Don, Death, & Virtue
by Mark Monlux
Don was eating hash browns and gravy at Mable's all night cafe. Mable's was a place in town whose history was built on the reputation of the college students. But the college students only ate there half of the year before they would go off to their coffee houses. Truckers ate at Mable's. They gave the place credibility. The myth about trucker's restaurants was one of the reasons Don was eating at Mable's. The other reason was that somebody had told him that the hash browns were excellent.
Halfway through his second mouthful, Don began to regret his order. This wasn't turning out to be the culinary delight he had anticipated. Ketchup was not helping. The gravy might actually be sludge from the refrigerator drip pan, which somehow found its way over a pan and onto his hash browns. Perhaps accomplished by a series of small black holes. He ordered a chili burger. Don continued to eat his hash browns. He was big on life and was willing to take what life tossed him. If it was his fate that he was hungry and the food sitting in front of him could be mistaken for industrial waste, so be it. He sat there and ate. Don could not help but let a little of his food slide down the wrong tube when Death walked through the door.
Don was struggling to cough, all the while thinking, "Great, Death is here to take me. I'm going to choke." He looked around hoping that some trucker would do the Heimlich maneuver on him. No such luck, the place was empty.
Man chokes to death in restaurant. Don thought, I don't need this. Death was grinning at him.
"Hi, Don," Death greeted. "What's that?" He pointed to Don's plate.
"Hash browns and gravy," Don squeaked, finally clearing his throat. "Try some."
"Do you mind if I sit down?" Death asked.
"Go away." Don said. "I deny you. You don't exist. I don't ever want to see you again."
Death sat down.
"Hey," Don said, "Didn't you hear me? I said shove off."
"Listen, Don," Death said. "Don't give me grief, Okay? I want to rest a bit before leaving."
"You don't exist," Don whispered. The hash browns had lost all their appeal; he shoveled them around his plate.
"Will you stop with the denial stage already?" Death asked.
"I'll tell you something," Death said. "You can't deny me because I am real. You may try to ignore me but you can't. You may try to escape me, but eventually I will find you. I am with you always. I'm as common as mold on month-old bread. Regardless of time or distance, I reign everywhere." Death looked pleased, and continued: "After looking at me for a while, some people find that I have charisma."
Don thought of bathrooms and razor blades.
"Some people look forward to seeing me," Death said. "They see me and they say, 'Hi, Death. How's tricks?' 'Time for departure Mr. Death? Fine by me.'" Death leaned back. "I picked up this old lady today. She said to me, 'Oh, it is you, Mr. Collector.' I thought that was cute. Don't you think that was cute?" Death asked.
"Huh." Don said, about to have kittens. In his mind he was scrambling like mad to find a way to elude death. He was turning over plans of skeletal dismemberment when Virtue walked through the door.
"Hi guys," Virtue beamed. "What's up?"
"An old lady called me 'Mr. Collector' today," Death said.
"These hash browns are visiting diplomats from Venus, and I just ate half their delegation," Don said. Death looked at the hash browns, so did Virtue. Don looked at the door, wondering if now would be a good time to run for it. "Have a seat," he said.
"Thanks." Virtue said. He sat down carefully, minding his wings. "Nice day." The waitress came out with the chili burger.
"Your order, sir," she said. She didn't notice Death. She might have seen Virtue. Don wasn't sure. He did not know how far the waitress's memories went back. "Are you done with this?" she asked, as she bent to pick up the hash browns.
"Yes," he replied. As the waitress left the table Virtue said, "There goes all communication with Venus."
Don smiled. He was beginning to feel better, and his attention went back to his chili burger. His appetite was back and he dug in with his fork. The chili burger was much better than the hash browns. He was very hungry and content in shoveling food down his throat. Remembering his company, he looked up. Death was eating French fries; Virtue had a piece of pie. Both had coffee. Don looked down. Such sights are not for mortal men.
Looking at his plate he saw that a feather had landed in his chili. Don felt a little queasy. Feathers reminded him of chickens. He had more knowledge than he cared to admit about chickens. He had been raised on a chicken ranch. He had lived with chicken, ate chicken, smelled chickens, hauled and fed chickens. All without a thought of complaint. That was until the great chicken massacre of '74. His participation that summer saw him in more blood and chicken guts than in all of his childhood years combined. When he slept he dreamt of what he did all day long. Slowly walking along, snapping chicken necks with both hands. At the end of that summer, some four-thousand, six-hundred-odd chickens later, he found that the smell of chicken cooking made him nauseous. He could not eat chicken without getting ill. He wouldn't eat fish because the smell reminded him of chicken. He looked at the feather on his plate and then at Virtue. The feather had fallen from one of Virtue's wings. Don wasn't feeling good anymore.
He glanced at Death. He was curious as to how anyone could eat without lips. It was a mistake. Looking at Death's mouth reminded him of the chicken farm. He drank some water; that seemed to help.
Don picked the feather from his food. He didn't want to be rude and leave something gross on the table. He folded it in a napkin. It still looked obvious, just like his sister's gum during Thanksgiving dinner. He stuffed the napkin into his pocket.
Now that his plate was tidy (nothing here to remind him of poultry), he finished off the last of his chili burger. Death was wiping up the last of his French fries. Virtue was putting some sugar into his coffee.
"Sugar and spice and everything nice," Death cackled.
"Pebbles and snails and puppy dog tails," said Virtue.
Don watched as the two apparitions had a fit of giggles. Don stared.
"I don't get it," he said. "What's the joke?"
"Death was kidding me about women," Virtue said. He tried to say more, but ol' skull-face started to snicker, and Virtue broke into laughter.
"A girl's stolen virtue?" Don asked. He was beginning to get the joke. "That type of thing?" This brought more laughter. Don was laughing now, too. Virtue was leaking tears, and Death was holding his own ribs.
Virtue raised his cup and toasted, "Death holds all men equal."
Death toasted back, "Virtue is its own reward." Another wave of lunacy gripped them. After it had settled, Virtue straightened his feathers. Don wiped the tears from his eyes. Death brushed some crumbs off his cloak.
"Well," Death said, "I guess it's finally time to go."
Don's food did a small flip in his stomach and lay there like a brick. His heart pounded, sweat broke out. He had that odd feeling that his body was doing everything necessary for running, yet was refusing to move. His thoughts were cold, white, and empty. He heard Death stand up. He could not see. Somebody had closed his eyes so tightly they seem to cut off the world.
At any moment, Don thought, at any moment I'm going to feel his icy grip on my shoulder. He waited for the moment. Nothing happened; he opened his eyes. There was Death with his hand on Virtue's shoulder. Virtue didn't look so good. His skin was pale. He looked like he was sweating.
"Ngrgh," Virtue said. The words were not coming out right. "There has to be a mistake," he finally said.
"No mistake," Death said. "You are dead, as in: kicked the bucket, pushing daisies, out the door feet-first, bought the farm, tits up, caught a bullet, growing frost. You're a card-carrying member of the dearly deceased."
"I can't be dead, I'm Virtue," Virtue said.
"Well, Virtue is dead," Death said.
"I'm not an old lady with a heart condition!" Virtue yelled. "I demand to know how I can be dead."
"Christ," Death swore. "Why the hell does everybody have to go through the denial stage? Listen Virtue, you have been stepped on, stolen, lost, found, bruised, tested, invested, borrowed, gained, shifted, and parted. There is more wear on you than a Henry Ford tire. You can hardly be recognized for what you are. It is not your nature to notice yourself, so you could not see that you were dying. Now you are dead, and it's the happy hunting grounds for you."
"Wait a moment," Don said, "Virtue is right. He can't die, regardless of how much wear he has. There is still virtue in the world, so he must exist."
"Well," Virtue said. "I really don't cover the whole world."
"Huh?" Don was puzzled.
"I only cover Chicago, record companies, major burger chains, and the Paris, Colorado, High School Marching Band," Virtue said.
"What he means," Death said, "is that he was demoted."
"I don't understand," Don said.
"The world got to be a big place," Virtue said. "Now there are several virtues, and between the lot of us we do pretty well."
"Well, you're dead," Death said.
"What about Chicago? What about..." Virtue was saying, when Death cut him off.
"You've been demoted again," Death said.
"Nuts," Virtue said. "What do I have now?"
"You are now responsible for one person," Death said.
"One?" Virtue asked.
"One," Death replied.
"Well, who is it?"
"Him," Death said. He was pointing at Don.
Once again, Don wasn't feeling so good. It would be a little much for anybody to have the Grim Reaper point his finger at you, then to find out you couldn't recognize your own virtue. His head hurt.
Don looked at Virtue, and asked, "Where have you been?"
"Oh, just out wandering around with a marching band," Virtue replied.
"Good, you're dead now," Death said. "No more wandering around for you." He started Virtue toward the door.
"He can't die," Don cried, "he is my virtue."
"My, but the lad is bright," Death said sarcastically. "My, but he is quick." As Death led Virtue out of Mable's, he called back, "I'll be seeing you."
Don sat quietly. Death had left a tip of two coins. Don thought of bathrooms and razor blades. It was a while before he smiled, remembering a feather in a napkin. *
(Story and illustration copyright © 1994 by Mark Monlux.)
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