Death Sits A While

Antonin Dvorak

My goldfish tank _55 gal
Photo Credit: IrishErlina

Come on In

Have you ever met Death? I have, I’m sorry to say, and I don’t much care for him. I say Death is a “he”—if really there is any gender, I’m not sure—not only because he appeared masculine, but also because I can’t imagine a woman so cold and unfeeling.

My Beth had cancer: the big C. My mother died of the same damned poison when I was twenty-four. But in all my seventy-five years, I had never met Death. I had never been in the same room as a dying friend, dying relative—well, dying anyone. Death was like some distant relative whom we all knew of, whom we were all embarrassed and scared to know of. But not anymore. The distance between us is gone. For a while there, we were three peas in a pod, Hugh, Beth and Death.

Cozy, huh?

He first came to us a week before her passing. I was walking back to our bedroom with an oatmeal and scrambled Egg Beaters breakfast for my Beth—my meals must have tasted like fish scales, as I was hardly in condition to cook. But I managed. And she didn’t complain. She never complained.

We lived in a ranch-style house. I’ve always felt that stairs are for those uneasy people who feel low in the chain of things. They climb up them to sleep in their lofty bedrooms and look out their windows at their yards and the streets below. Not Beth and I: we were quite happy where we were.

There’s a hallway between our living room and our bedroom. A white carpet covers the entire area. And in that hallway, there’s a fish tank. It’s a fifty-five gallon, full of colorful gravel (the kind Beth liked), plastic plants, and goldfish. Goldfish, after all, are the easiest fish to keep alive.

One of them was dead, though. He was a fancy tail that Beth delighted in calling Secretariat (I just called them goldfish). His yellow-orange belly poked out from the water’s surface like an island, or maybe an iceberg. The filter swished him around, pulling him across the surface and then pushing him under in a strangely elegant circle.

I damned near dropped the tray of oatmeal and eggs. I had to carefully put it on a nearby table so that I could fall to my knees without making a mess. And I did fall. The carpet caught me as it had always caught my feet before.

I felt my breath snag in my throat and my eyes begin to leak. I brought my old hands up against those eyes, pressed hard. Maybe I was trying to hold everything in, but if that was it, it didn’t work.

As I watched Secretariat circle in his dead-swim, I cried hard and I cried quietly. Can’t let my Beth hear, I thought. I found my hands clutching the carpet with angry fingers, found them digging my fingers in like claws.

I watched the other fish investigate the corpse, half-expected them to peck at him. But they didn’t peck—only regarded him curiously, then swam off as if scared.

I was scared, too. After all, it was me who had forgotten to feed them. It was me who had starved them and invited Death in. But life was never supposed to be a solo act.

How were we supposed to survive? The answer was simple, I guess: we weren’t.

I cursed the goldfish.

I cursed myself.

I cursed Death.

And after I collected myself some ten minutes later, I threw a handful of goldfish food into the tank and continued into our room.

Take a Seat

It took me until the next afternoon to get up the nerve to take the fish out of the tank.

“I’m sorry, Secretariat,” I whispered as I prodded my hand through the water. I missed him the first time, his slippery tale just escaping my pinching fingers.

I got him, though. I pulled him out and he sat in my hand, staring blankly at the wall. His eyes were bloated and puffy, even by goldfish standards. His skin felt cold and slimy. That sliminess was the worst, like the algae-coated wall of a pool that hasn’t been kept up with chlorine.

An embarrassing thought passed through my mind then. I thought—for just a moment, mind you—that the lifeless, slippery thing in my hand was a heart. I gasped and dropped poor Secretariat to the carpeted floor. As he struck it, his tail kicked water drops at my bare feet and pajama pants.

When I got to the bathroom with him, I stared into the toilet skeptically. The white, shiny lip of the bowl looked like a hungry mouth. I knew that this was where pet fish went when they died. Where their bodies went, anyway. But this wasn’t a worthy fate for Secretariat, was it? I didn’t think so and I dropped him into a plastic baggie, then laid him to rest in the freezer till I could decide what else to do.

Death was with us now. I knew that much. He had taken Secretariat and he wasn’t through with his taking.

So I started bartering. I wasn’t making a deal with the devil, mind you, and I’ll punch anyone who says that I was. But certain things needed tending. Having Death as a houseguest wasn’t easy. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable, make sure he would stay a while—a long while—before he felt that it was time to move on with my Beth.

I gave him my chair. As any hot-blooded American man will attest, this is quite gracious. And this wasn’t just any chair. No, not the living room chair. Not my dinner table chair (though he could have had that one, too, as I didn’t eat dinner anymore). I gave him my chair in our bedroom.

It was a scuffed up old beater, much like I am. Its arms and back were thick with stuffing that pushed out irregularly against tight, red fabric. I’m not sure the type of fabric, but it was soft and plush like velvet. It was probably some synthetic velvet; it seems you can make a fake anything nowadays. A fake anything, except Beth.

Now when I was in the room with her, I was on the bed at her side, which was nice. I held her hand and looked at her sleeping eyes. And of course, I looked to Death’s chair.

Sometimes I looked through Death and remembered only the chair. Those were the best parts of the day. I would sit and stare at it, reliving silly arguments I had spearheaded from its soft and always understanding lap. I would recall making love on it, though it was hardly big enough for that. I would remember sitting there late in the night with baby Eddie in my arms.

That chair had been with us since our second house. And now the father of all things evil was sitting in it, probably fashioning his own disturbed memories.

I tried hard to see him. I really did. Sometimes directly, I had looked for an outline of his body, if one could call it a body. And sometimes I’d just look for some depression in the fabric, some show of the beast that was seated there. Nothing. Just my chair and my memories and my Beth’s cold hand in mine.

He was there, though. I’m sure of it. He was there and I could feel him there. Whenever I looked in the chair’s direction, I would put on my happy-pappy-face, as my grandchild calls it. I would smile as if understanding. “I know you have come to take my Beth,” I smiled. “I know that you have to take her, and I know that you’ll have to take me sometime.”

Then I’d turn away and curse him under my breath, quiet so Death couldn’t hear. Quiet, so my Beth couldn’t hear.

State Your Business

David Letterman was no longer funny to me; I already knew most of what the History Channel offered and, in a final effort to try something to get my mind away, I had nearly choked my eyes on all the flesh of MTV.

So, late at night when my Beth slept and the house moaned and creaked—I think it knew, too—I stared into the walls and out the windows of our bedroom. At night, I couldn’t stomach looking into the corner that held Death’s chair. In the shadows and swirling darkness, there was too much to see and it was too much to bear.

The walls offered little, but out past the windows the snow was usually falling.

It was quiet this time of year in Alfred Station. It was December now. All the college kids were off with their parents, conducting joyful reunions and short-lived festivities. And all of New York was blanketed with thick snow.

I hated staring out that window. I realized this when there were only three days left in my Beth’s life. There is a correlation between snow and Death. And with my sleepless nights, I had drawn out that correlation. I hate myself for it now, sure, as it consumed me for many precious hours. You see, snow is Death, in a natural sense. It comes, blankets the ground and strangles life. It is never-ending. It numbs you of feeling. Snow, like Death, numbs you of feeling.

No wonder Death had come in to sit a while. I would come in, too, if outside there was nothing but a suffocating version of me.

It was my Beth’s cold hand that finally jarred me from these thoughts. Her cold hand that reminded me where she was headed.

“Damn you,” I whispered suddenly, staring into the corner of the room, staring at the chair. I could barely see it behind the curtains of darkness, but I knew it was there, as it had always been there. And I knew that he was in it.

“Leave us alone. We’re good people and we’re not ready to go yet.”


“Is this what you want, huh? Why can’t you just leave? What do you want—us to suffer like this?”

But I knew what he wanted. I knew very well. I clung to the stupid idea that maybe Death himself didn’t know why he was here. After all, he had been sitting in my chair for three days now. Maybe he had forgotten?

Silence, and snow tapping at the window as if it, too, wanted to come in.

“Get the hell out of here!” I sniped. “God, oh God, please go!”

I lay down next to my Beth and wrapped myself around her terribly cold body. She moved a little at this, but hardly at all. I tried desperately to warm her. In my old age though, with my infirmities creeping cunningly over me as they were, she could have gotten just as much warmth from a wet towel.

Death was staring at us, his eyes on us like searchlights casting away our shadows. I suspect he regarded us with the same interest that I had once afforded Secretariat.

Time to Go

I did finally see him, maybe. To this day I cannot be sure, and you probably won’t be either. Every part of me except my mind tells me that I did. But my mind is stubborn, and I’m not sure it’ll ever listen.

There’s a certain logic to it, I guess. I paid Death the respect of my chair. He, in turn, paid me the respect of showing himself. At least, that’s the best my stubborn brain could come up with to put things into perspective.

Logical or not, I sensed him, saw him. And it scared the hell out of me. (Scared the hell into me, if you like.)

I don’t really know how I can write about it. I was never a writer, but a carpenter. But something in me is pushing me to get this out on paper. Maybe, if I can get the horrible memory out on paper, I can stick that paper in a box and throw it under our bed or into the closet, and I’ll be rid of the horrible nightmares that have been playing in my sleep.

When I saw him, my Beth was asleep next to me. I was sitting on the edge of our bed, half my butt hanging off. And outside, the snow was louder than usual. The dark seemed darker than usual. I heard the frozen branches and twigs shifting in the storm that had come. Now and again, I heard snow slide off our roof and crunch into the snow on our lawn.

I guess it started with a feeling—a very odd, very slow tugging feeling. Beth never did wake up, though I’m pretty sure that she felt it, too, even through sickness and sleep.

I stared into the corner of the room, into the chair, and I wondered if I was dreaming. But I wasn’t. A dream has a certain quality to it; it’s rubbery and stretchy. This didn’t stretch. This was very physical, cold.

I wish it had been a dream. I wish it had all been a dream without consequence.

For what must have been an hour, I stared at Death, not seeing him, and he stared at me.

“Go away,” I whispered firmly. “Go away or I’ll report you to your superiors.” I wasn’t sure who his superiors were, but everyone has a superior, don’t they? Everyone except God All Mighty has someone to answer to, even Death. I well intended to report him.

Then the air in and around the chair began to—well, began to breathe. I can’t explain it any better than that. The darkness seemed to move and expand.

I started crying then. I can admit it because it’s true, and I’m no liar. And the truth never hurt anybody.

“Please,” I begged. “I’m not ready for you to take her. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t…” But by then all the words were having trouble getting past my throat. It felt like I had swallowed a handful of staples.

Have you ever noticed scratched glass? There’s a way that light passes through it, especially on sunny days. There are thin splinters of light in it, sometimes circular, sometimes straight, all depending on how the glass was scratched.

That’s what I saw next; I saw slivers of light like scratched glass. They danced around and through the chair. They danced through the breathing air. And there was no more darkness.

Inside that light, I saw a figure. He looked like a decent fellow and I hated him for that. Now Death, the bastard that he was, had the gall to be better than I had expected. His face, not particularly masculine or feminine, was calm and young. His blue eyes understood. And in his black suit, he breathed.

The only inkling of foul play was in his hands. They were callused and old and wrinkled. Nails spurted from bony fingers like twisted railroad spikes. And he clutched my chair with those hands. Those filthy, work-battered hands.

You can tell a man’s profession by looking at his hands, my father had always said. If a man hasn’t the time to cut his nails and tend to his hands, then he probably don’t have time to dry off his pisser either. My father had always had a way with words.

And now—for perhaps the first time—I saw how right he was. Death had, more likely than not, the dirtiest work of all.

Slowly, I watched Death rise from my chair, those splinters of light jumping wildly about him like hungry dogs.

I gasped and leapt to my feet.

“No!” I yelped. “Please, no!”

The figure offered a weak, shifty smile, then winked out of my perception. And the slivers of light were the last to disappear; they pulsed in the darkness like brilliant scars.

It was all gone: that tugging feeling, the iciness of the air, the storm outside. All were gone. And I knew that those things wouldn’t be the last to go.

I hurried back into bed and hugged my Beth. I clung to her tightly, the way a senile man clings to the last strands of his sanity. I felt every breath move through her body and counted them. I counted them as if each one would be her last, be our last.

I don’t know how long we lay there together. But I can tell you that I cried like a baby. Our life flashed before my hollow eyes. Our life, in between my Beth’s breaths of air.

After two hundred and twenty-four, there were no more. I brushed tangles of willowy, white hair from her face. I studied every curve, every time-engraved wrinkle, and every last bead of sweat. And as the heat seeped from her, as the cold bore in, I kissed her one last time on the lips.

Clean Up

I feel I have to add to this. I have taken my story out from under the bed and out of its shoebox, because there is more to be said now.

When Eddie came for my Beth’s funeral, the house felt empty. He watched the goldfish with sticky tear-residue on his cheeks and I offered him a beer.

“No thanks,” he said. “Nancy has a doctor’s appointment in about an hour.”

Nancy is my granddaughter.

We sat together in the living room and pretty much stared at each other. I didn’t have anything to say, and even if I had, I don’t think I would have had the strength to say it.

Eddie left the house not an hour later and I was left to cope with my grief. I’m not sure how well I managed. The pain was immense and it remains. But I’m still here, aren’t I? Well, some part of me is still here.

My houseguest was gone and he had taken a whole lot with him. Though I dread him more than ever, I look forward to his return.

The house is so silent now. Even with Letterman’s mockery running from the TV at night, the silence is strong. The silence that I speak of can’t be diminished by the TV, or by the howling wind, or by the fish tank’s constant babble. This silence runs deeper; it runs through my head like a sliver of dark light. Because of it, I sometimes find myself wishing that I had a second-story bedroom.

I do take a little pleasure from life, mostly from Eddie and his family. Mind you, I’m not a happy man. I don’t think that I ever can be again.

I’ve gotten rid of my chair. Yes, that’s right—I couldn’t have it in our room anymore. It just didn’t seem right to keep it without Beth. What good was it without her? You think that maybe it was good for Death to sit in? Well, maybe. But when he next stops at Alfred Station, I don’t want him sitting around. He needs to move things right along. There’s a reunion pending.

I threw the chair out onto the snow-choked curb and it must have struck the fancy of a young couple, because they came and hauled it away in a big, red pickup truck. I wanted to tell them not to bother, that Death himself had sat in the chair. But I’m no fool. They took it, and I haven’t seen it since.

It’s spring now and I’m still here. I can say that with a sense of accomplishment: I’m still here. Life was never intended as a solo act. But I’m surviving somehow.

The snow has melted away.

The other goldfish are still alive and I’m feeding them regularly. They look at me with their bulgy eyes and I call them all by name.

Last Saturday when Nancy came for a visit, Cathy (my daughter-in-law) found Secretariat in the freezer. She screamed when she saw him. His eyes had frozen to the inside of the plastic bag and that had made him look horrible.

We took him outside and buried him in my Beth’s garden. And though it was hard, I survived that, too.

For the most part, my nightmares have left me. But I don’t think that they’ll ever go completely. It’s the day-mares that bother me more anyway. Now and again I wonder if he is still here or if he is coming. Sometimes I can even feel his presence, as if he has come to check up on me.

On those days, I sit back in my living room chair and whisper to him. “I guess we should get going,” I say, imagining his gnarled, railroad-spike nails. “There’s no place for you to sit.”


Antonin Dvorak’s works have been published in Space & Time Magazine, Midnight Times, and Wild Violet Magazine. Email: tony_dvorak[at]