You’re My Whole Life

You’re My Whole Life

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— You’re dead, she said.

— Maybe, the man replied, looking out of the passenger side window. Yes, I’m dead.

If Shaw had leaned forward over her steering wheel to follow his sightline, she would have been looking at the Getty Center, clinging to the steep terrain above them. The dead man could have explained to her that he had never gone to the Getty, that he had wanted to go, but no one he had known when he was alive liked museums. She would have told him that it was better to go alone, anyway. But Shaw did not lean forward and they did not have that conversation. She was more concerned with the fact that a dead man had just materialized next to her as she crested the Santa Monica mountains on her way into the city. She’d never seen him in profile, but she knew him instantly.

— Can you hear what I’m thinking? she asked.

— No.

— Why not?

— I don’t know. Just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I know everything.

— Is there a God?

— I don’t know. I like to think so, but I haven’t talked to him or anything.

He began to fiddle with radio, to no avail, since Shaw was playing music through her phone. Death was supposed to be the final step, the time when all judgements and mercies were handed out, if there were any to hand out, and at the very least when one learned the answers to the big questions: why are we here, where is God, how did Evil come to be? Shaw was surprised by the man’s lack of anger over the fact that he had gone through the bother of dying and no entity had cleared any of these questions up for him. She wouldn’t have been so calm. Even when she was little, Shaw had been swept up by the cosmic side of things, crying in church, but never when she was supposed to cry in church. Never when they were singing the final hymn or bowing their heads to take the body of Christ. Shaw cried as the visiting handicapped preacher slurred through his sermon, as the youth minister testified about the time he was shot in the face while delivering pizzas. Her father had said she was letting them manipulate her and she should pray more.

— Why are you in my car?

— It’s a nice car.

Shaw glanced over. There was nothing dead-looking about him; he was opaque, with no unearthly glow or pallor, and there was a blemish forming at his temple. His ear was scarred from an old piercing. Why was he allowed to wander around looking like a living person, she wondered. At the very least he should have bullet holes in his chest, the ones she’d seen in the photograph. His t-shirt looked freshly cleaned, undamaged. Underneath, would there be scars? Scabs? He was looking at her now, with eyes a sleepy, washed-out blue, like a lake reflecting more clouds than sky.

— You ask a lot of questions, he said.

— It’s the normal reaction, isn’t it?

— I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it, about what I would have done.

And he leaned his seat back like he was going to take a nap. Just my luck, she thought. A dead man shows up in my car and he turns out to be the most boring dead man ever.

Two cars were crumpled up in the right hand lane. Someone was still in one of them, and people were collected around the window. The traffic slammed to a halt, and Shaw leaned hard on the brakes to keep from running into the car in front of her. Alarmed, the dead man sat up, holding onto the door handle.

— Look, Shaw asked, is there something you need to say to me? Can you cut to it and tell me whatever awful thing you are here to tell me?

She knew she was being snippy. It occurred to her that the divine message this unnamed ghost was here to deliver might about Matt. Maybe Matt was dying, maybe he’d been in a car wreck that morning and was lying dead in the morgue already.

But the dead man shook his head.

— No, there’s nothing to tell. I just thought you were pretty.

 

Once they arrived at the office, the dead man made no move to get out of the car. Shaw locked the doors and went inside.

She felt mildly guilty, as if she had left a schnauzer or small child in there. All morning she was on the phone, trying to rally participants for the upcoming fundraiser. The company Shaw worked for provided educational programs for “at-risk” youth – they had after-school classes on playing guitar, designing websites, basketball. Their best program was a poetry class at one of the subsidized housing complexes near Crenshaw. Children wrote poetry for six weeks and then they had a reading where each child read his or her poems with a rapper or movie star. As assistant director of development, Shaw always went to the reading, where afterwards she was thanked for her fundraising efforts with a bouquet of yellow roses presented by an eight year old child she’d never met and applauded by parents she’d never spoken to.

After her scheduled conference call with the venue, Shaw finally took a moment to run out and check on the man.

Her car was empty.

— I’m insane, she thought. I’m insane, but I have to raise $13,475 by the end of the day, so I’ll think about it later.

That evening, at home, Shaw rifled through the box of Matt-related things she kept in the closet. She was sure there was a stack of postcard prints from his show, including one of the man who had been in her car. While it had disturbed her that the gallery had hung Matt’s study of male-on-male murder directly across from his pictures of her, she had kept going back to it. She no longer thought of Matt as a very good photographer. When asked, she described his pictures as a poor attempt at surrealism, kind of like Vogue covers with unexpected components: toilet seats, amputees, spears. His murder pieces she called his “Diane Arbus phase,” and to be honest, they were probably his best work. When asked, Shaw never mentioned his pictures of her.

She found it. The man in the photograph was definitely the same man who had been in her car. He lay on his back, but he had been too close to a dresser when he had fallen. As a result, his head was propped up, his chin pressed against his clavicle. His left arm, pinned between his body and the dresser, stood high and straight, dangling an incongruously limp hand. His once plain white undershirt was soaked red from his neck to his belly, with five bullet holes in it. Most startling were his eyes, as Matt had surely intended. Shaw knew nothing of photography, of lighting or lenses or aperture, but whatever Matt had done had caused the blue irises of the man’s eyes to reflect fiercely from behind half-closed lids, in furious protest to what had just happened to the body they were trapped in.

On the back of the postcard was the caption, “Killed during a rent dispute.”

 

He was back again two nights later, leaning against the rail of her deck, staring out at downtown, which was actually pretty from the view in Silverlake. The hillside on which Shaw lived was so steep the road didn’t bother to climb it. Cars parked at the bottom, and the inhabitants used a long stone staircase to reach their doorsteps. Shaw lived about half-way up, in a bungalow that would triple in worth if her landlord were to remodel.

— My name is Daniel, said the dead man, and Shaw looked up from the grant proposal she was revising. Although he wasn’t facing her she knew who he was, because the gate into her sandy yard was high and wooden and scraped the ground. She’d have heard a normal person entering.

— You can’t drop in whenever you want, Shaw said. It isn’t polite. What if I was taking a shower, or had someone over?

— Then I wouldn’t have bothered you.

— Still, I should have a say in it.

He didn’t answer. There was a pack of Parliaments lying on one of the metal patio tables, left by someone at the celebratory dinner Shaw had hosted a few nights before. A coworker had passed her nursing exam. Everyone had asked if Shaw was holding up alright and said they loved her new place. Daniel took one out and held it expertly between his fingers. He was still standing with his back to her.

— I used to smoke in bed, Daniel said, as if she had asked him to explain himself.

If Daniel were a living person, that would have been the moment when Shaw knew she was going to sleep with him. It was a feeling she hadn’t felt in a long time, and wasn’t sure what to make of feeling it in regards to a dead man. She had known with Eli, the man she had left for Matt, who had in turn left Shaw for a tenured professor of art history at UCLA. Matt had been a three year investment: a year of waiting, a year of being with him, a year of ignoring the signs.

Shaw cat, a long-haired one the color of rusty water, leapt from nowhere onto her lap.

— What’s her name?

— His. Lost.

— Why?

— He wandered into my kitchen one day when I’d left the door open to get some air. And you know how people always greet a stray dog or cat by saying, hello, kitty-cat, are you lost?

— Yeah.

— He said yes.

Usually people laughed and asked her cat if he was still lost. Daniel scratched the cat behind the ears without a word, giving Shaw the chance to see that his fingernails were clean and even. She realized that he didn’t smell of anything. Not soap, shampoo, not even sweat.

Shaw would learn otherwise, but for now she imagined Daniel hairless and room temperature, with skin dry and rubbery like a yoga mat, and hard, immovable scabs the size of quarters on his torso. Maybe he would be calm and matter-of-fact, waiting patiently as Shaw’s hands searched for things to hold onto for balance – the headboard, a windowsill, a desk corner – to keep her fingers from slipping painfully into the exit wounds in his back, where chunks of flesh had been blown away. But it would turn out that ghost who has managed to wrest a corporeal existence, intermittent as it may be, from the universe, defies the riles of science and observation. Even with no organ with its double convulsion to propel blood through valves, arteries, capillaries, and on, he can still participate in such activities that involve mouths and clumsy tongues, the red marks that waistbands and bra straps leave on the pale, untanned parts of a person, knee sliding off the edge of the bed nearly causing injury, certainly causing laughter (you? laughing?). He can be one of two people as they see each other’s birthmarks, moles, scars for the first time, and take pause to learn them — this is where a dog bit me and I gave up the viola forever this is where I lost a fight this is where they wired my jaws shut this is where my first love scratched me this is where my father threw me down some brick stairs this is where I died. After the first time, and many times after that, Shaw would wonder what Daniel felt and what he didn’t feel, because in a living person, the nerves carry home the message of a knuckle tracing the shoulder blade, electrical pulses leap across the empty chasm of a synapse to bury themselves in the flesh of the receiving nerve cell, caught by the finger-like web that is always waiting.

— Where have you been? Shaw asked.

— I’m not sure where I was. I just… faded out. I watched you walk away in the parking lot, and the next thing I remember is knowing you were out here and wanting to talk to you. And then I was looking at the skyline.

He sat down in the chair nearest her.

— Do you want me to leave?

— Yes.

And he did. He stood and walked to the garden gate, pulling it open (it grated the earth loudly, as always). After a second, Shaw ran to the gate herself, but Daniel was gone. He was not climbing above her, or descending to the street below. She hadn’t really meant for him to go; she had wanted to see him do whatever it was he did to come in and out of existence, always when she wasn’t looking, and then he’d gone and walked out of her yard like he was alive. She felt cheated.

 

This time it took several days for him to return, as though he was waiting for Shaw to stop being mad or start wondering if she had made the whole thing up, whichever came first. Then he was sitting on her couch when she got up Saturday  morning, reading the day’s L.A. Times, which she had not had delivered in several years. Not much of a breakfast person, Shaw spooned some yogurt into two bowls and sat down with him.

— Thank you. Daniel handed her the front section, which he’d already read, and then ate his yogurt and turned to the crossword.

— Why did he shoot you?

— I don’t want to talk about it.

— Why not?

— It doesn’t matter.

— Then what are we supposed to talk about? When you get to know someone you asked questions like that, what their job is, where they come from, how many brothers and sisters they have. How they died.

— We can talk about you.

— I don’t want to talk about me.

Sometimes Daniel would be waiting for her when she got home from work, digging little holes with his toes in the sandy yard inside the fence. None of the neighbors had asked about the man who had recently started hanging about her place, lying in the sun with her cat while she was at work, but then Shaw didn’t talk with her neighbors very often. She would ask him what he’d done that day and he’d say nothing. Apparently it was true; if he wasn’t feeling particularly interested in existing he would “fade out,” as he put it. Shaw was yet to see one of these fade outs, so she wasn’t sure how it went exactly. It sounded like sleeping.

At least you never have to be bored, Shaw would say.

 

— What’s your last name?

— Beauchamp.

— That’s my last name.

— Yes. I liked it, so…

— What’s your real last name?

— Beauchamp.

— That’s not funny.

— No. It’s pretty. Daniel Beauchamp.

 

She would later think that it was her fault things got difficult.

— Want to go to a movie? she asked one night.

Shaw drove, and on the way they discussed better routes to take. As they walked in, Shaw noted that one teenage girl’s gaze seemed to linger on him, and she realized that she didn’t know for sure if Daniel was visible to others. Had the girl seen him and thought him attractive, or had she looked through him at the display window full of headless mannequins sporting water and plastic fish in their bra cups? Daniel walked ahead of Shaw, unaware that she was scanning the crowd for reactions. In the ticket line, Shaw was the reticent one, her head bent low, her eyes focused on her feet, which looked pale and weak in the lime-colored flip-flops she wore. Did she buy Daniel a ticket? If she did, what would happen when she handed the usher two tickets – would he look around quizzically for her companion? If she didn’t buy him a ticket, would they be stopped? What was she dreading more – the possible embarrassment, or the realities of being with a dead man? They hadn’t even discussed which movie they would see. As the couple in front of them was paying, Shaw stepped out of line, walking towards the doors without checking to see if Daniel was behind her. He called her name once, and the sound echoed off the high ceiling of the lobby.

— What’s wrong?

— Nothing.

Upon review, Shaw knew there were subtler ways to deal with the situation. She could have bought his ticket and given it to him, and walked through without checking to see what transpired between Daniel and the usher. He would have followed her without her ever knowing how.

 

— Why me?

— I don’t know. I just knew you’d seen me at the photography exhibit, even though I wasn’t there.

— How can you not know where you’ve been since you died?

— Where were you before you were born?

— That’s not the same thing.

— We don’t know that.

 

Shaw stopped looking at Daniel. If he was there when she awoke in the mornings, she’d find him sitting in the living room, staring at the TV as if it were on. She would pass through without a good morning or a smile. As she walked from room to room, Shaw would slam the door behind her, a gesture Daniel respected, even if he was deceased. Although he had the unnerving habit of waiting right where he stopped so that when she opened the door again, even if it was an hour or more later, he’d be right there, inches away from her.

 

— Can people see you? she asked finally.

— I could be wrong, but I think they see me, only they don’t remember me. I’m dead. I’m of no importance to anyone in this world. Except you.

— You make being dead sound depressing.

— I don’t think it is. But I bet it’s different for everyone.

She couldn’t say why she was angry. It would be ludicrous, even cruel, to attack a man for being dead. How does one address that?

What’s wrong?

            — You’re dead.

            — I’m sorry.

            — Can you be alive? A little more undead?

            — You mean like a zombie?

            — No. Like a normal person who gets colds and is afraid of heights and breaks out in hives if they drink vodka that isn’t made from potatoes.

            — But not everyone-

            — Shut up.

            Despite her feelings, Shaw knew this constituted an “unreasonable demand,” and it was not a problem they could talk through.

Then came the time when Shaw was sure he had faded in right behind her while she was drying dishes at the sink. The rage was instant. All instinct, she spun, slamming the glass in her hand down too hard, and it shattered, slicing her palm. Shaw was alone in the room. She’d done something like this once before, in the old house. She’d being trying to get Matt to talk about what was happening. For months, living with him had been terrible. If she asked what was wrong, he’d say nothing. But every word that came out of his mouth came slowly, he sat with his arms crossed all the time, and when he opened the door to let her in if she was carrying groceries or folders from work, it was only a few inches, so she’d have to push the door with her foot to actually fit through. My day was fine, work was fine, nothing’s different, he’d repeated. This is how things have always been.

— I’d like to kiss you, Daniel asked one morning. He had been following her from room to room talking about the furniture arrangement in her office (which, as far as she had known, he had never visited).

— Well, you can’t.

— I wish you’d change your mind.

— I won’t.

Shaw rushed down the hall to the washer and dryer, hoping that her favorite shirt was dry enough to wear to work. She felt a change in the air and knew that when she went back he would be gone.

 

Two days later, when she got out of the shower he was sitting beneath the open window in her bedroom, reading a travel magazine she’d thought she’d thrown away. Shaw had her speech ready. She launched directly in without a hello, saying that he was wasting his time because she wasn’t about to have an affair with a dead man — it was pointless, because, she said, because being with you is the same as being alone. When Daniel didn’t interrupt or even look like he wanted to argue she kept going, telling him to try to imagine what exactly that would entail, a romance between a murdered man and a woman who was a mid-level manager for a non-profit, and all the questions that she had that probably could be answered, but she wouldn’t like the answers, such as could they ever go anywhere together, would all of her friends think she’d gone mad, could he call to wish her a happy birthday at work, did his voice even carry over a telephone line — here Daniel did jump in to say he was dead, remember yes I remember that’s the problem she’d said back. No, he said, why would I use a phone if I can just be there? — but Shaw ignored his point because she wanted to say that she had AAA and she could change a tire just fine on her own, in fact she’d done it three times in her life to be exact, but there were other things, like could he go to the store for ibuprofen and tampons? Did his spit work for sealing envelopes? What if she wanted to go swimming at the beach or hiking, could he do things like that and if he could what if she got hurt, her leg cramping up uselessly in a strong tide, what if she climbed a tree to look into a birds’ nest and the branches bent or broke or she just plain lost her grip because as a living person she could be quite clumsy at time, and she fell twelve feet and fractured an arm and eight ribs and her tibia, as she lay there unconscious, could he call for help? Did he know what fear was anymore? Could she list him as her “contact in case of emergency” person? What happened the day he just faded out and never came back? Could he even hold a camera to snap a shot of her during a trip to Big Sur or rumpled and sleeping as the sun came up? Or, thirty years from now, would she be staring a pictures of herself at dinner parties and barbecues, on skiing trips and walks with the dog yes, she would have a dog one day there she would be, grinning too neatly, one arm held away from her body in a taut, empty curve like a failed ballerina, alone and off-stage, reenacting her finest performance?

The magazine was still perched in Daniels’ hands. He didn’t move, as if he was waiting for Shaw to continue, to get to the real point, but that was it. When she’d begun, Shaw had had a strong clean finishing line, but she’d let go of it along the way. Look away, she thought. Clear your throat, you bastard, shuffle your feet, be nervous that you can’t think of a way around all of this. But he didn’t, his blue eyes patiently waiting her out. There was a clank as Lost knocked over a glass of water in the front room. A breeze snuck in through the window, brushing Shaw’s neck and bringing with it the soft hiss of the traffic on the 101.

Rachel is a writer who has lived in the New Orleans area for almost ten years. There she has worked as a location sound mixer for film and TV, as well as in theater and radio.

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