The afterlife resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned automat. Just this long, narrow, possibly endless room. One wall is lined with shining chrome drawers and those tiny, cloudy windows where you can catch glimpses of sandwiches with wilted lettuce and sometimes more grotesque things, like gall bladders. A big oaf dressed like a 1920s mobster looms over the cash register and is forever giving you the stink-eye, like you might try to jimmy your way into the drawers and steal his gall bladders. The automat only takes quarters and wouldn’t you know it, I forgot my purse.
The place reeks of stale cigarette smoke and that nose-tingling odor of cleaning products. The waitresses are always wiping down the chrome drawers and the square Formica tables that dot the length of the long hallway, so that explains the cleaning products, but the cigarette smell is some kind of mystery from the beyond. I don’t know what to think about the waitresses. Even if you walk right up to them, even if you stand nose-to-nose and tit-to-tit with them, they won’t answer a simple question, such as, say, “Is this heaven or hell?”
Jim and I are the oldest people here, which is honestly not as surprising as the fact that we are also the only people here. Stuck, apparently, in our own personal afterlife.
I keep glancing up at the cat-shaped clock on the wall, even though I know it always says 4:15. The clock’s broken, or maybe time’s just broken, what the hell do I know? We’re sitting at “our table,” making pyramids out of the creamers, and I catch Jim peeking at the bulletin board that hangs next to the mobster’s cash register.
“Jim,” I say, “nobody’s ever going to post anything.”
“They did that one time,” he says. I give him a look. The “one time” he’s talking about, all the paper said was Made ya look! where the O’s were a pair of googly eyes. Meanwhile the mobster made a noise through his nose that might have been a chuckle. Very funny.
So Jim says for the thousandth time that he’s going to go ask the mobster guy for a couple quarters, just to see what’ll happen, and as much as I’m starved for something to do, someone else to talk to, I tell him I think it’s a bad idea.
“What if I just ask him for a deck of cards?” Jim asks. He’s terrible at leisure time. When we were alive he always had something scheduled: work, intramural softball, poker nights, jam sessions, teaching English to Somali immigrants.
“We can’t be the only ones dying of boredom here,” he says. “Someone’s bound to start a club or something. Hell I’d even learn how to play Mah Jongg, fucking Scribbage. I don’t care.”
“I think it’s pronounced ‘Cribbage,'” I say.
“Whatever,” he says.
A whole life of camaraderie, of working together through financial troubles, and children, and just the general shit that life lobs at you, and it’s not until we’re dead that the specter of a divorce looms.
“Why don’t you post something?” I say.
“Sure, Ellie,” he says. “Got a pen?”
When you love someone, you spend a whole lot of time wondering what the hell you’re going to do if they die before you do. You imagine the end of life to be a race to see who can die first. Who wants to be left alone? Who wants to be that feeble, hunched raisin, eyes watery, always stuck in the back of their own head somewhere, high on the hallucinogen of their own memories? Who wants their flimsy crepe-paper hand patted by long-suffering adult children? The young have the controlling shares in pretending they’ll never be old. It’s incredibly annoying.
Jim had his first heart attack when we were on what was supposed to be a relaxing beach vacation. But of course, sitting on a beach is Jim’s idea of hell, so instead he took surfing lessons until his heart gave out. I watched them drag him out of the ocean, and I told him I’d fucking kill him myself if he died before we could retire. I told him to knock it off with the Type A stuff. I also ordered arsenic off the Internet because hell if I was suddenly going to be one of those old people that everyone pities but no one talks to.
Meanwhile, my hand was patted. Suddenly we’re a family of prudish Victorians: handkerchiefs wringing, eyelashes fluttering, as many euphemisms for death as Eskimos have words for snow. These are the times when you want to dropkick your children, not when they thrash and scream as toddlers, but when adulthood teaches them to mask their judgment as benevolence. I thought about poisoning them too, I really did. Mea fucking culpa.
Jim had a second heart attack, a month before retirement, that moron, with the dramatic backdrop of a buzzing fluorescent light and the dull hum of an EEG gone flatline. The kids wept and I gulped down three pills.
“Valium,” I lied, when they glared bolts of uh oh at each other. “Give me a break.”
Ten minutes later, the arsenic did that thing it does. I slumped over in my rolly chair, which, without the stability of my living muscles holding it in place, rolled out from under me, tossing me skull-first onto the linoleum.
My wallet, practically bursting with quarters, sat uselessly in my purse.
Jim squints down the long hallway of the automat, and I know what he’s going to say. I can see him trying to figure out how to frame it in a way I might agree to, and then giving up.
“We should see what’s down there,” he says. “Probably all the people are in another room or something.”
“Don’t you dare,” I’ve got more respect for the enormity of the divine than Jim does. “You go down there and I’ll never see you again.”
He looks hurt. “You won’t come with me?”
I look at the table we’re sitting at. I’m used to it. There’s a bleach spot under the condiment hopper. The faded design on the top looks a little like boomerangs, in that way 1950s stuff does. I’m used to the glares of the mobster cashier. And I am so annoyed that, even now that we’re fucking dead, even now Jim can’t relax.
“I just, I know what we’ve got here,” I say. “This is a pretty good table.”
“Pretty good for what, exactly?” he asks.
“Who knows what’s down there,” I say. “Probably more of the same anyway.”
But Jim keeps looking over his shoulder with the longing of the man I know so well, the man who’s never satisfied, ever.
A waitress whips a rag around and around our table. Despite the ample cleavage that dips and jiggles with each swipe, she’s surprisingly sexless. It’s like her tits are tired of being tits. Like they’d rather be something a little less enticing, elbows or noses maybe. I can relate.
Jim waves a hand in front of her face and I sigh. We’ve tried this. We’ve tried touching them, screaming at them, waving at them. They can’t see us, or hear us, or feel us. Or they don’t want to. He just won’t give up.
“Let it go, Jim,” I say.
But then, in a move so shocking I actually gasp, Jim grabs the waitress’s tit and squeezes. She doesn’t slap him, or yelp, or scream; for the first time since we’ve been here, the first fucking time, she stops wiping.
“Jim!” I say. Reflex. I’m not actually upset, just surprised.
“What the heck?” says the waitress, though her lips don’t move. “Is there somebody here?” Jim and I look at each other, elated.
“You did it!” I said. “What did you do?”
The waitress rips open the bodice of her dress, just like they do in the novels, and she’s not wearing a bra. This doesn’t scandalize me as much as the fact that her breasts are eyeballs, with lashes and eye shadow and everything. They look surprised, I think.
“Whoa,” the waitress says via the tiny mouth of her navel. “Who are you?”
Not that I have much time to consider all this. The mobster, with surprising litheness for such a big guy, hops over the counter and whacks Jim over the head with a sock full of what I can only assume are quarters.
“Shame on youse,” the mobster says, “This is a family establishment.”
I think we should call the mobster “Tony,” but Jim thinks he needs something more abstract, like “The Nose.” Jim’s basic idea is that The Nose is God, which is a bit too obvious and Old Testament for my taste. My theory is more like, what we see in death is just a projection of our own minds. I like my theory better because it means we have the power to change things. We spend some time trying to change the automat into something else, our old living room, for example. Nothing doing. Not even a ripple in the old space-time continuum.
“This should work,” I say.
“But automats were before our time,” says Jim. “How could we have created something we’ve never actually seen?”
“We’ve seen them in movies,” I say.
“No, but on Earth?”
This is another point of contention. “On Earth,” he’s always saying. As though in death we’re floating around in space somewhere.
“It just doesn’t feel like Earth,” he says, knocking on the Formica table as though it might sound different, out here in space or whatever.
I’m thinking about this in particular-–the On Earth vs. In Space debate-–when Jim disappears after the sock-of-quarters beating, and so does the automat.
The space around me, everywhere, becomes thick and purplish and howls with wind. I seem to be dangling rather than falling, but it’s really hard to say. My sense of distance and perspective have collapsed. There is an absence of smell, which is not the same thing as odorless, though I can’t really explain why. I am neither cold nor warm but just kind of uncomfortable, and I can’t tell if I’m looking at an expansive space or a very small room. My arms feel shackled, but when I look, there’s nothing shackling them. I am alone.
“Jim?” I say, and my voice sounds tiny and pathetic in my ears.
“I gave you mooks everything,” says a voice with what sounds like a very heavy Chicago accent.
“Tony?” I ask. “Is that you?”
“What can I say, I’m a romantic. Your story moved me,” Tony says. “The two of youse—together to the very end. So what do I do? I give you the best table in the house. I let you stay together, which I never do for nobody. And this is the thanks I get. You sumsabitches had to go ahead and pull a stunt like that.”
“You can’t really be serious with this gangster god routine, right?” I say. It’s a bold stance to take, given my precarious position, but ridiculous is ridiculous. I didn’t get to be a junior high teacher for 35 years and mother of three by taking shit from bullies. “What did we ever do to you?”
“What did you do?” Tony says. “What did you do? Oh that’s rich.”
“Where is Jim?” My voice shakes. It sounds tiny and weak and I hate it. “What did you do with him?”
He laughed, a low, growling, mirthless chuckle. “You can’t see him. You can’t see any of them, but they’re all around you. Everyone who has departed the mortal coil, god rest their fucked up souls. He’s right here widdus, girlie. Only, you know, ‘On Earth.'” He snorts. Everything’s a joke to this guy.
“Let me guess,” I say. “I’m In Space?”
“Well look around you, sweet tits. It ain’t fuckin’ Miami Beach.”
“You weren’t exactly clear about the rules of the afterlife automat, you know? We didn’t mean any harm. It’s human nature to be curious. That can’t be a surprise, to you of all people,” I say.
“People? Don’t you fucking call me ‘people,'” Tony says. “And you ain’t got a curious bone in your cold dead body.”
“So what do you want from me? If I didn’t do anything, why am I here?” I ask.
“I figured you wanted a change of scenery,” he says with a chuckle.
“Well you figured wrong,” I say. I take a deep breath and think about courage. “What do I need to do to get Jim back?”
That gravelly chuckle again. “You so sure you want him back? Looked to me like you two wasn’t getting along so good. Your fella had the wandering eye, undressing waitresses like that. Always on the lookout for somethin’ better. Looked like splitsville to me. Maybe I did you clowns a favor.”
He’s messing with me, but it still hurts. “It wasn’t like that and you know it. He figured something out,” I say, warming to the idea. “Some little piece of the mystery. And you shut him down. And anyway, Jim and I have been through a lot. A lifetime of a lot. We won’t abandon each other now.” I know I shouldn’t explain myself. You never explain yourself to bullies. But maybe I needed to explain myself to myself.
“Oh a lifetime, you say?” Tony laughs. “A whole lifetime? Why, howsoever did you manage? You fucking people.”
I try not to think about how we’ve drifted apart since death. We’ve drifted apart before. When the kids were babies, you know, you spend so much time making sure they don’t choke or drown, it’s almost like a curtain drops around you and them and you can’t see anything outside it. Then there was my affair-–I don’t feel bad about it anymore, everything’s part of a life, good and bad. Then work or grief or just the idiocy of the every day. You wax and wane with those you love. It’s inevitable.
The sound of slow clapping. “Touching. Really. I’m touched.”
“Leave me a little bit of privacy, please. My thoughts are still mine,” I say. I wiggle my fingers a bit in their shackles. Can I really be shackled? I mean, I have a body, but not in the traditional sense. And-–am I really In Space? I think of the cat clock, how maybe the clock itself is fine but time is broken—like, capital-T Time—and I wonder if the same is true about capital-S Space. If it really is broken, if death means you can squeeze through the cracks in reality…well maybe I really can change things. The thought is exciting, and I struggle to keep my mind blank so he can’t hear me.
“I can hear you,” he says.
“Can you just…knock it off for a second?” I ask. “I’m new to this. I’m trying to understand.”
“Lemme spell it out for you,” The Nose says. He really is more of a The Nose than a Tony, now that we’ve had a chance to talk. “You fucked up. We don’t go around trying to dig up each other’s secrets. I leave you alone, you leave me and my waitresses and my clock and my goddamned automat alone.
“But you just couldn’t do that, could you? You had to fuck everything up. You just had to meddle with my shit.”
This is too much. “Would it have killed you to give us a quarter? What the hell are we supposed to do, drink mustard for eternity?”
“I want you to listen very carefully, sweet tits,” he says. “I. Don’t. Owe. You. Shit.”
Death may be infinite, but hope is a fragile, mortal thing.
I am rich with time; I’m a time billionaire. But what if it’s impossible to find Jim? Impossibility exists outside of time. Maybe The Nose really is so pissed about what Jim did that he’s made us invisible to each other forever. But why punish me? I may not have known the rules, but I played it safe.
The worst thought of all: maybe I played it so safe that Jim has moved on. Maybe he’s relieved to be alone. Left alone to pursue death with the tireless curiosity that I never let him fully express in life. And, you know? Maybe I’m relieved that he’s not bugging me about it anymore. Maybe it’s time to let him go too. This thought is lonelier than the entire expanse of swirling purple space.
But I can’t let myself sink into this eternal loneliness. I think about the good times—I pretend Jim and I are on vacation. I pretend we’re on a beach vacation–-an actual beach vacation and not a “doing things” vacation. I pretend I’m reading a book, holding my shackled hands out in front of my face, and telling myself a story.
So I tell myself a story that we’re in Miami Beach, lying on the sand. Ever since The Nose mentioned Miami Beach, I guess I just can’t get it out of my head-–it was where Jim and I took our last vacation together, the one with the heart attack. Only, I can’t picture Jim lying on the sand. It’s my goddamned imagination and I can’t make him lie on the goddamned beach. So fine. He’s learning how to surf.
So Jim’s there, taking surfing lessons, and he’s the oldest one there, by far. He doesn’t have the muscle tone of the young guys, but he’s got the strength and the endurance, and they’re all red-faced and pissed when he’s the first to stand on his board, the first to ride a wave. He keeps falling-–and every time he falls, I’m afraid he’s having another heart attack, but no, he’s just a beginner, and beginners fall. He keeps getting back up, trying again. I can’t take my eyes off him. He’s on his board long after the young guys head back to the hotel to drink and get girls. He’s out there longer than the pros. He’s out there until the wind picks up and the sky goes purple and you can’t tell where the sea ends and the sky begins.
And then I realize: We’ve found each other. In the great expanse of eternity, somehow, he’s imagining exactly what I’m imagining. I see a grin spread across his face, and suddenly he’s lying down on his surfboard like it’s no big deal, like it’s a lounge chair on the beach. Suddenly it is a lounge chair, and there’s a paperback book in his hands.
My heart is racing. I’m gripping a surfboard and I’m terrified that I’ll drown and that I’ll look like an idiot, in that order. I throw myself into the ocean, I feel it lapping at my toes, splashing my face. I strain my ears-–the waves, hear the waves, goddammit, I’ve got to hear them.
At first the rumble is so low it’s almost the negative of sound. But it builds and builds, it thunders toward me, the huge wave, bigger than a beginner should be riding, much too big for me to be lying in the path of.
I’m sputtering and flailing, trying to paddle out of the wave, but it’s too late, it’s too big, it’s coming for me. And in the moment when I’m sure it’s over, that I’ve failed, that I was foolish to even try…I see him, about to be smothered by the same wave, floating calmly in his lounge chair—the man I love. He is reading one of my steamy summer romances. I whoop for joy and in so doing, the board slips out of my hands. It shoots out from the under me and smacks into Jim, knocking him off the lounge chair just as the wave smothers him. I go under too, my mouth still open and whooping and full of the sea.
“Five seconds,” I say. “You’ve got to squirt mustard in your mouth for five seconds and then swallow or it doesn’t count.”
He makes a face. “Couldn’t we start with the ketchup? I can’t just go from zero to mustard.”
“Sorry Charlie. You lose the bet, you do the time.”
We’re soaking wet. Drenched. Our fingers wrinkled like prunes. That seems to be the punishment for what we’ve done, for rending space and time and bending it to our will. It feels wicked, the way I imagine Einstein must have felt. It’s also a fairly minor punishment for the crime, which makes me think maybe we’ve gained The Nose’s respect, just a little. It keeps the waitresses busy too, always wiping up the droplets of water we leak onto the table.
We get our table back, and we make a big show of saying how lucky we are to get the best table in the house. It pays to be polite around here. And on the bulletin board, now, is a single piece of paper, with the heading Rules of the Afterlife Automat.
You give a little, you get a little. That’s Rule #3.
Jim chugs the mustard. I count to five. He chokes and sputters. His face purples, then goes back to normal. He wipes yellow from his mouth. I give him a small round of applause.
“New bet,” he says, grinning. “My turn.”
“Oh yeah? What are the stakes?” I ask.
He puts on his thinking face, but I interrupt. “Wait,” I say. “If you win, I’ll go exploring with you.” I point down the long disappearing corridor.
He frowns. “But…the table,” he says. “We might lose it.” He’s not talking about the table; we both know that. We have a fragile truce with the mysteries of the beyond. He looks down the long hallway, then back at me. “And what about Rule #1?” he asks. “‘Don’t stick your nose into other people’s business?'”
I grab his wrinkled, wet hand. “Fuck it,” I say.
Heavy footsteps behind us. Mouth breathing. We look up to see the broad, lumpy face of The Nose, cinched at the neck with a shiny white tie.
His nostrils are fathomless, swirling black holes.
“If you get lost, just give us a ring,” The Nose says. “Plenty of payphones.” He tosses a quarter onto the table. It spins, spins, spins.