Dying Makes You Stronger

Dying Makes You Stronger

Lance Uyeda’s long story “Dying Makes You Stronger” first appeared in the print version of At Length. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.


At the Hawaii Center for Tourism and Culture, Magoo danced with fire knives and Audrey climbed coconut trees. Two large, brown-skinned Chinese hired to pretend to be from Easter Island, they worked nights while studying full-time for their MBAs at Blue College. At school they were two among many, but at work all that changed. They were stars. Even with sharp fronds and hot flames distracting them, they spoke clearly and kept eye contact with the rapt crowd. From their respective stations, he at the outdoor pavilion and she at the rain forest gardens, they stunned audiences and at the same time studied equations they’d penned into the fake tattoos on their arms. After finishing work, usually around midnight, they drove slowly back to their apartment. What they talked about in the car varied. Sometimes they discussed business things — junk bonds, the Euro, how hedge funds had tanked the Hong Kong stock exchange. Other times they made funny bets with each other, like “Who could eat the biggest meatball, me or you? How big?” Or, “Who could take the most pain? The water torture test? Seppuku?” Or, “Who could outrun a bear? Would spraying it with mace first be fair?”

Audrey and Magoo looked forward to a life in they didn’t know what yet, a restaurant, a store, some kind of new service. They imagined themselves the inventors of something unexpected, the next Wite-Out — Green-Out, maybe, which would go perfectly with the brain-washing pills they’d invent to make people write on green paper only. It was only a matter of time before they found something. They weren’t going to be stuck in school or at the center forever.

But one day there was an accident. What they had of each other became all at once less. Their skills failed them. Magoo caught on fire. Audrey fell.

Up in heaven or somewhere, Magoo couldn’t tell — there was no inferno or tortuous pain, but there were no angels either, and he couldn’t successfully masturbate — certain things became clear. He loved Audrey. He’d known that already, but in life might have guessed that having burned to death would make someone bitter. It turned out that he was filled not with bitterness, but with worry and desire instead. He had a nice house on the beach, a small consolation. He had constant companions in his puppy that stayed a puppy and didn’t poop, and his slightly older dog that he assumed wouldn’t age any more. One thing all of this obviously meant was that the rules of existence had somehow changed for him. He wasn’t sure why, not that it really mattered. Whys and hows weren’t exactly at the top of his list of things to care about, anymore.

Audrey came to live in a room at Queen Emma Hospital. Her roommates cycled in and out, but she couldn’t talk to them. How could she talk? Her jaw had wires and a metal plate in it. She thought of trying to communicate with her family and friends by inventing a complex blinking system, one blink for “yes,” two for “no,” three and a half for “lime jello,” but it was hard not being able to write anything down. She daydreamed about her beautiful, subtle, zero-utility blinking language instead of studying morse code, which her uncle insisted she had to learn. He came to visit almost every weekend to scold her, even though her mom told him to stop. “It’s easy,” he said, waving papers in Audrey’s face. He made noises at her: “Bleep-bleep-bleep, Buhloooop-buhlooop-buhlooop, Bleep-bleep-bleep! See? S-O-S.”

Magoo couldn’t imagine what being stuck in the same position all day was doing to her, but at least he knew she was alive. He watched her as she lay there, and he imagined her telling him what to do.

“If I was dead and you were in traction,” imaginary Audrey said, “things would’ve been all fixed already.” He thought she might be right.

“You can see me now,” she said. “There I am, banging God’s door down. I’m in his house baking cookies, vacuuming the floor, combing his beard out. I’m pulling knots out of a stink old beard for you! You think God has a short beard? You think he wants intelligent conversation? He wants cookies and a combing. I stand there sticking out my boobs at him and holding a can of cyanide to put in his coffee — the backup plan. If he won’t fix you up, I’ll put it in. I tell him, too, since he’s God. I say, ‘Don’t you make me use this, God. Don’t make me do this to you, which is actually doing it to myself. ’”

And God snapped his fingers and Magoo jumped out of bed because Audrey’d done it.

Magoo wasn’t that resourceful.

He had no idea if he could even find God, much less service him. If he sent his dogs Oldie and Poopless out on a search, who knew if they’d ever come back? All they knew was a single stretch of white sand. Sometimes he watched the dogs as they ran into and out of the surf. From what he could tell, he’d willed them into existence, or someone or something had on his behalf. Maybe the sun. Magoo liked to take off his clothes and lay back in the sand, and when he did, he could turn his head to look straight at the sun without pain or fear of blindness. It was changed, it didn’t burn. His crotch was finally the same color as everything else. He noticed how tan it was one morning when he woke up to find himself splayed out before the sky, the water, and everything.

What kept Audrey occupied was the letter she was composing to Magoo in her head. She planned on sending it to him somehow when she got well: she’d compost it, or flush it, or put it through the garbage disposal. She’d soak it in some milk and eat it. It would arrive to him through disintegration:

D e a r M a g

She could picture it appearing before his eyes letter by letter. What it’d finally say she didn’t know for sure.

Dear Magoo, began the words she’d decided on. I always wanted to tell you that when you met me when we were nine, I was only pretending that I fell off my bike. I wanted you to come close so I could jump up and push you off yours. Ha ha. But you were too nice, which ruined my plans. Now I’ve ruined ours. Merry Christmas! Just kidding.

On their last night at the center, Audrey climbed hands and feet up a rainspout made of ceramic pipe. The green enameled rainspout was only as thick as the thickest of vines or the largest of snakes and was flush against the side of the park’s main office building. It was a test, it gave so little purchase. She’d been eyeing it for a few weeks, from both the ground and atop her coconut tree. It was close enough to her station that it took just a few seconds to jog over to it between acts and start climbing.

At the moment Audrey placed her right foot on the pipe, the first touch, Magoo was sitting through a Non-Flammable Body-Shine-A-Max oil-up by one of Charlotte’s Grease Monkeys, old women skilled in pressure point and Swedish massage, to whom the dancers’ performance readiness was entrusted. These women, mechanics of the body, were well-respected, but their supervisor Charlotte was not. On most nights she stood apart from her elderly subordinates, who’d had to work for their jobs and who each stiffened and cried, “Yes, Miss!” whenever she walked past. Charlotte’s uncle was chairman of the Cultural Center, and word of this had gotten out somehow. The oldest of the old masseuses had called her “Yes, Miss!” early on, and it had stuck. How was it that this woman could be so old but talk as loud as she did and have hands so strong? To Charlotte, she was creepy. Creepy jungle hag. It hadn’t been nearly as long as it seemed since the day Haggie’d gone on one of her snooping trips through the back offices and found where Charlotte kept her purse. Inside the purse was a diary filled with drawings and stories in which Magoo featured prominently. Soon everyone knew.

All her art, which she should never have had in her purse, was in good taste — Magoo dancing or in repose. But it was ruined for her afterward, the women’s quiet clucks filling her ears anytime she thought of it. Now at work, like everywhere else, she felt ridiculous. With Audrey, who’d been her team captain in high school, she couldn’t even make eye contact.

Charlotte was jock, the first Okinawan-American NCAA Div-I basketball player ever. Perpetually depressed by the burden of ten thousand Okinawan sports fans’ expectations, she wanted never to have a moment of free time to think. She’d asked her uncle for a part-time job and had somehow gotten this one — looking on as Who-was-it the Monkey dipped her fingers in a lard bucket and swirled them gently across Magoo’s back.

Always the back. She watched as he walked out to his fans.

Later, alone in a corner of the men’s locker room while the dancers were onstage, she sat waiting with what she knew. Because she outranked everyone around her, she wore the radio. She hated the radio. It was heavy and squawked loudly. When it squawked this time, as with all the other times, she’d picked up, annoyed, and said, “What?”

When the dancers came in after their set, she saw no one but Magoo, and it was hard to see him.

Coming through a blast of cold air into the locker room, Magoo made his way to his stall. He was hot and tired. His skin itched under the leafy garters tied to his arms and legs. As he looked down the line of dancers walking in front of him, he saw Charlotte crying in the corner. Crying softly and mashing a walkie-talkie into her face. No one went to her. When he got nearer, she stood up and walked toward him, still crying, wiping snot into her eyes with the heel of her palm. He sat down on the bench in front of his locker and tried to think of something to say. Charlotte was known to cry sometimes at work, but this was the first time he’d seen it. He’d heard about the drawings. He wanted to be nice. He couldn’t think of anything.

Charlotte sat down and let Magoo pat her shoulder. She wiped her face with her hands a few times. In her mind she saw Audrey. She said, “I have bad news. It’s bad news. It was on the radio.” She waited for him to frown, to tilt his head, to nod, something, but he sat still. She felt like she was choking. “Audrey fell,” she said.

He looked at her for a long moment. Then he stood up and ran. She chased him, calling out what else she knew, then gasping it out, past the tongue, through the teeth, as she lost her breath. “The pipe broke, she was climbing a pipe. The pipe broke, she didn’t slip. Go to Queen Emma’s Emergency. Don’t forget to say you’re family.”

Magoo didn’t notice when he left Charlotte behind. He wouldn’t remember to say at the hospital that he was family, because he habitually told the truth, and because the words “she didn’t slip” lodged in his brain and forced everything else out. The words were already in there, making him run faster, first to her station, her coconut tree, and then, after screaming at friends for directions, to the spot where she fell. She didn’t slip. She was gone. He saw the pipe that made its way up the side of the building, and he stared at where it had broken away from the wall. There wasn’t too much missing, maybe a foot or two feet. The gap was high up.

Then he could see Audrey’s hair flying upwards as she flew down. He shook his head, tried to blink the image away, and forced himself to see instead her hands gripping the pipe, applying pressure. She was falling, but there were her hands. She crushed the pipe, exploded it into dust, dust ground into nothingness, bits of it grinding with other bits, grinding and getting smaller and smaller in her hands until it was not just not dust, it was not nothing. Not particles in the air, not atoms in the particles. With her hands squeezing, her whole body shaking, she erased from the earth and all record books pipes, clay, and dust. All of it not even nothing, it could just burn. Burn, and burn, and burn. Burn, and burn, and burn, and burn, and burn, and get stabbed by demons with small-enough pitchforks and burn. Hell for dust, each particle flayed and fried and cut a thousand times but still alive. There were splotches of blood on the grass.

He ran to his car and drove to the hospital, but he couldn’t get past the desk because he wasn’t family and now was a bad time. She was alive, they told him, that’s all they knew. He called her parents, but they were already on their way. When they arrived and told him to go home, he did.

He went home and crawled into bed, and then wished he hadn’t. He could’ve stayed and waited to no end in a hallway or parking lot, under a tree across the street, somewhere. He thought about going back, getting up, going back, but instead he lay face-up in bed and cried. He didn’t thrash around, he lay still. He couldn’t move. When he gagged on his own phlegm he didn’t care, he snorted more down and gagged harder, knowing that some magic burning dust would keep his lungs dry. He’d stay home, wait for tomorrow, and be fine. He was always fine. He was miraculous. A miracle.

With his mind, Magoo could set things on fire. When he was fifteen, he discovered in chemistry class that by concentrating to the point of extreme pain he could light a Bunsen burner without using a striker. He pretended to use one, but stretched its metal arm away from the spark plate when he moved it back and forth with his thumb. The flame that should have shot out from the sparks instead came out of nowhere. Magoo wasn’t a pyro, he was practical, mostly. The burner had to be lit somehow. In his first attempts, he turned on the gas, stared at the wavering air, and got a headache. Week after week he tried, and the headaches got worse, the pain spread. He could barely pay attention to the rest of the experiment after he’d given up and lit the burner by hand. The first time he succeeded, the pain was almost too much to bear. It went everywhere, a punch in the nose, knife in the chest, and kick in the crotch all at once, and he fell over and had to go see the nurse.

Over time he honed his skills, practicing on things that weren’t so easy to light as a fountain of butane — candles, dry leaves, crumpled-up newspaper. The accompanying pain gradually diminished, although in the beginning it was almost enough to make him stop. If there was no hibachi fire that called to be lit, he practiced in secret, at home when he was alone, at his grandma’s house when he was outside pretending to play with the dog. Not once did he ever lose control, and he always kept a lighter in his pocket. By the time he was sixteen, he could melt a pebble in a coffee can while standing fifty feet away.

Then he lost interest in setting things on fire. He graduated from high school and got his bachelor’s in finance and international relations. His skills went unused until the day after he’d made love with Audrey for the first time. That day at work, he ran out on stage holding his torches up over his head, and instead of dipping them in the cauldron of fire like everyone else, let them burst into flame all by themselves.

Afterward, he had to keep his torches under wraps at all times. He never let anyone else touch them. He slept with them under the bed, and the night he died was no different. Having cried himself out, he fell asleep and dreamed.

Magoo dreamed he was standing in front of the biggest crowd ever, maybe at Caesar’s Palace or Madison Square Garden, or better yet, the Super Bowl. Audrey sat front and center. She was so close he could see her eyes. He was half-naked in front of ten million people, an unlit torch in each hand. He breathed in, stuck his tongue out, and yelled, and as he yelled, he brought the torches up over his head, into the Magoo X. The camera flashes were blinding. Nothing happened.

With Audrey and the whole world waiting, Magoo willed fire into the torches, but it wouldn’t come. The pain was back. He couldn’t feel it, really, but there it was, taking the yell from his throat and the strength from his arms. He could barely stand. He couldn’t stand. He sank to his knees and saw Audrey watching him, her clasped hands just under her nose. Even bent over like this, he couldn’t help watching her, her straight nose and intertwined fingers. She unclasped her hands, then pressed them flat against one another, palm to palm. She was sending some kind of signal, a message: Go! or Where’s the fire? He hoped that she knew what was happening and was asking him to stop hurting himself. But even if she was, he had to keep trying. He’d lost control. Where was the fire?

Though he asked this question in his dream, the fire hadn’t really left him. It was right where it always had been, and as he called to it, it stirred. He’d called to it in his sleep before, but never like this, with enough force to make it respond, more force than he’d ever pressed on it while awake. It responded to him slowly at first, to his will, to his willingness to suffer for something, to his suffering, and crept into the torches under the bed. There it grew hot, red, and orange and flared up, leaping onto the floor, streaking across the carpet to find a sweater, a shirt, a sock.

Sleeping Magoo pushed the flames all at once through his and Audrey’s apartment, tiles peeling up from the floor and paper sloughing down from the walls, the enamel on the stove, refrigerator, countertops and bathroom sink cracking. The fire went where it would, onto the furniture, up the curtains. It streamed over the television, the stereo, and the bookshelf, and shot into the oven and cabinets. It was inside the canned goods, huge tins of stewed tomatoes buckling, SPAM tops peeling open. It was in the freezer exploding frozen chicken thighs and fish fillets. So full was it of its imperative, once arrived it took everything to be its own, Audrey’s guitar and Magoo’s clarinet, Magoo’s shoes and Audrey’s hats, her stamp collection — it tried for his weights, but they wouldn’t burn. It wanted everything, every rubber band in every drawer, every stitch in every pair of shorts, every fiber in each page of every letter, of every tax form, warranty, and contract, all these things together and each thing separately.

In the heat and smoke, Magoo woke up. It was everywhere, it was too late. A wall of fire was approaching, and as it came he breathed in to scream, he seared his lungs, and the fire was on him.


The scream Magoo never screamed crossed space and death that night and softened on its way to Audrey in the ICU. Through a haze of pain and drugs she heard it, the sound of a throat buzzing and lips pressed together at her ear. It was a song from far away, she thought at first, a song she’d kindly made for herself, though she didn’t know how. She couldn’t sing, only Magoo could sing, though he loved to play the clarinet. “You can’t sing and play the clarinet at the same time,” she always told him, “Who’s going to sing?” And he said, “You sing, or pretend that I am.” So she played the guitar, he played the clarinet, and maybe one of them pretended the other was singing — she hoped he did, because she could never do it. It was hard, playing and trying to hear someone else’s voice in her head. But there it was now, a voice. Why was she awake? She wanted to go back to sleep.

The voice in her ear wouldn’t let her. She wanted to turn her head, or scratch it, or rub her eyes, but she couldn’t. The voice got steadily louder, but it didn’t say anything. It was just a tone, a sound, Mm.

Audrey listened to the voice buzzing. It seeped into her head and into her body, humming, buzzing, making a layer between her and the pain, and she knew that it was Magoo’s voice, though it wasn’t talking. It was just a noise. She didn’t know how it had come, but she was glad to feel it. It was everywhere, but she felt it mostly in her shoulders at first — it rubbed her there, a light massage. Then it touched her face, her eyes, her cheeks, and her mouth, its vibrations gentle. She could feel it in her scalp and then on her hands, in her hands. It was in her breasts and stomach and under her arms. She wanted to move in response. She had control of nothing but her eyelids, so she blinked. She blinked quickly, then slowly, then quickly again, a few blinks at a time. She held her eyes shut tightly, then opened them. Responding, responding. Here I am, said her eyes, but the voice didn’t seem to notice. It had traveled downward and was pulsing in her calves.

When she finally found her vocal chords to hum, the voice in her calves hummed, too. Hello, Magoo, she hummed, and it hummed what could have been Hello. The Mm sound in her head stayed the same. She couldn’t tell if it meant anything. Hello, Audrey. Good-bye, Audrey. Feed the cat? She didn’t know what to say. It hurts, she hummed. I wish you were here. My toes, she hummed, help me feel my toes. The voice didn’t move from her calves.

She blinked to it while she hummed, not in any pattern, just repeatedly. Each blink, she thought, might be something. Something good to send to Magoo. Her eyelids steeled and strong, each blink might send forth a wind that would make its way to Magoo and protect him. She still couldn’t feel her toes, but she could hum, she could blink, and Magoo was in her calves. Why there? she hummed, but got no answer. She closed her eyes, and she opened them to find the pain still gone, gone for now. The voice slowly got softer, though she blinked for it, Stay.

When Charlotte heard about the fire, she couldn’t open her eyes or keep them closed. For a month afterward, fire was everywhere she looked, inside her head and out in the world. So was Magoo. Anything bright or hot or flickering was terrible. She threw away all of her candles. She couldn’t look at the lights that hung from her ceiling, or at the lamps in her living room, and she couldn’t look away either, because she could still see the light and she knew where it came from. She couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t write or draw a thing. When she cried, she saw either Magoo’s face or a blazing fire, wavering and bleary in front of her. She saw him in the pictures on her desk of her parents, of her childhood friends, of her old roommates, of everyone, none of whom he even knew.

One night she turned on the TV to the most mind-numbing channel she could find, the knife channel, its star a fat man wearing a thin, tiny belt. He tried to show the value of his knives by cradling them gently in his sausage-like fingers. He never cut himself. Charlotte looked at the man and tried to see beneath his fat and skin sweet Magoo, his arms and back, his front, face, and legs, shapely hands and feet. She couldn’t see him, and the fact that she was trying made things worse. She could feel him, though, under her hands, so she went to the kitchen and put on oven mitts. They felt scratchy. She touched herself through the mitts.

She touched herself here and there, neck, forearms, and elbows, her hands in the striped oven mitts. She moved her hands up and down the insides of her thighs, and over her stomach in small and large circles. Even through the mitts and her clothes she could feel the rubbing, the echo of a touch, and she could feel heat everywhere. She lay down on the kitchen floor and rubbed.

Lying there, she had no choice but to look at the lights on the ceiling. She closed her eyes, but the light, red-orange through her eyelids, was still there. So she opened her eyes and stared at the white lights, and could see out of the corner of her eye the torch lamp one room over. She tried to think of the round light she knew was coming up and out of the lamp as a basketball. Having the ball in her hands had always calmed her down. She played point guard, and was maybe third-best in the conference. She knew where and when to give the ball, and could drive to the basket even though she was short. She got three or four touches every game while on defense.

She moved now so that she could stare directly out the doorway at the lamp in the living room, and she thought about a basketball bomb exploding in there, about a huge basketball made of rocks rolling toward her and then smashing her head. Where before she’d kept balls everywhere in her apartment, now she stored them all in the trunk of her car. Her downstairs neighbors could no longer complain about the constant bouncing. It should have all been going great. Between one season and the next, the team had gone from mediocre to good. They won one game after another. A news channel came by to tape parts of the games, then came back to tape practices and short interviews with the players. She hated that, but it didn’t matter. When she had a ball in her hand it all disappeared, the cameras, the crowd. Her team won and won, then lost once or twice but won again, and their win streak was up to ten.

But with Magoo, everything was changed absolutely, and she was lying on the floor touching herself under buzzing white lights. The first time she cried on the floor had been a year earlier — she’d just moved into the apartment, she’d blown three easy shots in the fourth quarter of an early season game, and she’d punched Joe, now her ex, a little too hard in frustration and was feeling guilty about it. After the game she drank five cups of juice and two bottles of Gatorade. At Joe’s she had a few beers, and on the way home she stopped at 7-Eleven for a Slurpee. All this with no bathroom break. Then she sat through ten red lights. She came to a roadblock, and the cops made her get out and walk back and forth more than was necessary. She hit more red lights. The beer started to kick in, and it buzzed in her head with flashbacks from the game and Joe patting her arm and telling her to calm down. Calm down, calm down, it was intolerable. She gunned it up the hill to her apartment, each bump and swerve setting off little explosions in her bladder.

Pee had started to leak out by the time she pulled into her space, and she could feel it trickling slowly down her leg as she sprinted up the stairs and fumbled to get in her front door. She pulled the door open, she was shaking, and she locked it behind her. When the door clicked shut, something happened, and it all came out at once onto the kitchen floor. She put her knees and forearms to the floor, and let the pee pool around her.

There was something in that moment that Charlotte wanted back. The hot piss had come with a sense of finality: it came out and was there. The piss was piss. Now she was on the floor again, on her back, looking up at the lights instead of down at the tiles beneath her. She stopped moving her hands. She cried and her ears got wet. Tears were something else — they came out not for one simple reason, but for all or any possible combination of them, though the corporate reason she’d begun in recent months to settle on was that she hated her life. She didn’t hate her life all the time. But she hated it pretty often. A friend of hers had once said, “Life is a bunch of sunflowers up the ass.” The line had stuck in Audrey’s head. She’d never seen a sunflower except in pictures. She knew that they were tall, thick-stemmed, and leafy.

Magoo thrashed in the fire, arms up over his head or out in front of him, looking for the way out but not finding it. She couldn’t not see him. Instead of watching him burn, she made herself think about the box of large trash bags she kept under the sink. She’d heard or read a long time before about people who put their heads in bags before they cut their throats, to reduce the mess, and she’d thought about that as a way to go ever since. Though she never cooked, there were sharp knives in her kitchen, on the counter in a block.

She got up off the floor finally and walked over to the sink, opening the cabinet and pulling out one trash bag and then another until she had a handful of them. She paced back and forth. She threw all of the bags down. She walked to the counter and put her hand on the large chef’s knife. She took the knife to where the bags were, and sat on the floor in front of them. Putting the knife down, she picked up a bag and shook it out. She lay it down flat on the floor and knelt before it. She picked up the knife again.

The bag wouldn’t let her in. She tried crawling in with her arms out in front of her, and she fit, but she had no room to maneuver. She stretched the bag out with her elbows, trying to lie down. She didn’t want to die in a stretched bag, so she threw it aside. She reached for another one. She put this one over her head, then lay down. She tried to pull it down over her shoulders, but it wouldn’t come, so she left it as it was, bunched behind her neck and draped in front over her chest. Her arms were free. Inside the bag it was hot. She could smell her own breath over the smell of the plastic. She lifted the bag to bring the knife in. Its edge on her neck didn’t feel bad. It felt cool and light.

She knew she would have to push down and pull hard.

She took a breath, kept her eyes open to the white trash bag, and pulled the knife down the side and front of her throat. She gasped quietly at the pain, and again at the blood. The pain stayed. Then it faded slightly. The bag, she noticed, was printed here and there with blue lettering. The letters were backwards and upside down, and since they were so close and the bag was crumpled in places, she couldn’t make out the words clearly. She tried reading them. Infants, she could read. Nose/mouth. Nothing else came through.


In her dark hospital room, Audrey lay in bed and listened to her mother breathe. Between the drugs and the light sound of her mother’s snoring, Audrey would usually have been asleep, but now she wasn’t. She was used to sleeping through the night and waking up in the morning groggy and still tired, her mother at her side in the plastic chair, as always. Tonight, she stared up at the ceiling and wondered what was different. After six weeks, she was attached to her routines and didn’t like it when they were off. Her meds were doing their thing. Her mother was making her music. Everything seemed the same.

When it was clear that she wouldn’t be falling asleep soon, Audrey went to the letter she was writing in her head. Dear Magoo, it read, I always wanted to tell you . . . I wanted you to come close . . . But you were too nice . . . Merry Christmas! It was not Christmas.

Audrey began saying the letter to herself in a quiet voice through her wired jaw. She knew that her mother had trained herself to sleep peacefully while leaning over in the chair and would not wake up.

“The world is small and terrible from this bed,” she continued. “All I can smell is poop and jook. Ma has made her kitchen into a jook factory, where rice boils at all times. Aunty Bunny brings it to the hospital every day. She would make it at her house, but she has no dishwasher and her pots are too small. The jook smells like jook for five seconds after Ma opens the Tupperware, and then it gets to smelling like me and my old lady roommate, i. e. , poop. Ma tries to feed it to me, and it dribbles everywhere and is terrible. Who knows what her and Aunty’s idea is. They should make soup and feed it to me with a basting thing.

“I won’t write you again. I’ll scream and smoke cigarettes instead until I can only whisper, and even if I say something no one will hear it. When I can use my arms, I’ll wake up in the morning and pull my hair out day by day. Slowly, so I won’t end up with a scabby, scarred head. Once I’m bald, there’ll be hairs to pull everywhere else. Long hairs everywhere, like a monkey’s, that will grow just for me to pull them. I don’t know if I’ll actually be like that. But I’ll try.”

Audrey could hear the words she was saying, but hearing them wasn’t so great. They were a jumble in her throat, they caught in her cheeks and lips, and with all the pain in her mouth, they were a mess. She kept on saying them anyway. She’d begun to think of herself as a future voice-mime, someone who’d make intriguing noises for people to guess at. “Hrmpf, hrmpf, hrmpf,” she would say. Adults would shake their heads in confusion, but kids, the kids would be sharp about it. They’d decipher the message: “Cigarettes!”

“I only had one or two burns my whole life. Was it you, Magoo? Was it you, that fire? I keep hoping it was the toaster. But there’s nothing left to analyze. It’s very strange, they say, and I think, Instantaneous Combustion. For what? No one should go up in smoke. We should all get old and go slowly together, like a field trip. Like going to the zoo, except once you’re there you turn into the exhibit and don’t get to leave. That’s what I think. I’ve been thinking about it. At the post-death zoo, there’re no outside visitors, only us sitting on our clouds, looking around at each other. Just like at the real zoo, there’re markers for everything. So you can walk around and read the signs that explain what everything and who everyone is, and then decide on what you like best and say, that’s my favorite. You’ll be my favorite.

“When I was a kid, I thought I’d be gone by now. My life was safe and boring and always the same, so I thought I’d get hit by a bus or something else random like that as fate’s way of evening things out. Then I met you, and found out that maybe you’d blow us all up if you lost control, though you promised you wouldn’t, and I thought, Now everything will be fine.

“There’s nothing new here. Maybe you know. Maybe you can see me. Maybe you’ll actually get this letter. Can you hear me? I want to hear you. I’m on a first-name basis with five doctors. Maybe I can get one to stick some electrodes in my head, and then if I stand just right, not too close to the microwave, not too close to the TV, your voice will start coming in. The doctors love me because I’m the silent patient. They say, ‘I’m Steve,’ ‘I’m Greg. ’ To my mom they say, ‘I’m Dr. Chou,’ and she says, ‘Hi, Steve. ’ When I can talk back I’ll say, ‘Stick some wires up my nose, please, Greg, and make sure they hit the brain. Shove hard. No, harder. ’

“I’m sorry. I thought climbing the pipe was a safe risk. Why are you dead? What is this all about? I keep on hoping that you’re on loan, and I can call you back when I like. What’s heaven but stupid walls? Why not bust yourself out and come back? Come back to tell me death’s just adverse administration: The Warden. Show me, dig a tunnel. Have a fight. Stage an arm-wrestling contest and win. Winner gets out of jail free! Get out of jail. Sit down at a table, grip hands, and start winning.

“Do you see? Will you arm wrestle? Will you jump the fence? Will you slip out through the Pearly Gates, having smashed a bottle on St. Andrew’s head? St. Peter’s? The heads of all the saints, just to be safe? I can see you, you’ll run and jump, you’ll take back your life. Plan it out. God has no spreadsheets or blueprints; you’ll beat him. You’ll slip right by. He’ll think things were always like that — hey, a contest, he’ll say, congratulations. Maybe he’ll shake your hand as you leave, then start smashing bottles on people himself.

“I missed your funeral. There’s no videotape. I don’t know if people said the right things. I love you. I said it all that day in bed. They say the meaning fades after too many repetitions, but it actually doesn’t, at least not if you’re saying it instead of going to a funeral. I love you.”

As Audrey mumbled her letter to the dark ceiling, Magoo gripped enormous cinderblocks in the afterlife. He’d begun in the previous week to feel an urgent need to lift. Up and down, over and over, with new, heavier weights every ten minutes. The blocks had appeared overnight, neatly stacked in order of increasing mass. They’d taken him from his agreeable but monotonous domestic existence. All the bending, straightening, and lifting was strenuous, but not tiring or unpleasant. He lifted frantically. Now his arms were huge. They were possibly the biggest arms in all creation. Each was wider around than his waist. Next to them, his legs seemed twiggy, but he didn’t mind. Big arms were useful. What would a normal, well-proportioned man do if, say, he found himself under a ton of bricks? Ask them, please stop crushing me?

Of anything he’d done since he died, lifting weights seemed the closest to having sex with Audrey. He’d lost the feeling of it in his body. He couldn’t remember what Audrey felt like. She sweated. He knew that when they took her casts off, the whole room would stink. She got smooth with sweat. But what kind of feeling was “smooth”? Sometimes after he set the blocks down, he touched his own arms to try to trigger some memory, but he felt more with the arms being felt than with his hands.

When he lifted, he felt more connected to his veins and nerve endings. He could feel them now — they were everywhere, so there was no mysterious empty space in his gut anymore. Now he could feel lots of things. He felt the sun on his face and the sand between his toes. The sand pulled on his skin, he could feel each grain. He felt individual particles of air, too, as they went whizzing across the hairs on his arms. That could’ve been what he was feeling, anyway. He thought about keeping a catalog of each particle, Bobby, Frieda, and Joe, a story of the breath that went down his nose and then came back up it. He pictured Audrey everywhere but in bed.

There was a whole line of blocks, laid down closely to one another in pairs, that led from his house to a stand of coconut trees far down the beach. After a week of steady lifting, he was at the end of the blocks and at the edge of the trees. He didn’t know where his dogs were at the moment, but they played in these trees all the time. They seemed to like to bark at whatever there was at the top of them, coconuts, little heavenly monkeys maybe, too high up to see. To Magoo, the sight of the trees was a source of pain — trees for climbing, wood for burning — so he’d avoided them. He assumed they were coconut trees, from their trunks. They were so tall that he couldn’t see any leaves, and unlike real coconut trees, they didn’t bend. He looked at how they didn’t bend, and thought of how his arms never hurt and how he could probably climb a tree now, though he’d never tried to before. He put the last pair of cinderblocks down and walked into the shade.

Under the trees, he looked at his feet and saw Audrey in her hospital room. He would usually have pictured himself sitting next to her bed, but this time he didn’t. It didn’t help her, and it made him kind of crazy. It’s too late to be crazy, he thought. He was sad, and dead. He could blink his eyes and see her whenever he wanted, but he was deaf to what sounds she made. Though he’d called to her repeatedly, no one had heard. And day by day, heaven was taking over him. Every little thing was a distraction. When he was inside the house he wanted to stay there forever, and when he was outside he wanted to never go in, but somehow he was on the beach at sunrise and sunset and in the kitchen whenever bread was baking itself in the oven. His feet seemed to move themselves. Bigger things were all-consuming: he felt compelled to lift things, and a thousand bricks appeared.

He believed that an assortment of these small tasks — lifting bricks, watching the sun, baking — would in time overwhelm him. Final peace, it seemed, was to zip around like an electron, performing all kinds of helpful chores. Except there was no one here who needed help. Nothing got dirty or broke down, either, so there was no meaning; it was just keeping busy. He hadn’t accomplished anything yet. He’d spent days extruding his whole soul in Audrey’s direction through an imaginary hole in his chest, but it hadn’t done anything. Her mom still cried when Audrey wasn’t looking. Her dad hardly ever showed up. Audrey didn’t move and gave off no signs of improvement or deterioration.

Since Magoo had arrived in this place, he’d waited to see or hear or feel something absolutely heaven-like, but there hadn’t been anything like that. Nothing had swept him away, or washed through him, or had any of the cleansing effects he’d expected. If he’d chopped down some trees and built an organ, if he’d gotten some nonexistent kids together to have singing practice, if he’d arranged a big event where everyone who was somewhere else at the moment jumped up and down at the same time and said things together in one loud, booming voice, that might have been something. But there was no one else here. He didn’t have the spirit to do it himself, jump up and down, sing.

So there was nothing to do except stare up at where the tops of the trees disappeared in the sun and look with a few questions at all the bricks he’d lifted into the air and set back down again. So many cinderblocks. Such impressive trees. He had all of eternity to discover what they were for. His arms were incongruously large. He could probably crush an entire watermelon to pulp in a second with one hand. That much strength had to be used. He couldn’t change heaven or earth with only his will, but he had raw materials lying around — he could do something with raw materials.

Build a fort, he thought maybe the cosmos was telling him, wood and bricks, there you go. Make a sand castle. He could dig a big moat and put a drawbridge in, build catapults, big siege engines. Or he could try to scrape together a huge sailing ship, a steam engine, some wide propellers. An underwater train. A hang glider. Get off the island, was what heaven was saying, make your own way. He would obsess over the project, his body becoming more gnarled and grotesque from the exercise, and he’d feel changed. He’d get all worked up, he’d set off on his paddle boat or his hand-twirled helicopter, and he’d spend weeks or months in hard travel. And what would happen then? He’d arrive at a small island, maybe, and he’d land on a beach. There’d be a house there, some trees, and two dogs, one old and one that didn’t poop. He’d blink his eyes and see Audrey lying in her hospital bed, because he was fabricating these visions of her for himself, wasn’t he, and that was how he’d see her forever. One day he’d feel like lifting weights, and some heavy rocks would appear. He’d lift them instead of flailing at the air in front of his face, and he’d think, there must be something more to this.

Audrey stopped talking. She felt tired. Tired, and worn out, and tired. Not sleepy. She didn’t know why she was up. What was she doing? Composing in her head, to no end. Even Stevie Wonder had a piano, she thought. Even deaf Beethoven had a pencil. It was all stupid and over and too late anyway, the letter. It was all nothing. Blah blah! My heart! It was chemicals in the brain and hormones that faded after five years, what was it, after five years all you’d have left was loyalty. Loyalty was why people got dogs. Weak, stupid dogs who’d go as bald and tremble-y as any person in the end, except faster. She sank into herself.

Magoo stepped up to a tree and put his hand on it. He wanted to see something different. He went up the tree hand over hand, not even using his feet. He climbed quickly, not thinking of much. The bark of the tree was made for climbing; it was full of ridges and holes and places to stick fingers into and hang from. His hands were so strong, though, that he wouldn’t have needed the holes and ridges if they hadn’t been there. He could’ve hugged the tree and slithered up it. Audrey’d climbed like a monkey, which required a lot of technique. He remembered. She’d had to do it wearing all kinds of scratchy leis on her head and arms, too. She’d been good. She’d been good at that other thing too, reassuring him that they wouldn’t have to shake trees and parlor trick their way into the future.

He climbed faster and faster, hoping to change the way he felt. He could see farther. There were dark shapes in the water, what looked like a reef. The mountains looked about the same. He began to think of catapults again. What was the other word for them? Trebuchets. What it would take to make one out of trees and bricks? He figured he could learn. The first thing he’d have to teach himself was how to make rope from leaves. After that, he could experiment. A catapult seemed powerful and violent enough to either send him someplace real or splatter him everywhere, finally. Maybe if he thought about it hard enough, catapult blueprints would one day appear on his doorstep.

Audrey lay in bed with her thoughts on how she’d wasted her time on fake sentiment, her own sorrow dressed as something other than it was, all those words, like bringing lau laus to someone who had stomach cancer. The letter was cutesy. Was her whole life cutesy? Was she going to spend all of it waving her ass in the air for someone else’s amusement? What if no one looked? Would she yell, “Look at me! My funny ass!”

She felt cold. Her mother breathed quietly at her side, but she was alone. She wasn’t paralyzed, but she didn’t know when she’d be able to use her body again. She wouldn’t survive being useless. She wouldn’t tolerate it, uselessness. She hated being still. She hated not being able to speak. The only person she was really talking to had probably been reborn already as something else. A microscopic bug, because there was no justice. Which meant he was squishing around in a pond somewhere, maybe, and using the same hole to eat and crap.

Audrey pictured an alternative, people-sized blobs of pond scum in wheelchairs and on walkers. She felt her throat constricting, and bile rising. Bile was great. Yum yum. She swallowed and breathed deeply, sucking in the deodorized air. She swallowed, breathed in, and yelled her letter.

Her mother woke up terrified, and the nurses came running, but it didn’t matter. She yelled loudly. They asked her what was wrong — What hook? Pulling chairs? — and in answer she took a breath and kept yelling. The lights came on in her room and in the hallway. They came on in rooms everywhere on her ward, and as her yells traveled up and down stairwells, the lights flickered on throughout the building. Someone turned on a radio. Audrey yelled through the wires and screws and the metal plate in her face, and in spite of her sore back, her sore neck, her sore arms and legs, sore fingers and toes, the soreness everywhere there was bone and even where there wasn’t. She yelled until they stuck one needle in her, then another. As she felt her will drain from her, she had a vision of how her voice could change into something else, an amazing exoskeleton suit, robo-armor, all manner of stupidity and meaninglessness, and she was quiet.

While Audrey was yelling and after, Magoo climbed his tree and listened to the ocean. He looked off into the distance and wondered why he still called himself Magoo. He wondered why he still called Audrey Audrey. Why not just Ugh and UghUgh? No one else had those names, he bet. He slapped the tree hard with his hand to see if it sounded like communication. Maybe, he thought, maybe. He slapped the tree again and again, waiting for his hand to hurt, or for the tree to break, or for some other message.


Charlotte, who’d heard everything Audrey said, snapped her head around at the sudden commotion but saw nothing. She started swimming. She lived not far from Magoo’s beach, in the deep part of the ocean. Her underwater swimming was graceful and speedy because she was tall. Maybe as tall as a mountain, she couldn’t tell for sure. In life she’d been short — quick and maneuverable, she’d always thought, able to slip through a zone defense — but in death she grew and grew. She hadn’t been dead long. She didn’t know when all this growth would stop. In her first moments, she’d opened her eyes underwater and kicked and thrashed until she realized she could breathe. Then she’d stayed still for an hour to feel her crazy growing body and wait for her feet to touch bottom and her head to clear the surface. Finally, breathing air again, she blinked and looked around and smiled. Happiness! Invincibility. She bit her hand as hard as she could and nothing happened. She could remember everything she’d ever heard or seen or learned. She took a few small hops up off the ocean floor, and thought about giving herself a new name: Ookii-Yamako, the giant Okinawan; Atoll Charlotte.

She discovered that she was a different person from the one she’d been. She felt calm. All the water in her ears helped, the sound of the ocean. Swimming constantly took some getting used to. But she thought about what it might be like to have to trip around on land over boulders and people’s houses, and she didn’t feel so bad. She didn’t feel too strongly about anything, but had amazing senses. She could hear and smell Magoo through the water. It seemed like she should go over for a visit, but she didn’t want to scare him. From the sounds he made, he was no colossus. He smelled different without the shiny body goop.

She could hear his girlfriend Audrey too, a voice that came and went. It didn’t address itself to anyone, usually, but Charlotte knew who it was meant for. She wondered at first whether Audrey was dead, but then what she was saying became less indecipherable and Charlotte understood. The voice was powerful and singular. When Audrey spoke, algae bloomed in different colors all around. Sometimes, when the water was still, she could move the colors with her hands, red here, orange there, making great water murals that drifted apart slowly. If Charlotte hummed along, the colors got brighter and more plentiful, and she’d begun to think the talking might go both ways. She only hummed or sang “La La Laaa” in a low, soft voice, because she didn’t know what she’d say if Audrey actually heard her. She’d been playing with the colors and singing to herself when the scream and all its despair had come through and erased everything.

She hurried now, not exactly sure what she’d do. The colored algae had given her something to look at; Audrey talking and Magoo clomping around all the time had given her something to listen to; it had all seemed balanced in a way. It was time to see Magoo. He and Audrey couldn’t hear each other, she was sure. They only talked to themselves. What was he doing? It was hard to tell from the sounds he was making.

Charlotte had killed herself and yet now was through some transfiguration enormous, in good spirits, and strong. Which meant that there was some compassion in the universe, or there was some luck. Some interesting coincidences, maybe. She had won the jackpot, in any case. Either that, or there was a shark the size of Alaska out there taking its sweet time finding her. Not that it mattered. Let it come! Now she was swimming to Magoo. She remembered loving him, and she remembered cutting her throat. That those two things lived so perfectly well together in her head was sad but also interesting. She’d tried to rearrange in her mind her broken life so that it could be nice and back in one piece. But she didn’t know what went where. Her life was what? It was just sort of there, its pieces not matching up with each other. But who cared? She was so massive that she was bound to herself by gravity, her atoms stuck in place and unmoving.

Her giant body was a gift. It gave her over to herself: she would always and forever be her, this great her-ness, already an entirety. Nothing to add or subtract, to desire or disown; she had such presence and being that all worries and pettiness fell away. Which meant she could think about something better. She thought she might take on Godzilla. Gojira! Gojira! the Japanese businessmen always screamed as Godzilla rose from the sea. She was different. She’d leave no footprint, she didn’t have to, not a mark. There was no scar on her neck she could feel. She bit her hand. Freedom from pain. It wasn’t the most amazing thing she’d ever experienced, but it was good. That was what she tried to paint when Audrey gave her the chance, No pain. Or less of it.

She had a picture in her head. Two-thirds of the picture was the sky, one-third the ocean. Sometimes the colors were bright as though there was sun, other times they weren’t. It depended on how Audrey felt and on how skillfully Charlotte sang. She was in the picture, swimming toward the horizon with her head above water. Magoo stood or sat on her shoulder, gripping her hair for balance because she was swimming fast. She hadn’t decided how much bigger she should be than him or how close-up or far away they should appear, but she would eventually. In the picture, she was taking him to see Audrey’s colors. She’d make him hold his breath and would drag him down and paint for him. Maybe he could breathe water, too. He could try painting, some birds, a fish, or Audrey. Maybe if he talked loud enough, she’d hear him.

From up in his tree, Magoo saw a long, dark shadow in the water. Charlotte swam slowly, not wanting to resurrect herself from the depths so dramatically as to send Magoo to a second grave from the shock of it. But he was shocked anyway, and he gasped as he saw the top of her head break the water, this the first unbidden living thing he’d seen so far. He saw not a shiny hide or a fin or a burst of air from a blowhole, but dark, swimming noodles. Not snakes, because they weren’t moving individually in that way, but a layer of cable-thick noodles that grew, a great pile of noodles, oh god it was hair.

Charlotte, her forehead and face and then her head, shoulders, and torso risen gradually all out of the water, stepped forward, and the ocean swirled around her. It heaved and splashed and sucked at her. Though she tried her best to step lightly, the ground shook. The ground shook hard, and she could hear and feel her steps reverberating everywhere. She saw from out of the corner of her eye Magoo’s house shaking down. She stopped and looked for him. She hadn’t been paying attention. The house was leveled. Cracks had opened in the earth. She smelled smoke. For a moment she thought she would turn around and crash back into the ocean where she would do less harm. But she stood still and watched the house and listened. She heard him yell. There he was in a tree, so small.

Magoo held with all his might to the tree. It was still possible to feel terror in heaven, he realized. He called out to Charlotte again and again:“Stop, Charlotte! Don’t move!”

Charlotte stood as still as she could, and smiled at Magoo. He continued to yell at her even though she was looking straight at him and nodding slowly. His voice was so loud she could barely stand to hear him. There was no sound from Audrey, though. The sound of her scream was still in Charlotte’s mind, along with Magoo’s noises of exertion and solitary thumping. Now he was panicked, and she needed to tell him to be quiet and listen. She opened her mouth and said, “Magoo,” and blew the leaves off the trees.

Magoo was strong and held on, but the torrent of the word Charlotte spoke sent all the leaves flying, and the grass, and when it had passed, the beach was dirt and pebbles and the base of the mountain was sandy. She was stuck. She couldn’t move or speak. She couldn’t make herself known to him. He was scrambling down the tree, sliding down it, jumping from hundreds of feet up and falling. He landed gracefully. He was breathing so hard, and sprinting. He was sprinting away and she knew not to follow. She was in his mind, but in the wrong way, entangled with injury and sadness, and she knew he was still afraid and still sad and was running in the wrong direction. She heard barking and saw two dogs running after him, running beside him. Precious dogs. How much would he miss them if they were gone? They ran off together and got slowly smaller.

Charlotte stood absolutely still. She thought of ways in which she could communicate with him if he turned around. She’d heard Audrey talking — that was something he’d like to know. She could tell him about it somehow, she could face away from him and whisper, and then take him into the ocean and show him what Audrey’s voice made. She could help him, and maybe help Audrey. Underwater, her own voice was not destructive, and she’d speak loud and long into the void and see if Audrey got the message. Magoo could tell her what to say. How many words would Audrey need? Dear Audrey, it’s Magoo. You’re not crazy, just listen. Hello. How are you? I’m doing fine.

Standing there dripping and mostly out of the water, she felt the cold air. She was wearing a blue swimsuit. Magoo was running. He and the dogs were three dots fading from sight. She stood still and pressed her palms together under her chin. Breathed slowly. She tried to relax the muscles in her face, her enormous face, her wide and pale face that could reflect sunlight like the moon and shine down on him in the darkness. Her face contorted.

He ran farther and faster. She could hardly see him. She was still knee-deep in the ocean, and she felt warmth on her calves, a clinging sensation. When she looked down, she saw orange. Red, orange, brown, and blue, green and yellow, lots of colors, in nice patterns in some patches but like splotchy vomit in others. The algae had made the water like soup. He had to come back to see it. He had to come back, and so she opened her mouth. Even though it might strip the bark from the trees and the trees from the mountains and the mountains from the earth, she opened her mouth. She’d thought about it. Magoo was far away. If she could just get him to come in the water, to nest in her hair, to go for a swim. She knew that he’d be okay. What was all this but landscape, anyway? It might be gone, but he wouldn’t. She bit her hand. Dead was dead. She said to him, in the softest voice she could manage:

Don’t run. Come back. Audrey wants to talk to you.

Through the clouds of dust, she saw him slowing.



Copyright 2004 by Lance Uyeda.


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