Fiction · 04/15/2020

How Life Is After Death

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Constantin Reliu learned in January that he was dead.

After more than 20 years of working as a cook in Turkey, the 63-year-old returned home to Romania to discover that his wife had had him officially registered as dead.

He has since been living a legalistic nightmare of trying to prove to authorities that he is, in fact, alive. He faced a major setback Thursday when a court in the northeastern city of Vaslui refused to overturn his death certificate because his request was filed “too late.”

The decision, the court said, is final.

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Someone must have slandered K., for one Tuesday morning, without having done anything, he found himself deceased.

His day usually began with the Landlady waking him by stuffing his copy of the Daily News beneath his door. After brewing a pot of ersatz coffee on the hotplate and digesting the paper, he presented himself in the kitchen. Breakfast was perfunctory and taken around a large table occupied by the other boarders. When he was done, K. paid the rent and left the pension for the hospital, where he ran a surgery.

But one morning, the Landlady did not stuff his copy of the Daily News beneath his door, which did not wake him up. Thus, no ersatz coffee was brewed, nor was any paper digested, nor did he present himself in the kitchen, și așa mai departe… K.’s absence was observed only by the Landlady when she sat down and worked through her ledger, coming to the inescapable conclusion that she was several notes short, and that he — K. — was responsible.

Rectifying the shortcoming was easy enough: a series of sharp raps on the door of Room 13 expedited the overdue payment, held up only by K.’s confusion and his disoriented state, which, the Landlady thought, to his credit, he kept to a minimum.

There was the mystery of why his Daily News hadn’t arrived, but as K. was already late for work, he was unable to seek an immediate resolution and, by the time he’d finished, the kiosk from where his paper was delivered had closed. Returning to the pension, he tipped the Landlady a few coins in order that she wake him up earlier than usual the next day and, after breakfasting alone, set out for the kiosk.

What’s this then? he asked the Vendor. I pay you for my paper and you deliver it. Is that so hard to get right?

Not at all, said the Vendor. Except that I’ve got a notice here to say your subscription is expired.

Expired, eh? I don’t think so. This error of yours almost cost me my job. See that it doesn’t happen again.

Take it up with the Publisher. You’ll have to renew the subscription. They deal with all that.

Forget the Publisher. I’ll change papers and start taking the Morning Digest.

That’s up to you. But you’ll still have to speak to their Publisher if you want a new subscription.

Well, forget the whole thing. Who needs to know what’s going on anyway? It’s the same all over. Everything goes to hell anyway.

And he went to work, where no one seemed to care if he was dead, alive, or something in-between. But there’s more, of course, just as there’s more to everything. To start with, K. did take it up with the Publisher. He spoke to the Subscriptions Desk from a booth in a café.

Yes, I have your details here, Herr Doktor. I can see that your subscription with us was ended two days ago. We here at the Daily News were grateful for your custom.

Say that again. Since the subscription was ended?

Yes, Herr Doktor.

Ended by who?

I’m afraid that information is privileged, Herr Doktor.

But it’s my information.

It is information that relates to you, Herr Doktor. But it does not belong to you.

Let me get this straight. I, a loyal customer of ten years standing, who has read and reliably paid for your paper, week in, week out, without fail, is suddenly sans subscription, and you can’t tell me why?

You have that entirely correct Herr Doktor.

Well, first things first. I’d like to re-subscribe. This palaver notwithstanding, it’s the only paper I care for.

I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Herr Doktor.

I am unastonished. Can you do me the courtesy of explaining why?

Certainly, Herr Doktor. We can’t offer you a new subscription because, according to our information, you are deceased. And, as you can imagine, that would have a severe impact on your ability to commit to a new subscription of any length.

Your logic on that matter is, at least, impeccable, said K. And he hung up.

When he returned to the hospital, K. found that his ID wasn’t recognised by the automated doors.

Must be a problem with the system, he said to the Guard.

Must be, said the Guard, not overly concerned. But see, this is a Code 13.

What does that mean?

Account expired, said the Guard, consulting a manual. You’ll have to take it up with the Account Manager.

Well, let me in, and I will.

Of course. If you’ll just present a valid ID.

I can see where this is going, said K., and he returned to the pension, where things were no better.

I’ve had a letter about you, said the Landlady. Apparently, you’re deceased.

And yet here I am, said K.

Undoubtedly. But what does that mean for me? I can’t be letting rooms out to the dead. Think of the precedent it would set.

But I’ll be homeless. Out on the street. Have a heart.

You’re dead. Where does the heart come into it?

Look, this will all be sorted out soon. Give me until the end of the week. I can pay in advance.

The Landlady considered the offer.

I suppose, for a few days. But move into the attic. If you do turn out to be dead, then you won’t be needing much space.

K. transferred his few possessions upstairs. The small window in the attic afforded him a nostalgic view of the hospital. A call to the Account Manager was unproductive. The fact was, he had been told K. was deceased and a deceased worker was an unproductive worker. K. emphasised his service and asked for leniency, in the event that he was able to rectify what was certainly an administrative error. The Accounts Manager vacillated.

If the position remains unfilled, he said. But in the current economic climate…

And that was that.

Around the table, the other Boarders were discussing how best to resolve the situation.

Change your name. Take on a new identity. Start again from scratch.

Society’s treating you like you don’t exist, so start acting like it. Do anything you please: total freedom. If you’re dead, you can’t be picked up or prosecuted.

He’s deceased, he’s not dishonest.

What we have here is a kind of limbo.

Administrative cock-up. It happens more than we know.

Why don’t you just kill yourself?

Come off it!

I’m just saying… Could lead to an interesting paradox.

He’s a physician, not a philosopher.

Forsaking breakfast and forgoing further proposals, K. walked to the Civic Center. Already there was a queue around the building. K. took his place behind a Woman with a basket, who turned to him.

What’re you here for?

I’ve been declared deceased when I’m not.

My sister has the opposite problem. She should be dead, but the government insists she must continue to work and pay taxes. The country’s in a terrible state. Not one thing’s the way it should be.

The queue persisted slowly. Around noon, the square filled with people on their lunch break. Some of them worked at the hospital and K. waved at them as they sat on benches or under trees. One or two waved back awkwardly, but mostly they avoided his eyes.

How quickly they forget, said the Woman and handed him a bun.

K. was picking the remnants of glaze from his teeth when he finally entered the Civic Center. The Woman wished him luck. A Man behind a counter beckoned him forward.

Come on, come on. What do you want?

I’ve been declared deceased.

And? I suppose you wish to dispute the matter?

Of course. It’s having a severe impact on my ability to earn a living.

You know, said the Man, raising a brow. If you’re deceased, you don’t have much need of earning anything.

Just tell me what to do.

Take a ticket. Floor 13, Room 13: Accounts, Disputed.

K. declined the paternoster and took the marbled stairs, running his hands along the polished balustrade. Places like these, he considered, were engineered to be intimidating. Only once had he been to the Civic Center before, when he’d first arrived; a simple matter of registering his presence and collecting his papers, whose scritta had long since disintegrated. K. had never thought it necessary to keep them. Back then, he had faith in government.

Nowadays, he tried to stay clear of the whole thing; most people he knew did the same. But sooner or later an encounter was unavoidable. This incident, K. reasoned, was simply an overdue payment on his part; one of life’s inevitabilities. Or, he counterintuited, his was an overpayment and his account was in credit. Perhaps it was the State that owed him.

The thirteenth floor was a gallery with a hole through the floor from which one could see the lower levels, which were similarly bored through. Four corridors branched off from the gallery, with no indication as to which was the one he wanted. K. approached a cleaner mopping at a spot on the floor.

Accounts, Disputed?

The Cleaner looked up, visibly annoyed.

It doesn’t matter how hard you work, there’s always something else.

Yes, yes. Life’s hard for us all.

It’s not hard for everyone, the Cleaner said, soaking the mop in a bucket and splashing K.’s shoes. Some of the people I’ve cleaned for have it very easy.

Of course, of course. The system works better for some than others. But do you know where I should go?

Works? Hah! The Cleaner spat on the floor, then mopped at the spot she’d hit.

Uh-huh. There’s much injustice in the world. But please, Accounts, Disputed.

First left, the Cleaner said and attacked K.’s feet. Now, move.

K. did as he was told, leaving footprints as he went and he found Room 13. He knocked on the door. When no one responded, he cautioned it open. The atmosphere inside was sepia; the air loaded with dust. Three benches were set against three walls. The fourth wall was unobstacled and held a screen that ran the length of the room. K. could make out the distorted silhouettes of two people in hububbling conversation. It reminded him of Confession. Four others, in pairs, occupied two of the benches. K. took his place on the third.

Been here long, he asked the couplet opposite, a Mother-Daughter looking affair. The Mother of the two frowned and the Daughter looked away.

It doesn’t do to discuss your affairs, said an Old Man, who sat adjacent with his Presumable Wife. It could go against your case.

He was red-faced and bright, a good fit for his partner, who nodded, spriglike, and smiled.

First time?

In a while. The last time I came it was all parchment and quills.

Oh, it’s changed a lot since then. The world’s different now. The likes of us are being left behind. The best you can do is to make sure everything’s up-to-date afore ye go.

I’ve already gone, according to someone. That’s the problem. I’ve been declared deceased.

Ah, that’s too bad. But you’ve come to the right place. Although discretion’s the watchword here, if we can say that much. And he looked at the screen.

K. realised that the hubbubbling had stopped and the two silhouettes were still. For a few moments the room became a tableau; only a scattering of dusticles and motes gave the lie, as they floated lazelike and carefree across a shaft of sun. K. wondered at the mechanics of the world as the sounds that came to him from outside room 13 — from the corridors of the thirteenth floor, from outside the Civic Center — changed from the thurming of the everyday, to the grinding of gears, the turning of cogs and the humdrum of anonymous voices, then resolved back into the quotidian. The silhouettes began murmuring to one another again and the elder of the Mother-Daughter couplet slapped at a fly on her arm. The spriglike Presumable winked and the Old Man gave a cheery laugh.

Plenty of things you can do if you’re deceased, eh? Do what you want to do, say what you want to say. Look where you want to look.

The Old Man leered at the bench opposite and his Presumable Wife cackled, not unpleasantly. If nothing else, K. thought, they meant well. The Mother-Daughter Couplet gathered their belongings and left the room in disgust. The motelets and dusticles that their exit stirred up flurried and hung suspended in whirly-whorls before drifting down. The three of them sat in silence, with the Old Man chuckling now and again and his Presumable Wife nodding and smiling at K. Eventually, his number came up.

What about you? K. said to the Old Man. Aren’t you next?

Oh, no, said the Old Man. We’re just here for the ambience. And they both inhaled deeply, breathing in the dust as though it were sea air. Go on. And good luck!

K. walked around the screen and came up against an old school desk, complete with inkwell. A Clerk, for whom the word fastidious was coined, looked up.

Yes, yes. Sit down already.

K. took a seat. It scraped back horribly and reminded him of school in a country whose name he’d long forgotten.

What’s your name? What do you want?

My name is Herr Doktor K., recorded: deceased. Still, I live.

The Clerk gave him a look that belied suspicion.

That’s not really for you to say.

Who’s to say such a thing if not me?

Others, the Clerk replied, in a bureaucratone. Please wait while we retrieve your papers.

He beckoned to a Steward. Beyond, K. could make out filing cabinets and stacks, but much was indistinct. From the shadows, there came a squeaking; whether it was organic or mechanical, it was hard to say.

The Clerk maintained a focus just beyond K.’s shoulder, as though he were embarrassed for both of them. A couple of times K. attempted a banal comment, or a joke, but the Clerk barely flinched. After a minor eternity, the Steward returned with a slim file. K. was disappointed; he thought his life might have warranted something of more note.

The Clerk flicked through the file, then studied it more closely. He peered at it with a magnifying glass then asked the Steward her opinion. She looked over the papers with a monocle and the two conducted a whispered consultation, the only word of which K. could make out was irreversible. The Clerk harrumphed as the Steward dissipated into the shadows.

It is, as you say. Yes, you are deceased.

This is news I know. I’m here to dispute the matter. I wish to be undeceased.

Undeceased? The notion brought a curious smile to the Clerk’s face. It’s an interesting idea. But not one we can accommodate. There’s no provision in the Law for a start.

But provision must be made. The Law must be changeable.

Who are you to dictate what the Law must be? It says here you’re a physician.

Am. Was. Who knows? Being deceased does not inspire confidence in my patients.

You have my sympathy, but there’s nothing to be done. The decision of the court is final.

There’s no right of response, no way to appeal? This is Accounts, Disputed, correct?

Yes to all those things, but it won’t affect the outcome. The decision of the court is final.

How did any of this even happen?

The Clerk shrugged.

As I say, you have my sympathy.

K. doubted the Clerk’s ability to emote anything of the sort and left Room 13 unsatisfied. He’d heard talk of people who’d gone up against the Civic Center, but nothing of anyone having prevailed. He began to develop an insistent inkling that none of what was to follow would be resolved soon, that there was still a way to go, and that — as another physician once wrote, a long time ago — the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.

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JL Bogenschneider’s work appears in a number of print and online journals, including Cosmanauts Avenue, Lunate, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 404 Ink, PANK and Ambit. Their chapbook, Fears For The Near Future, is available from Neon Books.