Everyone is dead.
It’s like a plot-twist for Sampo Andersen right as the story begins. All Sampo Andersen has to do is take his dog home from work. But when he and his somethingdoodle, Gleason, walk a few blocks from the 1950s Mid-Century Modern office building, Sampo Andersen finds himself very alone, staring down at a dead crow on the concrete sidewalk beside a colorful mosaic.
“Everyone is dead,” he says to Gleason. Sampo Andersen smiles. Gleason looks around but does not respond. Sampo Andersen doesn’t expect his dog to respond, but it would be nice if sometimes he did. Everyone is dead, he murmurs again in his head. “Including this crow,” he says aloud. Gleason sniffs at the gleaming crow sprawled in the middle of the sidewalk. Sampo Andersen tugs his leash.
The crow calls to mind a game Sampo Andersen once played as a kid: Everyone Is Dead. It’s a simple game of make-believe. If no one is around, and all is quiet, then it must logically follow that everyone is dead. The absence of everyone equals the existence of no one. Fun times, for a little boy, to go out on corpse patrol to seek out and recover elusive cadavers tucked away in city parks or beneath the floorboards of the Hausers’ living room or stacked in neat cords at the Soylent Green plant down by the river. Any time no one was ever around equaled the game being suddenly afoot.
Sampo Andersen looks behind him past the basswood blossoms toward his office building, now out of sight beyond the humped street. He thinks of Yvette, the therapist in the office next door to his. She slipped a letter beneath Sampo Andersen’s door, a letter which he nearly stepped on while walking out to use the restroom down the corridor.
Dear neighbor, the letter read. After months of sharing the same quiet office corridor, Yvette has yet to address Sampo Andersen by his given name. This isn’t a dog-park or puppy playground. If you are unable to control your animal, you must leave it at home.
Sampo Andersen stopped reading in the middle of the next paragraph, which rolled on to the next page. The letter continued for another page after that, all single spaced. He set the letter on his desk and left with Gleason.
Yvette doesn’t seem like a very nice person for a therapist. But what Sampo Andersen knows of her, he only knows in passing. He attributes some of this non-niceness to her profession of re-assembling people back into being people again. He’s seen the dark green pockets beneath Yvette’s bleary eyes. He’s heard her clients’ sobs push through his walls. Hers is not easy work.
Sampo Andersen’s work isn’t exactly easy, either. Easy is how you describe other people’s work.
No one really knows what it is exactly that Sampo Andersen does, but it’s very demanding and very stressful. Remote mathy visualization involving data algorithms to predict fast-moving imaginary supply-chain management targets in an isolated environment, Sampo Andersen’s place in the machinery of this industry figures as just one star in one constellation of one galaxy of separate yet united-by-the-magic-of-the-Internet co-collaborators. Meetings with distant colleagues take place mere feet in front of him through Sampo Andersen’s high-resolution computer monitors. Reprimands and deadlines, too. Each co-worker blinks infinitely distant from their remarkable proximity, each their own star, each right in Sampo Andersen’s face in on-demand convenience.
“You need thick skin for this job,” his boss-in-another-time-zone sighs, wagging his head magnanimously through a pixel-perfect display. “You do, Samp. Ya just do.”
Sampo Andersen’s boss calls Sampo Andersen “Samp” for short. His boss’s regular uttering of one needing thick skin for this hitting-of-fast-moving-imaginary-targets-and-getting-yelled-at-from-afar thing implies to Sampo Andersen that his boss feels that he himself is in possession of thick skin. Sampo Andersen disagrees. In Sampo Andersen’s opinion, his boss does not have thick skin because in Sampo Andersen’s opinion, his boss has no skin at all. Sampo Andersen’s boss has scales.
A thin black line of ants advances in a spiral on the sidewalk behind Sampo Andersen and the dead crow at his feet and Gleason at his side. The thin black line swells, coils, and breathes in living ant art created courtesy of the woman who resides in the house in front of the sidewalk. Tight lawn edging frames each concrete sidewalk section into an individual canvas, which the woman, whose name Sampo Andersen can never remember—Rhonda?—hoses down and scrubs daily with a stout broom. As the day warms and the concrete dries, the woman draws shapes onto the cement squares by dispensing honey from squeeze bottles. Within the shapes of these lines, she applies syrup and molasses with broad brush strokes. The ants rise up from their small earthen mounds and come down from the trees with the rising sun and gleaming, heating slabs. The sticky honey stains the brown ants black.
The intricate outline of her honey opus, the woman’s opus ex mel, jumps to life and quivers with pulsating throngs of ants. The syrup- and molasses-filled outlines draw different colored species of ants, along with flying insects varying in coloration from bluish greens to burnt orange and muted fuchsias to create panels and spangles of contrasting hues: the leaves of a plant, the petals of a flower, the thorax of a bee, an impenetrable eyeball iris. Other images ranging from ornamental filigrees and sine waves to familiar renderings in the abstract like Kokopelli or today’s Wheel of Dharma. All arranged daily by his neighbor and sort-of friend whose name Sampo Andersen can never remember. Joyce? The loops tighten and throb with ants. Gail? Sampo Andersen’s dog pulls at the leash.
The battered crow lies fused to the concrete beside the Wheel of Dharma. An alien wheel. A large stenciled design made up of minute and hungry Earth ants, etched into the sidewalk like the vast Peruvian hillside desert carvings visible in their entirety only from high above the Earth’s surface. The carvings that space aliens came down to Earth to help the Inca create. This occurred right around the same time they also helped the Egyptians and Maya build their pyramids and sphinxes and other massive structures. Then the space aliens left, their work here on Earth completed, never to come back except for that one time when they aided Michelangelo with some scaffolding ideas for his Sistine Chapel proposal. That took a while. This stenciling here resembles one of those alien-aided desert drawings, except that it fits within a sidewalk square and it is rendered with shimmering ants pulled involuntarily to honey and molasses.
The woman’s yellow Minimal Traditional home is clutched in weathered cedar siding and peeling white trim. Inside, through a living room window framed by kelly green shutters, the walls of the dark interior throb a frosted twitching blue from the owner’s high-definition television set. The owner sits on the front steps and flicks cigarette ashes into an empty beer bottle to her right, and drinks from a half-full brown beer bottle on her left. A pair of eyes the color of ice shavings flash at Sampo Andersen above small dark pockets, crescented symmetrically on each side of her nose.
Sampo sighs. The name of the not-nice therapist next door he can remember, this pleasant but odd woman’s name he cannot. Her short brownish-blond hair is wet and pressed into her scalp and drips onto her shoulders. A gray t-shirt and a pair of faded purple shorts hang loosely over her slack skin randomly tattooed green and blue. She smiles a tinged black. Her tongue is gray, the skin on her face flakes white from dryness and day-old makeup. One half of her face is lit up in bright sunlight, the other half stippled with small squares of leafy shade.
“Hello, Gleason!” the woman calls. The woman greets Sampo Andersen, too. She always remembers their names, and always calls Gleason’s name first. Gleason is cuter. She smiles black and drinks wet beer and wipes her face with the back of a hand and wipes the hand on the fabric of her faded purple shorts. The fabric darkens and she inhales deeply from the end of a cigarette.
Sampo Andersen nods to her, tilts his head to the crow.
“Damnedest thing,” the woman says, blowing smoke. Brenda? “Fell straight down outta the sky and hit right there, thwap. About twenny minutes ago.” She sniffs and belches. “Barely missed my Dharma.”
Sampo Andersen glances from the crow to the wheel breathing with ant life. The wheel throbs and churns like a gear in a machine. The woman coughs and turns her head to look up and down the street.
Sampo Andresen breathes and looks up and down the street, too. Everyone is dead. Except for them. The woman shakes her head. “Thwap,” she says again.
Sampo Andersen stares at the crow. Gleason strains at the leash and sniffs and pants. Sampo Andersen looks up for a place whence the crow may have fallen. There is none. The crow fell straight down from the middle of the wide blue sky. Sampo Andersen looks at the crow again. Gleaming black wings. Bent neck. Bulging dead eyes. The flies haven’t noticed yet, but a blue jay has. A large jay has been cawing in alarm now, Sampo Andersen realizes, since he and Gleason rounded the corner by the burl oak at Don and Ron’s a hundred feet away. It seems all Sampo Andersen can hear now is the hollering of that bird.
“We should call the DNR,” Sampo Andersen says to the familiar but unnamed woman. His good friend Jared Kelmp has a masterful way of asking people for their name once forgotten. Almost makes it seem like a strength of character. Uses it to his advantage in a way that always eludes Sampo Andersen. He looks at the woman again.
“DNR used to wanna know ’bout dead crows,” he says.
“The DNR?” the woman says, and draws in more air through her cigarette and sighs and swallows beer. “Do not resuscitate?”
Sampo Andersen looks at the dead crow and laughs.
“No,” he says, and laughs again. “Department of Natural Resources. You know. Parks and rivers and lakes and such. Fish and deer and…” Sampo Andersen senses his mind wandering off. “Puma,” he says with a smile. “And they may wanna know… about this crow.”
“Huh,” the woman says, and flicks ashes at the bottle. “No shit.”
“Ja,” Sampo Andersen says. “West Nile virus.”
“West Nile?” She pulls at her cigarette again. “This part of the state? Yer sure?”
“Yup. The virus has been encroaching on the upper Midwest. They used to ask people to report dead crows. Cuz they die right away.”
“Huh.” She shakes her head slowly. “Canary in a coal mine,” the woman murmurs. “Well,” she says, leaning back on her hands and straightening her torso. “I can’t call cuz I gotta leave for the airport.”
“Ja. Pickin up my ma. Flyin in tuh-day,” she says.
Gleason strains at the leash for the dead crow. The dog whines. This whining makes Sampo Andersen think of the not-nice therapist next door at work, who explained how Gleason disrupts her trauma patients’ trauma therapy sessions. Their expensively schooled PTSD service dogs in particular. And a trauma patient cannot be having a PTSD dog required to listen to frequent barking from the poorly trained canine rabble next door.
Sampo Anderson is pretty sure he suffers from PTSD, too. Gleason is a comfort. Not a bona-fide PTSD service dog, but one who extends simple canine comfort to a frequently distraught human nonetheless. The therapist next door knows nothing of Sampo Andersen’s past. The powerful moments he recalls paralyze. The cruelty of wealthy adolescent jocks. The terror, humiliation, and outright physical pain of their locker-room torture tactics. And the joy of goading and cackling coaches.
A pair of cheerful Mormon missionaries canvasses homes on the next block. One raises his arms, shirt sleeves as white as a newborn cloud, to greet a face that’s appeared from behind a just-opened door. Someone else who isn’t dead. The Mormons aren’t dead, either. They may never die. Sampo Andersen wonders what you call a group of Mormons. Gaggle of geese, pod of dolphins, skulk of foxes. He looks from the crow to the white-shirted Mormons again. A smile creases Sampo Andersen’s right eye.
Sampo Andersen looks up at the woman with the dry skin and loose flesh and beer-bottle ashtray who’s gotta go to the airport. The makeup packed into the grooved squint lines around her eyes reveals more than it conceals.
“Fine,” Sampo Andersen says, “I’ll call.”
“The DNR,” the woman says. She lifts her chin. Her nose brightens within a square of sunlight. She raises her cigarette hand.
“Ja,” Sampo Andersen says. “The DNR. Sorta.”
Sampo Andersen dials the non-emergency phone number for the local police department. A receptionist listens to Sampo Andersen and transfers him to County Dispatch. County Dispatch is an emergency number. “This isn’t an emergency,” Sampo Andersen starts to say, sensing it’s too late. “I just—”
“Nine-one-one,” Dispatch insists. “What is the nature of your emergency?”
Sampo Andersen sighs. “No emergency,” he says, and looks up from the crow at the woman still seated on her steps. This woman whose name he can never remember, this woman who now allows him to forgive Yvette, the not-nice therapist in the office next door at work, for never bothering to learn or remember his. This woman with the skin that peels from her face in flakey square makeup chunks.
The flakey-makeup-lifting-and-peeling-from-her-cheeks-in-square-chunks-and-taking-flight thing is pretty weird. But nothing new.
“Justa dead crow,” Sampo Andersen says. “Does the DNR still wanna know about these?”
“A dead crow,” Dispatch asks.
“Ja. I was just tryin to get through to a DNR agent, so I called the non-emergency phone number here in town, and they routed me to you.”
The woman with the beer bottle ashtray stands up and grunts and stretches her back and turns into her house. A trail of makeup flakes and cigarette ashes swirls within a current of air pushed from the door closing behind her. The bluish frosted glow inside drops from the walls. She’s snapped off her enormous television set. The ant coils behind Sampo Andersen swell and sprawl in Sampo Andersen’s direction. It’s only a matter of time, Sampo Andersen thinks, until the ants abandon the sidewalk squirts for this crow’s dead eyes.
Sampo Andersen and Dispatch are silent. Sampo Andersen can hear chatter in the background at County Dispatch. The chatter of non-non-emergency business: Burning buildings, exploding hearts, missing children, beaten wives, drowning drunks. Sampo Andersen shakes his head. He has a dead feathered reptile at his feet next to curvy spiraly sidewalk ant art.
A different woman, one who resembles Yvette, staggers into view from behind the burl oak at Don and Ron’s place. She wears a Jell-O green jacket. Lengths of thin hair wander above her scalp within an electric breeze all its own. She appears to be breathing hard, but she is just far enough away that it’s hard to tell for sure. Maybe it is Yvette. And that is simply how Yvette breathes when walking around out in the wild, away from the office building. But what would she be doing out here, anyway? Yvette doesn’t live anywhere near here. Her steps are labored, uncertain, and deliberate. But there’s more, and Sampo Andersen can sense something is very wrong.
“I…” he says, and turns for his neighbor, and a name to call her by. But the woman is behind a closed screen door inside her house. Sampo Andersen can’t remember her name anyway. He only remembers Yvette’s name because it’s written on a name plate beside her door which he walks by several times a day.
“I’ll connect you,” Dispatch says, after what seems like five minutes but in truth is less than one second. “I’ll connect you to a DNR agent’s voicemail. Please leave a useful message—”
“Wait!” Sampo Andersen yelps. Yvette, closer now, is not Yvette. She’s an Yvette-a-like who looks right through Sampo Andersen with kaleidoscopey Mayan mural eyes. She takes another terrible stride. A stream of blood surges from her nose and her eyes curl white straight back into her head.
“Puppy,” she gasps, her voice an echoing whistle as though a hole has been pierced through her neck at the back of her mouth. “Puppy,” she breathes again. Air squeezed through a ready kettle’s spout. Her stride convulses and her legs accordion beneath her and twist like a bent drill bit. She hits the sidewalk. Sampo Andersen and Gleason yelp and jump back.
“Look, this is really weird,” Sampo Andersen blurts, his stomach curdled from the sound of the Yvette-a-like’s face splatting on cement. “But while calling you about a dead crow on this sidewalk, I—”
“You’re calling about a dead crow, correct?”
“Yes. But while—” Another attempt from Gleason to lunge at the bird.
“I can pass along your information to a DNR agent.”
“Okay. Thanks. But while calling you, this woman—”
“Name and phone number please.”
“But…” Sampo Andersen hesitates, but then quickly complies with Dispatch. The only movement from the Yvette-a-like has been the ooze of blood from her nose into a dark puddle.
“I… Ma’am!” he shouts to the woman on the sidewalk.
Sampo Andersen ventures a tentative step toward Yvette. The woman who isn’t, but who looks like Yvette. The treetops tilt and twist above. A sharp snapping sound that Sampo Andersen recognizes makes him stagger. It is the sound of the spinning Earth picking up and skipping from its axis.The flaky makeup lady whose name Sampo Andersen can never remember steps from her house. The screen door slaps hard against the threshold. She scratches at a cheek, releasing another light plume of particulate DNA, and looks at Sampo Andersen looking at the bleeding woman sprawled face down on the concrete two sidewalk sections away from the woman’s sidewalk ant art. She sniffs and wipes her mouth and tells Sampo Andersen she’s gotta go to the airport.
Sampo Andersen turns and blinks and nods. His breath is cold. Gleason pulls in three separate directions, almost all at once: The Yvette-a-like, the flakey makeup woman, the dead crow. Sampo Andersen explains the situation to Dispatch. Dispatch is unfazed by the nature of one emergency occurring during the reporting of another. Yvette-a-like is breathing but she doesn’t move, her frail hair clumped with sidewalk blood. The woman with the flaky makeup skin pulls away in her mid-1970s Monte Carlo. She’s gotta go to the airport. A siren’s shriek filters through neighborhood tree limbs. The incessant blue jay flees. Pulsating sidewalk ant art coils sprawl and widen like frayed rope.
“I’ll now connect you,” Dispatch says, “to a DNR agent’s voicemail box. Please leave a meaningful message, being sure to include your name and a reliable phone number you can be reached at. Thank you.”
Her voice cuts out. A ringtone growls in Sampo Andersen’s ear. An agent’s voicemail greeting greets Sampo Andersen several growls later. He leaves a meaningful message, his name, and a reliable phone number he can be reached at.
EMTs arrive, revive, collect, and depart in the span of a single sentence. ER bound. Sharp sirens wail and Doppler away into diminished sighs. Sampo Andersen glances back at the dead crow, still splayed, head still cocked in an angle of disbelief, iridescent black feathers a glinting purplish bruise in the late sun. He and Gleason continue their walk. They step around more coils of quickening ants. Sampo Andersen guesses this piece of sidewalk ant art spans five or six yards. The neighborhood is quiet and empty again. Everyone is dead.
Sampo Andersen sees a figure moving about in the next house. A person. A not-dead human person. He and Gleason slow their stride. Maybe it was just the curtains. Rustling on the other side of the mossy grass of the person’s yard. A heady lightheadedness comes over Sampo Andersen at the thought of another person seeing what just happened here and not helping. He feels the same chill he feels when he talks to his boss. And he wonders about his boss, the reptilian-skinned man. What it’s like to slither home, to shed that skin. Pull out of that old husk. Then, all of a sudden, those fresh new scales all slick and glistening. The utter relief of release. Sampo Andersen straightens. Certain women in Sampo Andersen’s friendship circle speak of pedicures in like tones. He wonders if Yvette, or the not-Yvette Yvette-alike, or even the alien-ant-art woman for that matter, ever gets her toes done.
The EMTs are long gone. Who was that woman? It wasn’t Yvette, though it certainly looked like her. She’s reached that magical invisible middle-age at which everyone who isn’t dead becomes transparent and looks nearly exactly alike.
Sampo Andersen takes a breath, and nods. He will continue his walk, take his dog home, and that will be that. Gleason will reach adulthood. Gleason will woof less. And it will be good. Sampo Andersen looks at the house in which he saw movement. Not a person. Just the curtain moving in the breeze. So all is good and everyone is dead again.
Sampo Andersen’s phone rings. He turns from the non-person-curtain yard-moss to the sidewalk. The ants glisten and the sun slides across the thick blue sky. His phone rings again. Sampo Andersen breathes. His heady lightheadedness begins to pass. The number on the phone’s clean display seems familiar enough, so Sampo Andersen answers. The caller identifies himself as a State of Wisconsin DNR agent. Sampo Andersen explains about the dead crow up the sidewalk from Don and Ron’s.
“Oh,” the agent says. “Ja,” he says. He sounds disjointed. Sampo Andersen senses the DNR agent pat body parts for a pen. “Just throw it away, then.”
“What?” Sampo Andersen scoffs. “I thought you wanted to know—”
“West Nile has been here a few years now. And so,” he sighs, “we’re no longer recordin dead crows.”
“Ja. Prolly just died from some ‘rodent control’ program?” Sampo Andersen can hear the air quotes. “Got inta some poison by eatin something that got poisoned. Carrion or whatnot. Sad, really. Looks like an easy meal… ends up bein deadly, though. So just sweep the thing up inta a Target bag or whatever and jus throw it away, then.”
“Uh. Okay. I’ll tell the owner when I see her.”
Sampo Andersen senses the DNR agent shrug.
“The owner of the place the bird was found in frunna,” he says. “Thing died smack in the middle of the sidewalk.” Sampo Andersen glances around. “She had to go to the…”
Sampo Andersen’s eyelids become heavy and pull shut in one… two… three tugs. The trees rattle and release a strong breeze. Near an alley entrance, a plastic Target bag crackles and tumbles into view. His brain slides along, in and out of the Target bag that he wants to tell the DNR agent won’t work because it won’t fit over the dead crow because the crow is a crazy-smart-beautiful-winged-flying thing. Even dead, it, too, is a magnificent and breathtaking work of art.
The tilt of the sidewalk ant artist’s neck and dripping hair fade into view. Her shaved-ice eyes stare straight ahead, lost in thought, motoring down that highway. The dry skin on her face flaking and pulled out the driver’s-side window of that Monte Carlo. Sylvia? He’s completely out of guesses now. A decidedly introverted thinker, this woman.
Sampo Andersen stares at the sidewalk, the honey Dharma. Smells like summer cement and hot ants. Sampo Anderson doesn’t know what hot ants really smell like, but he knows what he thinks of when he thinks of the smell of hot ants. He sniffs again and stares at the charcoal crow and wonders if the manufacturers of Soylent Green ever made a Soylent Black. Everyone is dead.
Sampo Andersen hears the DNR agent speak. His toes want to reach out through his shoes to touch the moss. He wants to tell his slithering boss with his fresh new scales about the moss, too. About what he’s missing. The DNR agent says something else.
Sampo Andersen looks at the crow, the empty sidewalk, the cobalt sky, Gleason. And his plot, twisted from the very beginning of all of this, a bend in the arc of his life’s through-line careening here between the dead crow, the collapsed Yvette-a-like, and the gleaming Wheel of Dharma, pulsating with infinite continuous cycles of life.
There is a satisfying click as his planet reattaches to its axis and begins to spin once again. Sampo Andersen looks up the sidewalk, down past the burl oak at Don and Ron’s on the corner, and back. The murder of Mormons bisects a cross-street one block away and disappears from view around a house. Gleason whimpers. The Mormons are gone. All is good, and everyone is again dead.
Sampo Andersen squats beside the alien ant art. After a moment, he drags a fingertip through a cord of ants. Gleason whimpers. Sampo Andersen sticks the fingertip into his mouth. He smiles. Gleason tugs. The honey tastes like ants.
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Image by Nicholas_Demetriades via Pixabay.com