Tag Archives: Death

A Publication, and News

Please check out my latest publication, an essay on politics and the recent election, at Role Reboot.

If you’re into political writing and art, follow a new Medium site with which I’m associated, A Time to Speak.

You might also want to read a piece of narrative nonfiction I’ve posted on my personal Medium site. Check it out here.


January 6th, 2004 #flashfiction #writing

January 6th, 2004

            You stopped walking long enough to tie your shoe and in that moment everything changed. The cessation of your quick and determined pace allowed your pulse to slow down, almost imperceptibly. Because of the fatigue poisons coursing through your body, you took longer than you normally would to make a knot. As you hunched over, the other pedestrians swerved around you, some almost unconsciously, none giving you more than the most cursory of glances. They had other places to be and only so much time to get there, after all. You did not look at them; you were staring at your shoe, thinking of nothing in particular. The stream of slacks and blue jeans and skirts pocketed you against the wall. And so when the first shot rang out and the first person fell, their brains and their blood marking the wall in abstract patterns of finality, you were hidden, safe, saved not by the jogging you had done every daybut by an untied shoelace that might have remained fast on any other morning.

A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind #nonfiction

     My next nonfiction piece here was going to be about language fair and foul. That column is still coming, but I felt that this one was more pressing. Thanks for indulging me.

A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind

     Yesterday, Kalene walked into the room, her eyes filled with tears.

     “What’s wrong?” I asked.

     “Tom Pilkington died,” she said, her voice broken by deep sobs.

     I felt shocked like I suppose you always do when someone you know dies. I began calculating his age and knew that he was, by my standards, far too young; I think that with today’s medical technology, anybody’s too young to die unless they’re at least 85. Tom was much younger than that, and, I had assumed, healthy. But after her crying abated for a time, Kalene told me that he had in fact been severely diabetic, a condition that likely contributed to his death. It’s too soon for us to know all the details, but the very suddenness of his passing seems too tragic and frightening to ignore. I guess we’re all truly living on borrowed time. To echo Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, we’d all better get busy living, because we’re already busy dying.

     I suppose that’s morbid, but it’s also true. I think about what I’m doing with my life all the time—the work I’m doing, the effects I’m having or lack thereof, and so forth. We probably all do it, especially when someone we know dies.

     I didn’t know Tom Pilkington well. I met him once, ten years or so ago. He struck me as a fine man—kind, generous, intelligent. He was an academic who took his profession seriously, yet he did not strike me as the kind of man who only thought about overblown theoretical abstractions. More to the point, he served as Kalene’s professor, Master’s thesis director, mentor, and friend. She thought the world of him, and that’s good enough for me.

     Word of his passing spread quickly. Kalene found out from a friend’s Facebook post. She called her other friend and mentor, Dr. Mallory Young, and together they commiserated, sharing information and memories. I did not listen to their conversation, but knowing both of these wonderful people as I do, I know they were supportive of each other and devastated that such a good friend and colleague had passed on.

     Tom’s death has left a hole in the world. People like Kalene will miss him greatly for the rest of their lives. He made a positive impression on people. He leaves behind a body of academic and critical work that will keep his name and spirit alive. His death created ripples that touched everyone who knew him and set off a chain of Facebook posts, phone calls, and, undoubtedly, emails and face-to-face conversations in which the news spread quickly, running just ahead of the sadness and pain.

     By contrast, let us consider the case of Yvette Vickers, the 82-year-old former actress and pin-up queen. On April 27th, the same day that tornadoes ravaged Alabama, a desiccated, nearly mummified corpse was discovered in her home. According to Entertainment Weekly and other sources, the body is believed to be Vickers’, though its condition will slow identification. Authorities believe that Vickers, if the body is indeed hers, may have died nearly a year ago.

     At the end of the fall 2010 semester, I took a portable DVD player to school during finals week. I also packed a cheap collection of old horror films, just to pass the time as I waited for students to show up and turn in their final papers. I reached into this collection, which contained some true gems like Metropolis and Nosferatu but mostly covered B- and C-pictures, and randomly pulled out Attack of the Giant Leeches.

     This film just happened to star Yvette Vickers.

     She played Liz Walker, the hottie cheating wife of a local store owner. If you should ever have the misfortune to watch the film, you’ll probably find that Vickers’ portrayal of a backwoods cuckoldress is about the only memorable part. The acting is forgettable (including much of hers); the “monsters” look less like leeches and more like men dressed in poorly-painted garbage bags. At barely over an hour, the film’s running time doesn’t even qualify it as feature-length by today’s standards.

     But Vickers’ character is much more interesting than the rest—the annoying lover who glad-hands the cuckold husband until they get caught, at which point he happily throws his lover under the bus; the overweight husband who, the audience is encouraged to believe, should never have been with this woman in the first place for all kinds of reasons; the bland hero and heroine, who seem to have nothing better to do than paddle around a swamp all day. Vickers’ Liz Walker dismisses her husband as the hick buffoon that he is, her voice dripping with condescension. It’s a mostly one-note performance that calls for little else beyond a bit of screaming and lolling about in underwater caves, pretending to be exhausted from all the blood-letting. But she plays the one-note well enough to stand out in such a crummy film.

     Vickers starred in other cult films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and even had a part in HUD. She was hardly Elizabeth Taylor or Meryl Streep, but she worked in film and TV for years. She was not homeless; in the news articles I’ve read, neighbors described her as a quiet person who kept to herself, who seemed to love her flowers and her privacy. She was not, unless I’m mistaken, a shut-in, given that people had seen her outside her home enough to recognize her.

     In the age of Facebook and Twitter, of cell phones and Skype, of iPads that can track your location and GPS systems available for cheap on the Internet, how does a person like Yvette Vickers disappear for nearly a year without anyone noticing?

     Though we should be disgusted and saddened at the fact, we would understand if she had been homeless or a completely isolated agoraphobe. Our society seems to view certain people as disposable; in fact, we seem to have implicitly agreed to a hierarchy of existence. Somehow, even though she was white and financially solvent enough to afford a house, Yvette Vickers fell through the cracks. She lived; she died; she shriveled up like a piece of jerky. And for almost a year, no one noticed.

     Even if the body in her house turns out not to be hers, she has still effectively disappeared; in fact, that would mean that two people have vanished as if they never existed—Vickers and whoever lay in her house for all those months.

     How is such a thing possible? How could we have let it happen? Are we so self-involved that we don’t even miss people when they’re gone unless someone calls us or leaves a message on our walls or waves a sign in front of our faces?

     Whenever we think about our deaths, it is, I would imagine, difficult for us to picture the world without us in it. After all, we’ve never known life to go on without ourselves. Sure, we know logically that the universe existed before us and will keep on going long after we’re gone. But it’s one thing to know logically and another to understand on a deep emotional level. When we die, we will leave people behind. Our houses and our cars will still stand where we left them, and someone will have to deal with them. But we all hope for more of a legacy than that.

     For some of us, our kids will be our legacy. For others, the work we do will resonate in the post-us world. I am lucky enough to have both three children who are all turning into good people and careers in teaching and writing. Though nothing is guaranteed, I’ve got a better shot than most people do, the kind of shot Tom Pilkington had.

     But it’s also similar to the kind Yvette Vickers had, and I believe that even the most jaded among us don’t want to end up like she did. We hope people will remember us fondly. We hope they will remember us, period.

     Vickers worked in the horror industry, so I think it’s fitting that I end this piece with a reference to the best horror-romance-comedy-adventure universe in the history of television—that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a classic episode of the Buffy spin-off Angel, our main character and his frenemy Spike have ventured into a subterranean realm in an attempt to cure their friend Fred, who has fallen victim to the vengeful spirit of a demi-god. Afraid for Fred and saddened at their failure to find a cure, Angel and Spike find themselves looking down the throat of an enormous cavern that, allegedly, goes all the way through to the other side of the planet.

     Spike, his voice much more somber and restrained than usual, looks at Angel and says, “There’s a hole in the world. It seems like we ought to have known.”

     Tom Pilkington left a hole in the world, and everyone who knew him is standing beside that hole, wishing that he were here to fill it. Yvette Vickers left no such hole; her passing barely made a ripple.

     How will we end up? Who will notice when we’re gone?
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites
Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com

**UPDATE** This week’s Entertainment Weekly has a feature article on Vickers, in which they provide subsequent details. It seems that, suffering from dementia, Vickers did become a shut-in during the last months of her life; the woman who found her reports that she had barricaded herself inside the house. Still, I think the point holds; how could no one realize that she had been dead for so long?**

February 27th, 2004–flash fiction #fiction #writing

February 27th, 2004

     The phone rang at three AM and I knew it had to be trouble. The moon was full and shining through my window; I could see a deep layer of frost on the ground, like the world had been cast in silver. The frigid house enveloped me. I picked up the receiver and mumbled
     and shivered twice, hard, almost dropping the phone. It felt like ice against my face. I halfway expected it to rip away a layer of skin when I pulled it away. The moonlight stabbed into the room, pooling on the floor like blood. From the phone a ghostly voice said
     Is this the morgue?
     and I said
     No. You must have the wrong number
     and the voice said
     Huh. I could have sworn this was the morgue.
     I hung up and rubbed my eyes, feeling the grains of sleep jab into my skin like knives. The house was colder than ever. I wondered who had died and why it had to happen on a frosty night at three AM, when death seemed no more than an ordinary nuisance.  

Belated Victims–Original Nonfiction #nonfiction #writing

Belated Victims: Living and Dying after the Storm

      Her name was not Michelle, but that’s what I’ll call her.

     On the surface, she wasn’t much different from any other freshman English student. She wrote mostly middle-of-the-road essays and got mostly middle-of-the-road grades—usually in the low B or C range. She seldom spoke unless directly called upon. She even sat in the middle of the classroom—not a front-row overachiever or a back-row misanthrope, just a student who wanted what an education might bring into her life. She probably wanted a job she could live with and perhaps love, money, a place in the world.

     This is how I remember Michelle, the picture that formed in the sixteen weeks or so in which I saw her three times a week, the duration of a freshman-year course that she would complete only months before Hurricane Katrina killed her. These memories might be faulty, mashed together with images of a thousand other students I’ve seen since then. Or perhaps I’m creating a person that never was, reacting to my own guilt over not paying more attention to her in life.

     But faulty or not, this is the image that I carry, the one that I can share.


     In August 2005, I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finishing my doctoral dissertation. I was working as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College, and while much of what I experienced there frustrated me, I found the student population fascinating. Having only taught at universities, I had become accustomed to dealing with traditional students, many of whom were children of privilege. But at BRCC, I encountered over-25 students, budding small business owners, and people from the lower tax brackets. At the beginning of every semester, my classroom filled up with single mothers and middle-aged men working two jobs and youngsters whose parents could not afford LSU or Southern.

     And after Hurricane Katrina near-missed New Orleans and devastated the gulf coast, after the levees broke and the streets flooded and the city became a powerless third-world town, after the debacles at the Superdome and the Convention Center, after the evacuation and dispersion of the Crescent City’s poor and largely African-American populace began to resemble a new diaspora, after the universities and colleges that could still operate began to announce the creation of emergency courses for evacuees and the hiring of displaced educators, I went to work one day and met Michelle.

     I didn’t know then that she had lived in the lower parishes. I didn’t know about her home life or her relationship to her extended family. It isn’t the kind of thing that comes up in class, at least not often, and it certainly isn’t the kind of thing you ask about without cause. I only knew her name, and with all my other students to remember, it would take a few weeks for me to associate the name in my grade book with the quiet young woman who sat in the middle of class.

     More wasted time? No, it was only the natural progression of any semester, the adjustment period in which you learn who the students are and how badly they really want to be there. But in retrospect, it’s easy to wonder what each moment might have cost. Michelle’s life was already rushing toward disaster, as if someone had turned over an hourglass, one day in her life for each grain of sand, the pull of her destruction as inevitable as gravity.


     That isn’t completely true, of course. Michelle’s death was no more certain that the eventual appearance of a storm like Katrina, or its growth to Category 5 strength out over the Gulf, or its losing momentum just before making landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi coast. But Michelle’s death was seeded decades before her birth, planted by governmental neglect, fertilized by Louisiana citizens’ indifference, nourished by an “it will never happen here” attitude that itself grew in power each time a storm veered east into Mississippi or west into Texas. Michelle’s death became more certain every time the levees held.

     You can blame Katrina on global warming, God, or plain old bad luck. You can blame people’s decisions to stay on stubbornness or on Mayor Ray Nagin or, more likely, on a collision of political, historical, and socioeconomic factors. You can blame the federal government’s slow response on George W. Bush’s general incompetence, on the rich’s laissez-faire privilege, on FEMA. But the levees—well, we’re all responsible for them. Whenever we failed to demand levee reconstruction or allowed the passing of one storm to lull us into believing New Orleans would always be safe, we hastened the day when Lake Ponchartrain would spill into the streets and carry away all our assumptions. And because we own the levees, we own Michelle’s death, and others like hers.


     The last time I saw Michelle, I hurt her feelings. It was the day of our final exam. She wrote her in-class essay quietly, as she had done everything all semester. When she brought her exam to my desk, she handed it to me. I took it and smiled.

     “Have a good break,” I said.

     Instead of leaving, she unzipped her backpack and pulled out a package wrapped in Christmas paper. She held it out to me.

     “This is for you,” she said.

     This kind of thing happens occasionally, and the moment is always awkward. Knowing that a student actually appreciates you warms your heart, even as the mind screams Danger! Danger! You want to listen to your heart, but accepting gifts from students is simply unethical. Even the appearance of favoritism can lead to appeals, even lawsuits. So being offered a gift in front of a classroom full of students, especially during a final exam, felt incredibly dangerous, as if someone had opened the door and tossed a cobra into the room.

     I didn’t take the package. I said, “I appreciate the gesture, more than you know. But I’m not allowed to accept gifts from students. I hope you understand.”

     For a moment, she just stared at me, the present still held out, hanging between us like a broken promise. Then she half-smiled, nodded, and put the gift back in her bag.

     “Merry Christmas,” I said, as cheerfully as I could.

     “You too,” she replied, not unkindly, and then she walked out the door without looking back.

     The next time I saw her face, it was on the news.


     In the spring of 2006, my courseload included a couple of argument-based composition classes. As an exercise in social awareness and practical argument, I required my students to participate in online discussions of current events. The responses I got from these Baton Rouge citizens about New Orleans evacuees were often disturbing. In spirit, they sounded like this:

     “These people are living in new trailers rent-free. Seems like they’re making out all right.”

     Or this:

     “When are they going to get jobs and stop expecting the government to take care of them?”

     Or this:

     “They could solve their own problems and get their homes back if they just worked hard enough.”

     “These people,” “they,” “them”—my students were using the language of exclusion. Worse yet, they were stereotyping, assuming facts not in evidence, oversimplifying, overgeneralizing—everything I was trying to teach them not to do. And though I tried to present them with alternative points of view, the flavor of the discussion remained, for the duration of that semester, largely the same. Some people, who otherwise seemed rational and empathetic, disdained the victims of Katrina and wished them gone from the city. If one person refused to work, these students thought, then all evacuees were lazy, sorry parasites on the body of hard-working America. Never mind that countless evacuees worked hard and that others might have good reason for not working. Many people who had not seen Katrina blow their lives away were sitting in self-righteous judgment of those who had.

     Luckily for the country, this kind of thought seemed to be seated in a vocal but comparatively small minority. But some people went far beyond words.


     One night my wife and I were half-listening to the local evening news when I heard the anchor mention Michelle’s name. Snapping to attention, I turned up the volume and then fell back against the couch, my stomach in knots. As the newscaster explained what had happened, I recalled every careless word that those students had written. I wondered how they would feel now, if they knew what I knew.

     Michelle had been living with relatives in the Baton Rouge area ever since Katrina had washed away her home. I don’t know her exact circumstances, but I witnessed first-hand how the shock of losing everything you ever had weighed on people. Some sat motionless, shell-shocked, unable to muster the motivation to pick up the pieces. Why build a life when wind can so easily knock it down? Others fell into a deep depression. Others became violently angry. Nearly everyone, even those who immediately went back to work, felt the tension.

     Like many displaced Katrina victims, who often had to squeeze over a dozen people into a few rooms, Michelle and her family had been living with relatives. One evening, Michelle got into a heated argument with two of her cousins. Emotions led to words; the words led to violence. Michelle’s own relatives stabbed her multiple times. According to the news, she died right there on the ground. She never had a chance.

     As I listened to the story and remembered the girl who had brought me a Christmas present, I had to remind myself to breathe.


     We bought a sympathy card for Michelle’s mother, but I never sent it. In spite of being a writer and a teacher of writing and literature, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Everything sounded trite and hollow. Was I supposed to tell her that I only knew her daughter long enough to turn down a thoughtful gift? Could I express hope in the justice system when the killers shared her blood? After Katrina and her daughter’s murder, should I appeal to her faith in a God she might not even believe in anymore? And somehow, “I’m sorry for your loss” seemed inadequate.

     Besides, there was too much to be sorry for: Michelle’s death, my failure to remember her better, the levees and the politicians who always deprioritized them, the citizens who never demanded more, the federal government’s creeping response, Mike Brown, the laughably-named FEMA. For what, or whom, should I apologize?

     I’ll always believe that Michelle’s was a hurricane-related death. The storm destroyed her home and dropped her in the maw of familial and economic tensions exacerbated by uncertain futures and cramped living quarters. When she, and far too many others, needed strong, quick solutions, too many agencies pointed their fingers at someone else. “Let them take care of this; it isn’t our job.” Too many private citizens failed to look past the ends of their own noses.

     I hope we can all see farther now.