This piece is a short story that was published in Issue 3 of Kerouac’s Dog Magazine.
My name’s John O’Brien, or at least that’s who I used to be before I froze to death in the alley behind Mother’s diner in East Rome, New York. An arctic air mass swept into the Mohawk Valley from Canada one February night last year. I had propped myself against the brick wall, trying my best to shield my face from the wind; but it was futile, and I never woke up in the morning.
Mildred found me while out having a smoke after the breakfast rush. She called the cops, but not before rifling through my knapsack and pocketing the gold crucifix my mother gave me in 1969. Mom had it blessed by the Pope, and it was the only possession that meant anything to me. I’m kinda glad someone ended up with it, even if Mildred swiped it from me post-mortem.
The Oneida County coroner ruled hypothermia as the cause of death and the police labeled me a John Doe, since I had no ID on me or next of kin. They buried me in an unmarked grave in a back corner of Rome Cemetery, and that’s where I currently reside.
I don’t mind so much, though. The leaves on the maple trees overlooking my plot are bursting into flaming orange, brown and burgundy colors now, and I get to watch the squirrels scurrying about in the fading afternoon light. The cross-country team runs up here sometimes, and I can even hear the public address speaker at the Rome Free Academy football stadium on Friday nights, when the Black Knights play at home. Last Saturday, I even saw a group of teenagers hurling acorns at one another and ducking behind the headstones for protection. Their shouts and yelps echoed throughout the cemetery, and my only regret was that I couldn’t join in the fun. I can’t wait for winter when they have snowball fights and go sledding on a steep hill behind the cemetery.
The funny part is I don’t feel much different from when I was alive. Had I known this earlier, I might have given up a long time ago. You see I heard the temperature on the eve of my death was dropping; old Petey “Bones” Ragonese warned me to find someplace to flop when I ran into him during the lunch rush at the Rome Rescue Mission. So, yeah, I realized what would happen to me if I stayed outside, and I could have easily made it to the county shelter, where I would have gotten a hot meal and a cot with a blanket. But damn, my legs were heavy and numb, and I didn’t feel like moving an inch, let alone walking six blocks to the shelter. And I figured with my luck, it would only be colder the next day. So I just cradled the bottle of whiskey, closed my eyes and awaited the inevitable.
Now I spend my days trying to occupy my mind and fill the empty hours. I haven’t been given any sort of notice on what my final destination might be, so I’m just trying to live in the moment; or should I say go on being dead in the moment? I can’t complain, though. It’s really not that bad on this side, and at least I’m no longer cold.
Still, I really do wish someone, anyone—maybe even God Almighty or one of his messengers—would tell me what to do or where I’m supposed to go. I no longer have a body, but my brain still works. I am able to formulate thoughts and I spend most of my days contemplating my situation.
And all this thinking makes me wonder: Is this all there is? Isn’t there anything else? Is this heaven or hell, something in between, or just a continuation of what was considered the present?
“Enough already,” a voice yells from some distance away. “You’re not the only one here dipshit. You’re disturbing our sleep.”
“Excuse me,” I say, or rather I think and the words are somehow communicated to the stranger. “Who are you? Where are you?”
“It matters little. We are all dirt now. Don’t expect answers. Don’t expect anything. Just rest.”
“I don’t get it. If nothing matters, then why can I still think? My mind is active. I may not be alive, but I am not fully gone.”
“That’s it. I’m done trying to talk sense to this fucking wino. Annette, get this guy to shut up already.”
“Just because I’m your wife Fred doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do. You’re not the boss anymore. And what am I supposed to say anyway? He doesn’t understand yet.”
“Look I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to upset anyone. I just want some answers. Aren’t I entitled to some answers?”
“What’s you’re name friend?” another voice asks.
“Well I am James and I will do my best to give you some explanation. But it may not help you. I have been here since 1856, and I am still waiting for my fate to be decided. No one has told me anything. But I pray each day the Lord will come again so I may rise with him. Do you believe in Jesus John?”
“I guess so, sort of.”
“He is the only way.”
“Jesus Christ,” the voice known as Fred says. “It’s too fucking late for conversion.”
“It is never too late,” James says. “I repeat John, it is never too late.”
“I am sorry for bothering all of you. I don’t know if it’s physically possible, but I am getting a headache now. I want to try to go back to sleep.”
“Now you’re talking some sense dipshit. Go to sleep John. It’s too late for anything else.”
“I suppose it is. I guess we just die and enter the void. I never wanted to believe that but it seems it is true.”
“You got it brother,” Fred says.
“Now I wish I would have done something more with my life, while I still had the chance.”
“That is something we all wish for John,” James says.
Blackness takes over the cemetery once again and I drift off. I am not fighting sleep now; I am not fighting anything. I submit to the slumber of death with the recognition that nothing else exists.