Thursday, March 30, 2006

I Read About Dead People

It's not often that a story fills me with envy and leaves me with a warm glow, but "Naturally," by Daniel Handler, fills the bill. It appears in the current issue of Zoetrope All-Story. You may also know Handler as Lemony Snicket.

It begins:
It was the sort of day when people walk in the park and solve problems. "We'll simply call the taxi company, David, and request a large one, like one of those vans" is the sort of thing you would overhear if you were overhearing in the park. Hank was. He heard that one, and "Let's tell them six and then they'll show up at six-thirty" and "America just needs to get the hell out of there and not look back." Hank lay on an obscure corner of the grass, eyes closed, not moving, getting cold even in the nice day, and he overheard "Maybe we shouldn't move in together at all" and "If taxi companies don't take requests the company will rent you a car probably" and "The guests can gather out on the porch and then come in when dinner's ready" and "Oh my fucking Christ! Don't look, honey, don't look! The man is dead, honey, that's a dead man, oh God somebody call the police."
As you may suspect, although it isn't crystal clear for a few more paragraphs, the dead man is Hank. He wanders around New York for a while, invisible to everyone except a cat named Mr. Mittens, worrying that he is screwing up the afterlife. But eventually he encounters a woman (Eddie) who can see him. They date. One day, while Eddie is sleeping, Hank finds a letter she wrote to her dead husband:
The window rattles without you, you bastard. The trees are the cause, rattling in the wind, you jerk, the wind scraping those leaves and twigs against my window. They'll keep doing this, you terrible husband, and slowly wear away our entire apartment building. I know all these facts about you and there is no longer any use for them. What will I do with your license plate number, and where you hid the key outside so we'd never get locked out of this shaky building? What good does it do me, your pants size and the blue cheese preference for dressing? Who opens the door in the morning now, and takes the newspaper out of the plastic bag when it rains? I'll never get back all the hours I was nice to your parents. I nudge my cherry tomatoes to the side of the plate, bastard, but no one is waiting there with a fork to eat them. I miss you and love you, bastard bastard bastard, come and clean the onion skins out of the crisper and trim back the tree so I can sleep at night.


I'll never get back all the hours I was nice to your parents. I nudge my cherry tomatoes to the side of the plate, bastard, but no one is waiting there with a fork to eat them. What deft contrast in those two lines. The pathos is set up by the humor; it heightens the effect brilliantly.

It's a story about ghosts, real and metaphorical, which I suppose is what ghosts always are. A great read, simultaneously moving and laugh-out-loud funny.