by Neil Carpathios
“When I saw the amputee I thought she was dying in pieces. She was the lady behind the counter using one arm to work the register. I wondered if next her other arm would fall off like an apple from a branch, ripe and heavy, or if a leg or ear or maybe her nose would drop right in front of us, my mother and me, any second. That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept wondering when my pieces would start falling like flower petals. I imagined walking to school leaving a trail of fingers, toes, arms, legs, lying on the sidewalk unable to go further, a torso and head, then the torso gone, finally just my head, flies nesting in nostrils, a group of boys deciding to play soccer telling me to shut up every time they kicked and I screamed. I wondered if a new disease was spreading: I started to notice people every day missing parts—bus driver with an eye patch, TV repairman minus fingers, man with no legs on a piece of wood wheeling through the alley. I pictured a lost-and-found heaven of piled-up human scraps, but how would we ever find our own pieces among the millions, the ones that matched, fit and clicked back into place? Finally I asked my mother who only said those people had accidents, that’s why she always scolded me to be careful. But I knew none of us were put together very well, I knew this whole living thing was just a matter of time.”
I look out at the faces all looking back at me, some nodding in recognition, some smiling. I walk back to my chair and as I do, one or two people shake my hand. When I sit down, someone behind me puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes gently. Now it’s my turn to listen. A mousy-looking, fortyish woman with glasses that nine out of ten people, including me, would guess is a librarian, stands at the front of the room and starts explaining how she could never, and still can’t, step on an ant. It makes her feel as if she’s some angry god and reminds her how some giant invisible shoe is above her head somewhere every second ready to come down. She even says she thinks that’s what cloudy days are: the giant sole of that shoe is closer than usual casting a big shadow over the world.
This is D.O.A— Death-Obsessed Anonymous. Of course, the daily joke is that the letters of our little group also mean Dead On Arrival. We come together to share our tales of woe, our fears, our madness once a week, every Sunday night. About twenty of us sit on folding chairs in a small rec room in the basement of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, West Virginia. We sip coffee from Styrofoam cups, take turns talking, and at the end pick at cookies or pretzels spread out on a card table.
One guy, a face like John Travolta, heavier, with black hair greased back, Italian-looking, dark beard stubble, gets up and blames it on his father who was a surgeon. He even starts by saying he can relate to my story because as a kid he, too, let his imagination run wild. He says his father used to reupholster people, stitching them back together like torn pillows made new. He earned a living holding lungs like water balloons and cutting them open to find mushrooming tumors. He strummed ribs and watched the heart like a chick in a shell spasm, quiver. As a kid, knowing this, Travolta developed x-ray vision, could see through everyone like a window, or more like a fish tank, all their stuffing swimming inside them.
“This dude’s got a way with words,” Clyde, a black postal worker I usually sit next to, whispers with a smirk. “Looks like you might have some competition.” I smile and nod. Clyde knows I’m a poet and professor at the local community college. “Shit, what kind of people really talk like that anyway?” Clyde mumbles, shifts on his chair. The guy continues:
“How much alike we are, I kept discovering—pancreas, liver, intestines, all pretty much in the same spots, same colors and shapes, not to mention chunks of food in every stomach sloshing. In school I’d sit distracted, watching kids’ digestive juices emulsifying their lunches. I’d nibble my sandwich, look down at my own belly.” He looks down at his own belly to show us how. “We all have these gears inside us, all these whirligigs spinning.” His voice speeds up, he’s excited, he makes weird circular motions with his hands. “But one day a bolt comes loose, a wire short-circuits, the inner factory shuts down production. It might happen mid-slurp, eating soup. I mean, think about it.” He scoops imaginary soup from an imaginary bowl with an imaginary spoon. “You’re sitting there and before you can bring the spoon to your lips, it’s over. Yeah, I remember how my father would come home from work, how he’d ask about my day, not sharing his of all the bodies fixed and some beyond repair. I’d tell him I got an A or how at recess I hit the winning homer. He’d hug me then change clothes, then lie on the couch as I watched him doze, as I tried to locate the thing we call love like an exotic, bright fish never really spotted swimming inside us.”
“Wow,” I think. That dude does have a way with words. I wonder if he rehearsed, wanted to impress us. The truth is, you can sense a little bit of pressure, some slight competition to entertain better than the next person. It has been increasing week-to-week. More metaphors, more similes. I’ve been guilty too.
Everybody claps. Fat Travolta sits back down. He’s the winner tonight.
“Anybody else?” Robert, our group leader, says. He looks like Mister Rogers but always in a Western brown leather vest. It must be his weekly D.O.A. uniform, along with the snakeskin boots.
Nobody volunteers so we rise and head for the snacks.
“Powerful stuff tonight,” I say to Fat Travolta who stuffs a brownie into his mouth.
He swallows. “Thanks, man. Yours too. It all starts young, doesn’t it?”
“I guess so. Maybe some people are just better at shaking it off as they grow up.”
He nods but is more interested in the big angel food cake with pink icing someone brought.
“Well, time for me to head out,” I say. Clyde comes over, says he’s got an early day too. Time to leave.
We pour onto the sidewalk. It’s dark out. We walk to our cars. Wave our goodbyes.
I’ve been in D.O.A. for six months now. I heard about it on campus. One of the other instructors mentioned something about a club or group that talked about death, ordinary people who are so distracted with the notion of life ending that it affects their daily lives. At first I thought he was joking, but a few days later I saw a flier posted on a bulletin board in the hall:
Is the fact of death too much for you? Do you find yourself consumed with morbid thoughts? Would you like to share with others? Join D.O.A.—Death Obsessed Anonymous. Every Sunday, 7:00 p.m. in the basement of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, 724 Lansing Street, Huntington, WV.
I moved to southern Ohio fifteen years ago after graduate school. I almost didn’t apply for the teaching job at Southern State University since, ironically, it’s just twenty miles from the town my father fled to after divorcing my mother in upstate New York, and where he killed himself lying on railroad tracks. It would be too weird, I thought, but the job market was pretty tough. I had been rejected from several previous job applications. Maybe it was strangely meant to be. I was hired, later married, had kids, then divorced. Then remarried. Then divorced again. Now I teach at Huntington Community College across the river in West Virginia. Whenever I hear a train, I cringe.
I could attribute my death obsession to my father’s suicide, but it goes deeper than that. Even as a kid I couldn’t help seeing the death all around me. Frogs as flat as paper on the street, run over by cars. What were their last thoughts? Raccoons, dogs, cats. Other roadkill. Mrs. Spangler, who I saw collapse by her mailbox with a heart attack. And of course, all those body parts missing, like I described at D.O.A.
I actually know the exact spot where my father ended his life. Morbid as I am, I researched it with the police department. Since I am his son, they gave me the information. I went there once. Railroad tracks like any other. Trees on each side. Gravel. Dirt. The smell of pavement and weeds. I guess I was hoping I’d feel something there, maybe connect with his ghost. Shit like that. There was nothing.
So I went to D.O.A. one Sunday night. I liked it. Got to know a few folks, although there are new faces every week too. Clyde and I sort of hit if off. He says that he thinks of God as a mysterious postal worker who delivers mail every day to us in the form of life experiences we try to make sense of. Some envelopes carry the news, in secret code, that today is the last day you will live. Most people can’t decipher the code and think the day is like any other but it really is the last. Every time he puts envelopes in mailboxes, he imagines that God does the same thing each day the sun rises. God hands out another day to us, maybe the last one. Clyde says he can’t get that scenario out of his head.
Death: A Great Invention
People are a lot nicer
when they’re dead.
They don’t get impatient
waiting in line at the license bureau.
They don’t turn red
and flip you the finger
in traffic and they don’t tear
pages out of magazines in
They don’t fart in elevators or
You can say whatever you want
and they won’t fire back a sarcastic remark;
in fact, they are great listeners
and will not squirm or rush you
through the boring account
of your day. They don’t invent
interrogation devices to electrocute
your genitals. They don’t place X’s
on a map where bombs will be dropped.
They don’t make speeches sprinkled
with promises they’ll never keep.
They are much like old furniture
sitting silently, unthreatening,
docile, stored in an attic--
or like an imaginary friend from
childhood you could tell
anything to and boss around.
And best of all about the dead
is you don’t have to wonder
if they really love you or are being dutiful
or if they still think sadly
about that time after the spat
when you said
you wished they were dead.
I fold the paper and slip it back into my jacket pocket. Everybody claps. Some stand and clap. I wanted to give them something special, a little humor, this poem. I explain. My gift to them for six months of real sharing. Clyde fist-bumps me when I sit back down. Fat Travolta’s face looks sour. After everyone’s done sharing, we head for the snack table.
“Nice poem, man,” Fat Travolta says, as he dips a tortilla chip in salsa.
“Thanks. Hell, just trying to lighten things up a bit. For myself too.”
“Yeah, yeah, but you know, death is okay and all, like you say in your poem, when it involves other people. When they’re gone it’s a great invention. But when it’s you, it’s a different story. Not so great.”
He looks at me, waiting to see what I’ll say. He’s jealous. I’m the real poet of death around here.
“Can’t argue with that philosophy,” I say, pouring coffee into my cup from a plastic carafe. Clyde winks at me.
“Maybe I’ll write a poem for next time too,” Fat Travolta says.
“A poem death-match! Awesome idea!” Clyde puts up his fists in a boxing pose.
“No, no, none of that. This group is serious,” I say.
“Right, right. The others might not appreciate it, turning this group into something it’s not,” Fat Travolta agrees.
“Aw, you dudes is just chicken. Death deserves poetry,” Clyde says.
“Why don’t you write a poem, then,” I say.
Fat Travolta picks up another chip and says, “Yeah, man, why don’t you join the fray?”
“I never pretended to be no poet. You guys are the ones always talking like Shakespeare.”
Fat Travolta and I look at each other.
“I guess we should take that as a compliment,” I say. “A couple of Shakespeares.”
Fat Travolta laughs, dips his chip, shoves it in his mouth.
“Thither to my car shalt I now proceed,” I say.
“Aye, thou art correct. The time dwindles and my eyes grow weary,” Fat Travolta chimes.
Clyde shakes his head. Robert and two others wander over. One is an ex-student who says he’s been writing a lot recently too. More compliments about my poem. Fat Travolta leaves. Then Clyde and I head for the door.
He lived inside a raindrop. He enjoyed the windows, looking out at the clouds, the trees, as he tumbled through space. It seemed like a normal life. He knew no other. Others would say how tragic a life so brief.
When he hit the windshield and his world exploded, it was no different than any death.
Just before impact he took one last peek. How beautiful it all had been. How lucky he had kept his eyes open.
I look at the computer screen, sitting at my kitchen table. I am thinking about my father. I like to believe that he kept his eyes open for most of his days. I hope that I am. I give what I’ve written a title, trying to think positive: no regrets.
Months pass. I go about my business, teaching, eating, trying to sleep through a goddamn night. Everywhere I go, more and more, I feel like I’m looking out the transparent walls of a bubble. I don’t mention this to anyone, even at the D.O.A., but faces seem to swim, blurry, as through liquid glass.
Now it’s a Sunday night, but the D.O.A. no longer exists. I guess people lost interest, it faded. The church underwent renovations after the roof collapsed due to heavy snow and rain. Old church. The rec room was dismantled. We all promised each other to start things up again as soon as the church was fixed. We never did. I haven’t seen Fat Travolta or Robert or Clyde or any of the others since.
Maybe the secret of living is to carry a miniature D.O.A. group inside wherever you go. I picture a room inside my chest. Folding chairs. A card table with snacks. I am always invited. Today I share some of the tricks I’ve been using so that surviving is almost a game:
Until sunlight through a window turns toast crumbs into diamonds.
Until the croak of a crabby neighbor is a winning lottery ticket of sound.
Until every step is like that first time again, when you wobbled but didn’t fall down, and your heart laughed because you knew you belonged.
Everybody claps. Some of them stand and clap. I sit back down and somebody puts a soft hand on my shoulder.
Neil Carpathios is the author of three full-length poetry collections and various chapbooks. He is also the editor of a recent anthology of regional literature, Every River on Earth: Writing from Appalachian Ohio (Ohio University Press, 2015). Recent fiction has appeared in: the Ampersand Review, Underground Voices, Mayday Magazine, Miracle Monocle, and Lime Hawk Quarterly (which nominated his short story, "Poets and Scholars" for a Pushcart Prize). He is an associate professor of English at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.