The Empty Room
by William Michaelian

The miracle of Alan’s birth was rivaled only by the miracle of his death, which took place on the second day of his two-week vacation from his job at the Department of Human Resources.

Alan had always thought being born was a good thing. He was glad to be part of life on earth, because that meant he could watch old “Star Trek” episodes on TV and listen to music he’d downloaded off the Internet. Beyond that, he didn’t worry much. Being thirty, he certainly didn’t worry about death. In a vague way he knew it could happen, but the knowledge didn’t impress him. He was too busy watching TV and listening to music. His wife Tasha loved him, at least when she was around. A year earlier, when they first got married, he didn’t like that her job required her to travel. But then he got used to it. He trusted her while she was on the road staying in nice hotels in big cities with absolutely nothing to do in the evening. Why wouldn’t he? He himself was as trustworthy as an old hound, though sometimes his imagination got the best of him and he allowed himself to believe he was God’s gift to women. He was thirty, after all — just about the same age as Captain Kirk, whose confident smile and bronze hairless chest were so irresistibly attractive to alien beauties.

That’s why, when he died on that particular day, he was not immediately pleased by the incident. Captain Kirk never died. He came close in practically every episode, but he always managed to pull through in the end. Also, Tasha was in New Orleans on business. It bothered him that she didn’t know he was dead. He thought of calling her, but somehow it didn’t seem right. Dead people didn’t make phone calls. He thought of paying her a ghostly visit, but he didn’t know how to go about it. New Orleans was a long way from Paterson, New Jersey. Besides, he wasn’t in Paterson. He was in Troutdale, Oregon, and had been for the last ten years. Either way, by the time he got to New Orleans, she would’ve no doubt flown on to Boston, where she was supposed to attend a seminar at the International Cosmetic and Perfume Fair.

Unable to decide anything, he went into the kitchen and opened a can of vegetable soup. While the soup was warming on the stove, he got out a few saltines and put some butter on them. He loved crackers with butter. On more than one occasion, he’d told his wife that if he died while eating crackers and butter, he’d die a happy man. Now here he was, dead, and still eating crackers and butter. And they were great. The flavor was so good, in fact, that it was almost overwhelming. The soup, he soon discovered, was also exceptionally fine. The vegetables tasted like they’d just come out of someone’s garden. With each spoonful, he felt as if the morning dew, the golden sunlight, and the sweet gentle breezes that had nourished the plants were entering his body.

While washing the lunch dishes, he realized he was no closer to solving the problem of telling Tasha about his death. He didn’t know much about it himself, really. He’d slept late, showered, and skipped breakfast. Traditionally, his vacations started with a day or two of confusion. Freedom always did that to him. This year was no different. He thought about going camping, but he didn’t want to mess with the equipment. He also didn’t want to go alone. He and Tasha had gone camping once, before they were married. It was the first time they’d spent the night together. He still remembered how good she looked when she woke up in the morning. When he told her that he liked her better without makeup, she laughed and said, “You say that now, because of what we did last night.” When he insisted, she kissed him and they did it again. Of course he knew that wearing lots of makeup was part of her cosmetic-selling job. She didn’t look bad in it, but it did hide some of her natural beauty. Nothing, though, could hide her nose — thank goodness. Tasha’s nose was straight out of a French novel. It gave her a racy dignity that most girls could only dream about.

He remembered reading the morning paper, and being mad about the latest nonsense the government was trying to shove down people’s throats. He didn’t believe in spying on his neighbors anymore than he believed the president when he said that from here on in, big corporations were going to be held accountable for their actions. And he certainly didn’t believe it was time for another war in Iraq, or anywhere else. War was stupid. People got killed in wars. Lots of people. If not having a war meant running out of oil, then he’d ride his bike to work. After all, wasn’t it better to ride a bike than to go and kill people?

And then everything stopped. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor, dead. He remembered looking up at the ceiling, thinking, So, this is it. It was quite a moment. There were dried-up bugs in the light fixture. What possible difference it made, he had no idea. But it was true. There were dried-up bugs in the light fixture, and the room needed painting. He already had the new paint in the garage. He’d bought it on sale, and had planned to surprise Tasha with a freshly painted kitchen when she came home on Friday. He was bad at making spaghetti, but, by God, he knew how to paint. No one could take that away from him. Then he remembered that his head hurt. Had he fallen, then? Is that how it happened? Did he lose his balance somehow, or black out? He’d never had seizures, at least that he knew of. Or maybe someone had shot him? He looked at the window. It wasn’t broken. And there were no bullet holes in the walls — or in him, for that matter. No bullet holes and no blood. A heart attack?

He tried hard to remember what he had felt before it had happened. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. His death had come without warning. There had been no premonition, no flashes of brilliant white light, no life passing before his eyes. He had simply been alive reading the paper one second, and then he was dead the next. Other than that, everything was fine. So he got up, and right away started wondering how to tell Tasha what had happened. When he couldn’t figure out a way, he’d made the soup and eaten crackers and butter.

After the dishes were done, he was wondering what to do next when the doorbell rang. He looked through the peephole. It was the mailman, holding a big package. Curious about the delivery, he opened the door. But instead of greeting Alan and giving him the package, the mailman looked past him into the kitchen and said, “Oh, my God.”

The mailman put the package on the step and came inside. Alan followed him. The mailman stopped abruptly and looked down at the floor. “Poor guy,” he whispered. “I wonder what happened?”

Alan looked over the mailman’s shoulder and saw his own dead body. It was lying flat on its back, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. The section of the newspaper he’d been reading was still clutched in its hand. It was a pitiful sight. He felt embarrassed and ashamed.

While the mailman was busy calling the proper authorities, Alan sat at the table and wept. A few hours later, Tasha was notified. She flew home from Boston to her empty, unpainted kitchen. Though his body had been taken away, Alan remained. But Tasha couldn’t see him, or hear him, or feel him when he touched her and tried to comfort her. She just wandered around the house, looking in all the rooms, crying. She looked at his clothes hanging in the closet and cried. She looked at his wallet and comb, his drawer full of socks and old underwear, his bedroom slippers, his computer, his video and CD collections, his pillow — and cried. When she took off her clothes and got into the shower, he got in with her. The sad smell coming from her skin made him feel sick to his stomach. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore and left. At that moment he began to hate death for coming between them. It isn’t fair, he thought. And he wondered what right death had to make his wife suffer so.

After Tasha had dressed, she got into their car and drove to the mortuary. He tried to follow, but couldn’t. Instead, he waited for her to return. When she did, her lips were pale and her eyes were dim. There were several forms she had signed having to do with his funeral, and with the burial of his body in one of the local cemeteries. At first he felt offended, then hurt. A moment later, it occurred to him that while it was meaningless for him, having a funeral might be the best thing for her. He was definitely not opposed to disposing of the body. Once that was done, then maybe they could both relax, and, in a manner of speaking, get on with their lives.

That evening, Tasha spent quite a bit of time on the phone. She’d gone to bed early, but had been unable to sleep. She talked first to her mother, then to her sister, and then to the rest of her family and several of her friends. It was very sad, and very touching. It seemed she really did love him. Finally, at two in the morning, she put the phone down and fell asleep. Since he wasn’t tired at all, Alan sat in the chair next to their bed where he could watch over her.

All night long, he tried to think of ways to make Tasha feel better. He no longer hated death. He’d moved beyond that. It might have been his way of saying he was bigger than death, he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure of anything, only that he wanted to help. In the dark night especially, everything had become so vivid. Things were far more real than he’d ever known. This was something he wanted to tell Tasha, if there were only some way. Like the soup and crackers he’d had earlier, it seemed life itself was swirling around him, revealing its beauty, revealing its strength, revealing its vulnerability. The sound of his wife’s breathing was like a soft breeze drifting through the ruins of an ancient temple. It whispered pure and profound messages, then moved on without leaving a trace. If this is death, he thought, then maybe there is hope yet for us all.

Then the sun rose and the pain started all over again. For two days, Alan remained by Tasha’s side. When she came home from the funeral, he was waiting in the house to say good-bye.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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