ONE MAN’S MEAT

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I tested the ripeness of Mr. Skelly’s soul more than thirty times this evening, all at the insistence of his wife, Tamara, who never left my side for an instant. I tried to explain to her that this was a delicate process that could not be rushed, but my words never reached her, as if her ears were made of cloth. Mr. Skelly’s ash gray body was laid out on the dining room table like a flesh centerpiece, table decorated with the finest cloth and place settings that she could afford.

This wasn’t uncommon. Most people were ignorant of the proper protocol in manners for a matter such as this. They would set out red wine and wafers, or specially baked bread and cakes, and some even brewed their own ales. Those trappings weren’t necessary, born mostly of superstition and old wives’ tales, but had they been presented, I would have tasted the offering.  If for no other reason than to be polite.

Her husband had come to see me some six months earlier. He was skeptical, as most people are when seeking my services, but I never believed in hard selling my skills. It was a matter of faith. Either you believed that I could do what I claimed I could do, or you didn’t. In the end, Mr. Steven Skelly did believe. He revealed to me he had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and wasn’t expected to survive the year. And the diagnosis proved to be accurate.

When I first arrived at her door, Tamara debated whether or not to let me in. Not with me. She debated with herself. A loud conversation, as if both halves of her brain, the logical and the emotional sides, succeeded in separating themselves from one another and exercised shared control over the body. A conversation only the bereaved could have had and still seemed sane.

This was nothing new to me, in fact, Tamara’s discourse with herself counted amongst the tamer exchanges I had been witness to over the past ten years. I remained silent, taking no side in the argument, and was prepared to comply with her decision, either way. If she declined my services, I would have quietly tipped my hat and walked away.

When she quieted down, we stood there, me on her porch, unmoving, and she wedged in between the narrow crack of her door, unspeaking.  Then, she shifted aside slightly, which I took as an invitation to enter, and squeezed past her as politely as I could manage in the limited space provided.

As I stated earlier, Mr. Skelly was laid out on the table in the dining room, dressed in his Sunday best, a Bible laid on his chest with his hands folded upon it.

“Mrs. Skelly, I wish you hadn’t gone through all this trouble—”

“Tamara, please, and it was no trouble at all,” she smiled kindly as she touched her dead husband’s face.

“No, what I mean is, we’ll have to remove your husband’s clothes. I can’t perform my job this way.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought—”

“It’s all right, you didn’t know. How could you know?”

Mr. Skelly was a tall man, a sturdy man, and even cancer couldn’t rob him of that, but it made his dead weight all the more difficult to manage. How Tamara succeeded in dressing him all by herself in the first place was remarkable. Where there’s a will, I suppose. In silence and in tandem, we stripped the corpse, being as respectful to the man who was no longer with us as we could have managed.

“How long?” Tamara asked.

“Excuse me?”

“How long will it take for you to do your…thing?”

“There isn’t a set timeframe for this sort of thing, Tamara,” I took one of her hands in mine, and she let me.

“Most people believe that life and the soul are one and the same thing. This simply isn’t the case. Life ends when the human body shuts down completely. The soul is eternal. The soul doesn’t power the body. If that were the case, we’d all live forever.”

Tamara looked at her husband, hopeful. “So, you mean Steven’s soul is still here, with us?”

“His soul hasn’t released itself from the flesh yet, so yes, in some way, it is still with us.”

Tamara pulled her hand free of my grasp and rushed over to the table and caressed Steven’s face gently. “Honey? Steven? Are you still in there? Can you hear me? Give me a sign if you can hear me!”

I moved behind Tamara, placed my hands on her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “It doesn’t work that way. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t.”

She turned on her heels and was in my face suddenly, like an attack dog. Delicate hands balled into fists and pounding on my chest. “Then why are you just standing here? Why aren’t you doing what we paid you to do?  Why aren’t you helping my Steven? I can’t bear to think of him trapped in there like that, helpless!”

Her energy spent, she folded herself into my chest and I held her.

“He isn’t trapped, Tamara. He’s in a transitional stage, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. If you can imagine a spiritual chrysalis, enveloping his soul, molding and shaping his essence into what it needs to become in order to move on, that’s what’s happening now.”

Tamara looked up at me, concerned. “Then shouldn’t you be getting to work now?  Before it’s too late?”

“His soul isn’t ready.”

“But how do you know?”

I couldn’t stifle a slight chuckle.  “I’ve been doing this for over ten years now. I just know.”

“And you’ve never been wrong? Never made a mistake? Not once?” Her concern was understandable but unjustified.

“Not once. When his soul is ready, when it reaches the stage just before it emerges in its new form, I’ll do what I’ve been paid to do.”

“You’ll eat his sin?” That question was the one thing that never varied in deliverance, from person to person, job to job, regardless of who said it. It always came out sounding the same. Part skepticism, part hope.

“Every drop of it.”

“And there’ll be no retribution?” she looked up at the ceiling but I understood her meaning.

“No retribution. He’ll move on to a better place and none of his sins will transfer to you.”

“And what about you? You take this all of this on yourself. What happens to you?”

“With all due respect, that’s none of your concern,” I expected an argument. None came.

“Well then,” Tamara straightened up and composed herself.  “Can I interest you in a cup of tea?”

“Tea would be nice.”

She stared at me a long moment, no doubt trying to decipher what made me do what I did. Trying to puzzle out how I came into this profession. But she never asked. I think she knew I wouldn’t be very forthcoming anyway, so she simply shook her head slightly and moved to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

©2011 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

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The Space Between

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When I was asked to deliver this eulogy, I was terrified. I am not the best orator in the family, that honor goes to Arthur, my brother, who couldn’t be in attendance because he and his family lived too far away, as opposed to my youngest sister, Ethel, who simply couldn’t be bothered to pack up their families again for a repeat memorial service. You see, we buried my great grandfather Walter two short weeks ago and while I understand the inconvenience, family is family and they should have made it their business to be here, if not to offer support to those of us this passing strikes hardest, then at least out of familial obligation. If it sounds like I’m bitter, I am, and I apologize for burdening you with it but not sorry for voicing the way I feel. That was one of the lessons I learned from the person we’re memorializing today.

This woman gave life to the woman who gave life to the woman who gave life to me and I owe her so much because I have a good life. If it’s true that grandparents give us a sense of who we are and where we come from, then great-grandparents let us know how far we’ve come and the sacrifices that had to be made for us to exist.

Today, as we bid farewell to GiGiMaw Eleanor, I realize the size of the hole left in my heart and in my family. I am truly blessed to have so many strong women in my life and it is extremely rare for a relationship three generations removed to be so crucial and so enduring but then Eleanor was that phenomenal sort of person every single day of her life. And you don’t have to take my word for it, others will come up and tell stories that will make you laugh and fill your hearts with joy and hope. I, on the other hand, wish to tell a different story, one that few of you know but I think it’s time to clear the air of ghosts and secrets from the past.

Eleanor and Walter had two children, a daughter, my wonderful GiMaw Ruth, who is with us today, and her older brother, Ned, who is no longer with us. From the stories Eleanor told me, Ned, the granduncle I never had the honor of meeting, was an active little boy, rambunctious and always full of playful mischief, but he was kindhearted, especially to his baby sister. Always the defender of the weak and a paladin of justice, he had the makings for growing into someone important, someone the world needed.

When he was just six years old he was the victim of a hit and run which cut his life short. Alerted by the neighbors, Eleanor and Walter rushed to the scene of the accident and gathered up their son’s body and immediately carried him home as not to cause a spectacle. They carefully and lovingly cleaned Ned head to toe, dressed him in his Sunday best and placed him on their bed in the space between them and mourned their loss in private all through the night.

This was in a time before the dead were taken to morgues, back when it was the family’s responsibility to take care of funeral arrangements themselves. My great grandparents were poor, like nearly everyone else in town, so these two people, these two parents, dug their son’s grave with their bare hands, wrapped him in his bedsheet and placed his body into the ground, burying his corpse handful by trembling handful.

Eleanor and Walter divorced each other two months later. They were still in their twenties and chose to remain living under the same roof for their daughter’s sake, together but separated. Eighty plus years of sleeping in their marriage bed with a space forever between them where their phantom son lay, sharing an experience that was so painful that they couldn’t risk casting an eye upon the other for fear of reopening a wound that never fully closed.

But as I mentioned, they were private people who managed to keep that pain to themselves and had I not known the story I would have been hardpressed to spot their unhappiness whenever we stopped round for a visit. Up until the end, GiGiMaw Eleanor had more energy and showed more interest in my life and the lives of my children than anyone I’ve ever known. No offense, Mom.

What made my great-grandmother special? So wonderful? As the relative who lived the closest, she was always present, part of our everyday lives in such a tangible way, baking and cooking and babysitting and taking our daughters for surprise days of shopping at the mall.

You impacted my life in so many ways, GiGiMaw Eleanor, helped shape who I am, who my children are. You influenced all of us so greatly and I will always love you and save a special corner of my heart to keep you with me because you held the family together.

And in keeping with your tradition, I wanted you to know that we are not only laying you to rest today. It took some doing but we located Ned’s original burial spot and we’re having your son reinterred with you and GiGPaw Walter in the place he never ceased to exist, in the space between the both of you because family needs to be together.

©2018 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

The Next Now

Next Now

Though he swore to himself that he would never ever in a million years be caught dead doing it again, Clayton Jacobson wound up working late. Nearly four and a half hours past his quitting time, according to the clock, whose disinterested face stared down upon him from its lofty perch above the office door. Which made it two hundred and seventy minutes since his co-workers abandoned him without a second thought, retreating to the comfort of their homes, leaving him to pick up the slack.

Traitors, all of them.

Experts claimed that it was impossible to put a dollar value on a human life. But Clayton knew that to be a lie. He was aware exactly what his life was worth at current market value between the weekday hours of nine-to-six, or better yet, nine-to-ten thirty. He was a salaried employee that wasn’t eligible for overtime pay, so rounded up, his life was worth twenty-six dollars and fifty cents an hour. That boiled down to forty-four cents a second that he collected as he sat at his desk completely inundated with work and wasting his life away doing something that held his interest not in the least. Forty-four cents for each precious second of his life that he had exhausted and could never reclaim ever again. And as he inched ever closer to his own inevitable demise, he couldn’t help but think how cheaply he’d sold a portion of his life to a faceless entity that wouldn’t be able to recall his name in the fiscal quarter that followed his inevitable termination date.

Clayton Jacobson was a corporate cheap date.

As a reward for his continued loyalty, he had been given what was considered to be the reasonable and customary stock options package, which made him the proud owner of five thousand shares of complete and absolute boredom. Every day at approximately this very instant, he cracked his investment portfolio wide and contemplated his stock, and as always, he came to the realization that he was wealthier than he thought. He personally owned more boredom than he knew what to do with.

Cursing himself for being a corporate lackey, he rubbed his tired eyes, yawned, stretched, and began the protocol for closing up shop. It’s not like he could simply get up and leave. His position as office manager included the responsibility of backing up the entire day’s work onto the server, which would cost him another half hour, at least.

While the backup chugged away at its steady pace, Clayton impatiently packed his briefcase with files stacked in his Incoming tray under the guise of finishing the work at home. But he knew all too well that once he stepped foot into his apartment, he would ignore the work like an overdue bill or a random bit of junk mail. Physically taking work home was just a force of habit. It made him feel like he was making a dent, which was the lie he told himself every evening.

After all the computers and office equipment were shut down, he shrugged on his coat, locked the front door and tripled checked that it was secure. That was the one and only OCD that Clayton had. Is the door locked? Did I lock the door? were the questions he would ask himself every time he left the building. And he realized that this problem of his wasn’t founded in reality since never once in all his years had he not successfully locked a door upon leaving a place, but still, he found himself constantly returning to check locked doors. Tonight wasn’t a particularly bad night. He only went back and checked the door three times. His standing record was twenty-seven, which was probably due to the fact that he was not only exhausted that night but also on a heavy dose of cold medication.

Clayton Jacobson did not take sick days.

On his fourth time exiting the building, Clayton lost his footing and hit the concrete pavement like a baseball player sliding home. The briefcase slipped from his grasp during the fall and popped open, scattering files and papers over all over the sidewalk. Embarrassed, he looked around quickly to see if anyone caught his fall. Not a soul in sight. Good. He slowly got to his feet, dusted himself off and looked at the spot in front of the building where he had tripped. He half expected to see a patch of ice, grease or something, but there was nothing there.

That’s odd, he thought as he began scooping the papers back into his briefcase. Although it was a cold night, it wasn’t particularly windy, which was a good thing, since Clayton hadn’t fancied the idea of chasing paper down the street.

As he fastened the last latch on his briefcase, Clayton rose to see his bus pull away from the bus stop. He chased after it, hoping that the stoplight at the corner would turn red, giving him the chance to catch up with the bus and plead his way aboard. Usually, the bus drivers were more lenient about picking up passengers outside designated areas after ten o’clock at night. Unfortunately, the stoplight and Clayton were not in accord as it allowed the bus to escape him.

At the bus stop Clayton didn’t even bother reading the schedule because he knew the next bus was a half hour away and it was far too cold to stand out on the street and wait and if he went back into the office, he would get caught up in work and miss the next bus and most likely fall asleep at his desk. Since there were no open coffee shops at this time of night, he resigned himself to walk home. He lived close enough to his job so that walking isn’t out of the question, which was the only real perk that was associated with his employment. Twenty minutes by foot if he hustled, a half-hour if he took a more leisurely pace. Theoretically, he could have been home before the next bus arrived, so he hoofed it.

At the corner, his nemesis, the streetlight, turned red and he was forced to wait his turn against the traffic. A man sidled up to Clayton’s elbow so silently he could have been a shadow.

“Excuse me,” the man said and Clayton tried to suppress the urge to jump out of his skin. “May I have a moment of your time?”

“Sorry. I have someplace to be.” Clayton didn’t even meet the man’s gaze.

“Surely you have a moment to spare, in one of your pockets, perhaps?” the man’s manner was polite and seemed completely genuine.

“Is this about money?” Clayton shot him a glance.

“No.”

“Cigarettes? Because I don’t smoke.”

“Neither do I. Not for some time now.” A fact the man seemed to find rather amusing.

“Okay, so are you some kind of cop or something? Am I under arrest? Are you looking for sex? Are you initiating into a gang and need to cut a complete stranger? A serial killer cruising for a little late night murder?”

“No, no, no, no, and no.” the man smiled.

“Then what, for God’s sake?”

“As I said initially, a moment of your time.”

“For what?” Clayton spat.

“I think you dropped something.” The man said, pointing in the direction of the office building.

Clayton assumed it was a sheet of paper that he missed when was scooping up his papers, but what he saw instead was— well, at first he thought it was a pile of garbage. But that wasn’t right. It was a body. Strewn on the sidewalk like a rag doll.

Convinced that his eyes were playing tricks on him, he walked slowly to the body that looked strangely familiar. Well, it ought to have looked familiar, it was wearing the exact same outfit Clayton had on, identical down to the shoes. Even the open briefcase was the same.

“Who is that?” Clayton asked.

“You know who it is.” The man was suddenly behind Clayton again, but this time he didn’t jump.

“How?”

“Heart attack.”

“But I didn’t feel anything.”

“Some people never do. Perhaps you were too preoccupied?”

“Oh come on, is this some kind of sick joke?” Clayton tasted the fear in his own voice. “I slipped and hit his head, didn’t I? And now I’m hallucinating, right? Or maybe I’m still upstairs in the office asleep at his desk, or better yet at home in bed having a bad dream?”

“No, no, no, no and no.”

“Then I’m–” he couldn’t bring himself to say the word.

“Well and truly dead, I am afraid.”

“And you are?”

“Your travel companion,” the man offered Clayton another smile.

“Oh, I get it! You’re going to point out all the wrong I’ve done and give me the chance to rectify it, that’s what this is, right?” Clayton hadn’t meant it to sound so sarcastic.

The man shook his head. “You have not done any wrong.”

“Then maybe there was something I was supposed to do, some potential I was supposed to live up to that I didn’t…”

“No, you lived your life accordingly.”

“So, this is it? No ceremony? No pomp and circumstance? Just heart attack, boom, I’m dead?”The man seemed confused. “Would you prefer there be a penance? A punishment?”

The man seemed confused. “Would you prefer there be a penance? A punishment?”

“Not exactly, but something more than this.”

“Oh, but there is more. Your mind simply has not adjusted to your new reality just yet, which is perfectly normal in the beginning. You are clinging to the shadows of your old life, but all this will fade and you will begin to see anew, once you have accepted the fact that what is done cannot be undone.”

“So, what do I do now?” Clayton asked.

“Travel with me for a moment.” The man gestured at a car that Clayton could have sworn was not there before.

“You drive a car?”

“It is my conveyance. Your mind views it as a car, as that is what you are accustomed to.” The man said patiently. “For your comfort, you may wish to remove your coat.”

“But it’s freezing out here—” and as soon as Clayton heard the words, he felt foolish. “Oh, right.”

“Let me help you.” The man took Clayton’s briefcase, slid the overcoat off his shoulders, and let both items fall to the ground. As they landed, there was a deafening boom, which cracked the pavement and shattered the windows in the surrounding area. Or Clayton thought the windows shattered. When he looked up again, the windows were whole, as if nothing happened.

“I feel so much lighter now.” Clayton bounced on his toes like a little boy.

“You have just stripped yourself of your biggest encumbrances.”

“Which were?”

“Labor and haste.”

This answer made Clayton stop bouncing for some reason and he turned to look at his body crumpled on the sidewalk. “Can we do something about this?” he pointed at his former shell.

“Like what?” the man asked.

“I don’t know.” Clayton scratched his head. “Rearrange it? Move it inside the building maybe? Something more dignified than this. This isn’t how I want people to remember me.”

“Those who remember you will do so in their own manner. You cannot change that,” the man said as he opened the door for Clayton, who looked at his lifeless body one last time with a twinge of regret for not having lived a richer more fulfilling life, before he slipped into the passenger seat.

The man entered the driver’s side and took the wheel. And they drove, so slowly that it seemed to Clayton they were not moving at all, but instead, time moved around them. Not through them, Clayton noticed, around them. There was no time within this conveyance. One moment, the time the man asked of Clayton, was the same as eternity in here.

“Where are we headed?” Clayton asked.

“The next now.” The man answered and said no more. And he hadn’t needed to because somehow Clayton understood. For the first time in his life, or more accurately his death, he understood perfectly.

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

 

 

About The Next Now: One night I was working on a short story that I’ve been toying with for the better part of a year. I was knee-deep in the rising action stage, typing away—and even happy with most of it—when it happened: The Click.

It’s a magical moment. Your pupils dilate. Your breathing slows. The fog in your head clears. Time slows to a crawl. And for one shining moment, everything is perfect. Every sinewy thread of plot comes together. It may be a mess, but it’s all there. It can be fixed and made whole—we have the technology.

And then the world speeds back up and it’s a race against the clock to type out as much as you can before the perfect purring of a well-oiled machine becomes a sputter and you lose something—or worse—the machine takes a great big dump.

That’s this one right here. A simple story about a wage slave that dies, unappreciated. No fanfare, no glorious reward for living his life correctly and doing no harm. A simple leave your things behind and move on to the next phase of your existence, or the next now.