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Godforsaken Idahoby Shawn Vestal
The First Several Hundred Years
Following My Death The food is excellent. The lines are never long. Theres nothing to do with your hands. These are the first things I tell my son. Then we dont talk again for something like two hundred years.
The food is excellent, but nobody knows where it comes from. Your mothers Sunday dinner. A corn dog from the county fair. You eat from your own life only. You order from memory, as best you can. Your birthday cake, your wedding cake, your graduation barbecue. You give the cafeteria workers some coordinate, some connection, and out comes the tray. Your grandmothers pot roast. The double cheeseburger from the Lincoln Inn.
If you try to take a bite of someone elses food, it vanishes as your teeth descend.
In the cafeteria the workers call out the year at regular intervals. For a while, every time you go to eat you hear them shouting: “Twenty-five thirty-four! Twenty-five thirty-four!”
Until, before you know it: “Twenty-five thirty-five! Twenty-five thirty-five!”
Right now, as I tell this, its 2613. Theres a long way to go. Your age at death becomes your age forever. Your body at death is your body forever — from scars to missing limbs to brain damage. In the cafeteria, people sit with others of their age and era — tables full of bald old men from my century, children from flu epidemics in the 1800s, young soldiers from every time. When you see mixed ages, its a family, and it usually means someone new has arrived and theyve gathered in welcome.
I woke up here at forty-seven, a familiar arthritic throb in my hip. I couldnt think what came before. I beat almost everyone: my mother, my two brothers, my son, my daughter, my ex-wife, possible grandchildren, and Janet, the woman who lived in the apartment down the hall. Not counting my father, I went first out of all the people who mattered in my life. I never went to a single funeral that made me cry.
After my ex-wife, Brynne, arrived and spent fifty years or so here, we talked about that. How I left so much grieving behind. She told me it was just one more example of me getting away with something. She was still angry, after all that time.
“You never wanted to do the things everybody had to do,” she said. “Youre like a child.”
“No ones life is all one way,” I said.
“Or an impulsive monkey.”
In my whole life I never felt anything but thwarted and blocked. Nobody ever understands you, not even here. Here is something I wish Id told my son and never have: There is no peace here. All the trappings of peace, yes, all the silence and emptiness, but those are just shells. If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind. You wake in a simple room of interlocking cinder blocks, painted gray. One chair, one cot, one window filled with opaque gray. You cant tell whether the gray is outside air or the windowpane itself. You will never know. It is like morning, in half-light. A late morning after a dream.
When I woke up here, Dad came to see me first — he showed me out of my room and explained how the cafeteria works. He called me “buddy” and seemed maniacally happy about my arrival.
“Wasnt expecting you this quick,” he said, and then he laughed so wide I could see the metal fillings in his back teeth.
He was nervous, a lot nicer than I was used to. Im older than him here, and that was strange. We stole looks at each other like kids at a dance. Pretty soon, my whole outlook on him changed. Id always thought he was mean, but I started to see him as merely young, too young to expect much from. I hoped maybe I could teach him a thing or two, but nothing like that ever grew up between us.
I dont know why, but he never told me about reliving. I found out about that on my own.
A few decades later, my daughter, Annie, arrived and I started going to see her. She was too young to die — breast cancer at fifty-one — but shes older than me here. She seemed perfectly put together — neat black hair, big alert eyes, a stillness under every movement. I felt proud of her, though I had no credit coming. We would get together and share a meal, and I would try to give her advice about this place. I made a point of telling her about the re-living — how to control it, how to guide it.
“Now that its gone,” I said, “your life is the only thing you have left.”
I told her how to concentrate in just the right way, to lock on to some detail or emotion from the moment in your life that you want to visit. Concentrate in the right way, I said, and the next thing you know, youre back in it. Back in it for as long as you want. Back in it to hunt for perfect moments. I told her to watch out for the bad times, though, how the bad times are always underneath even the happiest ones. I gave her the best advice I could. I was afraid she might be forgiving me in the same way I had forgiven Dad — holding me one or two percent less to blame due to my youth and ignorance.
“Try sports,” I said, suggesting some avenues for re-living. “You always liked sports.”
She was a nice woman, no thanks to me, so I didnt find out for years that she hadnt played a sport since she was twelve, that she never attended a sporting event as an adult, and that she refused to let her son play football because she was scared he would get hurt. I am in the swimming pool, bob-walking through the shallow end, water tugging against me as I try to speed up, and the pool is a chamber of sound, of childrens cries and parents calling and everybody shouting names, names, names, but none of them mine. I sink underwater and open my eyes in the stinging blue. Its like shade under there, legs like machine parts, moving without purpose against the pressure of silence. Its hard to keep straight, but it goes something like this: My father died first, then me, then my mother, my ex-wife, my daughter, Janet from down the hall, my son.
Janet, the last woman in my life, the last chance at a real whatever, told me after she arrived that she didnt want to see me here. She was the first to turn. After I died, shed started seeing a counselor. She said I had abused her emotionally.
“Emotional abuse is every bit as harmful as physical abuse,” she said, nodding certainly. “Every bit.”
“How would you know?” I said. “Even if I did abuse your emotions? Did I ever hit you? Did anyone ever hit you? Physical abuse is probably a lot worse.”
This was fairly early in my death. I hadnt yet begun to prize relationships.
She said, “You didnt love me enough. You didnt love me at all, maybe.”
“I absolutely did,” I said, which wasnt true, not like with my wife, who I loved so much at one time that I felt like it could have destroyed me. Janet and I drifted together thanks to drink and the proximity of our apartments. I hadnt been aware that love was even hovering around our hemisphere. I had always thought that was the good part about us. The food is excellent. The lines are never long. You eat from your own life only. Once I sat by two men eating greasy squirrel, just gnawing it off a greenwood spit. Looking all Appalachian. They froze to stare over the tiny blackened limbs at a tall, good-looking dude walking by, all big hair and swagger.
“If that aint Joe fucken Smith,” one of them muttered, then went back to his squirrel angrily.
For me, though, the food is excellent.
You can order generally or specifically. Its fun to listen to the people around you as they order.
Hamburger, please. Any one from the Oh-So-Good Inn.
Id like the prix fixe meal I had with my wife in Paris, 1961.
Easter ham and scalloped potatoes. Whenever.
Once he discovered the cafeteria, my son, Tyler, ate the same thing for years and years. This was long after hed arrived, and wed started seeing each other occasionally.
“Thanksgiving dinner!” he would say, like he didnt know how loud he was being. And then he would shovel it in while I talked. I would ask him if he remembered this or remembered that, and he would nod like he was keeping time to a song. He was old, old enough to be my grandfather.
“You liked Thanksgiving, did you, Tyler?” I said once.
“I went by Reed,” he said.
His middle name. His grandpas name.
Heres what I should have told him, and what I still, for various reasons, have not: Now that its gone, your life is the only thing you have left. Ransack it, top to bottom. Plunder that fucker. Find whatever you can in there, because its all there is. I am with Angela Jarvik in her bedroom and her parents are downstairs and we know that they never come up and she has her hand on me, over my jeans, and I have my hand on her, inside her jeans, and her mouth tastes like sweet metal and she groans and twists away. I am on my back in the sandy weeds outside the kegger, and Jennifer Luttin has me pinned, slides onto me, her kinky black hair brushing my face, and I feel an exquisite tightness beneath a flaming center, and when she leans forward to kiss me, I taste beer and cigarettes and see a burst of white. I am in the apartment of a woman named Sandy, who I met over Christmas break in Boise, and she is whispering nastily in my ear while Im just trying not to let it end too soon, and then I am on my knees on a hardwood floor at the foot of a bed, my face between the legs of my not-yet-wife, Brynne, and my tongue aches, and then I am in the shower with a woman whose name I cant remember, Im behind her and shes leaning forward, and shes saying the filthiest things and I get all twisted up inside and thrust into her as hard as I can, like I want to hurt her, but she slips a little forward and then I do too, ramming my leg against the cold-water spigot, which leaves a stupendous bruise, a bruise that I know I will have to lie about to Brynne and then keep straight in my head what the lie was in case it somehow comes up again, now that Im careful about every story. You know it when the people you love die. You become aware. I first visited Brynne right after she arrived. I took myself to her room and waited outside her door until she opened it. When she saw me she flinched.
Her hair was white and thin. You could see through to her scalp. Liver spots covered her arms, and her heavy breasts made a stomach inside her smock. She seemed somewhat like the woman I had once loved, but thickened with sloughing latex and talc. I wanted to tug at the skin of her neck. I wanted to peel away the folds above her eyebrows.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Strange,” she said.
“Can I come in?”
“I dont think so.”
She seemed confused. She had to be eighty.
“You know Im Rex,” I said.
“I know who you are,” she said.
I hadnt seen her for eleven years before I died. Now all I wanted was to find something beautiful in her, something that could remind me of her knockout twenty-three-year-old self. Then I thought, not for the first time: I am a purely horrible person. Her eyes were wet with anger.
“Are the kids all right?” I asked.
“You got used to not knowing that,” she said.
“Come on,” I said. “Ive been dead.” I died lucky. You could go in a coma or after dementia. Some people never get out of their cots and make it to the cafeteria. You could go young, without enough to relive. Because thats everything, the reliving, the hunt for perfect moments. The poor kids, the teenagers, the twenty-year-olds — you look at them and theyre beautiful, you want to taste them. The younger kids run screaming through the cafeteria, playing tag, and you think at least theyve found something to do and a way to make friends. The games of tag include kids from everywhere, all times and places, African kids and Japanese kids and American kids and Bolivian kids. It is the only joy you ever see.
Sometimes you envy these children. Then you realize all theyll never be able to relive, all the food they never ate, the places they never went, the sex they never had, the Christmas mornings, the Easter Sundays.
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