I found a hamburger place that looked like it was part of a franchise chain, but was not one I was familiar with back home, or rather back where my apartment was and my cat. The place I’d left to come to my mother’s side hadn’t ever felt very homelike, I realized. Even when Ashley and I were looking for housing, I couldn’t see myself staying permanently in the town. Although it was not like the senior citizen capital of the world was calling my name to set up homestead either.
This hamburger joint had some garish color combinations at work, which indicated that the likelihood of a fatty, buttery burger was likely. I ordered a number 1, and when the man at the register asked me if I’d like to make my meal a capital L “Large,” I literally said, “Fuck it. Sure,” much to his amusement. If I continued to eat the greasiest fast food I could find on this every other day basis, I may as well plan on dying of a coronary at 40. Or not. Or whatever. I was so tired of worrying about death that it had lost all its sting in making me behave to try and appease its whims. I was going to die someday, and I’d be fine afterwards apparently. The only way there’d be anything really unfair about this “system of death and afterlife” was if when I died, I didn’t get a chance to exist anymore to try and make sense of what the point for walking around for years and breathing air on everyone was all about.
I was really clutching at the thought of the “fairness” of the death system as I watched the workers behind the counter eyeball the screen above their heads, wait for burgers to slide down the metal slides for bagging, and others scoop at the salty repository that held a sea of saline in which fried potatoes did a sweaty backstroke. And then it fit me light a bolt of shitty cliche lightning. The balance, the only way that “fair” would have meaning at all, was if everyone’s life got a chance to be judged to see where they’d go next. If their life was simply consumed by the nature of death, and they were forced off the plane of existence to wallow in the being of being inbetween…only then would they truly be dead.
The rule that everyone must be given a chance to have a go at life, whether they screw it up or play it straight, was a solid one. No one should have the right to sever a life forever. That kind of decision to take a potential murderer out of the game with a lasting and permanent murder of their true essence was not something that one being got to decide for another, no matter who they were.
I’ve always been wishy-washy, and never felt so strongly about a thing to consider it worth fighting for no matter what would come at me in response. But finally, there was this. As my construction cone orange-colored tray slapped down on the counter in front of me and a massive burger and spray of streaming fries was pushed towards me, I found that my heart had committed itself finally. I was going to fight so that everyone could have a chance at filling their bodies with “natural flavors” and their arteries with a slick coating of fat. I was going to rally all my resources against demons like Azazal that felt they could take everyone’s choice to kill themselves or preserve themselves in whatever way they felt best. Because this was a worthy cause, and so much larger than me and my supposed life I’d built around selling insurance, feeding a spoiled cat, and creating elaborate scenes of self-destruction to avoid committing myself to anything that may have lasting worth.
I turned from the counter, sticking a fry into my mouth in celebration, but stopped my self-congratulation in mid-chew. Death was settled into a booth in the back of the seating area, a similar day-glo orange tray in front of him with a half-eaten burger and fry on it. He gestured to the other side of the booth in front of him, and I plodded over in resignation.
“Hello, Jorge. How’s your mother doing?” He asked.
“She’s chipper as hell about breaking her hip, and just about as pumped to wage war on cancer.”
Dee chucked. “She’s a beautiful woman. I can see what drew you to her, and I’m very glad she’s been there to guide you along as a mother.”
I picked up my burger and took three quick bites to try and cut the gnaw my stomach was giving me.
“She liked your lilies, but knows that the “Garden Club” tag was a ruse,” I said.
“I’m impressed, Jorge. You’re beginning to use your mind to pick things up rather than have them handed to you. Yes, the lilies were for me. While I do sympathize with her injury and diagnosis, they were more in thanks to her years of service to our cause.”
I had taken another couple of bites, but stopped in mid-chew and said through the wad of meat, “Why are you talking in past tense about my mother?”
“I’m getting you ready,” Dee said.
I swallowed hard on my food, the mass sticking a little in my throat, but allowing me a clear passage to use all my air to yell at him.
“Christ, Dee! She’s just been diagnosed. Are you going to take her so soon?”
“You know as well as I do that ‘soon’ is a relative term. But if you are asking if I have to cut her chord today or tomorrow, you shouldn’t worry. Eliana told you she is going to fight, and she will. You are going to have to choose whether you stand beside her and help her to wring as much out of the life before it leaves or if you’re going to waste energy on trying to spit into the wind. It may not be cancer, and it may not be tomorrow, but eventually I’m going to have to cut her ties from the world.”
“I’ve already made my choice on that,” I said, vaguely. “You said there was a way to use ‘passes’ to give someone a near death experience and them keep living.”
“Sure. You could use another pass. You’ve got four left after all, and only four hundred years and 362 days left to use them. The passes only buy time for the soul to continue their journey of seeking what their purpose is. And so you could use a pass when I come for her, but then what if the cancer comes back and spreads in a month? Are you going to deny someone else a chance to seek themselves to give her a few more months? And you rushed into using your last pass so quickly that you forgot the caveat necessary for using a pass. The person you give it to has to want to live, and has to want to finish the business they have left undone. I can tell you with no fear of being wrong, that if you were to offer a pass to your Mamma and let her know the full scope of what that entails, she would turn your offer down faster than it could leave your lips,” Dee finished, slightly out of breath.
He was actually in a huff! I’d never seen Dee flustered, but I’d managed to get a reaction out of him. The corners of my mouth twitched, although I was perturbed with Dee as well for his tone as he told me who and who would not be worth my time in offering my precious passes to. But the sight of Dee finally irritated enough to show a touch of anger was satisfaction enough that I couldn’t help but let out a short laugh as I tackled my fries again.
“Dee, I said I’d already made my choice. Do you want to hear what I’ve decided?”
“Are you referring to a decision other than the ‘woe is me’ one you made at the cafe?”
For Dee’s sass, I took my time in finishing the last few bites of hamburger and slowly chewing. He waited, sulkily pushing his fries around the tray as they grated over one another.
“Here’s the deal. I’m starting to remember things about my previous existence…when I was Jorge Senior, I guess. That means I’m going to start remembering lifetimes before that, and what I’m supposed to do. I’m already getting a better picture of who Azazal is and who he could be if I was out of the picture,” I said.
The last bit of that statement wiped all irritation from Dee’s face, as he nodded seriously.
“Azazal is me. He’s death’s assistant that got selfish and didn’t care if everyone got a chance to figure things out. He’s what I could become if I went back to my world of trying to find purpose in being what I’m not. Azazal knows he can never die, and so why should he care that others never get to live again? He’s the one you called up last time I forgot who I was, right?”
Dee’s face was the definition of regret. He wouldn’t meet my eye as he responded.
“Yes. I picked Azazal to be my assistant around 1760. You’d had enough. You didn’t even want to be reborn. Thank goodness, I managed to convince you to try life again in another vessel, and with the promise that I wouldn’t contact you for that whole span to do anything work related. It was an extended vacation period, a trial retirement, perhaps. At any rate, Azazal seemed like a good choice…dedicated, ambitious, and with a real interest in finding answers. Almost immediately though it was a disaster. You were in your early 30’s in your own lifespan that was free of my influence, and luckily for us all, the average life span was a lot shorter in those days. Once you’d died in your mortal life, I found you in the next and pleaded for you to return and help me keep Azazal from taking the lives for his own purposes. It took some convincing to get you to realize I wasn’t a demon or a witch or something like that, but you came around. You always do,” Death said, smiling, and I kid you not, actually starting to tear up.
I couldn’t handle that.
“Yeah, I do. I’m in, Dee. I’m your man. I’m not going back to Georgia. I’m going to stay here and spend the rest of Mamma’s time with her. We’re going to do this business, and we’re going to find out what it means for us all to be here. And we’re going to teach Azazal that selfish fucks never win.”
Dee was smiling. I was smiling. We looked like a couple of loons grinning at each other over the remains of our food, but it didn’t matter. I remembered again a time when Dee and I had smiled like this at one another, over a dinner a tad more formal, and almost a century before. Getting caught up in my own ego, I had forgotten a very important point to Dee and myself. I had forgotten that we were actually really good friends.