This starts a while back when I was a kid and had lots of anxiety. Not only was I afraid of heights, I was afraid of the TV. The unlife of the TV image, the frozen time of beamed particles made an unreality, made everyone a ghost. Dead people speaking. I saw Death himself grinning behind all the stars’ faces on every show, the Million Dollar Man’s hollow body, the Hulk’s eyes of empty anger, the vapid stucco-ed happiness of Donny and Marie, and (played by a mestiza with a white name like me) Wonder Woman’s painted on boredom as she spins. No one likes a jumpy kid and so my parents ordered me outside to ride my bike, which was way worse: Death likes dirt bikes, too, and chases you on yours, ramming your tire with his as you get close to ravines or if you look down at the long hill wondering if you can do a jump, he grins and grins and makes hand motions daring you. Then you crawl with broken pieces in you, or hold yourself to keep in what leaking goo you can and he just stays on his bike or might sigh and never call a teacher, your parents, anybody. He just wants to see if you are his yet. Later, as a teenager he pulls up next to you with his boney face leering out with a blond mullet and Oakley blades yelling get the fuck back to Mexico! And reeves the engine and tries to run you over a bit. Other times he is in a real jacked up car, driving slow, leans out, starts shooting and you run and he tears off and you just see his skeleton hand shooting the pistol in the air as he goes. All these kind of things are just his jokes (he’s always smiling after all), but he isn’t really gunning for you just yet.
He does get serious.
He loves cop cars and pulling you over with his lights—you always know you have to stop. He gets out and his white hand taps the window and you see his face again covered with sunglasses and something like a wig on his skeleton head like Donald Trump. His other hand on his gun. He pulls you out, and fires off questions, jokes delivered ‘dead pan’, “Where you going spic”, and presses his bones against you, patting all the fleshy parts he loves. “Where are your drugs, ‘vato’.” “What am I going to find in your car boy?” He takes off his sunglasses and lets you see the two holes on his face. I never gave in, I’d always said, “What’s your probable cause to search?” He’d chitter his teeth and say, “What do you have to hide, amigo?” I’d say, “I don’t trust you not to plant anything.” “Why would you think that?” “Because you’re Death.” He’d scoff, but then I’d say go ahead and get the warrant, I’ll wait, but I always knew I was about to be let go. Death hates paperwork, it’s us living that do it, though it feels like death. “I’ll let you go this time,” he’d wave a bony finger, “but remember next time…” “Next time what? That I’m Mexican?” He’d laugh. “Remember to be careful,” he’d say.
Friends that are old ladies themselves say I drive like an old lady, so I am careful. I know Death loves brown men. He has a collection. Black and Indian and mestizo bones piled up like those photos of white hunters next to buffalo skull piles. You can see it everywhere if you look between the cracks, read between the lines. Death is the great white hunter.
He loves his transports, because you know, a car, a goat, a horse, whatever is something you ride that can take you from place to place like from life to death. This story is about how I got away from his attention for a while, all this has been a bit of a set up to let you know how he can be. I mean, I’ve seen him come for lots of people, and often he is respectful and represses his giggles. Sometimes it’s for the best and I’m not sad and other times it’s just who he is—what we are. What we living are, the awaiters of the snarky asshole named Death. There’s nothing for it, but to play a few tricks and some jokes, ourselves, which is good to keep in mind for this next part.
So, in my early 20s, he messed with me constantly. My eyes opened in the middle of the night and I’d look over to see the two empty caves and his mouth opened in faux surprise. A joke that made me leap from the bed and run out the room screeching, “Death, Death!” My roommate would wake up and say, “What the hell is going on?” I’d tell him, “I was sleeping and Death scared me.” He’d shake his head with a judgmental, “Man…” and turn to go back to bed with his skinny girlfriend who was laughing at the door and thought I was weird.
I was jittery and jumpy like I was as a kid and would wander empty small town streets at night. Or at home, staring in the foggy bathroom mirror and checking my sweet body for marks and sags and wonder what I’d do with my life and think it was already over. No real friends, no girlfriend because no one likes jittery insomniacs who get testy. One wants this kind of dustbowl existence to be over. It makes you want to make a deal.
In junior high I tried to make a bunch of deals with the Devil to get superpowers, but it never worked, partially because I had no idea where to find him. Finding Death was easy, though. The cemetery, of course. I chatted with Death secretaries, the ravens and got tired of their only response to me trying to make an appointment being Ah! Then behind me, finally, the eternal question. “What are you doing here?”
Death was just Death this time all bone and naked.
“Dude, we have to come to an agreement.”
He leaned back on a tombstone. “What good is that for me?”
I said, “We could do a race, like that movie the Death Car 500 or whatever. I win you leave me alone for a while so I can sleep, you win, I jump off a bridge right now.”
Death scratched his white chin.
“Racing is passé. I like this bridge thing, though. You afraid of heights?”
My lips pressed together and I nodded.
“And this car thing is good for me, you’re not a good driver.”
“How about you drive up and down that mountain road to your hometown you hate so much?”
Death knew a bunch about me. He was around all the time, after all, but I knew three things about being afraid of heights, since I was. One, going up isn’t as bad, don’t look down as they say, two, going down goes faster, and the third thing I’ll tell you later.
“Okay,” I said, “but I get to choose the car.”
“What a tank? A Martian reentry vehicle?” he chittered.
“I want to drive the New Mexican Death Cart.”
“Santa Sebastiana’s ride?” He said. “What do you want with my sister?”
“Your sister? I thought you were all the same. Like the same bone pile.”
I knew Doña Sebastiana, Lady Death, had bows, she had arrows, she might hit you at any time like a rampaging trench coat teenage Cupid. She was the driver of the cart, la carreta de muerte. It seemed safe. Death always gets to where she needs to be, wanted or not.
“Why do you want to drive the New Mexican Death Cart? You’ve never lived in New Mexico.”
“My grandpa is Hispano. Don’t give me a hard time for being a coconut. I want to go out how I want to go out if it happens tonight.”
“You sure you want to drive the cart? How about that sports car James Dean drove? You liked Miss Lonely-hearts, I could put you in Nathanial West’s car definitely.”
“Alright. She’ll have to ride with you, though. She’ll be the judge.”
Death, the asshole stepped back. He stepped right and began to spin. A light grew from his center and spread over his body as he spun till the cornea popped with a crack. And then he had long white hair, a simple black dress drawn in with a belt rope. He—She slowed to a stop, balancing and putting her hands on her now wider hip bones. "You ready to go for a ride, macho?"
I climbed up to the cart –old Spanish style, minimalist PTA arts and craft slabs of wood meets cubist Picasso. It had warm seats, like a new gravity held you there and it purred like a janky sportscar. Lady Death scooted to the side then hung all over me. “Let’s see what you got, tiger.” Her bow kept knocking me in the head, the arrow she held she kept poking me in the cheek.
You know those movies where lovers ride down a quaint road through vineyards and farm lands that’s normally about them not being able to be together because their family disapprove or one can’t move because they must take care of the family ranch or sick mother and it seems as if the horse and the cart kind of hovers there and they don’t seem to be moving at all because who would want to leave that bucolic scene, that nostalgia of a lover’s moment that seems to transcend the ages? Well the Death Cart does not move at that speed. I don’t want to depict the lady of death as anything other as such, but I have to say as soon as I had the reigns and did a giddyup to whatever magic truly gives the cart motion, one jolt rocked me from the jump into hyper speed and the other jolt came from the lady griping me in the same place as her brother and seething loud through her teeth, “Yeah, motherfucker.”
The mountain Death the asshole had chosen was the one I was supposed to drive down on my driver’s test but I moved away before taking it. Normally in my nightmares I teetered on this mountain, below all the fallen vintage cars with long fins arranged like teeth. I’d kick and claw like a wee toddler, hoping to be lifted to steady ground and then I’d wake to one of Death’s jovial visits. In the Death Cart going up, Lady Death talked crazy talk: “Come on, you want to be pretty forever, just nudge too far to the right, no left now, you’ll be all broken and ready for me at the bottom, think of fall with me in your arms. You’ve always been one of mine, why do think you’re always so freaky and alone?”
I knew whatever Death or his sister tried to pull it would get old, eventually. At the top about to go down, I thought I was wrong. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, a part of me fainted, the part of me who wanted to live was slapped all over awake, and yet the other part, the one that went to school and listened to the drone of what you are supposed to learn that made time seem to take forever kicked in. Time didn’t actually slow, but between the smell of burning wood from the wheels and tipping almost sideways over my nightmare mountain, it all just got normal…and all of a sudden I could drive down it like nothing. The Death Cart was mine. I’m not saying I could drive it every day, but I realized, this terror, this moment, the notion that the lady’s arrow poking me in the cheek were telling me was that this was every moment. Every moment is a terror extravaganza in life. Smell it, be involved, be bored or passionate, scared or not, but this is what we live everyday till we don’t. We are always teetering. Santa Sebastiana noticed I wasn’t screaming or fainting and plus her arrow was stuck in the side of my cheek by then. She signed and moved her frozen claw from gripping my crotch to my own hand demurely as I drove down. People slowed, got in my way, dumb high school jocks tried to race, mothers chatted on the phone with a car full of kids, and safety conscious drivers got everywhere a second and a half later. All of us were hanging without a base, which eventually I arrived at: the bottom of nightmare mountain I grew up on. I stepped off and offered my hand to help the lady down. She smiled and plucked out the arrow from my cheek and stashed it in her belt. “Our night jokes will be less now,” she said, “I will let my brother know.” I thanked her and asked for a small favor. “A kiss?” she said. “No, no, no, not a kiss…a hug.” So we hugged, the living and the dead. “Thank you,” I said, hand behind back.
She stepped up to the death cart, the speed machine, the Spanish cubist wagon.
She blew a kiss I dodged and she shook her finger and then the reins and was gone faster than the other Santa and his reindeer on Christmas night. I brought my arm from behind my back. I looked at her arrow. Another cubist PTA prop, but something to hold on to at night and a good keepsake for all the walking I do now.
Scott Russell Duncan is the author of The Ramona Diary of SRD, a recently completed memoir of growing up Chicano-Anglo and a fantastical tour reclaiming the myths of Spanish California. Scott’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California where he now lives and writes. His work has appeared in Border Senses, Label Me Latina/o, Gemini Magazine, Somos en escrito, Diagram, Communion Literary Magazine, Ofi Press, Williwaw Anthology of the Marvelous, Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose, and translated into Spanish in Canibaal. One of his stories recently won Litquake’s 2016 short story contest. Scott’s website is scottrussellduncan.com.