A Memorandum on Mortality

The orange October sun casts a vibrant glow through the thick gray clouds, setting against the livid sky as the day transitions to night; the glistening water from the morning, now dark rigid tides, an unwelcoming sea, a blackened chasm he avoids gazing into. Keeping his eyes focused on the road ahead, Christian speeds up as he travels back over the bridge, the portion of the drive home when he used to call his mother.

“Tell me something good,” she’d plead with an eager optimism, like even the littlest of good news would suffice.

They’d chat about trivial matters, like what the forecast was going to be the next day or what was for dinner as he carried out his cumbersome commute; she’d share something silly that happened and often humorously complain about an app or something not working properly on her phone, technology being her biggest gripe. And Christian would listen and engage, covertly assessing her cognition while they spoke, noting any repetitive statements or questions.

Her phone is disconnected, but she’s still stored in his phonebook, and he can’t call her, so he listens to an old voicemail he saved from his mom instead. It’s one where her voice is vital, not whimpering with confusion, her words articulate, not babbling yet from dementia, the message where she laughs before saying goodbye, giggling about newborn Max looking just like his father.

Solar powered LED lights line the edges of the driveway, sharing a welcoming radiance as Christian pulls into his split-level home. The front door decorated with a harvest wreath of delicate pine cones, faux leaves, and orange bow accents to match the season; the stoop lit by miniature glowing lanterns with realistic glimmers, arranged in a tasteful display by his wife, the heart of his home. Smiling as he drifts past Gabriella’s car, entering the garage, he’s amassed 75 birthday messages for the day, but he’s over checking his phone for notifications, even if it’s still buzzing and beaming in his pocket. Nothing seems to matter anymore, and maybe that’s always been the crux of his problems; he can’t find the medium between caring too much and not at all.

Putting the vehicle in park, Christian presses the overhead button to close the garage door. Slouching in the driver’s seat, idling with the engine, he rolls down his windows and pumps the accelerator a few times; smoke billows from the exhaust like bowling tides as he lets his noggin fall back against the headrest. And it’s not his birthday that upsets him, no, today’s been just splendid; it’s the next day that derives dread, when he’s no longer significant and the connections throughout his life fade back into obscurity, distant entities merged with memories to be forgotten, until next year.

Fantasizing about a deep eternal sleep, his weary eyes flicker; he imagines carbon monoxide entering his blood stream, the slow constriction of his lungs, his body depleting of oxygen and red blood cells. And it’s enticing really, the possibility of it all ending, to close his eyes and stop the perpetual rumination: to no longer experience the weightiness of anxiety, the heavy, at times unbearable heat and acute pressure that twinges his chest every morning when he opens his eyes, the swarming melancholy that grips his heart. He imagines not having to obsess about his 401k’s rate of return or endure the internal monologues that keep him up at night, the biting cynicism, moored with worries and doubts, like if he’ll lose his job one day and the house, or maybe Gabriella or the kids might develop cancer, some fucking malignant brain tumor, and he’ll have to bury another person he’s loved. It’s the hypotheticals that get him, the permutations of destruction and possible misfortune, suffering more often in his imagination than reality. And he’s always been free, completely autonomous, capable of picking whatever he wants for himself, but it’s the fear that consumes him, the uncertainty, like maybe he chose the wrong life.

Christian’s breath slows; the tension in his fists release, and he really could fall asleep, just drift off into oblivion, but he’s shook from his haze by a jarring vision; the snarling face and bitter expression of the fucking irritable redhead from traffic flipping him off sends him into a frenzy; the jackal with her middle finger pointing, revealing shards of teeth as she curses. He can’t let her outlive him, he forbids it; he can’t let her win, and the prospect of his children and wife being abandoned hurts more than any disturbing thought. Jolting up from the driver’s seat, he turns the engine off, overcoming his fugue state. Exiting his car, staggering to his doorstep, Christian barges inside, driving his shoulder into the door with immediacy to see his family.

“Daddy!” his cattle cheer, galloping from the kitchen, their hooves pattering against the hardwood.

The elated calves dart to their father upon his arrival, wrapping their arms around his legs; the alert barks of Cooper resound as he beetles to the garage entrance.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” Gabriella smiles, a gorgeous fox holding a cake with lit candles; she leans over to kiss Christian on the lips, her natural, filterless beauty easily surpassing the selection of profiles he swipes for; her long, sinuous tail wrapped around her torso; wisps of her soft majestic striped fur skim his face, tickling his chin.

His head weighs, heavy with a perceived headache, pressure pushing from his mid scalp; Christian places his free hand to his skull, touching pointy lesions, one on each side, curved backwards horns jutting from his head. And it’s a dreamy scene as a poignancy pierces his chest, penetrating his heart, shocked at his transformation and long, dense goatee. Sitting at the antique wooden dining table, he wonders if he should panic, since he’ll never make it grazing; he almost puked once after trying one of Gabriella’s smoothies with wheatgrass; it was earthy, way too gritty for his taste, so he might starve. But he’s not concerned about his appearance, no, he’s more ashamed of his suicidal ideation and tendency to dissociate, his lack of awareness. He knows there’s a profusion of lonely people who come home to their empty houses on their birthdays, greeted by desolate spaces with sad furniture, the diametrical opposite of his welcoming.

Miley and Max spring into his lap with a coltish verve, shaking him from reticence, occupying each knee as they huddle over the cake.

“Haaaaapy Birthday to youuu. Happy Birthday to youuu. Happy Birthday to Daddyyyyy…” the family sings, reciting joyfully.

Looking up, Christian gazes at his wife, the stunning curly haired vixen he proposed to in the height of his youth, smiling at her with adoration; the kids both share her adorable perky cheekbones. And maybe their torrid romance sizzled after having children; perhaps he needs to choose intimacy instead of accessible pornography on his smart phone, even if it requires more effort; maybe he needs to better communicate with her, show vulnerability instead of hiding and turning inward. But he really does love her; he still just has so much work to do, he knows.

Hugging the belting kids, cradling them with his arms draped around their shoulders, they smile back at their father; and they’re not animals anymore, no, they’re human, and Christian can see so much of his parents in the children now, even more today than usual. Miley has her grandmother’s pug nose, Max with his grandfather’s wide smile, genetic influences serving as reminders of his parents’ impact. He squeezes Max a little tighter, reminiscing about his late friend who passed before the birth of their second child, the inspiration for his son’s name.

“Happy Birthday to youuuu!” they conclude as they clap.

“Make a wish,” Gabriella whispers, encouraging the kids from across the table, holding an outstretched phone with her paw to snap a picture.

“Yeah, Daddy, make a wish,” Miley chirps, turning back with a toothy smile, a cherub face, her wavy hair grazing her father’s cheek.

“Moo! Wish for a Tesla!” Max declares, chuckling with excitement; the only car brand he knows from seeing the commercials on television.

Christian thinks, fighting back formulating tears, his mouth ajar, a pensive pose, wondering what to wish for, what he could possibly want. Aware of his ambivalence, to have so much and yet so little, he decides the only thing he needs is presence, mindfulness for the current moment with his family, even in his furry state: to really live in it, enjoy the reality as it unfolds, knowing it will become a memory one day he’ll look back on and miss. It’s profound, really, how he’s feeling, recognizing that maybe it’s better to be a little more naive than skeptical; it’s the only way to prevent negativity from spreading like a virus, the only way innate hope can exist. And even if the lens he’s looking through is broken, distorted by damage and darkness, he knows he just needs to take a different vantage, shift the glass to reflect a brighter view, creating a kaleidoscope to look at his life and admire how vivid and vibrant the colors really are. Surrounded by loved ones, a lifeline for the future, the grateful goat man smiles. Blowing out the candles, extinguishing four rows of flames with a cathartic gust, he basks in the absurdity with an epiphany, a realization that this is the best birthday he’s ever had.



Chris Cooper

An English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris Cooper's 2020 short story "Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish" won the 'Emerging Writer’s Award' at Spank the Carp Magazine, and his short story “The Swim” was recognized as the Best in Fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin. Chris' work has also been featured in Hash Journal Mag, Expat Press, Bookends Review, and elsewhere. Chris recommends the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, November 24, 2022 - 22:05