Some people die from heart attacks, and some from falling off ladders. Some are killed in car accidents. Some drown. Some, like my grandfather Gonzalo, die in war.
But some people don’t die—they depart. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is debatable, but departures are always interesting, so when the bell rings at the end of seventh period I’m not surprised that Iris springs up and places one pale hand firmly on my forearm. She digs her red nails in. "Hurry, Gabriela!" she says.
I allow myself to be pulled from the classroom as Mr. Harpting, our history instructor, hopelessly calls out a reading assignment to his former audience. Iris and I are already in the hall, and Harpting’s voice is lost amid the afterschool rush.
Outside, cars and buses clog the sunny hilltop turnaround. Iris drags me down the front steps, her long, straight blond hair glowing like a beacon. At the entrance to the student parking lot, a voice behind us calls, "Where are you guys going?" I turn to see Sarena running to catch up, her trumpet case bouncing against one thigh. I explain as she reaches us: "Iris thinks the Singing Man’s departing today—" I hold out my free hand to her, and she grabs on. Her braided black hair, lustrous in the afternoon sun, shines. She sings: "Ca-a-a-ro mio be-e-e-n!" reprising the song we heard the Singing Man perform yesterday. "Hey, Gabriela," she says, reminded, "did you think about those lyrics?"
I wince. "I’m sorry," I say. "I will."
"That’s okay," she replies. She’s disappointed, and I feel bad. Sarena plays trumpet and sometimes sings in her dad’s band—a jazz orchestra called the Washington Fifteen, which is the house act at the Caballero Hotel downtown. Her dad told her she could compose a song for the group, and she asked me to write the lyrics, because she thinks I have a way with words. I was thrilled at first, but now I regret it. I can’t seem to get started.
Iris pulls us both through the parking lot, where mostly juniors and seniors loiter, playing car radios and socializing. I see Sylvester Hale leaned against the hood of his new pepper red sports car—he’s in his letterman’s jacket, surrounded by friends who also wear letterman’s jackets. His pretty, wide-set eyes glance my direction for a moment, and my legs wobble, but Iris keeps pulling, and soon we’re past.
"Hey—" another voice calls.
"Grab him!" I say to Sarena. It’s Raahi standing outside his beat-up hatchback with some friends. Raahi’s older than the three of us, eighteen, a thin kid with a head of thick, wavy black hair. He’s one of those rare seniors who don’t mind being friends with underclassmen. I met him last year in Mr. Wilkson’s American Geography class.
Sarena extends her hand, holding out her trumpet case. Raahi takes her wrist, turning us into a chain of four as we head down the hill, leaving Raahi’s car. He doesn’t even bother to lock it up.
The four of us are a known group at school. Once, when we were sitting in a row in art class (left to right: Iris, me, Raahi, and Sarena), Mr. Jensen spontaneously used our skin tones as an example of a color gradient. I feel strange about that, but I guess it’s true—cream color, light brown, brown, dark brown. Our school isn’t very diverse in this regard, so I guess it struck Jensen as a noteworthy moment of life mimicking art.
"Iris thinks the Singing Man is departing today," Sarena explains to Raahi.
He nods, mock serious, and says, "Iris thinks someone’s departing every day."
"I heard that!" Iris yells over at us.
"One time she thought Ms. Lime was going to depart," I recall.
"Remember when she thought I was going to?" says Sarena.
"And last week it was Sylvester," I say, "because of his new car."
"But how did he get that car?" says Iris, trying laughingly to defend herself. "It appeared out of nowhere."
We arrive at the bottom of the hill, where Cougar Way intersects Eighth. I hear the Singing Man before I see him—a big, operatic voice that suggests the exact sort of person who comes into view across the street: an elderly, portly Italian gentleman. He’s wearing a blue suit and a thin red tie. The first time we saw him, a few weeks ago, Iris was immediately sure he was going through his wrap-up, and when he kept performing each day, the rest of us were inclined to agree—the Singing Man was scheduled to depart.
Here’s how departures work. First, you’re contacted by one of the Deaths, the creatures who oversee the process, usually with a letter saying "Dear So-and-So, your days are numbered." Then you correspond, deciding how much time you need and what you want to wrap up before you’re taken. In the Singing Man’s case, he wanted to sing, obviously.
No one knows why Deaths select particular people. There are plenty of theories, but it’s basically random beyond the fact of one statistic: departures account for one percent of all fatalities.
Sarena says all of the Singing Man’s songs are famous Italian arias, with lyrics along the lines of "Don’t leave—it’s bad when you go." Today, he belts his a cappella melodies with particular gusto. "Have we heard this one?" I ask Sarena. The Singing Man’s repertoire is pretty limited, but this melody is unfamiliar.
"No, we haven’t," says Sarena.
"This is the day. For sure!" says Iris as a delivery truck rumbles past, interrupting our view. "He saved this song for today. It’s his swan song."
As the truck exits the intersection and the Singing Man returns to view, my eyes widen.
No matter how many times you encounter them, the Deaths are startling creatures. The one who appears today is Gretchen, whom I’ve seen a few times before. Like all the Deaths, she’s about eight feet tall, extremely skinny, and grayish silver, as if you’re seeing her through a screen that filters the colors out. The Deaths live in a place called the Silver Side (where everything is presumably colored silver?) and only come visiting here when they’re drawn for a departure. Today, Gretchen is wearing a dark gray jacket over a silvery, flowing, ankle-length dress, and slate-colored heels. She approaches slowly, walking like they all do, as if through water — for some reason the Deaths experience our atmosphere as if it’s thick, and a little buoyant. They always look like they’re crossing the bottom of a swimming pool. Gretchen’s salt and pepper hair floats hugely around her, and her dress pushes and pulls against her frame, moved by unseen currents. She looks about fifty years old, but the Deaths are much older than they look (centuries, millennia in some cases). Her face, long and skinny, is expressionless, and my eyes are drawn to the dark slits, like gills, to either side of her nose.
"We’re going to see it!" Iris whispers frantically. She clutches one of my hands in excitement.
Gretchen stands to one side while the Singing Man finishes his last song. A number of people see what’s going on and stop to watch. When the Singing Man falls silent, no one applauds, but he bows. Then he turns to Gretchen. She extends one hand toward him, as if they’re being introduced. He reaches out hesitantly, and their fingers close. The Singing Man straightens up—the way you might if an ice cube were dropped down the back of your shirt. He takes a deep, surprised breath.
Then, beginning at his hand where he’s touching Gretchen and spreading through his body, everything about him from his pink skin to his blue coat to his red tie turns silvery gray. His eyes close, and he exhales. His thinning hair lifts slightly around him, weightless, submerged. He stands still for a few moments, and then his lids flutter, confused, until his gaze settles on Gretchen.
"Thank you," he says politely, his voice barely audible to me across the street. Then he and Gretchen turn together, and begin to walk away—toward the Fields.
"Let’s go!" says Iris, excited.
I roll my eyes. "Why do you always have to follow them? I can’t. I’ve got homework."
"Sarena?" says Iris, but Sarena holds up her trumpet case, indicating her need to practice. "Raahi?" Iris sees his answer in his eyes, and without even a goodbye she rushes off, leaving us staring after her for the few moments it takes her to disappear up the street after her quarry.
"Want a lift home?" Raahi asks me. He gestures back up the hill to the parking lot, where his car is presumably still sitting with all the doors unlocked.
"No thanks, it’s nice out," I say.
"Raahi," says Sarena, "have you gotten any more news?" Sarena always asks about this. I feel awkward broaching the subject, but for some reason she and Raahi seem able to talk about it.
"No," he replies. "I doubt there’ll be any at this point."
"Have you started . . . packing?" I ask.
"A little," he says. "I’m not supposed to bring much. You get on the bus with just a duffel bag. But I’m putting away other stuff, for Mom—so she doesn’t have to do it."
There’s a lot in these words. Raahi doesn’t say, for instance, in case I don’t come back, though he’s surely thinking it. He’s said as much during the past few weeks.
Raahi has been drafted. He got his card last month, and he’ll be leaving for basic training next Tuesday. In all honesty, I’m a little excited for him—jealous, even. I don’t say it, because he’s obviously scared, but it kind of sounds like an adventure. It has crossed my mind to volunteer when I’m old enough (I’m barely sixteen right now).
"Heading back up the hill?" Raahi asks Sarena.
"Yeah," she says.
"Can I carry your trumpet?"
"Sure, okay," says Sarena, handing it over.
The two of them say goodbye to me and head back up. I watch them go—short Sarena and lanky Raahi. Since he got his card, his demeanor has totally changed from what I’ve always known. I don’t think I’d ever seen him in a bad mood before the last few weeks. He isn’t the first senior at school to have his name come up, but he’s the first who’s a friend of mine.
I continue ruminating on the matter as I walk toward home. The U.S. isn’t technically at war yet. A month and a half ago we closed our borders to people from countries with "questionable sympathies," but few shots have been fired. It’s about looking tough for now. The most popular quote from the television pundits so far has been "Speak softly and carry a big stick," which President Roosevelt said over a century ago. Several commentators have pointed out the possibility that this African proverb originated in the very country we’re about to attack. It’s strange to think that the stick mentioned in that proverb is partly composed of seniors from Central High.
The other term that’s discussed frequently is victory. When you go to war, it’s important to have a clear sense of what you mean by victory, so you know when to stop fighting. Something about that strikes me funny. I imagine a football team arguing over the nature of victory. It seems kind of obvious. For instance, World War II: the free world fought against fascism. That’s pretty clear. At school I learned that World War II is called the Good War.
World War II is the war my grandfather Gonzalo fought in. He disappeared somewhere in Africa, maybe Tunisia. He died serving his country, according to his conscience. I think he’s a hero, and so do my dad and my aunt Ana. If I had the chance to make the same choice as Gonzalo, I’d follow his footsteps. I would fight.
Aunt Ana and Dad love to talk about Gonzalo. He was the son of a peasant farmer in Mexico, and spoke imperfect English. It’s because of him that my grandmother Fidelia, whom I called Abuela, moved here; because of him that my dad was born here; because of him that I’m growing up here, barely sixteen years old and poised at the start of the next war.
I’m still thinking about Raahi when I reach my block. As I turn onto my street, I encounter a sudden and strong smell of flowers—hyacinths or hydrangeas (which is the one that blooms in early spring?). I breathe deep. It’s one of my most favorite scents—not a nice, neat smell, but a kind of wild one. You have to wrestle with it. Sometimes it makes me sneeze, and it always sends my mind in romantic directions. I recall something Raahi told me the other day: that he has not been kissed. He’s eighteen, about to ship off to war. For a moment, I imagine a fantasy for him in which a beautiful girl kisses him just as he’s about to step onto a boat/plane/train.
Iris, who’s my best friend, hasn’t been kissed either. This is especially perplexing to me, because not only is she nice, funny, and unquestionably a knockout, but she was asked to freshman prom by nine different guys. She said no to all of them. I can’t fault her for being picky—she deserves someone special—but even I went to freshman prom. Iris stayed home and played Scrabble with her parents.
My date to freshman prom was Norbert Ganz. We didn’t kiss—we were just friends. I smile now thinking of Norbert, who doesn’t even attend Central High anymore. I may not ever see him again, but I have the feeling that as I get older it will become pretty funny that the name of my date to freshman prom was Norbert Ganz. Norb, we called him.
My apartment building is an old five-story brick rectangle nestled between two other five-story brick rectangles. (They are all very nice rectangles, well-maintained and with pretty flourishes at each cornice.) I enter the lobby and walk the red carpet to the numbered mailboxes on the wall, by the long mirror. I watch my reflection pass across and observe myself. I’m kind of a frumpy girl, but not uncute, with a frame that’s both scrawny and chubby (which could perhaps be my miracle if the Church ever beatifies me: "St. Gabriela, it is Said, was Blessede by the Lorde to be both Scrawnye and Chubbye"). My curly brown hair is a mix of my dad’s dark, wiry curls and my mom’s wavy, blond locks. I’ve got light brown skin and a handful of freckles across my nose.
The mailboxes are set into a massive iron rectangle, as old as the building itself. I retrieve apartment 305’s mail from its keyed cubby and proceed to the elevator, which is also as old as the building. It’s the kind that has an iron accordion gate you pull back. When the car arrives, I enter and select floor three. I leaf idly through the stack of mail as the room glides up. There’s a bank statement and an ad for a sporting goods store. The gas bill. A dumb magazine Dad reads called Fiscal Frontrunners. Then there is one more letter.
The elevator dings. The doors open.
I’m still inside, staring at the final envelope. It’s light red. There’s no stamp on it, no return address, and no address for the recipient. There’s only a first name. My name.
It’s a Death Letter.
The elevator begins to descend—someone has called it back to the lobby. Quickly, I cover the letter in the other mail, so when the doors open on the ground floor I appear to Mr. Sanders to be absorbed in a deep (though unlikely) meditation on closeout golf cleats. I step out and he steps in.
I return outside and start walking. Dad’s magazine and the other mail falls through my fingers, and I grip the letter tight, crumpling it a little, thinking that it cannot be there. Not for me. I’m in a daze. I take a left turn and a right turn, moving absently, my mind possessed with a static turbulence, like boiling water.
I find myself standing outside of St. Mary’s, my church. It’s a long building with a humble steeple, stretching for half the block. I enter through the double doors. I dip my fingers in the baptismal font and cross myself, then proceed along the dark nave, structured in even rows of pews. The church is hung with somber banners, quotes about remembrance, mortality, repentance—the sober mist of Lent has begun already to descend here, though it doesn’t start until next week. There are a few people inside, widely dispersed, all deep in prayer, heads bowed. No one notices me.
I slide into an empty pew, lay down my book bag, and hold the red letter before me. Hands shaking, I quietly tear it open and remove a single sheet of rose-colored paper and a rose-colored return envelope with the name hercule typed on it. The letter is only a few lines long, but for a moment I can’t read it. My brain rejects the alphabet. I see shapes, but they are hieroglyphs—not even hieroglyphs: bugs. I focus my eyes with a great act of will, and run them over the words.
You’ve been chosen for departure. How about next Wednesday? That gives you a week. Save a dance for me.
There are tears on my cheeks, which leaked out without me noticing. I dry my eyes on my sleeve, then stand and pull my book bag over my shoulder. I exit the church and head home.