The Quotable

Three Deaths

Frank had always thought he would stay with Marjorie only until she no longer needed him. And so it came as a shock, having died, to realize that what he’d considered a temporary and essentially charitable relationship had persisted till the moment of his demise. Theirs had been the classic teen romance: backseat make-out sessions, late night dates at Dairy Queen, even roller derby — the kind of love immortalized in film. And perhaps it was the appeal of that quintessential narrative, or the fear of disappointing his family, or, more likely, the fact that Marjorie persisted in loving him — fully, continually, and somewhat inexplicably — but in any case, he never found the heart to do what his brothers in Alpha Ena Omega kept telling him: that is, break up with her. And so he resolved to wait until Marjorie realized that she no longer needed him — that he was simultaneously not good enough for her, and vaguely destined for better things — a resolution that followed him through four years of college, seven years of marriage, and straight to the snowmobile accident that accomplished in one fell swoop what he had never brought himself to do — put an end to things.

And now, to his surprise, he missed her.

This realization hit him, as such things do, too late. It was like that old episode of Murder Mystery Theatre, where they’d found the body of the victim in a decrepit mausoleum: there, in the last chamber of his heart, he discovered the moldering corpse of a love he had thought safely buried, with the same mix of shock, revulsion, and despair. And so in his final earthly seconds he realized that the undeniable nullity of his short life could not, at the end of the day, be blamed on Marjorie, but rather on his own failure to love her sufficiently — a mournful epiphany.

It had been, he recalled, an episode entitled the 4.50 From Paddington. A woman strangled on the train, her body pushed onto the tracks and, later, hidden. And as if this recollection had conjured the living scene from memory, a lofty railway terminal appeared before him, thronged with milling crowds of countless, silent dead and — flickering, insubstantial — the dying. Piles of suitcases lined the platform; some had fallen open, revealing crumpled newspapers, women’s undergarments, an assortment of personal (and impersonal) effects. Signs announced directions for the Dining & Tea Room, the newsstand and bookstore, and, beside the tracks upon which a grange-class locomotive quietly steamed, the imminent departure of a train whose final destination was simply, if somewhat tautologically, listed as “Final Destination.”  When the doors opened he got on.

The train was crowded — the holidays must be a busy season — and Frank had to walk through several cars before he found an unoccupied seat facing an elderly couple who, it emerged, had been incinerated in a raging tenement fire. “It was horrid,” the woman shuddered, “Unimaginable. The moment when the heat begins to creep inside you and burns you from within, and then your blood literally boils — that’s the worst.”

“Do you realize,” the old man leaned forward eagerly, “that this train is an exact replica of The Fairy Queen? It’s quite remarkable. The oldest locomotive still in operation. From Calcutta to Delhi. Makes you wonder: what did they use to transport the dead before the invention of the steam engine? Carriages?”

“Don’t be silly, Clarence,” his wife admonished. “They don’t have to worry about anachronisms in heaven.” She rummaged through her purse, then turned towards Frank. “Would you care for a pastrami sandwich?”

Frank looked at the expectant faces of his affable seat mates, who even in death seemed prepared for the most lively entertainment, and reflected bitterly that the silence of the grave was profoundly overstated. He imagined the possibility of an eternity spent in conversation with this couple, and began to feel increasingly claustrophobic. The air in the compartment seemed stale, and suddenly warm; he had the absurd notion that the ventilation ducts had been filled with mustard gas. Just then the conductor emerged at the far end of the compartment and Frank realized, in a flash of horror, that he’d forgotten to buy a ticket.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he muttered, and made a beeline for the rear door of the compartment. He would attempt to find an unobtrusive seat in the dining car and, if need be, hole himself up in the bathroom until the conductor had passed. Thus occupied with diversionary tactics, Frank opened the sliding compartment door, stepped through, and promptly fell out into nothingness.

Frank fell for a long time — flailing, unenfolded, strangely peaceful — until at last he hit the ground with a hollow thwack, folded his arms under his legs, tucked his head, and rolled down a steep and rocky declivity for what seemed, again, an eternity. Finally the slope lessened. Then came to a halt, as did Frank, who found himself face down in a puddle of muddy ditchwater.

By the time he sorted himself out, the train had receded beyond the horizon. And, once Frank had climbed back up the embankment, which had so recently provided for his descent, he noted that the train tracks seemed to have disappeared as well: not a bolt, not a screw; nothing remained to suggest the recent passing of civilization. Only then did he pause to take stock of his surroundings.

Frank’s first thought was that the afterlife looked remarkably like Scotland. Stark, untrammeled hills rolled out to the horizon. The sky was uniformly grey, strangely luminous, and without even a hint of a celestial body. In a word, bleak.

Still, one would have to make the best of it. In the distance he espied a copse of trees, and he could hear, somewhere more near, the faint trickle of running water; suddenly he felt the wild exaltation of the pioneer. He would build a home, here on this savage plain; a home for Marjorie. In high school he’d always excelled at carpentry.

It could have been years, and then again it might only have been hours, before it happened. Frank had been building a little log cabin of virgin pine, clearing the surrounding brush, and planting both flower and vegetable gardens. Or perhaps he had only imagined this. Time passed strangely here, and the borders between fiction and reality blurred increasingly. But then, one day — or night, for that matter; the sky never showed — just as Frank was putting in a row of flowering azaleas, a door appeared in the far corner of the cabbage patch, and out stepped Marjorie.

In a flash Frank was running towards her, tears distilled of longing, remorse and gratitude streaming obliquely across his face, and before you could say ‘Poughkeepsie’ he had taken her in his arms, spun her around, and deposited her, laughing and crying, back on terra infirma. “I love you, Marjorie Martin,” he intoned, “and this time — this time, things will be different.”

In the next months (or days, or years) paradise lived up to its reputation, while Frank attempted to alter his. He and Marjorie began again, not from where they’d left off — a sad cul-de-sac of long silences and unspoken reservations — but from where things might have been; an odd alley which they retraced, tentatively, back to the point where things had, for lack of a better word, gone wrong. Back to that juncture where some choice had been made, albeit unconsciously, which had steered the course of their marriage towards its untimely end, and further, to the days when even the sight of Marjorie’s dress drifting across the football field could send Frank into unimaginable raptures. Having all the time in the world, they took things slow; long woodland walks and longer conversations; initial overtures which — at first haltingly — led them towards a depth of communion Frank had never before imagined could exist between man and wife. He blessed heaven for giving him this unexpected second chance and, when finally they took to the bedroom, his last doubts about the feasibility of immaterial consummation were laid to rest.

And then, one day, a persistent drone pierced the horizon of Frank’s euphoria. Soon after it was followed by a discernible speck on the actual horizon, which rapidly grew in size and — presumably — proximity until it resembled the form of a man on a motorcycle; and then, soon enough, it was a man on a motorcycle. Clad, it seemed, in dusty overalls and a faded leather jacket. He pulled up in front of Frank and Marjorie’s nascent homestead, pulled off his helmet, and shook free a veritable mane of sable locks. Then the man turned and shot a winning smile in Frank’s general direction. “Hi babe,” he stated tenderly, and Frank experienced a moment of utter confusion. Then he looked at Marjorie.

“Well,” she said to Frank, “there may have been a few things I forgot to tell you about.”


Marjorie Martin, née Brookes, had had three loves in her life: Keats, Yeats, and Auden. Later of course these three expanded, but they were the first; while her friends sang along with New Kids on the Block or lip synced to Kurt Cobain, Marjorie recited, “O solitude, if I must with thee dwell,” with something approaching religious fervor, and, when she got to the lines about the highest bliss occurring, “When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee,” it must be admitted that she could imagine no kindreder spirit than he whose book she held in her very hand.

Nevertheless, when Frank had asked her to Junior Prom she’d said ‘yes,’ no doubt because some vestige of Midwestern practicality informed her that you could not, alas, espouse a book. Marjorie possessed that rare combination of sensitivity and common sense that taught her, even before having read Madame Bovary, the perils of inflated expectation. And she found, at first, that the duties of high school sweetheart did not weigh too heavily on her; sex, while disappointingly prosaic, left her plenty of time for poetry.

Then Frank was accepted to the University of Minnesota and, a year later, she followed him. She majored in English, a respectably unpractical decision made all the more fitting once Frank finally settled on a business degree. It was the heyday of what had once been known as French Theory, a craze for deconstruction and ideology critique which had infected even the stodgy English department. In those years of language wars and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, demagogues took to the radio to decry the new multiculturalism, while pedagogues at the podium declared the linguistic overthrowing of two millennia of phallocentric logo-criticism. But Marjorie was not taken in; it had always seemed to her a secret shame that one could enjoy poetry while children were dying in Africa, and no amount of revolutionary syntax could alter that sad disjunction. Formally, meanwhile, she still preferred rhyme and meter.

Frank proposed to her on the very day that she received another offer — one he would never learn about. They had been together for five years and, while nothing in that time had altered her initial and admittedly modest expectations, she imagined that a flat continuance of the status quo was the best to be hoped for from a marriage which at the very least would not fail to disappoint. More than that — and without it ever occurring to her to call this a self-sacrifice — she imagined that, while the fate of those African children was outside of her control, the one thing she could do was to make Frank happy. And so she folded away her acceptance letter to the University of Michigan creative writing program with scarcely any regret.

When Frank died she didn’t know what to think. Their marriage might have been a domestic farce, but Marjorie knew her way around light verse. Death, with its finality and banality, seemed to demand a register she had not yet learned to master. It occurred to her that her life up to this point had been, indeed, an act; also that she might be less far removed from Emma Bovary than she’d once thought. The role of widow proved too much for her, not because she couldn’t play it, but because she could; the well-rehearsed gestures of mourning, familiar from a thousand books and films, only heightened her sense of estrangement from reality.

At her lowest points, the only thing preventing her from suicide was the fear of another operatic gesture.

Instead, she found a creative writing group. Anna Kozikowski, an old college acquaintance, had moved down to Pella and, when they ran into each-other at the Safeway, invited her to join her writing circle; they met alternate Sundays at nine o’clock. Marjorie hadn’t written a thing since graduation, but she found that the thought appealed to her; poetry seemed to her no less frivolous than before but, since she apparently failed at all things serious, it felt like a perverse form of courage to take the frivolous seriously. It was a hermetic little group, all women, and notoriously secretive; they jokingly called themselves the shy poets society. Nevertheless, after some months she began submitting to journals and, to her own surprise, met with success; her ode to avocados was accepted immediately, and her sestina on Medea murdering her children won several awards.

It was at the launch party for her chapbook, “The First Time as Farce,” that she ran into Charlie, one of Anna’s exes from her pre-sapphic days. Charlie was many things that Frank was not: emotional, intuitive, introspective. He had studied philosophy and now worked as a motorcycle repairman, which struck her as the punchline to a forgotten joke, but Charlie took it, and her, entirely seriously. Both were concerned with how things work, he explained, but philosophy got so caught up in working it out that it forgot about the actual thing. “How profound,” she muttered slyly, and then Charlie kissed her.

To say that Marjorie was unprepared for this kiss would be an understatement. Nothing in her short life had suggested to her this capacity to feel, or rather the possibility that a real, tangible, emphatically human being could serve as both vessel and catalyst for her feeling. Once, as a child, as she was taking out the trash, she had brushed past a climbing morning glory and felt a pool of icy rainwater cascading down her back; then for a moment she had sensed the world in its startling realness and herself a body in it. It was like that, only more so.

Six months later she moved into Charlie’s ramshackle house in a rapidly- deteriorating suburb and discovered, to her delight, that the back yard contained a trellis of twining morning glories. She took a job teaching high school English and later, when plans to open a nearby boys’ home provoked the wrath of the homeowner’s association, she and Charlie campaigned — successfully — to keep the project going, and then Charlie was offered a position as the boys’ counselor and she herself won a seat on the town council. In short, things were going swimmingly until, just before her thirty-seventh birthday, Marjorie was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the cancer that did her in. Marjorie soldiered on through chemo treatments and the loss of her left breast with the fortitude of a five-star general; Charlie called her his Amazon warrior and developed campaign tactics and long-term strategies. Then one evening she was hospitalized with sharp shooting pains in her leg; probably nothing serious, but the ward wanted to hold her overnight. Sometime around four in the morning, after Marjorie had fallen asleep and Charlie had gone home to look after the dogs, she woke and found herself wandering through a warren of hospital corridors. They led on through twists and turns towards what could only be described as a light in the distance; Marjorie hurried forward with quickening expectation. But then, off to her right, the door to what appeared to be a storage closet drew her attention. She thought she could hear the sounds of a child, sobbing, within. She hesitated, glanced once more down the hallway, then turned the knob and went through; while back in the ward she expired of a pulmonary embolism.

And then, of course, there was Frank.

Marjorie had never given much thought to the afterlife, though of course she had read Blake; she had read Milton; she had read Merrill. This last, she noted with some surprise, had got one thing right: even in heaven, her left breast did not return; the effects of cancer were apparently irremediable. But all in all she had never given it much thought, the afterlife, and thus was utterly unprepared for this marital reunion while, at the same time, Frank’s renewed presence felt somehow utterly expected, even comfortable, like the dénouement of a murder mystery where the culprit is revealed to be the person you’d least imagined and at the same time the only one possible. It was Frank.

And things were so much better the second time around. As if their conjugal life had almost been a preliminary practice for this, the real opening night. As if their underwhelming marriage had been a form of arduous tillage, planting the seeds for a love that would only flourish after long dormancy and then, suddenly, without any effort. As if marriage were a sort of trial where, at the end, the judge took off his cap and announced that the whole thing had only been for show, and all judgment was suspended in the name of carnival. As if all our failures were only rehearsals. And somehow, in all of that, she never found a way to tell Frank about Charlie, though she thought of him often, if vaguely, like a love from another life (as indeed he was). Until there he was.


Bennett Carpenter studied literature and dance at Marlboro College in the United States, and completed a master’s in literary studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. This is his first published work of fiction.

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The Quotable Issue 3 - Transformation