It is the Angel of Death’s first day off in a long, long time. He’d almost been dreading it. But here he sits, on a bench before a snow covered hill which two children noisily scramble up and down with their sleds, book open on his lap. His first day off since he was the Angel of Internal Affairs, Central Asia. That was an easy job. Ample time off. Things were still good with Regina. But then he took the promotion.
The last guy, they’d said when they offered the job, exchanging knowing glances. Whew. Well, he let it get to him. You know what happened. Sad stuff, for sure. But we know you’ll do us proud. Time to move up. What do you say?
Okay, is what he’d said. He’d wanted to move up in truth, to put a more prestigious title by his name. He’d wanted the handshakes, the smiles, the admiring looks from his coworkers. A retired Angel of Death, not the most famous one, but up there, had even called and asked to have a Scotch, maybe offer some advice. The night that they were to meet, though, he and Regina were having one of their fights that were becoming all too frequent, and he had to cancel.
Now, Regina was gone, long gone, and he still hadn’t had that Scotch.
Today, he’s chosen to wear his work clothes–tweed suit, yarmulke–but he has purposefully neglected to shave, hoping it will help relax him a little. By breaking routine just a little, the day will feel deserved, not decadent.
The Angel of Death watches the children scramble back up the hill. One child trips, falls on his face. He doesn’t move. The other child stops, looks down at his companion. The fallen child still isn’t moving. Death scans the park, the empty picnic huts, blackened barbecue grills with snow stacked on their grates, but finds no sign of another adult nearby. He hears faint voices, the soft hum of motors. Death feels a little anxious, and a little amused, that he alone supervises these children.
He watches the standing child give the other a kick. The fallen child springs to life, and the two wrestle all the way to the bottom of the hill. Death watches the children until eyes lose focus, and all becomes the vast whiteness covering the park as he thinks of Regina, her dark, restless body. He catches himself, tucks her in a place as quiet and empty as this winter’s day. She is a voice in the distance, the faint sound of traffic on a nearby highway.
The Angel of Death checks his phone. Nothing. The Angel of Drunks and Children is covering for him today, and Death expects to be called back in at any moment. Drunks and Children is a nice guy, really, but has no eye for detail. Back when they had time, the two Angels used to go camping. Drink brown liquor, cook brats over an open fire. Tell lies.
It’s been too long since I smelled like a campfire, the Angel of Death thinks.
He’s tempted to send his coworker a text. Just to check in.
He puts his phone away and returns to an out of print novel about a detective that attempts to locate a womanizing survivor of the Holocaust.
You both had her, the detective has just said to the survivor in a surprise encounter. The crowds and crowds of people in the city seem to part around them. I watched you from the window of the museum!
The detective describes to a particularly titillating scene that involves the survivor, a prostitute–who has revealed that she works for the Russian mob–and another unidentified woman.
Ah, replies the survivor. Does anyone have anything, really?
A woman cries out, distracting the detective. The detective reaches in his pocket. A note!
Um, excuse me.
The Angel of Death looks up to see the two children standing before him. Annoyed but not wanting to appear rude, Death searches for some reply. Since becoming the Angel of Death, he’s had little time for conversation beyond business.
Before Death can respond, one child says, Are you some kind of pervert?
What? Death says.
We don’t want your candy, says the other.
The Angel of Death regards these children of God standing before him. They both wear brown snow jackets and matching slick snow pants, and seem to have abandoned their sleds, these little, toe-headed freckled twins. The Angel of Death grew up in a supportive home with hard working, only slightly alcoholic parents, too poor for snow pants. He used a trash can lid as a sled.
The Angel of Death sighs.
Where are your parents? he says.
Where’s your van?
I don’t drive a van.
Daddy says all perverts drive vans and have candy.
I don’t have any candy, Death says.
Gaw, one says. You’re some kind of shitty pervert.
The Angel of Death frowns.
Where is your father?
That ain’t your business.
Did he teach you to curse like that?
Hell no, says one.
Death sighs again. He closes his book and stands up, intending to return to his apartment, open a bottle of wine, and maybe watch the romantic comedy that came in the mail two Tuesdays ago, starring the cute brunette.
The children put up their dukes. Death calmly walks by.
Gosh, he thinks, two Tuesdays ago. I need to cancel my subscription. Really, I’m just throwing money away.
He walks a distance, then takes a look behind him. The children are not following. One has tackled the other and they are rolling around in the snow. The Angel of Death hears one call the other a shitass.
If the Angel of Death wanted, he could see all the tragedies of their lives unfold in an instant. When their loved ones die or leave them, all the times they fail, every little humiliation, every little addiction and betrayal. In his palm, he could crush the essence of these events together like dough and shove them into the bellies of these children, show them how truly alone they are in the world.
He doesn’t. His strict adherence to professional ethics placed him on the short list for the job after the really tragic stuff that happened with the last Angel of Death. Heartbreaking stuff.
At the moment, he forgets the children, walking toward his apartment, and instead, in his mind, catalogs the books on his shelf that he hasn’t read yet. He wants to watch that movie, but feels he must read those books first. So many classics, spines unbroken. So many characters with tidy beginnings, their ends so uncluttered, so nice and final.
No, he thinks. No thinking about work.
Since it’s a ways from the park to his one bedroom studio, he allows himself to disappear in one little memory of Regina: a hot August night, bourbon, a feather, a torn skirt, skin as dark as time before time.
Wake me up, she is saying to him, you bastard wake me up I want to oh god wake up where the hell is that feather…
His face is buried in her neck. He is buried in Regina. Blindly reaching for the bourbon, he’s careful not to knock over candles on the nightstand.
He puts the bottle to his lips, can almost taste it, when he feels a stinging pain in the back of his head.
Son of a fool, says the Angel of Death, doubling over. Son of a goshdarned fool. What the heck. Man. Dang. Dang.
Death readjusts his yarmulke.
Hearing something whizz by him, he opens his eyes. Half of a tightly packed snowball sitting on the ground, a smooth stone peeking out.
The Angel of Death turns and sees the two children and a man who he assumes is their father, packing up more ammo.
Please stop, calls the Angel of Death.
What, says the father. You gonna cry, pervert?
Yeah, cries one of the kids, you gonna cry?
No, the Angel of Death calls. I’m not. I’m asking you to stop.
He dodges more snowballs. The voice of his therapist, the one he had when he and Regina were working things out, speaks to him. Tells him that this shall pass. A snowball misses his groin by inches. Another voice, similar to his own, tells him he could lose the paperwork, leave three bodies lifeless in the snow.
Death hears a shout behind him. He recognizes the Angel of Drunks and Children, also wearing the standard tweed and yarmulke.
Howdy, Drunks and Children says to Death, clapping him on the arm. Drunks and Children wears his hair long, curls falling to his shoulders.
You wore your work clothes on your day off? Come on, man.
You here to arrest this pervert?
The father and his kids are approaching. The sound of snow crushed beneath their feet makes Death grit his teeth. Death can smell stale beer on the father.
Death whispers, They think you’re a cop?
Drunks and Children smiles. Who else deals with perverts? I’m pulling double duty today. Death and Justice.
They assaulted me, Death says. They put rocks in the snowballs.
Good thing you showed up, says one of the brothers. We were about to kill this grab-ass.
I hit him in his nuts, says the other.
No you didn’t, says Death. You missed.
Maybe you just don’t have any nuts.
Didn’t think kids were your type, Drunks and Children whispers to Death. Geez.
Death flushes. This is ridiculous, he says.
The Angel of Drunks and Children makes Death empty his pockets to show that he isn’t carrying candy. They walk to the parking lot to prove that Death drives a ninety-five Acura Legend, not a van. The group attracts a few bystanders. Whispers of a pervert in the park. Death wants more than anything to go home, to drink himself into oblivion, to close his eyes and forget this ever happened. He tries not to hold it against Drunks and Children. It’s procedure, after all. He tries to console himself that Death comes for everyone. Death is patient. Leaving the park in his Acura, feeling the eyes taking down his license plate number that he knows he will darken in time.
The father will continue to attempt to win the affection of his two sons with vulgar language and buffoonery. It will work until the boys are about halfway through junior high school. Their girlfriends do not like their father, and thus the boys dislike him as well. After hitting a very low point, the father renounces drinking. He starts attending a Baptist church, which hosts Christian singles functions. In the church gymnasium, which has been converted for the evening to resemble a fine dining restaurant, he meets a curvy woman who drinks her coffee black and enjoys the music of Willie Nelson. They joke about Willie’s drug use, discuss their faith, and agree to meet again. They fall into a lonely kind of love. Years later, a member of their congregation, insane over divorce and gambling debts, breaks into their home. As Death steadies the hand that holds the knife, he murders them in their sleep. Neighbors find their bodies weeks later, half eaten by a Yorkie named Pencil.
One of the brothers, among other sins, impregnates a girl in high school, but works hard to earn his diploma. He marries his baby’s mother, finds work managing a chain restaurant. Severely depressed one winter morning, he has a brief lapse in monogamy with a much younger coworker before the restaurant opens, on the prep station. Goosebumps cover her body when he sets her down on the stainless steel. It’s much briefer than either of them would have preferred, and they both agree that it was a mistake. They remain friends and he often thinks of tasting her goosebumps, her tight brown nipples while masturbating before his morning shits. He retreats to her memory like a backyard bomb shelter. He promotes the coworker to assistant manager soon after, and they enjoy a productive and professional relationship never before seen in their restaurant. All things considered, he’s a good provider and a well-meaning father. Because of his trust in the assistant manager, the brother puts her in charge for a weekend, goes fishing, and drowns. His first day off in a long, long time.
The second brother develops a taste for whiskey, women, and rock n’ roll. He learns to play the bass, modeling himself after the late Phil Lynott. He drops out of high school at age 16, and goes on his first tour with a punk rock band called Sluggo. Moving to Nashville, he finds a burgeoning music scene and good studio gigs. He loses touch with his brother and father, and eventually stops thinking of them entirely. He joins a band called The Pocket Change. Life on the road makes relationships difficult, and he floats in and out of many. They all end amicably, as he possesses the foresight not to get involved with anyone too clingy. He never unpacks the few boxes that he keeps in an L.A. apartment, preferring to sleep on the floor like back in his Sluggo days.
During a gig in Belfast, he leaves the stage with a stabbing pain in his stomach. A doctor with a Scandinavian accent tells him that his appendix has ruptured. He is rushed to the hospital and undergoes surgery. Weary and delusional as the anesthesia wears off, he dreams of his youth, of a wintry day in the park with his father and brother, throwing snowballs with rocks in them at a man wearing a tweed suit. He will wake up, weeping, in his hospital room. During recovery, he writes like breathing, plays like his hair is on fire. Priests of all different faiths come to visit. His band mates say they’ve heard nothing from him, that he won’t see them. They tell the press that they assume he’s quit, but no one in the press can get a statement from him. One reporter, dressed as a Shinto monk, sneaks into his hospital room, but leaves crying uncontrollably.
The last brother, making a full recovery, soon releases a double album called Omnes prophetae tui mortui abiti. He announces one show in support of the record, at a renovated opera house in Memphis, which sells out in fifteen minutes.
While playing the final number, entitled “Thisbe’s Legs,” he notices that a gentleman, wearing a tweed suit in the front row. The man’s face, tinged red by the stage lights, has not displayed the emotion of the rest of the crowd, which ranged from sobbing to tearing of hair and breast to outright coitus between strangers.
As the lioness sees herself in the moonlit pool, the last brother sings, they will betray you. They will betray you, they will betray you.
The gentleman does not stand or clap when the song ends. The brother thinks that the gentleman looks tired, but not nearly as old as he should.
The Angel of Death sits in the audience, awaiting the moment after the concert, the heart attack that will deliver his bounty. He enjoyed, to an unprofessional degree, the taking of the father and first brother. He expects to enjoy this, too. Death has lost most of his patience. He hasn’t had a day off since the occurrence in the park, and it has made him irritable.
Making a drunken call to Regina, holding a plastic sandwich bag of ice to his head that winter’s day, he’d wept.
Hey, he’d said on her machine. It’s me. I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to do this.
He’d tried to say what he’d composed a thousand times in his mind, but the wine and whiskey muddled everything.
I’m sorry, he’d said at the end, and hung up. The next morning, he’d awoken on his couch, late for work. The ice in the sandwich bag had melted, and leaked onto his pants. At first, hollow-eyed and dry-mouthed, The Angel of Death thought he’d pissed himself.
At work, the Angel of Death had been reprimanded.
Drunks and Children pulled a double and missed his kid’s tee-ball game, his supervisor said. How does that make you feel?
Not cool, Drunks and Children said to him as they’d passed in the hallway by the restrooms.
In training, the Angel of Death had been told act as the universe, unrelenting but forgiving, infinite, but conceivable at close range.
They’ll go through the stages, the last Angel of Death had said. They’ll be pretty rude sometimes. One lady told me that she hoped my house burned down. Who says that to someone? She came around, though. They all do. Some are even thankful.
This was days before the big mess that the last Angel of Death got himself into.
After the snowball incident, the Angel of Death had conducted his business with little regard for his subjects. Gave them the spiel, word for word, how it says in the handbook, send them on. The other side had started complaining that he sent over too many unprepared, that the system was backing up.
What good was he, they said, if they were doing his job?
The Angel of Death had softened the sting of accusations with cheap bourbon and women as lonely and desperate as he was. He even fucked one of his charges, a younger woman not ready to die. Through the fog of whiskey–he had taken to having a few while working–she reminded him vaguely of Regina. Dark eyes, dark skin, beauty like crickets and owls singing at midnight. The Angel of Death cried for the first time in years afterwards, drunk and feeling the full weight of what he considered his moral bankruptcy. The rumors that his predecessor used to do it all the time did not comfort him. After all, look at what happened there. Awful, awful stuff.
The Angel of Death makes his way backstage. The grips, security, musicians, industry people cannot see him, so they do not notice him staggering. They cannot feel him, so they do not collide with him. They only feel a vague sense of wrongness. They chalk it up to stress.
The Angel of Death enters the last brother’s dressing room, where the last brother is sitting in a leather armchair, a bass in his lap.
It’s the pervert, the last brother says, smiling. I saw you in the crowd.
The Angel of Death smiles a bit. He says, Do you know what’s about to happen?
Sure, says the brother. And I was just kidding, just now. I’m really sorry about all that.
The last brother stares right at Death, playing a familiar klezmer tune on his bass. It makes the Angel of Death uncomfortable. He forgets momentarily what he is there to do. Listening, he recalls the smell of horseradish.
The Angel of Death sings along softly in Hebrew, The next year in Jerusalem. He hasn’t heard the song since he was a child, the last time he saw his father alive, his family upset when cousin Sarah and the Scarpaggio boy from down the street got caught screwing in Uncle Matt’s Ford Explorer.
Sarah had said, What’s the big deal?
The Scarpaggio boy, head hung down in the corner of the kitchen, hadn’t seemed to know what to say.
Death had wanted to grab his hand and run him out of that house, tell him it wasn’t his fault, that these people are all crazy. Then his father had collapsed.
Lashanah haba’ah biy’rushalaim, the last brother sings.
They sing together.
The Angel of Death rubs his eyes.
Dang, he thinks, and asks for Scotch.
Sorry, the last brother says. I don’t keep brown liquor around anymore. I have these, though.
The last brother plucks a neon can off of a six-pack, and hands it to the Angel of Death. He shrugs.
They were sitting there when I got back. I’m guessing that company sponsored the show.
The brother laughs to himself.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d prefer a couple of redheads and a bottle of whiskey, but that’s all over.
Death breaks the seal and takes a drink. It tastes vaguely like the bodega wine that, as kids, he and his friends had paid transients to buy them, and, like a fungus, seemed to creep up from the stomach through the sinuses and attach itself to the brain. Like that, but carbonated.
Good gosh, says Death. What is this stuff?
The brother laughs.
Honestly, I haven’t had one yet, he says as he opens one for himself. That’s malt liquor with caffeine. They say it’s like a Colt 45 and a mug of instant coffee rolled into one.
Though he feels like he might vomit, Death drinks again, and allows himself to smile. He and the brother touch cans.
Fruit of the vine, the brother says.
Those people really like you, Death says.
The brother frowns.
They’d skin me alive and sell pieces of me on the internet, he says. They’d leave me to choke on my own tongue.
But I won’t, Death thinks. And you know it.
They drink silently together. Death wonders where to go from here. He recalls some of the paths he left unexplored, propelled instead to where he stands. Regina wearing a thin cotton sundress, back arched against white pinion pine railing, desert breeze revealing her thighs, warm tequila in a ceramic cup. His father, blood draining from his face, limbs gone limp and fallen lifeless on the ceramic tile. Himself, alone and drunk, waving a bottle and threatening the shadows on the wall.
Before he leaves the body spiritless, seizing the heart and stealing breath and sight, Death hears the brother apologize about the incident in the park.
No big deal, Death says.
The brother asks Death about his business, and they speak like old friends, dispelling the strangeness that gathers around those once intimate, once separated, reunited.