So how’d you like to know how you’re going to die? No no no, I’m not suggesting I can tell you or that I would, even if I could. I’m just asking whether you’d prefer to know, given the opportunity. You seem a little hesitant. Can’t say I blame you. I suspect most people are content to be surprised — by the how every bit as much as by the when. Alright, how about this, as a substitute: what if I tell you how I’m going to die? Not as put off by the notion of that? It’s okay. I understand completely. It’s a perfectly natural human curiosity. Nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what sets us apart from the chimp. Or if not the chimp, the orangutan. Or at least the tarsier. Okay okay, surely the cat. Can we at least agree on this: that a fascination with the deaths of people we’ve never met is the thing that sets us apart from the domestic cat? The principal thing, that is. No no, not the only thing. Of course not. But one of the main things, at least. The opposable thumb, you’ll say. Yes yes yes, of course the opposable thumb. Who could forget the opposable thumb? I adore the opposable thumb. And I’m not the kind of man who scatters adoration. Really. Ask anyone.
What’s that? Language? Well, that goes without saying. I mean, no offense but that’s pretty much the low hanging fruit of what separates us from the domestic cat. It’s so obvious it’s beneath discussion. I’d be insulting your intelligence if I offered you language. Ask any ten people off the street what separates us from the domestic cat, seven will tell you language. Two will tell you opposable thumbs, and the other, being something of a smarty-pants, will tell you the right to vote. Language. Next you’ll be all over me for not mentioning genetics. Or evolution. Of course we’re separated from the domestic cat by a 27% divergence at the nucleotide level. Of course we’re separated by a hundred millions years of adaptation and drift. Can we please have a serious discussion?
So here’s how it happens: a meteorite crashes through the window and annihilates me in my bed. Poof. Just like that. Easy come, easy go. Annihilated I said. From the Latin annihilare: to reduce to nothing. So after that settles in, you’re likely to have a few questions. I’ll be happy to take them. That’s just fine by me. I so rarely entertain here at the hermitage, and I get tired of listening to myself talk.
Okay okay, that’s a lie. The truth, as you’ve probably guessed already, is that I love the sound of my own voice: a sonorous mid-to-low range tenor, set to an ebullient tempo, with beautiful enunciation — but not so beautiful as to come across as affected or unapproachable. I’m nothing if not approachable. If you don’t believe me, just ask the neighbors. But don’t get me wrong, I like the sound of your voice, too. So when I say I’ll be happy to entertain questions, I really mean it. It’s not just something I say to be polite to a guest. Anyway, I’ll take them in the order in which they occur to me, which may or may not be the same order in which they occur to you, the human mind being famously — some would add wonderfully and/or terribly — heterogeneous from one to the next.
Alright then. Are you ready? Here we go.
Q: So correct me if I’m wrong but getting oneself killed by a meteorite is an exceedingly rare event, yes?
A: Yes. In fact, I’ll be something of a minor celebrity for the better part of a week, widely acknowledged as the first documented case of a human killed by a direct meteorite impact. This will be controversial of course and will even touch off a robust theological debate, which I don’t really want to go into here. I wouldn’t want to appear to be taking sides. Anyway, I’m not bringing it up to be a show-off. So I’ll have a few hundred google hits to fill in for me after I’m dead — who won’t? Actually my future notoriety is a little embarrassing to ponder, if you want to know the truth. Although I’m sure I don’t have to tell you there are worse ways of getting famous.
Q: So just how big a meteorite are we talking about here?
A: It’ll lose much of its mass, of course, burning through the Earth’s atmosphere, but when it finally crashes through the window, it should be about the size of a Buick. And here I should confess I’m a little stuck in the past, so when I say the size of a Buick I’m referring to the Buicks of my youth — okay okay, the Buicks of my early middle age — big sexless monsters with hoods like pool tables and backseats like settees and trunks like studio apartments. Its shape, though, will be more like a Volkswagen — nature abhorring a corner, as it does.
Q: Do you hate the meteorite?
A: No. I bear it no grudge. If you’re of a certain temperament, that’ll be impossible for you to believe, but it’s the truth. As I see it, it’s only doing its job. Its job is to race around the solar system at upwards of a hundred thousand kilometers an hour — meteorites, I’m sure you’re aware, are on the metric system — for a few billion years, just minding its own business, until the Earth happens, one night, to stagger right into its path. Witnesses from clean across the galaxy will testify that the Earth was trying to cross against the light, paying no attention at all to where it was going. (“I never even saw it,” the Earth will say at its deposition. “I just heard this sad little thump, and of course by then it was too late.”) The Earth will receive two years probation and community service but will get to keep its license to revolve. (The court will have no choice, really. Putting the Earth out of business would mean the demise of several nonillion creatures — most of them bacteria of course, but still, the universe need not share your infatuation with the opposable thumb. Or the cerebral cortex. Or the bicameral legislature.)
Q: Do you consider yourself a pessimist?
A: Of course not. Here’s the thing about meteoric annihilation: it doesn’t hurt a bit. I’ll never even hear it coming. Even after a violent deceleration in the upper atmosphere, it will settle into a terminal velocity a good stride faster than sound. Poof. Just like that. One less optimist. And while I’m willing to concede there are better ways to go, I can honestly tell you it’s good enough for me.
Q: How long have you been aware of your impending annihilation?
A: It was eight years ago in December. It was about a minute before sunrise. I was standing at the bus stop shivering, with my hands deep down in my pockets, fiddling with my keys on one side and wondering what in the world I did wrong to deserve so many of them in the first place while, with the other, I catalogued presidential silhouettes by touch, unperturbed by the occasional pocket-lint mustache. And I still can’t say what brought it on. Maybe it was the sight of my eyebrows blowing in the wind, like a tangle of giant spiders weaving a cirrocumulus web, or maybe it was the meteorological sleight of hand creating an unsettling delusion that the sun was coming up in the west, or maybe it was neither of these but only an ever so subtle alteration in the course followed by an electrochemical river meandering through a crevice in my brain. But I suddenly knew. Just knew. Funny thing is, it was the sort of thing that seems perfectly obvious once you know it, like natural selection or the infield fly rule. Like a pattern that emerges from the scars in your palms, and you’re sure you’ve never seen it before but one day there it is, as real as polyurethane, and once you’ve seen it you can never not see it again. You can never un-see it, not even if you plucked out your eyes and cut off your hands. Yes. That’s just what it was like. It was eight years ago. It was December.
Q: If you know it’s going to crash through the bedroom window, why don’t you sleep in the guest room? Or on the couch? Or move to a different house altogether, just to be on the safe side?
A: That would be cheating, wouldn’t it? And anyway, I’m not so sure it would work. Suppose I bought a new house. What makes you think the new house wouldn’t be the one? I’m not joking. That’s exactly the kind of prank the universe would pull. Ask any cosmologist you meet, they’ll tell you: the universe has a sense of humor about these things. Alright then, you’ll say, what about sleeping on the couch? If the meteorite is supposed to crash through the bedroom window, you should be safe enough on the couch, right? Okay okay, I can understand your line of reasoning, but I can’t help thinking it’s just a little too pat. The way I see it, if you’re sleeping on the couch, the couch naturally assumes all the ontological properties of bed qua bed, and the living room the properties of bedroom qua bedroom. And anyway, from the perspective of a meteorite — or any other inanimate extra-terrestrial body, for that matter — I suspect the distinction is dubious at best. Wouldn’t you agree? Okay, I’ll put it another way: were it really so simple to avoid one’s destiny, do you believe for a minute the world would be as it is?… I thought not. But please don’t misunderstand me: it’s a beautiful thought, and I adore you for thinking it. Honestly, I do. I wish more people thought like you.
Q: What class of meteorite is it?
A: I have a hunch it’s a siderite: a hunk of iron from the shattered heart of an asteroid. Now, if you’re of a certain temperament, you’ll say that’s just the romantic in me, but hear me out. You have to consider the physics. Given the size range we’re expecting, your run of the mill chondrite, being stony, just doesn’t have the necessary density for maintaining any considerable fraction of its cosmic velocity on passing through the Earth’s atmosphere and, consequently, would come through the window at a leisurely few hundred kilometers an hour. In other words, I’d hear a Buick-sized chondrite approaching, and that would ruin the whole aesthetic of my final fleeting moments on Earth, sending me into a horrible panic and making a mockery of my celebrated optimism.
Q: Will you be missed?
A: What the hell kind of question is that? Of course I’ll be missed…. But not as much as you might think. My daughters will be distraught for the first few days, as good daughters are wont to be, but they’ll be surprised by how soon they grow accustomed to referring to me in the past tense. It’s okay. It’s only natural. I wouldn’t have it any other way. As for their mother, my first ex-wife, she’ll have a brief, but touching, bout of nostalgia. We did have a few good days together, every now and then, once upon a time. This sentiment will have faded, though, by the time the third reporter, a freelancer blogging for a wildly overrated rag, interrupts her during dinner. “It’s not like he cured the clap,” she’ll say, for the record. “He just got in the way. He’s a statistical anomaly.” Then she’ll correct herself, never having been one to use language haphazardly. “No, wait. He’s not even that. He’s just the skinny part of the distribution.” It’s okay, she’ll say it without malice. And anyway, I kind of like it. Has a nice texture. Wouldn’t make a half-bad epitaph, come to think of it. And of course she’ll be right. And she’ll be fully justified in wondering why anybody on Earth would find this so fascinating. But it will be fascinating, and to a great many bodies on Earth. I can assure you of that. I’ll only be knocked out of the news cycle by the unexpected and tragic death of the world’s tallest human, in a bizarre spelunking incident while on vacation in Texas. His death, by the way, will spark a minor political schism, which I’d prefer not to elaborate on at present. It’s not that I’m averse to polemical rants, it’s just that I’d prefer to get to know you better before I start upbraiding you for your backward and provincial — and/or radical and irreverent — worldview and/or lifestyle and/or landscaping preferences.
But getting back to my first ex-wife, here’s the thing: you should never marry anybody who’s too much better than you. Over time, see, married couples become more alike. Marriage is a great equalizer, like death. This is what happened with Maggie and me. When we married, she was about the closest thing I could imagine to a bodhisattva, an enlightened spirit of boundless compassion. In her whole being, she had only the teensiest, most negligible flaws. I couldn’t even name them if I had to, that’s how miniscule they were. I could only infer their existence indirectly, like sub-atomic particles or the curvature of spacetime. So how did I know they were there, these subtle character defects of hers? Simple: by the fact that she could be spotted in the company of somebody like me. Anyway, we gradually started to shift ever so slightly in the direction of equilibrium. Nowhere near enough to even out — that would have taken centuries, millennia, mahakalpas — no no, just enough to enhance our mutual awareness of the difference. So, as often seems to be the case, our troubles took the form of a paradox: while shacking up with somebody like me required a minimum distance from perfection, it also required a minimum proximity to perfection — without which she could never have tolerated my myriad flaws. For things to work out between us, it was necessary that she remain within an exceedingly narrow near-perfection gap, a kind of existential sweet-spot. Once I had corrupted her from a sixteenth to a three-thirty-seconds notch shy of ideal, she was no longer sufficiently beatific as to suffer my presence. She no longer had the exaggerated capacity for forgiveness the task required. But anyway, that was a very long time ago. Old age, in my experience, is hyperopic: I can see things clearly only from a long way off. (Actually, my vision has probably always been like this. It’s just that when I was young nothing was far enough away.)
Q: What are your opinions about what comes after the meteorite? You know: the afterlife, paradise, the abyss, reincarnation, transmigration of souls, circle of life, first law of thermodynamics, and so on.
A: I’ve only been able to get a somewhat sketchy impression, but from what I’ve seen, it’s mostly a lot of paperwork. And I mean a lot of paperwork. An almost incomprehensibly vast ocean of paperwork, okay? The signing seems to go on forever, but of course I’m observing the thing from a human perspective. You can ask anybody, we humans have a notoriously parochial concept of time. But anyway, you can think of it like this: it’s like closing on a house, a trillion times. Of course, they put these pieces of tape, with little red arrows, on all the pages, showing you where to sign, and blue arrows showing you where to initial, and that really makes the whole thing a lot simpler. At first you’ll probably try to read everything before you sign it, but believe me, it’s better just to trust them, let them do their jobs. It’s mostly legalese anyway, legalese and the occasional random snippet of free verse, which, while elegant and amusing, can become a bit of a distraction after a while. To complicate things, in parallel with the signing they make you write this very detailed resume, only instead of being limited to just your educational and employment history, it encompasses what you might call the totality of your awareness — every act, every thought, every impression, every sensation, down to the most mundane and trivial detail, like a psychic inventory. And you have to provide no fewer than 602,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 references. You’ll say that’s impossible, but you can do it. Obviously they don’t all have to be human. It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s natural for you to think that, but no. In fact, a person who’s lived a full and worthwhile life can get some really superlative endorsements from fireflies, blades of grass, raindrops, contrabassoons, grains of sand, interstellar nebulae, slender young aspens, endogenous retroviruses, red-bellied tamarins, the Roman Senate, vestigial hindlimbs, that first really brisk morning in autumn, sunspots, Holliday junctions, northern New Mexico, phosphorescent dinoflagellates, John Lee Hooker, London dispersion forces, the aurora borealis, that e.e. cummings poem about the leaf, monsoon season, fresh cilantro, a scar on your father’s chin that was only visible by fluorescent light….
Understand, I don’t mean to imply that this is all there is. It’s entirely possible, probable even, that these are just the preliminaries, just matters of bookkeeping. Running the universe is a complicated business, you know. Even the simplest matters are actuarial nightmares. You think radioactive decay is easy to keep tabs on? How about stellar nucleosynthesis? How about quantum entanglement? And these are just off the top of my head.
On the other hand, I suppose they could drag it out as long as they wanted to, if they were so inclined. They could keep sending you letters asking for receipts, claiming they’ve been having trouble contacting some of your references, informing you that you missed certain critical deadlines, which you’ll have a hell of a time keeping up with because they fall according to a calendar of cosmic events that will be altogether beyond your comprehension. You’re really at their mercy, any way you look at it.
Q: That’s not a very optimistic view of eternity.
A: That’s not technically a question, but I’ll let it slide. I’d say whether it’s optimistic is in the way you look at it. I have a hunch a person could learn a lot about the fundamental workings of the universe by spending a few trillion big bang/big crunch cycles deconstructing their seventy-odd years on Earth. I suspect that, once you get over the instinctive feeling that you’ve got some place to be, something better you should be doing and that it’s been a billion years since you checked your email and so on and begin to settle into the thing, boredom becomes irrelevant. Who knows? Maybe the point is to undermine the idea that there has to be something else, something more, something next, some ultimate summing of all these seemingly extraneous data. Maybe the point is just to get past the conviction that there needs to be a point. Or maybe there really and genuinely is no point: maybe the pointlessness is real and absolute and not merely a didactic conceit. Maybe the universe goes on forever keeping the books just because it’s always gone on forever keeping the books. Maybe that’s just its thing. You can accept that and go along with it or you can resent it and say nasty things about the universe behind its back, but either way, it keeps right on bringing out new forms and putting the stickers with the little arrows on them and verifying the references, and either way, you have to keep right on signing. What else are you going to do? Boycott? Email your congressional representatives? It’s a free universe — within certain obvious constraints — and you can do that if you think it’ll help pass the time. But I suspect the ones who resolve to let the universe be the universe, to take it on its own terms, are the ones who, after a measly few billion years, discover one morning that they’re in no hurry to finish signing, that they could go right on filling out forms forever and — who knows? — maybe that’s exactly what they do….
But it’s possible, of course, that I’ve got it all wrong. So don’t let it upset you, if it doesn’t appeal to your sensibilities. I told you about my farsightedness, and it’s entirely possible I’m too close now to the ending to reliably make out the epilogue. But anyway, my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that endings are overrated and beginnings are overhyped and that all the best things happen somewhere in the middle. To tell the truth, the whole thing reminds me of an old joke. Do you like jokes?
Q: No, not really.
A: That’s okay, it’s not really a joke. That’s what makes it funny. Did you ever hear the one about purple hum? Like I said, it’s an old one, but maybe it’s so old it’s new. Anyway, stop me if you’ve heard it. So there’s this kid and one day at school he hears some slightly older kids talking about something called purple hum. And he doesn’t know what it is, but there’s something about the sound of it, and he can’t get it out of his head. So during class, when the teacher asks if there are any questions, he raises his hand and asks, “What’s purple hum?” So she’s appalled and sends him to the principal, who’s aghast and expels him from school. So he has to go home and tell his parents, and they’re mortified, and his mom starts yelling and his dad starts crying, and the dog starts barking and the cat starts puking, and they end up kicking him out of the house. Well, as you’ve probably guessed, this goes on and on and on. And on. And on. He goes through this whole series of misadventures, each of them ending with his being ostracized and castigated and generally abused, again and again, every time he dredges up or blunders into the topic of purple hum. The idea, of course, is to drag the story out as long as the listener can bear, adding as much gratuitous detail and as many convolutions as possible, until the listener is about ready to punch you in the face. Some people can make a real masterpiece of it. (I’m giving you the condensed version here, as evidence that I’ve grown as a human being and am not nearly the prick I readily admit to having been all those years ago.) The peculiar thing is that everybody seems to know enough about purple hum to be really upset about it, but nobody will ever tell him what it means or offer the slightest insight into why it universally provokes such powerful reactions. Well, anyway, he eventually ends up in prison, and when he finally gets out, determined to put purple hum behind him and salvage what’s left of his life — or just as he’s on his way to meet a great guru he heard about in prison, who, he’s been assured, will once and for all reveal for him the great and terrible secrets of purple hum, depending on who’s telling it — he’s run over by a bus and killed instantly….
A: Do you want to know the moral of the story?
Q: … Okay.
A: Always look both ways before crossing the street….
A: … before crossing the street….
A: You get it, right?
A: Okay okay, point taken. But if you’ve got a better one, I’d love to hear it….
A: Really…. I would….
A: Like I told you, I adore the sound of your voice….
A: Well, anyway, I’m glad you stopped by. If you can stick around, I’ll order a pizza. My treat. There’s half a bottle of some thoroughly decent, if thoroughly affordable, red wine. And a bottle or two of some micro-brew with a silly name I can’t quite remember at the moment and a picture of a dog on the label. No, it’s okay. Really, I insist… So what do you like, mushrooms or pepperoni?
Don Hucks lives on the periphery of gorgeous (yet approachable) Nashville, Tennessee, with a terrific woman, a spectacular boy, and a perfectly acceptable cat. There’s also a pair of robins, a handful of rabbits, and the occasional mole. The plants are too numerous to mention, but they know who they are.