Niall Lynch was born in Oslo, Norway and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, on the Arctic Circle. He has worked in software development for 35 years, though he has always had a vocation to be a writer, and has always written in his spare time. He moved to Palm Desert in 2018, where he now has a lot more spare time.
The Leaf Blowers
I shriek at the day and it answers me with silence, she thought.
No, not silence exactly. But the sound of a nickel that you dropped, that you dropped so exactly that it begins to spin, and can’t stop spinning. You wait and wait for it to stop, for it to lose momentum and collapse back into its motionless self, but it never does. And you wonder what it meant for it to spin in the first place.
She always applied sun screen in the morning. But she never went out during the day. Too dangerous. She waited until the sun went down to go out, and she felt perfectly safe behind her sunscreen.
Oh that thing in Colorado. Don’t think about that thing. It brings you no luck to think about that thing, and luck is what you need right now.
There is a man in the room next to her. She has never seen him, because it seems he never leaves his room. But she has heard him coughing and, sometimes, sneezing, and those are definitely a man’s coughs and sneezes. But was he a man really? Or was he just a theory of a man? Something she had constructed out of her own boredom? Wasn’t that why God created the world?
Oh, but what world had she made? She knew the answer to that question, and it scared her.
She had come to the desert seeking time. But she knew now that she had had no idea how much time there was out in the desert. It was not a precious commodity, as it was in the city where she grew up. It was not worth hoarding or counting or saving out here. It leered at you out here. It mocked your need for it. Because time was all there was in the desert.
She also knew his name was Marlon Deever. Because that was how the landlord referred to him. He had actually seen him in the flesh, at least at the moment when he moved in. Never to be seen again. The landlord also seemed to like him. He could recount conversations he had with him, jokes he had told that had made him laugh. He was an actual person to the landlord. She wondered why she had never heard any of those jokes, had never had any of those conversations. Did they only occur when she was asleep? But then they would have woken her up. The man was a paradox.
Why think about him at all? Perhaps he was sick with the virus they were all hiding from. Perhaps he was burrowed into a hole within a hole, a shelter within a shelter, so that he could not spread what he was.
Which is what she was doing. She couldn’t chance having her name on a lease, having an address attached to her name. There could be no leash that led to a dog. So she had decided to find a bedroom to rent, in someone else’s home, whose name was on the address, who would get all the bills, who would be the person people expected to open the door when they rang the bell. Not her.
In the evenings the landlord, Ramon, and his mother would watch telenovelas. Sometimes she sat at the kitchen table, ceding the living room to them, and watched with them. She knew no Spanish, but over time she had been able to figure the stories out. They were not that complicated. All of Western culture boils down to real estate and adultery, when you think about it, and all the stories ever told are about those two things. Once you figured that out, you could speak every language.
Ramon went to work during the day, at a grocery store. His mother spent the nights at his home, but during the day she went to her own house. Why that arrangement existed, she couldn’t say. But it suited her just fine. She had the place to herself until the evening. Or rather, she and Marlon did. It was easy to forget he was there. But also impossible to forget. Because she could never feel completely alone while he was lurking behind his door. What if the moment when she felt she could throw caution to the winds, walk around naked, fart as freely as she liked, drink a bottle of vodka at ten in the morning – what if that was the moment he decided to emerge? And start telling her jokes?
He loomed. He impinged. The theory of his presence enslaved her. He would have to die.
But what would it mean to kill someone who didn’t exist?
He was fiendishly clever, that Marlon. He had arrived at the solution she had been searching for. A way to disappear in plain sight. The people who were looking for her didn’t know they were looking for her. That was why she was still alive. But there were dots to connect, and once they were, they would know who she was and what she had done to them. It was an inevitability.
But that didn’t mean she was. There was always someone else to be looking for. Someone adjacent. Someone right next door. Like Marlon.
All her mail was addressed to him. She intercepted it when it was delivered, at 10:30 am every morning, except Sunday. Her subscription to The New Yorker was in his name. Sometimes she even wrote him letters, telling him about herself. Letters she mailed to him, then intercepted and destroyed them. One day, though, she wouldn’t be there to keep him from reading them. And then he would know. And perhaps wonder who this woman was. Had been.
There was the money of course. Sitting in the account of a construction company she had made up. Registered in Wyoming, where she had never lived. The man who owned the company was named Marlon Deever. He owned everything she had.
It’s so easy to live in a world that isn’t real.
But now the day. A box to be filled – but with what? Everything was closed. The world was filled with famine. Distraction was the most precious commodity of all, because there was none to be had.
She could scream at the emptiness. But, being empty, it would have nothing to say in reply.
This was her day every day. There was nothing new to be learned. Its boredom would not cease being boring because it was. The money didn’t make it less boring. The mysterious presence on the other side of her bedroom wall didn’t make it less boring. She did not make it less boring. There was no punchline to this joke.
Oh, but there was.
She could do it any time she liked. She could annihilate the boredom of the infinite day ahead of her in a moment. All she had to do was go to Marlon’s door and knock. Even if he didn’t answer, that would represent a decision he had made because of her. Not to decide is to decide, as the poster in her seventh grade English class had said.
Sometimes she almost did. She would stand in front of his door, as close as she could without touching it. Imagining him imagining her standing just outside. She would become a portent. But not to him. Of him.
She should not have killed the man standing outside the front door of that bank. He had startled her. Simply by being there. He had run across the street against the light, his haste making her feel threatened. Even though she should have known he was just jaywalking. He couldn’t possibly have known what she had just done.
She had been too clever by half. She hadn’t needed to stage one robbery to cover up the real one. She hadn’t needed to go all Russian doll. The most successful plan is the simplest. But the deception within the deception had appealed to her vanity. Like Marlon hiding within her hiding. Killing that man had made her an enemy. A random enemy. Someone who loved him and would wonder why he had been killed, and by whom. Money was just money. The people she had robbed would make more and, with time, after the initial sting of being duped wore off, they would write their loss off and realize she wasn’t worth the trouble. But murder created a hole in other people’s lives. One they would fill with the taking of hers. And she knew they, people from whom she had not taken a dime, would never stop looking for her.
If she had just lingered at that door a few more seconds before opening it, she would be in the clear. And if that man had waited for the crossing light to change, he would be alive today. They were both dead.
Now the day. It was still there. Waiting for her to make a decision. Then it lost patience and made it for her. The doorbell rang. A sound she had never heard before in that house. It was a place where people lived who had no one to visit them. The strange sound faded back into the background silence of her life. Then it rang again. She could refuse to answer, and they, whoever they were, would go away. Probably never to return. But then she would always wonder who they had been. And whether it was her they were wanting to visit.
She walked to the front door and opened it. A man awaited her, smiling woodenly. Casually dressed. Middle aged. With a supplicating look. He looked surprised that someone had answered the bell. He seemed to be the type of person who anticipated defeat at every turn.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said. “But I’m looking for a Marlon Deever.”
The last thing she would ever have expected. Someone who knew Marlon, and actually wanted to see him. She knew, though, that this was impossible. The Marlon Deever this man was looking for was in fact her, but he did not know that.
“Is this something to do with Green River Construction?” she asked.
“Why yes, it is. We received a check for him that listed him at this address. We’re his accountants.” She assumed the green windowed envelope stuck in his shirt pocket was that check.
She had never hired any accountants for Green River Construction. And Marlon’s name could only be associated with the company by someone who took the time to slog through the records of incorporation of public companies in Cheyenne. And no one would want to do that. Or would they?
“He does live here. But he’s not in at the moment,” she said. She couldn’t even be sure if she was lying or not.
“Well, I don’t want to have to come back. Can I leave it with you?”
“Sure. No problem.”
He handed her the unopened envelope. So how did he know it contained a check? Someone must have told him. He was clearly a flunky in any case. No one would tell him anything unless he absolutely had to know it. And why did he have to know this?
She had learned in Colorado not to overthink things. She would not do this now. She took the envelope.
“I’ll make sure he gets it,” she said.
“Thanks,” the man said. And stood waiting for her to close the door. So polite. She closed the door. And waited five seconds. She opened it again, and he was gone. Like magic. Someone she would never see again. She felt a fleeting pang of remorse and closed the door again.
She inspected the envelope. It was addressed to Marlon. At the address where he pretended to live. Someone, somewhere, had known this. Yet had not simply put the check in the mail, to be delivered. Someone had hired someone to deliver it. Knowing that it would be given to her, not Marlon. Because that someone wanted her to know he knew where she was. And could get her at any time. It was that stupid New Yorker subscription. Those cartoons would be her death warrant.
She could flee, but that someone was expecting that. It was the most obvious thing she could do.
But there was another obvious thing she could do.
In the evenings she walked around the neighborhood. And, though few of the houses on her street had anything like a lawn, or shrubbery that needed to be trimmed, there was still a ferocious amount of yard maintenance going on, constantly. Every day. All day, even into the evening. Masked men in Clippers sweatshirts and dungarees with their leaf blowers, banishing dead leaves to the next yard, from which they would be banished in turn by other masked men.
She never saw any of their faces. Bandanas covered them completely. They were the perfect ciphers. No one would ever notice them. Even if someone wanted to, there was no one to be noticed. Just a body doing a job no one else wanted to do. An interchangeable part fulfilling its function. Staring at the envelope, absorbing its inevitability, its fatefulness, she realized that all along she should have been a leaf blower. No one would ever have found her. And she was only found because of the one person who had remained perfectly hidden. Marlon.
There was a gun, of course, because there was always a gun. Top shelf of the closet in her bedroom, next to her good shoes. In a box with the ammunition. She knew she didn’t need it though. Perhaps up to this moment it had been a necessity, a prop to make her feel safe. But for what was coming next, it was useless.
She walked down the hallway, the only one in that tiny house, past her bedroom door, which she closed as she passed. She stopped in front of Marlon’s door, and knocked. It opened immediately, as though he had been waiting for her knock. As though he had been waiting for it forever and now, having heard it, he was liberated from a burden he had been carrying for eternity.
She was surprised to see he was handsome. And well dressed in a suit her mother would have called natty. He smelled of fine cologne. She felt like they were about to have a date. Which they were.
“Please come in,” he said. “I’ve been waiting.” He backed into the bedroom, identical to her own, making space for her to occupy. She handed him the envelope, and he immediately threw it into a gray metal trash basket by his bed.
She closed the door behind her, and knew it would never open again.
Deaths in 2020
Being an Indian politician sure seemed to be a dangerous job. And Dutch footballers. So many of both dropping like flies in their 50s, or younger. The Australian air force generals seemed to be more long lived – easily reaching their 80s and beyond. Also, though more perplexing, Catholic cardinals in the Philippines who were almost immortal. Almost.
These were anomalies that piqued my demographic curiosity. Not so much about the dead people themselves, but about Wikipedia’s methods of classification, qualification and presentation.
Why on earth, for example did racing horses merit a listing in the Deaths section? And not giraffes or elephants? Was it because people made, and lost, money on them? So very random. I know that death is always in some sense random – why now and not a week from today? Or last year? Couldn’t you please have died sooner?
Then there were subtle mysteries behind certain deaths, barely hinted at by the cryptic, parenthetical “death announced on this day” added to the end of the listing. Had they been dead for months and whoever finally made the official announcement had had more important matters to attend to? Like a convention of medieval historians in Prague? Had they died alone in their homes the previous month, to be found only when the smell became impossible to ignore from outside? Or when the gardner finally broke in, seeking his wages? Or had these deaths been suppressed to obscure the manner of death? To disguise autoerotic asphyxiation or death by misadventure with a robot?
Finally why did so many death notices not have their own bespoke Wikipedia entry? The decedents’ insignificance annotated by a red link that led to the mournful (but not mourning) message that they have no such page? If these people were important enough to get their own death listing, and if they mattered so much to the person who submitted it – why didn’t this person take the time to create an article for them with its very own blue-linked official entry? The seal of authenticity?
Hard questions to answer, but impossible not to ask.
You see, or perhaps you don’t yet, that all the people dying of covid around me has made me seek distraction in the deaths of people I don’t know and don’t matter to me. If I have to keep hearing about death, let it be about those people. Dutch footballers, Indian politicians, Jubilee the race horse. So I’ve become compulsive about checking Wikipedia’s Deaths in 2020 page every day. I close my eyes, but I peek through my fingers.
The list does supply one glimmer of hope. Those pristine single lines at the very top containing only tomorrow’s date. Optimistic placeholders for dates in the future where no one has yet died. It’s an ephemeral immortality, in the most literal sense. But I’ll take what I can get. And there’s an endless supply of dates that haven’t happened yet, so that line will never disappear. It will be replenished indefinitely. Unless you die of course. In that case you’re out of luck.
But this is where distraction transforms into a new kind of obsession. Because the more I look at the Deaths list, the more I am reminded of my friends and family who will die in the future. My obese, diabetic 78-year-old dad. My best friend Raymond who is a pulmonologist in a covid ward, surrounded by infection every minute of the day. My other friend Eduardo who works at Whole Foods. And people I know who seem perfectly healthy, but will surprise me by dying via Zoom.
These certainties confront me with with a fateful choice. When a loved one dies, will I make an entry for them in the Deaths list? And create an entry all to themselves explaining who they were? Of course if I decide to do this I will give them magnificent fictional biographies, full of genius and bravery. And I will make everyone of them an Australian navy admiral.
Or should I resist this temptation? Do I want to make them part of a list millions of strangers will read, not knowing anything about them, not really caring about their deaths? Seeking only selfish distraction from their own fears?
Wikipedia gives, then takes away. Makes the personal anonymous, unknown.
Perhaps I should stop being a slave to Deaths in 2020. But if I do, I’ll become a slave to something else.
The first billows of evening are cascading over the street outside my window, illuminating even as they obscure.
I do not know what to do.