Graven Images

By Peter Padraic O'Sullivan

Rod sank back into the uncommonly comfortable taxi seat as the cool white roar of the air conditioning fought against the hundred degree heat and extreme humidity of the outside world. Roderick Morton was running late for an appointment with Death, though he was not yet scheduled to die. Even so, if there was one truth, one idea, one solitary logos that could be thought of as universal, it was this: no one kept Death waiting -- for long, anyway.

Traffic crept down the three-lanes of First Street at a pace that would make a tortoise proud. Rod yawned, looked at his watch, and then sank further into the vinyl upholstery. The cabby looked back at Rod through the rearview mirror with bloodshot hazel eyes. "Sorry about this, buddy. Usually I'd go around, but today's Parade Day along Market, and you know how it is. Usually best to stay put in these situations and ride it out. I'll even eat some of the fare if this thing gets too bad, but I don't think it will. That all right, buddy?"

"Fine, fine. No problem," Rod said, although it was a problem -- a big problem. However, Rod found that if you didn't take these high-stress make-or-break situations with a modicum of self-control, a smidgen of Zen meditation, and a shitload of c'est la vie in liquid, gel, or pill form (as prescribed by your local psychia-crack dealer) you were likely to become one of those inconsiderate jerks who dove from twelve-story office windows to leave a mark on the world; at least until the city came and cleaned it up.

"This city's a mess, I tell you. There ain't a day when I'm not sitting here sucking on exhaust while some old granny in a walker hobbles on by. I think there's some kind of conspiracy between Baby Bush, his Texas oil buddies, and local transportation agencies to keep everything nice and slow. The more we idle, the more gas we waste, the more they sell, the more money everybody makes; cookies to all those involved; a quick and painful probe up the ass for the rest of us. You know what I mean, buddy? I just bet Shrub and his Billionaire buddies are bitchslapping America for kicking his daddy out of office." The cabby raised his bushy red eyebrows. "I did my part, of course; I voted for Nader."

Rod wasn't sure if the guy was prattling off a cabby soliloquy or was genuinely trying to engage in a political debate. Rod didn't bite and simply nodded at the eyes staring at him from the rearview mirror. He watched the pedestrians stroll past, hiding in shade wherever they could find it.

". . . And those Republican women," the cabby said when Rod picked up the monologue's thread again. "It's like the Stepford Wives or something. Ever see that movie? The one where the men replace their wives with robots or some shit. These Republican women are just like that. They've got those Valium induced smiles, that doe-eyed adoration of their husbands, those perky Republican breasts that defy gravity too well to be anything but a low-grade augmentation. I swear, that silicone shit has got to be leaking into women's brains. The minute their tits get bigger is the minute their brains shrink. Not that I mind a chick with big tits and no brains. Best kind actually. Know what I mean, bud . . ."

"What about Goth chicks?" Rod asked the cabby. "You think they're sexy?"

The cabby stopped in surprise. He had obviously expected to continue his monologue until they got to The Convergency -- the restaurant on First where Rod had chosen to meet Death. The cabby raised his left eyebrow. "You mean those chicks who dress all in black?"

"Yeah. Dark clothes, dark makeup, pale faces, night fetish -- the whole shebang."

Rod watched as the cabby's bloodshot eyes began to sparkle with remembered excitement. "Hell yes. I dated a couple of chicks like that once -- at the same time, if you know what I mean. What were their names? Oh yeah. Darla and Charlotte. I called Darla the pole, see, because she was so skinny I could stick my hands around her waist and my fingers would touch. And Charlotte was a big, plump girl with thighs that could choke a man if he weren't careful. Yeah, they were into that shit. I probably wouldn't have given either of them a second look if it weren't for their getups. It's this whole attitude thing, I guess. Each one wanted to be treated like a goddess, and for what they did with me, they deserved to be."

The cabby sighed. "Oh yes, they were sexy as all hell. They both dyed their hair as black as midnight. I know it was dyed, see, because Darla was a natural blonde, while Charlotte was a natural red. They always wore black or dark purple. They also had these silver spangly bracelets running up their arms, and piercings in places I'd never dreamed of. I know, cause, we played this one game where they would just lie completely still and let me do stuff to them -- whatever I wanted to. It was like they were . . ." The cabby paused as if realizing the implication of what he was saying. "Not that I'm into that neck-ro-feelya or nothing. That crap's for those sicko-pervo-dweebs who mess their shorts whenever a girl so much as looks in their direction. But what we did was, well, fun. You know what I mean? Plus, when I got tired of beating around the bushes, if you know what I mean, they let me sit back and watch as they got each other off, which was cool."

Rod sat up in his seat. This was what he had been looking for. Death's image needed tweaking, and that was what Rod was all about: Image. He had approached The Grim Reaper at a party the previous Saturday. A gorgeous little blonde, pumped with enough silicone to keep her off balance, had drunk too much mescal and sampled too much mescaline while on an empty stomach. It wasn't the drugs, or booze, or lack of food that killed her, but rather the fact that she thought she could fly. She probably wanted to leave her mark on the world.

It was two hours before anyone was clearheaded enough to call 911. By then, Rod had already left the party with a vague notion of where home was and a good feeling. Death had come up after dealing with the girl and grabbed himself a beer.

There, thought Rod, as the world spun around him, is a man who could use a new image. He got up and briefly experimented with the idea of spinning counter to the rest of the world in an effort to balance himself. Finally, when he could be sure of purely horizontal movement, Rod approached Death.

"What's this?" Death asked when Rod held the unsteady card out to him. Death set down his beer and took the offered card.

"Allow me to introduce myself," Rod said as he tried to keep his words from slurring. "Roderick Morton: Image consultant."

"Image consultant?"

"Yeah, babe. Forget about those publicist and PR pussies." Rod marveled briefly at how well that alliteration rolled off of his swollen tongue. "I can transform even the lowliest of caterpillars into the brightest, most user friendly butterflies this side of . . . well . . . this side of something, anyway."

Death slipped the card up his sleeve and retrieved his beer. "Tell me more, Mr. Morton."

"It's all about meta . . . metamor . . . change, my man. Change. I see you here and I say to myself, hey, he's a working stiff like the rest of us, but you, my friend, are the most reviled being on this planet -- next to the IRS, of course."

"Death and taxes. Of course, go on."

"Zactly. And at least you're final."

"I try to be, " Death said.

"So what I'm thinking is, you need a new image. A new Death for a new Millennium. I want you to be a Death that people would be proud to have over for dinner. A Death that women would want warming the other side of their bed. I want a Death that makes you go hmm. How does that catch you?"

Death swallowed some more beer as he considered. "You've intrigued me, Mr. Morton. I admit, I haven't had the best representation throughout the years."

"Excellent. Give my office a call on Monday and we'll set up lunch. The number's on the card."

"Thank you very much, Mr. Morton. I look forward to seeing you . . ." Death drained the rest of his beer and set down the bottle. Death straightened out his robe, flexed his fingers around his large ebony-handled scythe and finally said, ". . .again. Now if you'll excuse me. There are so many parties on Friday nights, you know. I have to make my rounds."

Rod smiled and watched as Death walked out the door toward the stairs. Nice guy, he thought as Death passed through the party's host, now where is that cute blonde I was talking to earlier?

"You ever date one?"

Rod was shocked out of recollection by the cabby's inquiry. "What?"

"You ever date one of those Goth chicks?" The cabby's left eyebrow was raised questioningly. It looked like a large red caterpillar had curled up and died on his forehead. This image brushed briefly at Rod's mind, but he pushed it back into the basement file-room.

"Yeah, I did actually."

"She as sexy as the rest of them, buddy?"

"Oh, yeah." Rod sank so deeply into the upholstery he almost slid off. "She was sexy all right. Her name was Connie. She had this tattoo on her left breast of a rose dripping blood from its thorns. Kept her skin powder-white, like she was some fragile porcelain doll. Her lips were always painted a deep, deep red that burned in the pale glow of her skin. Ah, what lips. Good kisser, too. Also, she had these little patches of baby fat around her cheeks. They weren't so you'd notice them right off, but when she smiled, and she smiled a lot, these small dimples formed just off the corners of her lips. Seriously cute, man. Seriously cute. Her smile could turn frost to dew."

"Buddy, sounds like you were in love."

Rod slid up so fast he almost hit his head on the cab's ceiling. "Christ, no. I mean that's a fool's game. No. She and I were . . . comfortable. Yeah, comfortable. Then I started getting successful and we stopped having time for each other."

"Comfortable. Yeah, I get it, buddy."

Rod sat back once more, not rising to the cabby's bait. He and Connie had been comfortable. She had been his longest relationship in his twenty-nine years, but that had been five years earlier, when he was still working his magic as a slave to PR firms and she had still been in college. Now that he thought about it, his longest relationship since Connie had probably been the blonde who forgot her magic feather last weekend.

A green Subaru turned into a driveway and the cabby sped up to claim its space in line before a red Hyundai could cut in. Rod saw a group of flashing beacons about five hundred feet ahead. They, along with something large and out of place, were blocking the left two lanes of First. Traffic, which continued to creep, funneled into the right-most lane.

Rod looked at his watch and called ahead to The Convergency. "Yeah, this is Rod Morton, I've got a 12:30 for two. I'm going to be a few minutes late. Could you let the other member of my party know and ask him to go ahead and order without me? Thanks a bunch." He clicked off his cell and sat back as pedestrians continued to stream past his window.

Sex and Death, Rod thought as he applied a simple self-hypnotism technique to relax his muscles. Death needed a sexier image because everyone knows that sex sells. No one knew that more than Rod. The cabby had it right when he said he wouldn't have paid those two girls an iota of attention if it hadn't been for the Goth chic.

Goth culture, though, was somewhat on the fringes of society. There needed to be some kind of homogenization if Death was to be accepted by mainstream America. The robe had to go, for one. Perhaps black jeans, a black leather jacket, a couple of well placed chains, silver jewelry, and a death's head tattoo on his shoulder for starters. Then there was his frame -- what little there was. The guy needed some meat on his bones, Rod figured. A sharp chin and sunken cheeks were fine for six foot, ninety-five pound runway models, but on a man it portrayed a sense of terminal infirmity. When Death had adjusted his robe, just before leaving, Rod could have sworn he'd seen ribs.

Another shadowy image brushed through Rod's brain and again he filed it away.

Besides, Rod wanted Death to be sexy, not sickly. Rod needed to set Death up with a personal trainer he knew so they could string some muscles onto those bones of his. That glossy, glassy, sickly pallor of Death's face needed some hours in a tanning booth. It was almost as if he were nothing but bone.

At least he had a smile Rod could work with. Death's teeth were perfectly straight and perfectly white. They were so white, in fact, that they gleamed with whatever light shone on them.

"Mary, mother of God," the cabby said as they approached the emergency vehicles. The cabby crossed himself and Rod turned to look out his window.

The scene was something out of a nightmare born of too many slices of pepperoni pizza and an all night marathon of ER. Two fire trucks lined themselves against the left-hand sidewalk as their beacons flashed in a kind of syncopation to each other's beat. Three police cars and two ambulances added their own flashing to the beacon chorus.

As they passed, Rod saw what all the commotion was about. A large city bus was turned over on its side. Further on, a small, red Mazda Miata was flipped over on its top, its wheels up in the air like a turtle preyed upon by a malicious child.

As the EMTs, paramedics, fire and police tried to salvage order out of the chaos, a group of normal, everyday people sat on the sidewalk. Some were afflicted with chronic tears while others simply stared out into space as if watching some television show in the heat baking off the street. One little girl in particular caught Rod's attention. Her hair was a tangled mass of unfurled braids; one shoe had come off. Rod would have expected her to be all balled fists and tear streaks as emergency personnel did their best to comfort her. Instead she was one of the vacant-faced gazers, her eyes filled with an emptiness that struck hard at Rod's throat. A ratty teddy bear with one torn arm lay limply between the girl's mismatched feet.

By the flipped over convertible, a team of paramedics worked in a pool of a spilled red substance. Paint, Rod thought, why are they all standing around in red paint? It must have melted off the car in this heat and now it's baking into the street.

Rod knew better of course. A part of his brain rebelled against the ludicrous notion that paint would melt off a car and pool in the street. He couldn't bring himself to say what it was exactly, but he had to force himself to keep from being sick.

A police officer directed them through the single lane of traffic. The world could end in a fiery mass of nuclear death as floods spilled over the Earth and someone would always come out to direct traffic. Rod turned back and watched through the rear window. A fireman hunkered in front of the little girl and laid a comforting hand upon her shoulder. As soon as the thick hand connected with the girl, she toppled back, and would have cracked her skull against the sidewalk had the fireman not acted with catlike grace. He called for help as he pressed his ear against the girl's chest, listening for breath sounds, heart sounds. Soon, the little girl began to shrink, and then faded as Rod and the cabby sped down the rest of First Street toward The Convergency.

It was only 12:40 when they arrived. "Here's the damage, buddy," the cabby said as he pointed toward the meter. Rod glanced at the cost of the ride, threw a twenty at the cabby and murmured, "Keep the change." He was barely out of the air-conditioned, windowed coffin and on the sidewalk when the taxi sped off. Their tenuous bond broke under the weight of converging realities.

Rod's brief relief was short lived as he stepped into the air-conditioned, windowed mausoleum known as The Convergency. The Host (The Convergency didn't have anything as gauche as a Maitre d') was a limp little man dressed in silver silk pants and a silver silk shirt. His chestnut hair was frosted at the tips.

"Morton, party of two," Rod said as he tried not to meet the Host's gaze.

"Ah, yes. We spoke on the phone. Your companion has not yet arrived, I'm afraid. If you'll step this way, I'll show you to your table."

Rod followed the Host around and between a throng of tables and chairs and people happily munching on The Convergency's nouveau-cuisine. The restaurant's special was the Emoticon: two olives and a string of mustard in whatever expression best suited the customer. Blue and green neon tubing lined the walls and flickered in chaotic patterns known only to the designer.

The Host sat Rod at a table in the back, between two mirrors that reflected each other into infinity. Rod saw himself in these mirrors as a gaunt and ghostly reflection repeated and stretched off into the darkness of mirror-space.

He ordered a double scotch and when the waiter asked him if he wanted anything else, he ordered another. The first drink helped warm the numbness that had spread through him. The second simply burned.

He was about to order a third when a large dark figure caught his attention. Death had just walked into the restaurant. He walked through the crowd of tables and people. Rod shuddered as Death's robes swallowed a strangely familiar looking young professional who had been picking at a green salad while reading a romance novel. Rod heard a waiter ask her if the AC was too high. Her response was as cheerful as it was familiar to Rod's ears. "No, I think a goose just walked over my grave."

Rod didn't have time to make the mental connection necessary for complete recognition -- Death stood in front of him.

"I'm sorry I'm late Mr. Morton. There was a traffic accident."

The world drained of all color but those of the neon tubes. The shadowy image that had tugged at Rod's mind during the cab ride, insisting on being noticed, finally fell into full view.

Death. . .

. . . stood there in the gleaming pulses of blues and greens and reds. Had Rod honestly thought Death's chin was simply pointed and his cheeks simply sunken? Death's chin was merely a protrusion of bone; his cheeks were hollow spaces. As for the smile . . . how can someone smile without lips? Rod saw that grin for what it really was -- lipless, gumless teeth, shining in the red of the neon tubing. But there weren't any red neon tubes.

. . . is . . .

. . . there nothing to be said for a really sharp scythe? Death flexed his bony (they're bones damnit, not bony, but bones) fingers around the ebony handle of his scythe. The blade too gleamed red and looked as though it could split hairs on the molecular level, cut through mountains, and never know the need for a whetstone.

. . . not . . .

. . . that there is anything inherently wrong with the sheen of healthy bones. But would we really want people to accept Death into their homes for dinner? Would we really want to sleep with Death? Do we want a Death that makes us go hmm?

. . . sexy.

Death is not sexy.

That's right buddy, the cabby's voice said from inside of Rod's head. Death ain't sexy any more than that road accident was sexy. If anything, Death is real -- as real as real can get -- and he's hungry. You know what I mean? Like any good professional, Death likes his job. Make Death sexy and hell, you just might convince people that life ain't worth living. I'm not saying that you'd be responsible for nuts like that Jones fellow, but you sure wouldn't help things. We should accept Death; sure, he's a working stiff like the rest of us. Acceptance, though, doesn't mean we have to embrace the fucker. Know what I mean, buddy? I accept my plumber, but that sure don't mean I want to frame up that ass crack of his. The minute we embrace Death is the minute we chuck this goddamned traffic filled world into the shitter and flush. I ain't ready for that. Are you?

Rod looked to his left and saw a world of Death stretched out to infinity. He turned to his right and saw the same thing. He was surrounded by Death. He looked behind himself and saw a wall blocking his retreat. The past had closed in upon him and Death stretched across the horizon.

"Mr. Morton?" Death asked. As he did so, he shifted and Rod saw the young professional he had noticed earlier. Her auburn hair was tied back in a severe ponytail. She wore round Lennon specs as she read. Rod watched as she turned the page and smiled. Two tiny dimples formed just off the corners of her lips.

The woman popped a small cherry tomato into her mouth and turned the page of her novel. Something in the book must have made her laugh or caused some involuntary intake of air, because in the next instance, the woman was choking.

Death turned in his chair and stared at the woman. No one else had noticed her struggling for breath as the small, round fruit remained lodged in her windpipe. Death stood, turned, and began to stride purposely toward her. He gripped the scythe with both hands.

Rod stood as well and launched himself toward the woman. As he passed through Death, his skin rippled, his balls retracted, and his heart palpitated; the rancid odor of compost assaulted his nose. He felt cold -- very, very cold. Billions of last breaths echoed within his ears. A finality filled Rod: final heartbeats, final cries, and final wishes. As if there was a sudden change in pressure, Rod's ears popped, and the sounds retreated, the smell retreated. The only thing that hadn't retreated was the cold.

He reached the woman as The Reaper pulled back his blade. He maneuvered himself behind her, wrapped his arms around her abdomen, and began compressions. After three pumps, the tomato dislodged and sailed toward Death like a small red baseball. Death halted his swing mere inches from the woman's head.

Rod fought back the urge to yell, "Strike." He looked up toward Death, who was slowly lowering his ready scythe. Rod spoke in breathless tones, as if he had been the one choking. "I'm sorry, sir, but it looks as if I cannot work with you. I thought I had something the other night, but . . . it may have been the drinks talking."

Death nodded his skull within his midnight robes. "I understand, Mr. Morton. While it would have been nice to have a new image, my old one has served me surprisingly well. If that is all then, I must depart. I'll see you soon, Mr. Morton." Death flexed his fingers around the handle of the scythe once more. "But not too soon, I don't think. No, not so soon at all. Good day."

Death walked around Rod and the young woman as he headed toward the exit. The woman held her face in her hands as she tried to catch her breath. The Host rushed to the table, blustering apologetically. Rod shooed him off with a request for water.

Rod let her take a small sip from the glass the Host brought over. She coughed once, and then took another, slightly longer sip. "Thank you," she began as she looked up at her savior. "Rod?"

Synapses reasserted themselves as full recognition was finally engaged and Rod said, "Connie?"

"Jesus, Rod, you look like Death." She brushed at his face. Her eyes were red from pressure.

"Almost," Rod said. "You don't look too well yourself." Rod sat down and a small, almost guilty shudder of relief ran through his body.

"Mama always told me to chew my food. She also told me never to read at the table." Connie gestured toward her book.

"Smart woman. You sure you're all right? For a minute there. . ." Rod placed his hand over hers.

"I'm fine. If you hadn't been here . . ."

"Let's not think about it." Rod looked back toward the book. "Since when do you read romance novels?"

"Since I started designing the covers. You don't think I actually enjoy this stuff?"

"Yeah, it's dangerous to your health." Rod looked down at the cover. It was a typical romance scene of a young maiden dressed in white throwing herself into the arms of a large, half-naked farmhand with hair longer than hers and sweat glistening over his overdeveloped frame. Still, despite the cheesy motif, there was something in the young woman's expression that spoke volumes to Rod about how much she really wanted to be there. It was good. It hit him deeper than it should have. "Can I buy you a drink?"

Connie bit her lip and Rod saw that the tension was slowly draining from her face. "Sure," she said, "but an iced tea, if you please. I've given up drinking during the daylight hours. Makes me too fuzzy headed to work."

Rod looked back at his own table and the two empty glasses. "That sounds like a good idea." He ordered them two iced teas and suddenly a horizon of possibility opened up before him. Out from the mirrors, he didn't see himself repeated in any direction. He didn't see Death surrounding him. He saw only the chatting people and the glowing neon tubes (none of which were red). And Connie. He looked behind him and saw that the wall still stood at his back. There was no going back. But at least now there was a forward, a left, and a right.

He looked back at Connie who was smiling at him. Her dimples had faded slightly over the years, but he still sank into himself at the sight of them. Rod felt the last vestiges of Death's chill leave him as a nervous perspiration formed on his brow.

"You all right? You looked flushed." Connie put her hand over Rod's.

"I was just remembering how much I missed your smile."

"Same old Rod," Connie said.

"No, I'm not," Rod said, and meant it, though he knew he would have a time proving it. As epiphanies go, he knew that his wasn't the most profound, or even the most original, but it was a start. Image wasn't everything. It was only a start. Connie squeezed his hand.

Rod smiled. He raised his glass of iced tea and said, "New beginnings?" A nervous lump had settled in his throat; he felt sixteen again.

Connie studied his eyes for a moment, raised her glass, and then clinked it against his. "Sure," she said.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Peter Padraic O'Sullivan




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