Death grasped the excess denim round his waist, and tugged his jeans up. Modern clothing never fit him properly. He leaned against a lamppost, and watched the downtown traffic. He sniffed and lit a cigarette.
It had been more than twenty minutes. Humans in any age were unreliable. He spit, looked down, brushed ash off of his oversized black leather jacket. He had time. He was flexible.
October, he smirked, kicking at some orange leaves. He did his best work in October. The line separating things was so thin. Humanity was somehow more prone to surrender in October. The numbers were the same, but the work was somehow lighter. He often thought of taking a holiday in October. Allowing the select to be the lone witnesses to their own demise. But he knew his presence was required. Always required. By some weird quirk of creation. And Death found it tiring.
Across the street now, waiting for the traffic light, there stood the woman. Rebecca Wick. 48 years old. Dull as devotion. Dressed like a frump. The world wouldn’t miss her. He considered his options. Hit by runaway trolley, fatal heart attack, stabbed by an attacker…. The options were many, but not unlimited. For example, he thought, piano falling from a height was out — too Bugs Bunny. And usually unavailable. Bite of asp was another non-starter, ever since Cleopatra. A stray bullet perhaps. From a careless villain’s revolver. Or a policeman in pursuit. But Vancouver was boring and provincial in the worst way. Cops stood like statues on street corners, itemizing bribes in their pea-brains.
And so, he hadn’t yet decided the nature of Rebecca’s death.
The familiar lament nagged. He knew so little about the people whose terminations he presided over. It stunted creativity. Surely there was a more appropriate death for Miss Wick than a traffic accident or heart failure. Perhaps, despite her appearance, there was some redeeming thing about her. Could the unattractive woman in the brown overcoat have been a great heroine at some stage in her life? Was she an artist? An intellect? A despicable scoundrel? Yes, he liked the scoundrel idea. Perhaps she’d secretly hacked her mother to death and composted her. No, he’d have been there for that. He was death. He was stumped.
The light changed. He threw his half gone cigarette into the gutter, and once again hoisted up his jeans. Rebecca Wick stepped off the curb with a crowd of fellow pedestrians. He’d meet her halfway. Introduce himself. Be completely honest about his identity. What choice did he have? She’d know him immediately. They always did. No disguise worked. He remembered the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky when they met, terminal and emphysemic in his Catholic bed. The room with a rocking chair and the stink of worthless remedies. The man fixing his eyes upon Death, and speaking his last words. Nothing clever or poetic. But instead, “Where’s your damn scythe?”
There was no scythe, of course. There never had been. It was metaphor and fantasy. As was the hooded robe. But even without these things, he was recognised by those whose moment had come. Some looked stunned, some stoic. But they had all known him.
Death stepped into the crosswalk. Rebecca Wick stared ahead at nothing in particular. They met at the centreline. He turned and walked beside her, matching her step. “Hello, Rebecca,” he said brightly in a vaguely English accent. “May I walk with you a while?”
Rebecca Wick turned to look. She saw a gaunt, sallow face. Poorly fitting clothes that needed a wash. A studded leather motorcycle jacket. Her expression remained the same. No surprise or stoicism. “I don’t walk with strangers, fella,” she said. “Hit the bricks.”
“Bugger off. I’ve got no time for beatniks.”
“I’m no beatnik.”
“I’ll call for a cop.”
“That’s really unnecessary. But I think we have business, you and I.”
Rebecca Wick stopped, and Death with her. They were now in the curb lane on Georgia Street where it intersected with Granville, facing each other. The lights were changing again. She looked Death in the eye and squinted. As they stood there, a delivery van turned the corner too fast and screeched to a halt inches from them both. “That was close,” said Death with a surprised look. This encounter wasn’t taking the usual course.
“Get off the road,” the delivery driver yelled.
Death preceded Rebecca Wick to the curb, bowed and held out a helping hand. Rebecca Wick ignored it, and walked past him. She carried on down Georgia. He watched her go. Could he be wrong, he wondered. But he was never wrong. The select were the select. The dead were the dead. There’d never been a mix up. “Wait,” he called out.
“You’re getting on my nerves,” said Rebecca Wick when he’d caught up with her. He noticed now that she was grasping her umbrella firmly and aggressively, that it was twitching up and down in her hand. This was becoming too much. Surely she didn’t intend to hit Death with an umbrella.
“Look here,” he said, deciding on a different approach. “It may be that you don’t know who I am. It’s unheard of, of course, and very difficult. But allow me to introduce myself…. ” He felt the blunt impact of the umbrella across his ear. Not physically painful. Death felt no pain. But it was a jolt. And unprecedented. He’d always been able to avoid this sort of thing. “I say,” he said.
“I don’t give a damn what you have to say,” said Rebecca Wick. “This town’s fillin’ up with creeps like you, that won’t leave a girl alone.” She adjusted a limp, gauzy thrift store hat on her head with the heel of her hand. “Look at you dressed like some kind of rubby-dub. It’s the middle of the day. Why aren’t you at work? Don’t have a job? And I ain’t got no spare change, neither. So don’t ask. Now blast off.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Death, puffing himself up in a way he’d never done before in all of history. “This is Death you’re addressing, and you will revere and fear me.” The time had come for the touch of his hand. The very touch of Death. He began to reach out.
“Wait a minute,” Rebecca Wick said. “Whoa and hold on there. There’s been a heap o’ crazies in this berg since the end of the war, but this is a new one. You’re Death, you say. The grim reaper. Then where’s your scythe?”
“Look, there is no scythe. There never was a bloody scythe. And before you start going on about the hood, let me assure you that there never was a bloody hood, either. That’s just some Ingmar Bergman wet dream. Only the dead can see me, and by definition they never stick around long enough to share the details of my appearance. It’s quite exasperating hearing the same questions over and over, I must tell you.”
“What, no leathery wings? No skull face?”
“None of that.”
“Well you are bloody ugly. Can’t you find clothes that fit? Death can’t visit a proper haberdashers?”
“Look, take my hand, and let’s get this over with.”
“Your hand? Why would I do that? It looks unclean.”
“Because it’s your time,” said Death. “Taking my hand is what’s done. You should recognise me, and be resign to your fate. That’s how it’s always been. I’ll have to find out what’s gone wrong. But in the meantime, let’s get this done and over with, shall we?”
“No. Why would a healthy person like me willingly touch the hand of Death?”
“Healthy people die all of the time.”
“They do not.”
“They do too.”
“What have you got planned for me then, huh?”
“I don’t know.” Death felt a little embarrassed. “I’d hoped to decide once I met you, gotten to know you better.”
“How about something exceedingly painful,” Death sneered.
Rebecca Wick sniffed at this, and said, “You mean you’re here to oversee my demise, and you know nothing about me.”
“Lamentable failings are often visited upon supernatural beings.”
“And if I understand you correctly,” said Rebecca Wick, “you’re inferring that if I were, say, an Olympic swimmer, you’d have me die drowning in the bathtub. An ironically watery death. There’s a bit of fun in what you do, isn’t there.”
“Or a famous writer,” said Death, “falling on his quill.”
“Something fitting with a person’s station in life.”
“That’s it exactly,” said Death, surprised at her insight. And was that a hint of empathy in her voice? Empathy for him, Death? What a rare and welcome thing.
“Well, I sling hash at the White Lunch,” said Rebecca Wick. “Waddaya gonna do with that?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Death said. “Let me think.” He hummed discordantly for a moment, tapping his chin with his index finger. “It’s not much to work with, is it?”
“Maybe I should fall into the deep fryer or the coleslaw shredder.”
“Oooo,” Death said, “those are both rather good.”
“Or here’s another option,” Rebecca Wick said. “You bugger off and let me get on with my day, as a way of making up for your disappointing appearance. Come back when I’m old and don’t give a damn anymore. When I haven’t any teeth, and my food is served damp and strained. When I need a nurse to wipe the drool from my chin, and tell me what a good girl I am for making it to the toilet before I soil myself.”
“Can’t do it.”
“Then how about this? You arrange for me to foil the kidnapping of some darling but precocious five year old from a wealthy family. She’ll have pigtails and apple cheeks and a slight lisp when she says S words due to her two missing front teeth. The kidnappers will be planning on demanding an enormous ransom and then escaping to Cuba to satisfy their deviant love of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and to help finance the ongoing Cuban Revolution. I’ll snatch the child out of their evil commy clutches, enabling her escape, but be fatally shot in the process, as she runs into the open arms of her adoring upper class mother who will later laud me for my proletariat pluck and gusto, and selflessly demonstrating how the poor underclasses can aid a comparatively small population of rich and indifferent individuals in their exploitation and domination of the planet and its starving masses.”
“Can’t,” said Death.
“I did it last week.”
“Then what for God’s sake?” said Rebecca Wick. “How am I gonna die? The suspense is killing me, as it were.”
“This is getting less and less gratifying by the moment,” Death said, looking, with frustration, up into the sky. And when he did, there it was. He hadn’t seen it being done this way since the 1930s. It just wasn’t necessary anymore. The buildings they were standing under, though, were from the last century. He guessed there really was no other way. But dare he? It would be almost satirical. Not serious. Not profound. Hardly dignified.”
“Alright, Mr Death,” said Rebecca Wick. “Let’s get on with this, or I’m going to the Knights of Columbus Hall for BINGO. Big jackpot today. And you’re holding me up. I mean maybe this Death thing ain’t right for you. Maybe you should consider janitorial work. I can get you on at the Spitz Building. Their last janitor got drunk, fell down the stairs and broke his neck. But I guess you know that, right? Ciao Mr Death. Catch you later, I guess. Ha!”
Rebecca Wick began to walk away, laughing scornfully to herself at the fool posing as Death.
Death looked up as she did and nodded.
The piano that fell from the defective block and tackle, onto Rebecca Wick, had done so from just outside of a 10th floor window, at the moment the movers were reaching out to grasp it and pull it in. It was an 1832 vintage Bösendorfer grand, worth a small fortune. The newspaper headlines that night read, Local Woman Dies Cartoon Death.
Satisfied with his work, Death took the next day off.