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The Exo Makes the Politics | 2015 | The Story of How I Am About to Die


Except a living man there is nothing more wonderful than a book! A message to us from the dead - from human souls we never saw, who lived, perhaps, thousands of miles away. And yet these, in those little sheets of paper, speak to us, arouse us, terrify us, teach us, comfort us, open their hearts to us as brothers.  

-Charles Kingsley

Mourning Martin

My mother texted me, asking who Martin was. I did not bother texting back, as she had sent this late at night and I did not receive it until insomnia hit early in the morning. I assumed Martin, Kate's brother, had posted something curious on Kate's Facebook wall, which my mother follows religiously because Kate has one of the cuter babies in the world.

A day later, Kate posts the time and location of Martin's viewing. I send her one of those needless messages, a variation on, "So, how are you doing, sport?" She responds that she is okay in this moment, though her parents very much are not.

I assure her that I will be at the wake, mostly because I do not rightly understand if I am welcome and wish to test the waters of propriety. I care for and respect Kate. I would like to support her in such a trying time.

Shortly after, she asks me to proofread her eulogy, which brings me close to tears and gives me the first indication as to why Martin is no longer among the living: depression or addiction. My need to deduce his cause of death feels voyeuristic and prurient, but I struggle when confronted with the book closing so much sooner than a proper end.

I had met Martin a few times when Kate and I dated. He was her eldest brother and she looked up to him the way some give their devotion to celebrities. I envied their closeness, knowing I would never earn that share of her fondness. He was her guru, passing her music and books for acculturation. Kate grew toward the light of his media. In many ways, he blazed the path that teenage Kate hoped to follow. He shared or encouraged her wanderlust, her eyes that searched for a horizon she had not yet swallowed whole. He was the Zooey Glass to her Franny.

Back then, setting aside the envy of her admiration, I thought he seemed curiously unmotivated. I saw how aspirational Kate found him, but there was something off in his demeanor. He would have made a heck of a wacky neighbor on the sort of sitcoms that littered television then, maybe the cable television interpretation of "Slackers" or "Singles," but he wouldn't be a leading man. I met his girlfriend and their Boston terrier once, imagining this full life for him based on these artifacts, but that relationship ended and the girlfriend took the dog.

I had met Martin-or a version of Martin from over a dozen years prior-but I didn't know him. His death doesn't hit me with a heavy weight, more the sort of lack of balance of someone socking me in the arm. He cannot be older than forty. Had it been Kate's other brother David, who has Fragile X, I would understand the tragedy at a glance. With Martin, "addiction" and "depression" orbit around, offering salacious stories I am not crass enough to try to confirm.

I fret all day about the viewing, sending Amber emails to get things ready for me so I do not have to dawdle about the house between work and leaving. I know my tendency to procrastinate when I feel the dread of what is to come. I do not spend much of my life facing mortality, though maybe my writing is nothing else. I complain about the tie Amber picked out, a thin and cheap gift, but I wear it all the same because it matches her sweater dress.

"How many wakes does this make in our relationship?" I ask Amber as we park.

"Four?" she answers uncertainly. "Maybe five. Third in the last few months."

I have not seen Kate in close to a decade and was not relevant in her life for closer to fifteen years. In most ways, we have become strangers twice over on a cellular level, but I have followed her on various social media and come to admire her all over again. I applaud her work with non-profits and the life she has carved out in Philly. I coo over her baby, despite tonight being the first time I met her.

Kate looks a little different, though I can credit much of that to the solemnity of the occasion. Her husband Adam stands at a distance. He chats briefly with Amber and me, since he recognizes me from the internet, but there isn't much to say tonight. At a party or a bar, ice could be broken and a connection established, but not here. As he wanders away, Amber comments that he is very pretty.

Days prior, Kate and her family, sans Martin, were in Puerto Rico so that Kate's parents could meet Adam's father. I had been following with snowbound jealousy their tropical excursion. Owing to Verizon's lies, Kate's mother had no reception and did not find out that Martin was dead for a full day after a neighbor, who had not seen him in a while, discovered him. They rushed home and arranged this funeral.

Kate's mother sees me and calls me out by my full name. When Kate and I dated, her mother had told me that I needed to have a relationship with the whole family if I wanted to date her daughter. When I came over then, I tended to dive into their basement family room with Kate out of overwhelming shyness, but I made that effort to participate. I do not think I bridged the distance until I joined them on a two-week road trip through Nova Scotia, which is enough to bond almost anyone, though I can't guarantee that her father ever took to me.

I hug her mother and ask how she is, which I don't want to say but it is all I can manage. Wakes leave one taking constant check-ups of everyone else. She tells me she is okay, given the circumstances, and asks after my family. I tell her I am the uncle to many niblings, that my younger brother is considering marriage, and introduce Amber to her. Then, another mourner calls her away and I retreat.

Amber and I stand in the hallway for twenty minutes before I dare to approach the coffin. I cannot stand how morticians make up the deceased, since they rarely resemble themselves. I am distracted by the stitches across the top of Martin's head from ear to ear, reminded of my nephew's craniosynostosis surgery. Before the reality of the situation intrudes, I wonder to myself if Martin had surgery recently.

I approach David, Kate's brother. I think he once liked me, in his bashful way, but I have no way of knowing if he remembers me now. He says he does, but doesn't look at me, turning a little in his seat. I cannot fathom how this must be for him, though friends from his group home are sitting with him, accompanied by caretakers. I want to soothe him, I want to protect him, because I do care about him as an individual and as one whom my educational jobs have conditioned me to want to help.

Amber and I end up sitting near Kate as mourners approach and recede, watching Kate's daughter adeptly playing on her tablet because we can all process this level of interaction. I don't know what I can say to Kate, to anyone here looking as lost as I think I always do at wakes, but Kate's daughter is a fine reminder of what I do not say: that life miraculously goes on.

Soon in Xenology: More timely entries?

last watched: Hannibal
reading: Transcendence
listening: Sia

The Exo Makes the Politics | 2015 | The Story of How I Am About to Die

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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