DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS
DEATH IS A LONELY BUSINESS
Venice, California, in the old days had much to recommend it to people who liked to be sad. It had fog almost every night and along the shore the moaning of the oil well machinery and the slap of dark water in the canals and the hiss of sand against the windows of your house when the wind came up and sang among the open places and along the empty walks.
Those were the days when the Venice pier was falling apart and dying in the sea and you could find there the bones of a vast dinosaur, the rollercoaster, being covered by the shifting tides.
At the end of one long canal you could find old circus wagons that had been rolled and dumped, and in the cages, at midnight, if you looked, things lived, fish and crayfish moving with the tide; and it was all the circuses of time somehow gone to doom and rusting away.
And there was a loud avalanche of big red trolley car that rushed toward the sea every half-hour and at midnight skirled the curve and threw sparks on the high wires and rolled away with a moan which was like the dead turning in their sleep, as if the trolleys and the lonely men who swayed steering them knew that in another year they would be gone, the tracks covered with concrete and tar and the high spider-wire collected on rolls and spirited away.
And it was in that time, in one of those lonely years when the fogs never ended and the winds never stopped their laments, that riding the old red trolley, the high-bucketing thunder, one night I met up with Death’s friend and didn’t know it.
It was a raining night, with me reading a book in the back of the old, whining, roaring railcar on its way from one empty confetti-tossed transfer station to the next. Just me and the big, aching wooden car and the conductor up front slamming the brass controls and easing the brakes and letting out the hell-steam when needed.
And the man down the aisle who somehow had got there without my noticing.
I became aware of him finally because of him swaying, swaying, standing there behind me for a long time, as if undecided because there were forty empty seats and late at night it is hard with so much emptiness to decide which one to take. But finally I heard him sit and I knew he was there because I could smell him like the tidelands coming in across the fields. On top of the smell of his clothes, there was the odor of too much drink taken in too little time.
I did not look back at him. I learned long ago, looking only encourages.
I shut my eyes and kept my head firmly turned away. It didn’t work.
“Oh,” the man moaned.
I could feel him strain forward in his seat. I felt his hot breath on my neck. I held on to my knees and sank away.
“Oh,” he moaned, even louder. It was like someone falling off a cliff, asking to be saved, or someone swimming far out in the storm, wanting to be seen.
It was raining hard now as the big red trolley bucketed across a midnight stretch of meadow-grass and the rain banged the windows, drenching away the sight of open fields. We sailed through Culver City without seeing the film studio and ran on, the great car heaving, the floorboard whining underfoot, the empty seats creaking, the train whistle screaming.
And a blast of terrible air from behind me as the unseen man cried, “Death!”
The train whistle cut across his voice so he had to start over.
“Death,” said the voice behind me, “is a lonely business.”
I thought he might weep. I stared ahead at the flashing rain that rushed to meet us. The train slowed. The man rose up in a fury of demand, as if he might beat at me if I didn’t listen and at last turn. He wanted to be seen. He wished to drown me in his need. I felt his hand stretch out, and whether as fists or claws, to rake or beat me, I could not guess. I clutched the seat in front of me. His voice exploded.
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