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2023 Contest Winner: The Tragic But Not Unexpected Death of Myriam Moriah - Michael Julian Kerr

Bold. Balanced. Notes of berries. Blackberries. An aroma of nuttiness. Undertones of brown sugar. Single-origin. Light roast. Ethiopia maybe. This is easily the best coffee I’ve had from a pump action, thermal insulated coffee dispenser. From bean to sprout to trunk. Long lines of cultivated crops, picked, plucked, dried, and roasted. Bagged, shipped, ground, and soaked and pressed against a dirty metal mesh, strained into this stainless steel cylinder. And then it sits.


“Did you know him?” A large, short white-haired woman is holding a paper plate with various rolled-up, uncooked meats. Cured through salt, desiccated, savory, but raw. Or maybe they’re cooked and then chilled


“Me? No. Well, yes. Yeah, I knew him.” I bounce between off-center eyes, neither of which is looking at me.


“Such a wonderful boy,” she puts a warm squishy hand on my wrist. I tense up so as not to spill a drop of this magnificent liquid.


“Yeah?” I pull away gently. “I mean, yeah. Sure.”


“He touched so many lives,” she frown predictably, an accent to the sentiment. Sorry that a bad thing happened. “Too young. So much life left to live.”


“Well, it’s what you do with the time you have, right? Speaking of, have you tried this coffee?” I reach for one of the tiny white ceramic cups, little vines decorate the rim. A common style I’ve seen in movies. Ceramic holds temperature better than paper cups, but they’re slightly more labor-intensive. Ceramic means quality over cost. Whoever put out this display knew what they were doing.


“What do you mean?”


“Nothing.” I start pumping coffee into the cup. “Just that thirty-three years is enough if someone’s lived well, right? I’m not saying he didn’t. Not saying he did either, just that–life’s short, and you never know when your time’s up and make do with what you have even if you don’t know what you have, you might when you don’t. Right?”


I hold out the cup. The woman snorts and sprays a fine mist of mucus across my outstretched hand, then wanders away into the large foyer– or living room– down the stone stairs, which I imagine are cold to the touch.


“Is this the coffee station?”


I turn around expecting him to be old, in his seventies, the gravelly voice and the obvious but polite question. But he’s younger than me, so he’s an idiot.


“Yeah. And this is some good stuff. I was expecting AA or after-church quality, but this…”


I hold up my two cups, but he’s not looking. His hand is on the geometric wood pattern on the wall above the coffee stand, and he closes his eyes. A couple silent tears drip onto the side table. It’s a strange sight. Triangles. Overlapping, interlocking. Strange design. But a unique, creative use of grains and colors.


“If these walls could talk,” he says. “If these walls could talk.”


“What would they say?” I take a sip of the coffee in my left hand, “If the walls could talk. What would they say?”


He wipes his face. A soft smile stretches across his cheeks. His teeth are crooked but white. Too white; probably a tea drinker. “This is where Myriam and I started the Refuge Collective. Over there is where we drew up plans, on that balcony. We didn’t know at the time that it was going to be one of the most influential, impactful, meaningful, significant nonprofit organizations this county has ever seen.”


I wonder how many nonprofit organizations are in this county and whether the nuances between descriptors necessitate their use or if he just wanted to talk more. He points to the porch that shoots out from the side of the house. It’s not a balcony. A long stretch of skinny concrete that I bet gets windy. Not where I would draw up plans.


“...and right here. Standing where you are, he gave me his pitch. He said, ‘D-man, there are women in this state right now who have less than nothing. Women who are treatedlike they’re stuff.’”


D-man takes out his wallet, which is bursting at the seams with little papers and retrieves a gnarly-looking one-dollar bill, “...he put this in my hand and said, ‘See this dollar bill? This is nothing. We earn money, but whatever meaning this holds is what society gives it. They are what matter.’ I knew right then that Myriam was going to make a difference in this world.”


D-man starts crying again, and I don’t have a chance to ask if that was the literal dollar or if it was more symbolic. Instead, I finish the coffee in my right hand before returning it to the tray.


“I’m sorry,” he says, sniffling. “I’m Daryl. What’s your name?”


“Rose.” I wipe the thin film of old lady boogers off on my pants.


Daryl grabs the cup I just put back and pumps coffee. The steam billowing off his cup spirals into little clouds of toasted nutty scents. He laughs a little.


“That’s a funny name,” he says. “Myriam’s dad was named Rose too.”


“He is. Or I am. Rose Moriah.” Do the internal mechanism of the pump-action coffee thermos pull coffee from the top or the bottom? Maybe it’s pushing air in, and that forces the coffee out. How does that affect the distribution of steam? Are the smells more potent this way? Because they steep in the sealed coffee container, right?


“You’re Myriam’s dad?” Daryl says, pausing before a sip. “You’re so young.”


“Ha. Thanks, I get that a lot. I might look like thirty-five, but I’m fifty-nine. It’s a gene thing. My old man lived for over a hundred years, and my grandpa, great grandpa, I knew them both, two, three hundred years old, respectively. Kidding. But seriously, they made it over the century mark, all three. I guess long life runs in my blood. Well, usually.” I give a head nod to the foy– living ro–where Myriam lays arms crossed in a box.


Daryl shifts a little and clears his throat. “So you must be proud of him.”


“You know, I didn’t know him that well. It sounds like he did alright, but he wasn’t really my kinda guy, you know?” I lick my lips, staring at Daryl's cup. “You should try that before it gets too cold–”


“But he was your son,” Daryl says somewhat loudly.


There are only a few people nearby. The funeral, or wake, whatever this is, is not packed but busy. There are a lot of people, but most are down in the– by the body, which is too bad for them–good news for me. I just might take this whole thermos with me.


“What?” I ask.


“He was your son,” Daryl says again, quieter this time but firmer.


“Yeah, right. He is. Or was. But that's just genetics. If you don’t get along with someone, I think it’s natural, healthy even, to…you know… Move on.”


“Huh.” Daryl looks over my shoulder, probably looking at the huge windows in the room with the dead guy – dead guy room – and wondering how much they pay for heating in a place like this. He’s quiet for a long time before saying, “That just surprises me, that’s all.”


Despite his white teeth, Daryl spews a pungent odor across his chapped lips. By holding my almost empty coffee cup to my nose, I can overpower the smell and block involuntary expressions of disgust. I only just noticed it, and even though he’s judging me, I still want to ask about the dollar.


“When I knew Myriam, he was kind of an asshole. Angry. Screaming. Crying. The works. I’m not saying everything is cupcakes and coffee, just that a little appreciation for a heartbeat would be nice now and again, you know? But people change, and that’s cool. Sometimes relationships get a kind of stain that never comes out, and every time you see that person, every time I opened the news and saw him doing whatever he was doing that month, I always remembered how he was.”


Daryl nods. He gets it. We’ve all had relationships like that. “Well, I’m sure you’re proud of his personal growth.”


“Proud? Sure. I guess. Yeah. He turned into a nice dude. Hey, was the dollar the literal dollar he gave you, or was that just a symbolic thing you just did?” If I pick up the thermos and walk out, I wonder if anyone would stop me. I look around for a caterer to see if my suit matches the staff’s, but none are in sight.


“What do you mean?”


“You had that whole speech about the refuse collection and the dollar. Is that the literal one he gave you? Because he was my son, mementos and such.”


“It’s symbolic.”


“Right, but symbolic when you did it, or when he did it—or both?”


“It was good to meet you, but” Daryl points to the unfinished dead guy box. “I should pay my respects.”


“Sure, of course.”


The house is opulent. It’s big, but not gaudy. But the box with the body, the one Daryl’s bee-lining it for, looks a touch out of place.


My stomach churns. Like I just ate a pile of dry dirt and poured some hot water on it. Over by the balcony – an actual balcony – I scan the dead guy room for a snack table. The frames around the huge windows point down toward Myriam’s blue corpse. It’d be a good place to put the snack table if this weren’t a funeral. The central position of the box in the room emphasizes its ‘uniqueness’ even more. I can smell the sawdust. I scratch my bristly chin and wonder if the bathroom has a razor in it.


An old man wobbles up the stone stairs, and I grab him by the sleeve and ask where the snacks are. It must be hard to fit a suit to his fleshy pear-shaped body. The hand not resting on his cane is holding his pants up, and when he points off to the right side of the house, they begin to slip.


I shuffle across the faded maroon carpets past women in blackish dresses and glum-looking men to the far side room. This one also has enormous windows that overlook a little field. Some animals wander aimlessly around a grassy confinement. Snack tables line the wall. A woman with a black veil weeps over the dessert arrangement, and I spot some vanilla-frosted cupcakes.


“Hey can I…”


“No. I’m alright.” She says, sucking snot back into her face. “Thank you, though–oh. I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else.”


“Not a problem, I just wanted to...” I try to reach around behind her.


“I’m Ash. Welcome.” She catches my hand and shakes it.


“Oh yeah, thanks. I just want—”


“Please make yourself at home.”


“I will—Is this your home? It’s very unique.” Every so often, we have to work for our meals.


“Thank you. Most of this was Myriam’s choice. He wanted his home to be at peace. Connected to everything. A place of escape.” Her gaze floats around towards the ceiling and down the far walls. She passes her eyes over the cupcakes on the little glass tower stand as if they were a random face in a crowd of millions rather than the central-most gem of the entire spread. “I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”


“Rose”


“Rose? That was his father’s...”


“Yes, it was or is. I’m me. I mean, I am he.” I sidestep to get closer to the table and spot some limp celery and some dry, dusty baby carrots. I should eat something healthy. The ranch, or blue cheese, or dill-Cesar dip has a crust to it. Whoever’s putting this out put more work into the beverages and desserts than the snacks. I’ll have to try the lemonade. I’ll have to find the lemonade and try it.


“He told me his father died.”


“That’s a new one.” I reach surreptitiously for one of the vanilla-frosted chocolate cupcakes with blue sprinkles. “Or that’s news to me.” Ash reaches across towards a wet stick of celery and blocks my path. I push out a light-hearted chuckle.


Ash stuffs the stick under her veil and snaps her teeth into it. “I just don’t understand. Why would he tell me that?”


I sneak an arm under her elbow as she finishes the green stalk and finally grab a cupcake. The smell of the celery is still lingering, so I wait. Veils are an odd tradition, but practically speaking, my guess is that the family of the widow doesn’t want their now single daughter, sister, cousin, or niece to ugly cry in front of potential suitors. A bit archaic.


“Why would he tell me that?” She pleads again to no one in particular.


I’ve never been one for unanswerable questions.


“Couldn’t tell you.” The smell of celery finally dissipates, and I lick the frosting off the edges of the cupcake. I always do it this way. I clean around the top rim so that when I bite in, I don’t get any frosting on my nose. Though it might not be a bad idea to stuff my schnoz deep into a cupcake, I hope the house doesn’t always smell like this. I sometimes forget to clean out the car, but I always take out sticky or gooey stuff, the stuff that really stinks. If it’s a candy wrapper, it might end up on the floor, but a half-eaten burger? I’m chucking that the first chance I get.


I give up licking around the edge and go straight for a bite and get some frosting on my nose. I go at it with my tongue, but it’s not long enough, or my teeth are too big, and I end up using the sleeve, a white streak across an otherwise mostly clean suit jacket. It’s a good thing it’s not mine.


“I can see why he’d think I was dead. We haven’t seen each other in like thirty years. We went our separate ways a year or so after his mom passed. But you can’t fake a jaw and nose like this.” I grin. If I was younger, I might wonder about any blue sprinkles in my inconveniently long teeth, but I get less vain every year.


Ash makes some noises. Something between a laugh and a sob. “Sorry,” she says. “I always wanted a big family. It’s just your eyes. He had your eyes.”


“Well, we weren’t big. Myriam is–was an only child. And he definitely has – sorry, had his mother’s eyes...” I scan the table and find the meat, something savory to go with the sweet.


“So what do you do?” Ash interrupts my movement toward the meats. They’re right in front of the huge window overlooking the livestock. They’re probably livestock. It’s a little morbid putting the cooked or uncooked flesh of an animal in front of a window displaying the same kind of living animal.


“Oh, this and that.” I guess the kind of animal doesn’t really matter. Putting pork slices in front of a window of cows is still weird. I can see what the planner was going for – I think. No. I get the pairing, meat to meat. Animal to plate. Beyond that, I have no idea.


“Are you a handyman?”


“Sure.”


“We have some small projects around the house; what was the last job you had?” Ash is nearly stepping on my feet as I try to back up imperceptibly toward the ratty meat spread.


“I was Santa Claus.” She smiles a little before crying again. How awful. No one’s racing to see a slaughterhouse; no one’s killing their own chickens anymore; why would I want to look at the cow while I’m eating meat? I want to think as little as possible about where my food comes from.


“Really?” She puts a hand on my hand that’s resting on the table. Probably because I’m turned away now, brushing my fingers against the meats, checking to see if any are uncomfortably wet. I’ve had my share of rancid slimy meat, and I’m not taking any chances.


“Yeah, it was a farm, a ‘Christmas Palace,’ they do events year round, and I guess they were fresh out of fat guys.” I find an area of crusty salami, grab an unceremonious fistful and turn around to a short but large rubicund white-beared elderly man. He puts a hand around Ash and kisses the side of her head.


“What are we talking about here?”


“Where did you get these?” I ask, holding up my fist of meat to Ash.


“Oh, those are from the grocery store; they were on sale.”


“Who is this young man?” The jolly fellow asks.


“Daddy, this is Rose. Myriam’s father.”


“Why, you look too young to be a father.”


“I get that a lot.” “I always say this to Ash, but enjoy youth while you can. It’s moments like these that are all too familiar when you turn sixty-two. I still remember going to my father’s funeral, a good man he was. He reminded me a lot of Myriam; he was a good boy, a good man.”


“Oh, yeah?” I’m not sure if he’s talking about his father or Myriam, and I resist the urge to ask which and to point out the inconsistency in who reminds him of who. He’s old, probably a little senile. I grab some baby carrots with my greasy hand and dump them into my coat pocket.


“He was really a saint,” Ash adds after a moment’s silence.


“Was he? I mean, I’m sure he was, but saint? That must require some official ceremony or at least an action of recognition”


The fat man and his daughter stare nonplussed.


“Like I said, I’m a little out of the loop here; how exactly did Myriam die?”


They exchange looks, and then Ash puts a hand on my wrist, and I am really tired of being touched, “Honey,” she frowns under her veil, “Myriam was murdered.” Before I can ask, a dam breaks, and she crumples slightly, sobbing.


The old guy, who really looks like he’s in his eighties, pats Ash on the back and continues for her, “It was unexpected. Really sudden. Myriam was shot leaving Good Friday church service with a woman from his shelter. On the way out, a man, an ex-lover or souteneur, if you will, confronted the woman, and when Myriam got between them, the man shot him. He was always standing up against the violent no good miscreants of this–”


“Well, not that unexpected then. He wasn’t a criminal, but you can only step into traffic so many times before you get hit, right? Still, too bad, though.” Ash begins to wail, and the old jolly man gives me a look and guides her away.


“I think we’ll pay our respects now.” He says, and the two leave the room.


I’m left alone in the snack living room if that’s even what it’s called. That’s the problem with homes like this. Mansions, or near mansions, with such an expansive variety of places, have run out of names to call each space. The sitting room. The standing room. The stairs room. The memento mori display for the livestock. I take the opportunity, in my solitude, to sneak a few more snacks into the crevices and cracks of my jacket, grab three cupcakes, and lazily wander toward the dead guy room. I turn the corner to the ‘hallway’ that leads to the dead guy room, which has, in the middle of it, the coffee station, and catch a glimpse of a foot in a black sneaker, escaping through the double doors that lead, presumably, to the kitchen. I casually wander up to the stainless steel pump action coffee dispenser and with a touch press and try to tip the container, which is, lucky me, now full.


After a quick detour, I find myself in the dead guy room, on the balcony, with now only two cupcakes in my hands, ready to descend the stairs, to pay my respects — I am his father, after all — just as Ash is making her way back through the crowd and ascending them. All heads turn and face the balcony, and I step to the side as Ash addresses the crowd. She takes a moment to gather herself and with a deep breath, throws the veil over the top of her head and begins to speak.


“I first want to say that I appreciate you all coming. Myriam would have been so happy to know that he touched the lives of such wonderful people, to know that he will be remembered fondly for his greatest moments, for his loving heart, his endless compassion, and his beautiful friends and family.” Ash turns and smiles at me, “Today is especially hard because, as some of you know, we found out only a week before that I am going to have my first child. A boy, they told me. I know, I know, it’s heartbreaking. And even though Myriam won’t be here, just knowing that I have all of you, our friends, and family—” she looks at me again, “to rely on fills me with warmth and courage. Now, I wanted to share a quick anecdote about Myriam because, as most of you know, he was known to be a little silly. Of course, we remember his stoic work with the refuge collective with Daryl, and that will be a staple in our memories of him, but we here, his closest friends, we knew him as a goofy, fun-loving guy who always found a way to turn moments despair into moments of joy. With that in mind, Myriam knew that his line of work could be, at times, dangerous. So six months ago, before his very unexpected killing, we decided to go through his will and work through the tedious specifics so that if he did pass away, I wouldn’t be left scrambling to get everything in order. Thank you, Myriam.


“But of course, in Myriam's way, he insisted that his funeral not be about grief and suffering. He wanted to be mourned in a different way, a celebration of life, is what he wrote. He wanted everyone he ever met to be invited, he wanted a great feast, lights, music — a dance floor. He wanted cake and champagne, ‘make my funeral like our wedding,’ he told me. And I, of course, as I always do, conceded and it was written down by the family lawyer Lyle. Give a wave Lyle.” A bald man with skin tight to his skull looming feet over the six people around him raises a plastic cup of red liquid. Wine maybe.


“Unfortunately, it wasn’t practical to invite so many people here, which is why we limited this to only the few of you, the closest, and those who were passing by.” She says under her breath. “He was such a funny guy, it was a joke, Lyle and I decided, the party and the dancing. But you can imagine that if we had, Myriam would be smiling down on us from wherever he is, getting in the last laugh. But even though we don’t have a DJ, I think he’d still be happy with our layout.” Light laughter scatters through the audience. “We mourn in our own ways, and Myriam would understand that. Respect people’s wishes. That’s what he told me, that was the motto of his life; serve others as best you can. His charity work, his life, his family – every part of him was in service to others; that’s what made him happy. And I don’t know what I’ll do without him but in my own way— In our own ways, I guess —we, I guess we can say we are happy for the time we had.” Ash breaks down, and her father takes over and wraps up, ‘thank you, have some snacks,’ that kind of thing. He doesn’t mention the coffee.


I’m considering leaving when I’m stopped by Ash, who is still sobbing uncontrollably. She grabs my jacket pocket, and a carrot slips out and falls, flops, down the stone stairs, but no one seems to notice. If I get a chance, I might try and find it.


“I’m glad you are here.”


“Ok,” I pull away gently and pat the top of her head and follow the path of the carrot. Hordes of people are making their way up the stairs as I’m descending, and there’s no way for me to reach down without one of these fleshy old farts stepping on my hand, or tripping on me and I’ve made enough of a scene already, I should probably see the corpse, at least pretend to look at it and wait until people have mostly cleared out before getting my carrot back.


It’s what is to be expected. He’s blue. In a pine box. Raw pine held together with glue. I assume. This is a kind of eco-friendly burial. The embalming process, I think, adds color to corpses to make them look more life-like, but he’s very blue. The color of the deep ocean. The color, the embalming process, and the makeup, makes them look like they’re sleeping. People don’t like looking at dead bodies. Death reminds us that we’re temporary. Being temporary makes them sad. They put him in a suit, but Myriam wasn’t embalmed. He probably wasn’t embalmed. Maybe putting the meat in front of the cows wasn’t such a bad idea. It’s a way to ease the tension between the transient and the infinite. Life is short. Death is forever. And in the face of this stranger, I’m not convinced I’ll die by a gun. Maybe the cows aren’t convinced they’ll end up thin wet slices on a paper plate. I am, on some level, sure I’ll die, but I’m not convinced I really believe that. When someone’s sure they’ll die, they live in the moment, when they think they’ll live they plan for the future. Before I can parse out that thought, a hand touches my back.


“He looks so lifelike,” Ash says. I reach over and hand her a cupcake.


“I’ve never seen this person before,” I bite straight into the cupcake; frosting fills my nostrils. Ash leans down and sucks the frosting off the cupcake in one go. She works it around her mouth a little before nibbling to the top of the naked cake.


A man in a white button-down, black slacks, and black sneakers taps the widow in the shoulder and whispers in her ear.


“You lost it? How can you lose it? Just grab another from the back. We have four. This really isn’t the time Daniel.” The cater forces a smile, a vein pops on his forehead. “Sorry, Rose. The staff misplaced one of the coffee carafes.”


“Oh geez. Good thing you have extras,” I cram the rest of the cake in my mouth. “I would hate to end the night without another cup of that delicious coffee.”


“Oh, you like it? It was Myriam’s favorite, a boutique blend from Ethiopia, about twenty dollars per pound. He loved it so much he bought the farm, made it free trade, and fair wages (you know Myriam). We get six bags shipped in each month. We even have a micro-roastery in the basement. I’m sick of the stuff. I always thought it was a silly project, but that’s where we make our money, though he was putting most of it in the RC. That’s Dylan’s problem now, I never got along with those girls.”


“Did you say you needed a handyman?”


“That’s right.”


“How about I come by tomorrow?”


“That would be great.” Ash smiles and touches my face, and I don’t pull away this time. “I’m glad you came, Rose. I’m glad you at least saw what he made with his life. I’m sorry he didn’t get to know you, but I’m glad I get the chance to.”


We embrace, and I walk off casually, stopping to grab the carrot before I head up to the balcony. I take a right and step into the kitchen through the double doors. There are four caters scurrying about, Daniel stops me.


“Excuse me? Can I help you? You’re not allowed back here,” he puts his dirty hands on his hips.


“I’m the father of the deceased, Ash told me to come back and check out a few things that need patching up.”


“I’m sorry I didn’t know.”


I look around the kitchen, the walls, the corners, the floor. I find a fifth caterer, a young guy, teen maybe, and I stop him.


“Hey, I’m the father of the deceased, I need your help in the basement. Can you get me there?”


The boy doesn’t ask questions, and leads me down a castle’s spiral stone staircase to a smooth stoned room illuminated by yellow light. A fat hammer golden machine is the center point of the room. There are bags labeled ten pounds lying next to it. I point to one, and the boy dutifully throws it over his shoulder, crumpling a little bit, and follows me out the other threshold, to a path that cuts across the sloped grass. With intentional laboring steps and heavy breath, he brings the bag up the hill to where my very shitty car is parked. He doesn’t ask questions. I open the back door and he heaves the bag inside. I hand him a slice of ham and tell him to give it to Daniel. In the car, I adjust my mirror to double-check that the bag is intact and that the stainless steel pump action carafe sitting on the seat next to it, is buckled in and secured for my drive home.

 

Michael Julian Kerr is an experimental fiction writer based in Boulder, Colorado, where he is earning his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. His writing has been published in the Route2 Journal and Grim & Gilded literary magazine. He was featured in the Under Graduate Conference on Research and Creative Practice at Fitchburg State University, and is a recipient of the Creative Writing Graduate Award from CU Boulder. Michael grew up in Massachusetts, living, most of his life, in Salem. He attend Fitchburg State University and in 2013 received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Professional Writing. He currently teaches Intro to Creative Writing. Michael Julian Kerr is known for emphasizing the physical through his writing, and lacing the absurd with dark, understated humor. He’s inspired by mid-century ironists and is currently reading Thomas Ligotti and Vladimir Nabokov.

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