum, and anyway it was the thought that held more value than the money itself even though, again, the money wasn’t bad.

Regardless, even with all our latest attempts at not dying at the wrong time, and our reasons for it, one can imagine how Lucky must have felt. In other words, he didn’t want to see how it turned out for his uncle, the afterlife. Not yet at least.

 

So after a few days of trying to convince Lucky to go through with the plan, it became quite clear that it wasn’t going to work, so what we did was, we all met in the backyard one night very quietly while Lucky was asleep. We talked for a while about what we should do about the Lucky situation, and it was a very tough situation to work out for us. And finally Leslie said she thought she had an idea, and so we all put our heads real close together and listened as Leslie whispered out the plan, which, as you may have guessed by now, involved telling Lucky the plan was off but then having a big celebration for his birthday which was coming up soon, and there at the party when he was drunk and happy and about to blow out the candles, kill him.

We thought it an affective and humane solution to the problem. And when Jonathan said he wouldn’t do it (which didn’t really surprise any of us upon retrospection), Rashida, bless her soul, volunteered.

*

Andrew says to us that when the Madame Tussaud building in London burned down, there was a crowd of about 10,000 people that gathered in the street to watch the whole horrible spectacle. He says that most of the imminent figures that were made up in wax at the time, politicians, heads of state, humanitarian do-gooders, etc., were melted away, and that you could hear the sizzle and pop of their burning wax flesh from a block away. And he tells us that the crowd, instead of pleading with the firemen that they save the effigies of the most dignified, best people of their society immortalized in wax, that they were most interested in saving those figures from the Chamber of Horrors, that section of the museum which housed the most notorious criminals of the day, like Dr. Crippen who murdered his wife and let his mistress have the pick of her wardrobe, or Charles Peace.

“Probably because they felt closer to the criminals than to the illustrious dignitaries,” Andrew says.

“Why?” we say.

“I don’t know,” he replies. “Maybe they thought they were all being saved that way.”

We didn’t know if we agreed with that.

*

Well, so the night of Lucky’s birthday party we all pitched in on a nice set-up in the back porch and got the big fire raging again. We ordered nice cups and paper plates with balloons printed on them and had them delivered from a local grocery store: while Rashida opened the door Jonathan stood behind it with a baseball bat we found in the basement in case the delivery person had thought of doing something untoward. This had become, as you can imagine, routine. We made a cake from the stuff we had in the kitchen, a sort of pound cake soaked in maple syrup and topped with peaches, which we thought was pretty handy work and were sure that Lucky would love it. Andrew even gave us a tip, which was to sprinkle powdered sugar over the top which we thought was a wonderful idea and really gave the cake a more professional look, which we knew Lucky would also appreciate.

And, of course, we all had our bottles of knock-off Xanax, courtesy of a friend of  Jonathan’s who was studying for his PhD in chemistry at the local university, and it cost us more than Jonathan had originally said, so this made us suspect Jonathan of wanting to cheat us but his friend the chemist assured us that he had set the original price but that he thought he was getting some curious looks from faculty members lately, so, higher risk, higher price. It didn’t matter anyway because what need would we have for money in a few hours? When Jonathan’s friend asked why we needed so much stuff, he didn’t like dumping wholesale to competition, but we said we were all going to kill ourselves that night, and this was enough for him to laugh as if we had made a grand though dark and possibly uncouth joke, and then say, “You didn’t get them from me.”

So we were set. We were ready to leave this world and return to it in eternal bliss.

The plan was that Rashida would shoot Lucky through the back of the head, one shot and bam, no thought, no pain, just immediately gone. We asked if Rashida had had any experience using firearms and she said she had, that her brother was big on them and that she’d gone with him a few times to the range just outside town on Highway 54. That was good enough for all of us. We had had no idea Rashida even owned a gun. But then Rashida has surprised us more and more often lately. We didn’t ask if she was nervous, but in all honesty, she didn’t appear to be.

For the most part, the party was a great success. We gabbed and sang and danced like we always had done. We cried remembering past times, including Leslie’s pet squirrel idea (ended badly) and Lucky’s attempt at trumpet (even worse) and felt so close and so loved, each and every one of us, that there is hardly any doubt it will go down as the best moment of any of our lives.

I say “for the most part” because, as should be abundantly clear by now, one of the two principle motives for holding the party did not come to fruition.

 

At first, we visited Rashida often, and just as often she refused to see us, and so we eased up on going to visit her, and now we delegate one of the Corps to go once a month to see if she will talk with us. You may have read about the story on the news, and we all say, sitting around the fire, that we feel bad about the way everything turned out, but that it has also given us a newfound appreciation for life, as well as death, and though we are not so delusional to think this gives Rashida any comfort where she is, we all must continue to live under the conditions to which our lives have turned. Period.

And it is true, and we all freely admit it, that seeing Lucky like that made us all immediately rethink things. In a somewhat ironic twist, after it all happened, we were indeed rocked by a kind of sudden illumination, and in a somewhat more ironic twist, it had something to do with Lucky’s face just after. We looked pretty determinedly, but once the eco of the gunshot had passed through the night and faded away and not even a dog started to bark and there was just silence, we tried to recognize something about Lucky in his face which wasn’t peaceful nor did it have a look of pain or disappointment but was really just—incredibly, we had to admit—neutral. And that was the illumination: ostensibly that we didn’t want to die even if we had found the perfect moment for it (which, it became immediately and abundantly clear, we had not), and that all things considered, just because someone realizes the inherent “oneness” in everything, including death, that doesn’t mean the latter is so all of a sudden preferable.

 

And though we don’t really talk about it, except to mention every once in a while how much we wish he was still here, because maybe he knew where Lucky was, i.e. maybe he could give us at least the small consolation that our theory, however frightened we were to carry it to its conclusion, was correct, after the party it seemed like Andrew simply disappeared. Or maybe disappeared is the wrong word, because he had never actually really appeared, but, well that is to say, we never heard from him again. And now we say, because we have each other and that seems like the only thing we have left, that he was replaced, in a sense, by a new ghost, one much more absent but at the same time much more present, and one can probably understand here that, for obvious reasons, we haven’t given it a name.

 

 

 

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