The Old Friend

These days Grim showed up with a bottle of scotch, a box of Kleenex, and a vintage deck of playing cards. After the first few millennia of practice, he’d figured out that people reacted … poorly to his robe-and-scythe ensemble. He exchanged the scythe for tools of comfort and abandoned his ominous black robes in search of something more cheery. He wanted people to see him and feel something besides dread.

Grim had tried wearing a Hawaiian shirt for a time. It was worse than the robe.

So he finally settled on skinny jeans and a quiet-green, hooded sweatshirt. (It was so hard to find clothes his size! Until the rise of modern beauty magazines, he’d been unable to find anything that properly fit a skeleton.)

The first entry on today’s list read:

JACK DENASSI
AGE 54
OVERDOSE (INTENTIONAL)
TRAUMA SURGEON

Grim rapped his fingers—or, anyway, his phalanges—against his clipboard. He did what he could to provide last-minute comfort, to help people relate to the process of dying. Usually, he started with their profession. To a lawyer, this was just the way of permanently resting your case. To a teacher, this was just a necessary lesson to make all the rest of life make sense. To a writer, death was just the period at the end of the last sentence of your life story.

Grim’s favorite to reap were dentists, probably because he quite liked them. And Grim liked dentists because they worked hard and tended to care very much about people and they had a rough time of it. No one would be happy in a world without dentists, and anyone who lives for long enough with a cavity realizes a dentist’s work is merciful—yet everyone dreads their appointment. Grim thought the entire thing was entirely unfair.

Grim’s least favorite to reap? Well, if he had to choose, it was probably poets. He remembered the way one poet had defiantly proclaimed, “Death, thou shalt die!” It was like threatening a pillow by saying, “You too shall lie down on something soft and feather-filled!”

Yes, Death would die. But he’d have to wait until very last.

Every time a poet came up on his docket, Grim felt a prickling nausea. It wasn’t so much that poets were bad sorts. It’s just that they went on and on about the tragic elegance of life, the heart-wrenching beauty of loss; Grim felt they enjoyed dying just a little too much.

Grim didn’t feel the same discomfort with surgeons that he did poets, but … well, surgeons were difficult. Death was too real, too present, to turn it into a symbolic nicety. The thing in trauma surgery most like death was … death. Which makes for a terrible metaphor.

Grim tucked his clipboard into his messenger bag, then pulled a chair up so he could sit level with the deceased. No need to loom, after all. He used the back of two knuckles to gently tap Jack’s knee. Jack shifted and turned uncomfortably in his chair before opening his eyes.

“There you are,” said Grim. “Good morning, good morning.”

Jack blinked, likely thinking himself blurry-eyed with fresh waking. What he was actually experiencing was what Grim, with his devoted love of simplicity, just called The Blur. Jack blinked again. “Who are you?” Jack scrambled for his glasses, which he’d carefully set on the stand beside his lazy chair the night before. Grim noted the prescription bottle beside the glasses. Almost certainly empty, or close thereunto.

“Here, let me get those for you. Your spectacles, right?”

Jack’s fingers reached through his glasses for the third time. “Yes, thank you. Seem to have misplaced them.”

“So you have,” said Grim. He pulled the glasses through and set them on Jack’s face. “There you are.”

“Yes, thank you.” Jack blinked again. “It’s all still …”

“Blurry. That’s normal. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with your glasses.”

Jack sighed in relief, trusting Grim but not quite understanding why. “Sorry, I’m a bit out it this morning.” Perhaps by it he accurately meant his body. “So, are you a friend of Christy’s?”

“Uh, no. I haven’t met Christy yet. I … uh, look forward to it, though.”

“So, do I know you then?”

Feeling his time for avoiding surprise was quite at an end, he removed his hood.

“You’re … you’re Death.”

“Death is such a big title. Please, just call me Grim.”

“Grim … as in … Grim Reaper?”

“Er, yes. Well—”

“Damn it!”

Grim winced, which for him was mostly a stretching out of his long, rust-colored eyebrows. Grim was put off by Jack’s anger, though not surprised. For one, suicides rarely took their success well. Guilt had a funny way of expressing itself a lot like anger.

“Damn it, damn it, damn it!”

It was best in these cases to just let them be angry for a while.

Most of those who committed suicide as an act of desperation seemed to have the same revelation: In the aftermath of their success, they came to realize that all of their life’s problems were far smaller than they’d believed them to be. All of them, in fact, could be easily resolved—except, of course, for the fact that they were now dead.

Jack lunged forward and made a valiant effort to grab and throw the lamp on the end table. When The Blur prevented anything more than the shift of the lamp, Jack stood and yelled.

And beyond the unpleasantness of suicide, Grim had come to expect this sort of temper from people who lived around death. It was like knowing Death as a familiar house guest who’d always been polite in the past. For him to arrive for them felt like a betrayal.

Jack spun around, searching for some way to express his everything.

Well, at least the appropriate tool of comfort was now apparent. Grim fished in his messenger bag for the scotch. By the time Jack lost his wind and sat back down, Grim had poured a dram into each of two crystalline shot glasses.

Jack fell back into the chair. “Oh, what will Christy say.…”

Grim could hear the words between the words. It was not so much What will Christy say as it was, Christy will find me here. Like this. Grim said nothing. He simply offered a glass to Jack, who nodded and accepted it.

Jack looked into his glass. “What is this, then?”

“Scotch.” Grim shrugged. “Something to take the pain away.”

Jack gave a tentative sip, then nodded appreciatively to his cup. “What brand is this?”

“You know, I never bothered to find out.”

Jack nodded again. “It’s fine stuff. ‘Makes the pain go away.’ A fine scotch.” He shook his head. “Funny. That’s what my life has been for the longest time.”

“Scotch?”

“No. What? No. Making the pain go away.”

“Oh, yes. That makes more sense.” Grim ran a skeletal finger along the edge of his own glass. “What was it? The pain, I mean.”

“My back. I spent years thinking about it, but—agh, never mind.”

“I’d like to hear, if you don’t mind telling.” And Grim really did want to hear. The dead were, by and large, excellent conversationalists.

“It’s just, a back is something you don’t think about unless it isn’t functioning properly. But something just goes slightly off and you spend the rest of your life feeling angry.”

“How did it happen?” Grim re-filled Jack’s glass.

“My back? Just a gradual thing. I didn’t take good care of it and spent my time hunched over a table. I was a surgeon, you know.”

“Did you like that?”

Jack sipped again. “I didn’t hate it. I think I’d do it again if I were to start over. But with my back, it was impossible to keep doing it. I just wish … I just wish …”

“You wish your back had never been hurt.”

“No. Well, yes. I mean, of course, yes. But if it was going to happen again, I wish I’d known how nice it was to have a good back, all those years I did.”

“That’s a very nice way to look at it.”

Jack scoffed. He squinted at the orange blur on the end table that took the place of his empty prescription bottle. He shook his head. “By the end, I just wanted to the pain to be over.”

Grim hunted for comforting words. “Well—did it work?”

Jack felt at his back. “Hmph. I suppose it did.”

“Then that’s good, at least.”

Jack nodded, though his down-curved lips and hurt eyes did not nod with him.

Grim gave his own still-filled glass to Jack.

“I just … I just … well….” Jack downed the third glass. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway. It’s too late.” Jack gave a sad smile. “I’m late. The late Jack Denassi.” He gritted his teeth, then as his teeth buckled he set his hand across his eyes began to cry. “I’m late. So very, very late.”

Grim placed a hand on Jack’s upper back, feeling as his heavy breaths caused him to shake. As Jack’s sobbing calmed, Grim said, “You did some wonderful things, here, Jack. And your work—you know, your work was important. I’m just saying … you had the chance to live for as long as you did. Better late than never.” It was poor comfort. Grim had long since learned that “lucky to have lived” in no way overwrote “unlucky to have died.” But it would have to do.

Jack slowly regained composure. “There is so much here to miss,” he said. “You don’t think about it. I didn’t think about it. I only thought of the parts of it I wanted to miss. But all the rest goes too. And …” Jack’s lips twitched. “It’s so strange. I spent so many years worrying about my pain. Now I think … I think I might miss that too.”

Grim offered him another drink, but Jack shook his head. “I suppose we might as well get on with it. What happens now?”

Grim nodded over his shoulder to The Door. His Door, really, if such things mattered. It was all shadow and whiteness—the way white things look when they’re little more than a different tone in a pitch-black room. From every crack of the door, and especially from the seam at the bottom, the door leaked clouds of darkness.

“Ah. Right then.” He stood, then turned to Death and handed him his empty glass. “It’s strange. You’re so different than I was expecting, but I feel like I recognized you right away.”

“Most people do.” Grim smiled. “I like to think I’m like the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. And the cereal is your life. And you’ve been pouring it out one day at a time. You’ve always known the prize was in there, bound to tumble out at some point. So it’s not really a surprise when it does.”

“Ah. Right.”

It was all just a fancy way of saying that Death was inside of life. People recognized Death in the same way they might recognize oxygen if they suddenly gained the sight to see it.

“Oh. My glasses,” said Jack, reaching up to feel the only substantial thing on his person.

“Well, you can take it with you. If you really want.” Grim didn’t take issue with these human clingings. It was a security blanket, really, and Jack’s was quite a small one. I mean, you should have seen what the Egyptians used to try and carry with them. “You won’t particularly—I mean, there’s not much on that side to use them with. And maybe someone here could use them. But if you’d like, we can sneak them away.”

Jack held his glasses in his right hand. “I suppose … I suppose I’d better just,” he tapped the glasses against the end table. “I suppose I’d better just leave them.” He laid them down gently next to the bottle of pills, then walked toward the door. A step away, he looked back at his favorite chair, and for the first time saw the full scene. His body, the contents of the end table—all of it. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.

Grim gripped Jack’s shoulder in an attempt at comfort. “Let’s hope not.”

Then Grim opened the Door, and Jack stepped forward into the darkness beyond.

Grim walked back to the end-table and nudged the glasses back to their original position. Before he left, Grim lingered, his fingers resting against the Door while he took in the scene. Jack’s body resting comfortably in its well-earned indentation in the chair. The morning light bleeding through the window. The smell of a ventilation heater scorching dust. And, on the wall next to a collection of family photos, the framed needlework that read “Home Sweet Home.”