when i die (she’d written) i want to be buried in my blue silk dress. i bought the dress 4 days ago at JC Penni and it is in my closet i saved up for a long time to get it at my job. also i will be blond.
My upstairs neighbor Vicky died in her blue silk dress, two sizes too small, the back left unzipped. She’d bought the dress at age sixteen, when she first planned her death, using up an entire marble composition book to sort out the details:
There had been no time to dye her hair, and so I bought Vicky a blonde wig, a short platinum bob with long bangs. It looked extra glossy beneath the fluorescent lights of the former dental-office-turned-funeral home. The good people at Menendez & Sons laid her in a white coffin lined with white silk, and her lipstick was bright pink. She saved up the money for the funeral over many years, left in an envelope with my name on it.
I had not known Vicky very well, but I knew her better than anyone else, and so the particulars of Vicky’s death had fallen to me. I bought the wig, a pair of red high heels, and made sure the blue dress was free of stains or wrinkles. I checked off each item, neatly and carefully, until I’d reached the end of the list:
i want (she’d written) to have my soul transferred into the body of my dog so that i may see what that is like.
At the time of her death, Vicky had been in possession of two cocker spaniels, Arturo and Beatriz, who slept in a small canopy bed with pink satin drapes beside her futon. The two little dogs kept her company in her old age, trailing after her as she walked from her futon to her bathroom, to her hot plate and back, watching with their big, wet eyes as she painted reproductions of the alien abductions she claimed to have experienced throughout her life. She told me she had learned many things from the aliens in exchange for allowing them to use her for their experiments. She would sit me down in her apartment, setting down her room-temperature cola and her paper plate of saltine crackers. She explained that she could make people fall in love with her by looking at them and repeating, in her mind, a series of sacred syllables she dare not share. She could also predict hurricanes, cause small objects to shake, and, most importantly, she could transfer souls into new bodies. This was the hardest thing of all, she told me, even harder than making people fall in love. But it could be learned, and you didn’t even have to be abducted by aliens to do it.
“First,” she said, “someone has to die.” I could feel myself growing tense as a saltine turned to cement in my mouth.
“What happens then is that the soul unties itself from the living body. It lives not in the heart, not in the brain, but inside the right ear. I have seen it removed before and it looks like a pyramid. Very tiny. You’d think it’d be like a blob or a fluff, but, no, it’s very sharp and completely black. True black. Ink-like, you know.”
“I think,” I remember saying, “that I’d better pick up my dry cleaning before the place closes.”
I had been more scared for her than scared of her. Vicky seemed to age very quickly around that time, as if something inside her body had been trying to loosen itself from its confines, the soft parts growing brittle as the hard parts softened. Her hair was a tangle of different shades of gray, her eyes unfocused, constantly darting from faces to hands to walls, never settling on anything too long. She looked as if she felt something creeping up behind her at all times. She invited me up more and more often, always offering cola and saltines, the dogs watching the journey of saltine to plate, plate to hand, saltine to mouth.
Vicky had lived in that same little apartment above mine for decades. And she always had two cocker spaniels. She would let their names come to her in dreams. Vicky always waited for signs before acting. It had been this way since the first encounter, when she was only nine years old.
She would tell me about that first encounter many times, showing me some of the many paintings she made corresponding to that moment. She lived in a red brick house with white columns. It was Christmastime, she remembered, because her mother had given her a snowglobe and she sat it on the windowsill, Santa in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses under a palm tree. The snow had followed Santa to the tropical island, falling down on him and the palm tree and the little tropical drink beside him. Her father had wrapped garlands around the long white columns at the front of their house, and red and green and yellow and blue and orange string lights twinkled on and off all during the night, casting strange shadows through her bedroom window. She remembered looking at the red and green and yellow and blue and orange light show playing across her bedroom wall when, unexpectedly, a different color appeared. It was like silver and like green and a little bit like purple. Sgurple, Vicky called it. It was a color that is hard to explain, and even harder to paint. Vicky had spent sixty years trying.
Out of the light, she would tell you, a thing emerged. It was air and fire and water. It was hard to explain. It was a male thing and a female thing and an old thing, ancient even, and a thing not yet fully born. It had been around at the creation of the oceans; it had not yet seen daylight. It spoke without words and it told nine-year-old Vicky–shivering beneath her yellow blanket that her grandmother had made, a blanket now awash in this new, inexplicable color–that it loved her very much. Vicky had cried and, recounting the story, she would cry again. It was a very moving moment. After that, Vicky felt warm and then cold and then for a period of between two minutes and a hundred thousand years, she felt nothing at all, suspended in a non-color, no body and no mind.
And when the thing had gone, she felt along the knit blanket with her hands and watched as the wall turned red and green and yellow and blue and orange once again.
She had not heard the snowglobe fall onto the carpet and would not notice its long, jagged crack until morning, the snow in a dry clump on Santa’s tropical island getaway.
She was scared of the thing and what had happened, of course, but she knew, too, that she would see it again, and this she longed for. It cast a shadow across her childhood, then her teen year, then adulthood. She kept trying to draw the thing, to find the color. She kept trying to pin it down with words, to make it simpler, to make it fit into a sentence. She began to wonder if she’d dreamed it. But then she discovered that the encounter had left her with powers, special powers over love and then, over life itself.
She would ask me if I believed her, and I would tell her that I did. I would leave when she would tell me she had to rearrange her snowglobes.
I looked down at her list again, thinking about the things Vicky had left me to sort. There were other funerals going on. Large families clasping hands in clothes that needed ironing, standing around the Menendez & Sons funeral home, red-eyed. When you’re in mourning, you’re allowed to stare at people, because you’re untethered, briefly, from the world of the living and floating right at the veil. People will forgive you for small acts of unkindness, like staring or leaving a party without saying good-bye. And so I stared at the mourning families, categorizing the different ways grief plays with people: the howlers, the snifflers, and the gigglers, all of them mortified at what their bodies were doing. I wished that I could be more dramatic. It might feel good to howl and throw myself on a casket, clutching at the corpse, asking why and getting no answer. But you have to be either very ugly or very beautiful to get away with something like that, though, and I’m in between.
Instead, I was a planner. Now I had only one part of the plan left to finish. I looked down at my dead neighbor inside her silky casket. She did not look at peace. She did not look like anything. Her face was an approximation of a face, wires and cotton holding things together that wanted to fall apart.
Something in Vicky’s platinum wig caught my eye, dark against the glossy white. There, just outside my dead neighbor’s right ear, was something small and black. I plucked it carefully, making it look like I was stroking the dead woman’s hair, a normal thing I was sure some grieving people did. I apologized to Vicky’s body for making us look ridiculous, even if Vicky was empty now. It was like apologizing to a sweater for spilling red wine all over it, or a car for hitting it with a shopping cart. Unnecessary, maybe, but this world is so mysterious, and you never know.
I placed the little black pyramid in my purse.
I didn’t have to hide it. There was no one else there for Vicky that day. She never married and had no friends. Her parents had died, their Christmas lights in a landfill somewhere, maybe. Her cousins and former classmates and old co-workers were all dead or too busy with jobs as dental hygienists and real estate agents. It wasn’t sad or good or bad or happy, it just was.
Back home in my apartment, Vicky’s two dogs seemed disappointed to see me.
I placed one of Vicky’s paintings by the food and water bowls, a 20-by 24-inch acrylic nightmare of tubes and gray alien faces hovering around a wild-haired woman on all fours, to help them feel at home.
I studied Arturo and Beatriz, their tear-drop eyes studying my face in return. Which one would make a better home? Arturo took heartworm medication. Beatriz had a bad hip and sometimes whistled when the air got too hot. I decided Arturo would be the better choice, because he had a slightly worse attitude and because it might feel freeing to lift a leg instead of squatting on the sawdust around my apartment complex.
I took the little pyramid from my purse and covered it in peanut butter.
Arturo ate the pyramid very quickly, and I wondered if souls were delicious. Beatriz grew jealous, nudging my legs with her head, so I gave her a spoonful of peanut butter. She looked at me as if she knew she were missing out.
I stood back and waited to see if anything about Arturo changed.
I noticed that I was hungry. I should order something, real food, instead of eating the rest of the peanut butter off the edge of a knife.
Arturo farted softly. He seemed the same as always.
I watched Arturo carefully as we drove to a nearby drive-thru: a Crunchwrap Supreme, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch. Baja Blast. Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes, to really get the party going.
The only noticeable change came when we sat down to eat, side-by-side at the coffee table, and Beatriz begged for scraps while Arturo did not. Perhaps the soul is hard on the stomach. I felt bad, watching Arturo slink over to his doggy bed. What was Vicky kicking out on her way into this new home?
And then I thought more about it. Vicky had been a sick woman, but harmless, spending her days painting alien abductions and carefully duct-taping fresh tin foil on her windows and beneath her doors. She had her groceries delivered to her apartment door, brought her garbage down the chute down the hall, and never further. When the dogs needed a vet, she’d call me. She never went to the doctor herself, never went out for manicures or haircuts. She just kept to herself, paying her bills and filing her taxes. A good citizen and a quiet neighbor, waiting for the next abduction, the lights on the wall, the colors that blended and screamed.
But she was, surely, not well. And now she had asked me to feed something to a small creature with sad eyes, and watch to see if anything changed.
I took a bite of my Crunchwrap and read my fire sauce packet: Will you marry me? it asked.
I thought about a world where souls were placed in tigers and pigs, gerbils and human babies, old souls passed on to new bodies. A conspiracy of second and third chances, a secret other world where life could continue. I glanced at Arturo and he licked his paw.
That night, fire sauce clawing at my intestines, I stared up at the snowglobes Vicky had left me. The New York City skyline. A fairytale castle. Big Ben. A little family celebrating a blizzard at the beach. Greetings from Toronto. Wish You Were Here. I thought about how Vicky had been so alone above me, trapped inside a dream of another world. Trying to make people fall in love with her. Trying to predict hurricanes.
I thought about Vicky’s body in the quiet earth, wearing her blue dress. That night, I dreamed of running through grass, the blades scratching at my face, chasing insects across a wide, wide lawn, their little bodies hiding in the dirt before I could catch them. I rolled onto my back, the sun warm on my belly. Above me, the sky was so blue and round, a glass globe holding the whole world.
And then, a scratching at my door: Beatriz and Arturo, crying in the dark. I opened the door and let the dogs onto the mattress, carefully, hoping their paws wouldn’t puncture a hole and leave me sleeping on a slip of nylon. Beatriz settled in between my knees and Arturo, his large eyes heavy with sleep, placed his head on my chest and dreamed.
A.A. de Levine is a writer and a short story editor for Coffin Bell Journal. She writes mostly about swamps and shopping malls.