Contrary to popular belief, being dead is not too bad a thing. It’s not particularly a good thing either but the fact is, it’s a lot like being alive− you feel dead most of the time. Or at least I did. I seldom felt alive when I was alive which might be to say I didn’t feel happy very often and there wasn’t much that made me think how lucky I was to be alive. In retrospect, I spent more time being sad and disgruntled than happy, assuming some kind of happiness is the overarching goal. I always assumed while I was alive that if life on the whole is more than 50% painful or uncomfortable, you’ve lost the game. But breaking even isn’t all that thrilling either so maybe a good life looks something more like 60/40, enjoyable/terrible.
I’d say I was more of a 60 percenter but not in the way I just mentioned. After doing the math I figure my years were 20% enjoyable, 20% terrible, and 60% trapped in a monotonous lull, working, eating, sleeping, and occupying the bathroom. The only time I really felt positive about anything was when I drank which is what ended up killing me, ironically. Alcohol made life seem pretty good. A stiff drink made work, school, doing laundry and all that other everyday nonsense seem bearable, even decent. If I had a drink in my hand while walking to the mailbox it wasn’t so bad finding the bills in there. A couple shots before going to the market turned picking out cantaloupe into a noble crusade.
Now that I’m dead I can’t exactly recall how I died. There’s no video here that I can play to watch myself die although I do vaguely remember being drunk and tumbling down a flight of stairs. I know I didn’t die immediately because I remember hearing a few people standing over my mangled body talking frantically on their cell phones. I smelled somebody’s new shoes, they were close to my head, definitely leather. Not the worst smell to go out with, new leather.
Deceased for about eight months now and I’m still not used to it, catching myself trying to breathe once in a while. Sometimes I want to eat even though there’s no need and no feeling of hunger. No lamb chops in the afterlife. All of us, the dead, wander or sit and tell stories about being alive to pass the time which of course is endless. Sure, we talk about things that we would’ve changed in our lives or the actions we regret taking. We also chat about the happy moments, not love or marriage or retirement because those are not genuinely happy moments, but periods of time fraught with an equal amount of sadness, anger, or worse, indifference. Not until you get here do you really understand what the happy moments were. No, we talk about the true moments in the sun. I recently met a man named Chuck who was shot and killed behind a saloon in Phoenix, Arizona, circa 1870. He was my age when he died, twenty-nine, and we’ve become friends. He told me the best moment of his life was when he killed the doctor who refused to see his ailing wife.
“I’d never felt so happy after putting a bullet in that bastard’s head,” he told me. I asked Chuck if he’d seen the doctor in all the time that he’d been dead. “I haven’t run into him yet,” he said. “I’d have nothing to say to him even if I did.” Chuck scratched the stubble on his chin. “Haven’t seen my wife, neither.”
“Well I hope we bump into her at some point,” I said with my arms crossed. I still felt naked. You don’t take the clothes you die in and you don’t take whatever tangible object that might’ve killed you. As I understand it, you are as you died, but nobody is walking around with holes in their heads or limbs missing unless you actually were missing a limb in life or born without one. Everyone is naked here, young and old, but Chuck’s been dead for well over a century and grown accustomed to it. Not me. When I first got here I laughed at it quite a bit, even laughed at an obese man who had an ass that looked like two giant slabs of dimpled concrete but the joke gets old fast.
People sometimes hold grudges against others that wronged or even killed them in life. Not much you can do about it if you see that person here because, well, you’re both dead. You can talk about it and try to reconcile or you can avoid one another for eternity, that is if you ever happen to cross paths in the first place. There are a lot of dead people here. You may see somebody one day and never see them again or you might run into the same person several times in short order. With all the empty space, you might walk long distances without seeing anyone at all while other times you might be wandering in a crowd of thousands.
All the nudity gets confusing too. There’s no identifiable clothing so you usually have to go by language, hairstyles, facial hair and general appearance to distinguish people and even then it’s a tossup at best. Not to mention the language barrier here. You’ve got people shuffling around speaking ancient Sumerian for god’s sake. For a while, Chuck and I turned it into a bit of a guessing game but he quickly lost interest. I’d end up feeling bad because I had the advantage of dying after the birth of the internet whereas Chuck had no real ability to tell one time period from another. Even if I think I have someone pegged, I can only confirm by asking the person outright and I’ve been wrong every time thus far. Just a second ago I was standing next to a man I thought might have been from the colonial south judging by his accent, dialect, beard, books I’d read and movies I watched while I was alive, but it turned out to be some home-brewer from Atlanta who died not long after I did. Total letdown.
“Well that was discouraging,” I said. Chuck was staring over my shoulder at a large group of people moving in the distance. Little fleshy, pink dots often roamed on the horizon and with leagues of nothingness between us, anticipating how long it might take to reach them was impossible. “Let’s head over that way,” he said. “Sometimes I wish I had my rifle”
“Oh yeah?” I said laughing. “Who the hell are you going to shoot here?”
“Every single person until I find her.”
Being dead is similar to being alive in that you connect with people of your age group or with people who shared similar experiences in life. The possibilities are endless. You might see an old friend from life that you don’t have anything in common with in death. Perhaps they died long after you did and they’re a completely different person than the one you knew. If your brother grew old and died 40 years after you, you could walk right past him and not even know it. While rare to reunite with people from life, I have seen one or two obvious and very lucky families walking together but concluded that they probably all died together.
I’m still not sure how it works in terms of timing, whether or not you have to die at the same time or only in close proximity to each other. If you died in a massive tragedy, Jonestown for example, as I understand it there’s no guarantee you’ll appear in this place together. On the other hand, if you died instantly in a plane crash along with a hundred other people, you’ll pop up here at roughly the same time in the same place but not always. In that sense, a disaster in life turns out to be a stroke of luck in death because you start here with a group of people who shared the experience whereas most of us begin this alone.
The good thing is that there’s a lot of variety here, people spanning from the dawn of time to the most recent hour. New faces arrive every day, every minute, bringing new stories with them and making the dead life more fascinating than the living life in some ways. I mean, everyone is here— ancient Egyptians, queens, kings, extinct Amazonian tribes, serial killers, Genghis Khan, popes, mountain climbers, presidents, peasants, prostitutes, samurais, CEOs, pirates, novelists, scientists, bushmen, Gandhi, Romans, Aztecs, artists, bus drivers, pilots, prehistoric peoples of unknown origin, the Hillsborough 96, Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, the guy who shot Brandon Lee, blacksmiths, soldiers, emperors, Aristotle, shark attack victims, scribes, prophets, farmers, vikings, ventriloquists, Macedonians, Pablo Escobar, Geronimo, and absolutely everyone else in the history of the human race.
In my first month here I saw Caravaggio, or I was told it was Caravaggio, talking with a small group of young men, presumably other artists of his time. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his art in life and how pictures of his paintings are in all the art history books and that he’s considered one of the true masters but I don’t speak 16th century Italian so what could I do? There have been attempts to organize translation services to varying degrees of success but people wander. That’s all you can do.
Chuck and I finally reached who we thought were the people we saw in the distance. “Blonde, about five and half feet, skin as fair as a baby’s rear” he said again. He’d said it since I met him. “Not all babies’ rears are the same,” I said. “You realize we’re going to have to stop almost every blonde woman we see, right?”
“I’ll know her when I see her. You just holler.”
Even if I’d tried to befriend Caravaggio and his crew they wouldn’t have been very receptive, not because they’re unfriendly, dead people are typically friendlier than living people, but because people simply stick to their own in death, if and when they find them, much the same as they do in life. Because selfishness is not experienced in death, and because people don’t bring their wealth, talent, or prestige with them to the dead life, there isn’t the same incentive to socialize and get to know people who are completely different from you. There are no ladders to climb. It could be my 21st century attitude clouding my experience but I’ve got infinitude to figure it out, so, here I am. Instead, a lot of people try to meet similar people that died later than themselves, to get insight into a future they were never able to see. An English soldier killed in the American Revolution, let’s say, might try to seek out fellow combatants who survived the war to ask them about the outcome he didn’t live long enough to witness.
The trend works both ways. There are historians who might try to find their subjects of study, to go back in time, to track down and question victims of the bubonic plague about their experience. Oh, and there’s no sex here. People are nude, yes, but you’re not fully materialized, meaning you can pass right through other people although it’s considered rude.
The dead life is hard and lonely for most, especially for those that lived favorably. The rich and powerful from the living world are the same as everyone else in death— they’re dead. Status, fame, and luxuries from life don’t cross over with you and you’re only as good as your ability to carry on a conversation. That’s all that exists here, endless babble across the ages as billions of conversations start and end and start again. The dead life is a noisy place.
One thing that troubles me and everyone else is the incessant wailing of infants. They lay everywhere, crawling here and there and screaming for their mothers. Little children laugh and roam in packs, never growing up, never growing old. Even if a mother wanted to find her child, there’s no guarantee the child is going to be interested in going anywhere with her. And the teenagers, my god, they’re even obnoxious when they’re dead. I try to push the noise to the background where it remains like the buzzing of an air conditioner or the relentless tapping of an anxious person’s foot. Maddening sounds I remember from life. I’m still not used to it. Chuck told me it all blends together at some point.
“How about that one?” I said pointing to a walking description of Chuck’s wife.
“No, sir,” he said. “Longer hair for sure.”
“This fine lady here?” I ushered over a spitting image of his description.
“Close, but no cigar,” Chuck said smiling at the woman.
“Sorry ma’am,” I said. She looked up and squawked at me with a toothless grin before hobbling off.
Sometimes I try to tell Chuck about computers, airplanes, video games, and landing on the moon. For whatever reason, I want him to know about my era, what we as human beings had become although I wasn’t thrilled about what we as human beings had become when I was alive. I know I was lonely.
“Yeah there’s these screens, well, there were these screens that you could see the person you’re talking to on.” I said as we filtered through the crowd. “Like if you were in Texas and your wife was in Wyoming, you would see her face on the screen and you could talk to her and you could actually see her talking back to you and hear her voice.”
“Why would Hattie be in Texas?”
“She’s not in Texas, she’s in… the point is…”
“Are you keeping a look out?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well that sounds like sissy shit to me. If I want to talk to my wife, I’ll talk to her straight.”
Overwhelmed, I looked down at my feet and noticed something I hadn’t before, that the tip of the toenail on my left big toe was shaped like a triangle. The other nails appeared to be fairly round but prior to dying, I’d clearly done a shoddy job trimming that one big toe, cutting it at a 45-degree angle on one side and a 45-degree angle on the other, leaving a sharp point in the middle for the rest of immeasurable, incalculable time. For eternity. Forever. I looked back up at the sky, the never-ending oblivion, and sighed.
“Chuck, you haven’t seen a bar since you’ve been here, have you?”
Mike McGowan received his MA in fine art in 2010 and has been perpetually emerging since. He’s had images of his paintings and few short stories published over the years in print and online by Hobart: Another Literary Journal, Monkeybicyle (now defunct I believe) and UCLA’s The Beat among others. You can view his art at www.mikemcgowanart.com.