When Micah didn’t wake up one day, his first thought was, without rancor, of the poets he had supervised since accepting his position as a teaching assistant in the poetry MFA program. His students were as close to biological children as he was ever going to get, and it was with a misguided paternal worry that he wished for their success, and cringed at their failures, of which the latter far outweighed the former. There was the girl who spent the semester convincing her class of the inferiority of all males (Micah had entertained her quivering boyfriend during office hour sessions, during which there were several pats on the back while Micah ran through boxes of tissues and every self-esteem booster he could think of); and the boy, Amal, who wrote exclusively in a rhyming meter—which would have been fine if his definition of rhyme had shared more commonalities with that of a dictionary; and, of course, Wendy, the lovely experimental poet who held the unique distinction of having singlehandedly convinced the Board of Trustees, at a public reading of her 7-page sonnet, to increase funding to the college of liberal arts on the condition that future poetry be at least mostly confined to sounds that don’t send humans into epileptic fits.
He got up and looked at his body on the bed. It was cold and stiff, like it had been there for hours before realizing that it should release him. A stack of papers sat imposingly on the bedside table, poetry submissions from his undergraduate students. Most of them, he realized, were as yet unmarked. He had started making comments, but had stopped when someone described a fish as somniferous, at which point he had started on his first bottle of beer and resolved to do the rest tomorrow.
He wondered if his was in any way his fault, if that was some god’s punishment for the scribbles he himself tried to pass as poetry (anyone who considers this a baseless thought has never had the pleasure/horror of meeting poetry’s muses, who are among the most pernicious in existence). He had at one point styled himself a poet, a fallacious notion of which he was definitively disabused when his assignment was returned with red ink in such quantities that it had probably necessitated the sacrifice of at least one small goat. It was that same paper that had piqued his stubbornness, and from that point he had been obsessed with the intricacy of crafting poems that elicited feelings, not just images. Every poem had become a labor of love; where he had once been propelled by a compulsory desire to create the perfect metaphor, he found his eye and hand drawn to the vacillations of imperfect lines and dissonant images.
And then he had got his degree and moved on to graduate school when he realized that, apart from his parents and one oddly supportive professor, nobody who read his carefully-nuanced bits of the human condition really gave a shit.
The papers fluttered, and the top one flew off the stack and glided gently to the floor, where it landed on a pen. Micah stared at it, then looked around for the source of the sudden breeze. His room was as he remembered it: door and window closed, air and fan off. He turned back and stared at the paper. It continued to lie there, without any more fluttering.
A great many people had told him, throughout his life, that he looked lost, as though he lacked a purpose. As a boy he had ignored this and chalked it up to not being a boring adult—didn’t they always say he could be whatever he wanted to be? When he finally began to worry about those things, he had lost himself in evocative lines of poetry and concluded that, for a poet anyway, being lost was more or less required; nobody wanted to read poems by somebody who had it all figured out.
The paper fluttered again, almost plaintively, so he picked it up, as well as the pen beneath it. It felt like regular paper, and the pen felt like a pen. He glanced back at the bed, just to be sure that his corpse hadn’t decided to take a stroll while he wasn’t looking. It hadn’t. He looked down at the objects in his hands.
He had spent the past few years dutifully avoiding purpose whenever it chanced to stroll by. Now, looking at the poem and pen, he came to a stunning realization, made all the more potent by its utter obviousness: he was dead. It didn’t really matter whether he had it all figured out anymore, because he had passed beyond the threshold at which people stop caring about your life and begin caring about how well you could elucidate its details. He sat on the edge of the bed and began to write. He made it through the entire stack—and most of the red pen—when he looked up and saw a tall ebony man leaning on the inside of his door.
“Death?” he said.
“Hm?” said Death, as though he hadn’t been paying attention. “Sorry.”
Micah shrugged. “It’s fine. That was you, wasn’t it? With the papers?”
Death wiggled his fingers like a jazz pianist sliding up through a minor chord, and the papers fluttered, briefly. “I thought it would work better than a grandiose apparition. Are you finished?”
“You know,” said Death as Micah arranged the graded poems to make them more obvious to whoever happened to find him, “now that you’re dead, why not keep writing?”
“Is that allowed?”
“Well. Exceptions can always be made.” When Micah didn’t answer, he continued, “It’s just that, I’ve visited many poets over the millennia, and none of them ever seemed to want to write anymore once I show up. They have so much to say about me before we meet, but when we finally do it’s almost as if they’re disappointed. It’s a little disheartening, you know? No pun intended. No, wait.” He poked himself in the chest, then looked at his hand as if in wonder. “I forgot I looked like this now. It used to be all bones.”
Death shrugged. “I got bored. So. You want the gig?” He was peering at Micah expectantly, like he was waiting for a parent’s verdict on the quality of a watercolor of his house, family, and dog.
Micah tried to summon the inner fire that had propelled him when he was breathing, but found it missing. No, not missing: quenched. For the first time in his memory, he was utterly content. “No. Thanks, though,” he said, discovering the thought as he spoke. “I don’t think people want to know what death’s really like. They’d much rather imagine it for themselves.”
Death’s face fell. “Oh. Okay. Well, we should probably go.”
He walked through the closed door. Micah followed him into the messy living room and out into the musty hallway that seems to be the standard in all college apartments. Just before they reached the parking lot he said, “How come you, you know.” He made jazz piano motions with his fingers. “I mean, isn’t that just a waste of energy?”
“What’s to waste? You’re already dead.” Death stepped out into the sunlight and stretched. “And it usually helps people feel better.” Micah thought about this, then nodded once and said, “Okay.” And then he was gone.