by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 21, 2004
MEMO TO THE DYING: NEATNESS COUNTS. AND COUNTS.
SEATTLE, Wash. -- My days in retirement flow past in a kind of tranquil routine: Mondays, I wash my bed linen; Tuesdays I send Joe Shea something for the American Reporter; Wednesday...well, today I send the column that you read a few days later...but this is not the usual Wednesday.
First, I wake from a nightmare: I die and go...somewhere. Wait for several eternities in a large room with others and am finally called into the Office.
The Presence behind the desk tells me that my first task is to clean up the mess I left behind on earth. I look puzzled. Oh, just the physical mess, nothing complicated. I look nonplussed. It's simple, says he, though it'll take a while. You have to locate and dispose of thoughtfully all the mucus from your nose that you blew into paper handkerchiefs, all the semen that you left in other people or on the ground, wherever, all the fingernails that you bit off and spit out, or trimmed, all the hair that the barber let fall onto the floor and then swept up, all the urine that you disposed of on the ground, against trees, walls, into toilets, all the body ash detached from your skin and left on bedsheets during 84 years of tossing and turning... You get the idea?
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out, say I, remembering the Book of Common Prayer. Where am I to put this stuff?
First you locate, then put, says he.
But this could take forever, I say.
Have you other plans? he asks, with a smile. Anyway, you won't do everything at once.
Here's your first mission. In 1936, in a motel in Omaha, you woke in the middle of the night, removed a crust from your right nostril by digital emunction, and attached the dried but still adhesive stuff to the inside of the nearer front leg of the night table. You are to find and remove that and bring it back here for DNA analysis, to make sure that you've got the right booger. Good luck.
But... I began.
Next! He said, and I found myself in a parking lot outside the Boyztown Inn in Omaha, Nebraska. All I could think of was, How did he know we called them boogers in 1936? At this point a Subaru drove through me and I understood that I was neither visible nor material and thus no bother to anyone. Except myself, presuming for the nonce that myself meant something.
So that was the start of the day, and frankly, I don't look forward to bedtime tonight.
To the gym, then, to relax and do something normal.
At the water fountain I encounter a man whom I've seen often but do not know. He asks me out of the blue: "Are you the yacht broker?"
Nothing daunted, I say, "No, my barber is away in Lebanon to visit his ailing father. So I look a bit shaggy. Hence your mistaking me for a yacht broker."
He looks at me with iron control of his alarm and says, "Nice talking to you." End of chat.
But I pass him later as I make my way to the stationary bikes. "You made my day, actually, taking me for a yacht broker. I am the farthest thing from it. I am a retired professor of literature."
"Oh," says he, replacing the earphones that he has briefly removed to hear me, "then you can use it in one of your stories."
Stories!? I preferred my handler in the afterlife. Stories indeed. I'd rather collect my old ear wax than my denouements.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.