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July 6, 2013

When book number three in the Carina Quintana Mysteries series, WHITE TIE & TALES, was published and I finished what I expect to be the final draft of the fourth in the series, DEAD ON A RIVAL, a few weeks ago, I wanted to take a short break from my beloved heroine (!) and focus on an idea I’d had for a very different sort of story.

As I started writing I wasn’t sure where things would lead although it quickly became apparent that at this stage at least, I would just try to sketch out a short story in order to get the bulk of the idea out and on paper. The result is the way-shorter than-the-typical-New-Yorker-fiction story that’s set forth below, called AFTER LIFE.

My beautiful wife, Laura, is usually my harshest critic, so when she read it and said “Amazing!” as well as a few other similar accolades and said she had no suggestions at all for changes, I was surprised and extremely pleased.  When you get a chance, please read it and tell me what you think!



 David Benson

 Copyright 2013 David M. Benson

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

*   *   *   *   *

THERE ARE so many references to music and musical instruments in the bible that I always imagined there would be music in Heaven. I mean, for sure there would be harps, right? And trumpets and drums, and maybe cymbals, and voices lifted on high.  Still, I never imagined it would be like this.

Not the merciless bashing of so many drums and cymbals or so many soaring power chords on guitar and electric bass.

And not Kurt Cobain’s voice lifted high.

Assuming this was Heaven, of course. But then, what else could it be? Cobain had been dead for twenty years, and while I couldn’t make out their faces it was not Dave Grohl behind the drums or Krist Novoselic rocking the bass notes. Those guys were still alive.

And I had seen that red pickup truck cross the center line and hurdle straight at me.

Yesterday I think it was. I don’t remember waking up this morning but I’m told I’ll get used to that. Not that I know who actually told me. Come to think of it, how I spent the day is something of a blank, too, but that’s a matter for another time I suppose.

Anyway, the choice to see Cobain was an easy one. Nirvana had been my favorite band growing up and I was way deep into the grunge scene back then. It’s why I passed on tickets to see Tupac, at least for tonight. I was told, somehow, that there would be other opportunities, and the ticket was sitting right there.

Besides, the experience of seeing Nirvana for the first time, back in ‘91, not long after Grohl had joined the band as their drummer, got me into the whole concert scene. After that I went to live shows whenever I could. Green Day, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, you name it.  I even saw Nirvana again maybe two years later in New York when I was in college there.

And I still go. I mean, I’d been driving home from seeing the Killers when that red pickup crossed the median. Jillie was sitting next to me. She’s not here, wherever here is, so I’m thinking she’s okay. At least I hope that’s the case.

The first concert I saw with Jillie was Foo Fighters, the band Grohl put together a year or so after Cobain’s suicide. I don’t remember who opened the show for them but whoever it was got famous on their own not long after, I think. But no matter how good all the other shows were, somehow nothing ever compared with seeing Nirvana live.

As I said, scoring a ticket wasn’t an issue and getting to the venue was a snap. There was no opening act but Nirvana did not disappoint, far from it. Even though it was just Kurt from the original band and Krist and Dave weren’t there, it didn’t seem to matter. The sound was pure Nirvana. About half of their playlist came from the band’s three studio albums, but all the rest of the songs were new to me and most of them were amazing, as good or better than anything that had come before. It didn’t hurt that the venue’s acoustics were terrific and so were the sightlines, and I realized when it was over that it was my first concert without some weed or a few beers.

On the way home, or at least that’s where I thought I must be headed, I passed a bookstore. It was still open despite the hour and in the window was a display of new arrivals.  I didn’t recognize most of the titles but one of the authors got my attention; Douglas Adams, who had written the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy five-book series before succumbing to a heart attack in 2001. Damn if the eighth book of the so-called Hitchhiker trilogy wasn’t right there in front of me.  Five minutes later I was headed home again with books six through eight in hand, as well as the knowledge, gleaned I know not how, that the new Stieg Larsson novel was due out soon.

I don’t remember paying for the books but back outside I walked purposefully but unhurriedly, and no one was chasing me. In fact I was utterly alone but, still, I was somehow wrapped in a feeling of fellowship and belonging.  It had been exactly that way at the concert, too. I was surrounded by people, lots of them, and the noise that enveloped me was the noise you’d expect to hear at a concert. But I never bumped into anybody or high-fived anybody or exchanged comments about the performance with anybody. And I couldn’t really see them, the others in the crowd. They were just there.

It was an odd feeling, especially for a city boy, but I was already beginning to get used to.

When I put the books down on the entryway table there was a note sitting there.  It appeared to be neatly printed in one of the many fonts I had invented when bored to tears in grade school. I smiled and picked it up. It felt like high quality bond paper and was buff in color. Across the top, instead of From the desk of or something like that it proclaimed, The days of our years are threescore years and ten.

The words were familiar and I thought they were from a Psalm, although I could not recall which one.

Below that heading and not in bold print, the note went on to say that there was a Beach Boys Featuring Carl and Dennis Wilson concert the next night. It explained that while the band might not have been my favorite, it was to be Dennis Wilson’s last performance, the singer having been born in 1944, and that most of these last shows were something very special and not to be missed.

If he’d been born in 1944, I quickly calculated, it had been seventy years since his birth.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten, or so the bible says.

I dropped the note and sat down.

Cobain had been twenty-seven when he died and that had been twenty years ago, which would have made him forty-seven now. Tupac would be even younger.

Douglas Adams had been more-or-less fifty when he died, as I recalled, and that had been maybe a dozen years ago, making him somewhere in his early sixties.

Wait, the days of our death are three score and ten?

I walked back to the bookstore.

David Foster Wallace, check. Jack Kerouac, nothing.  Stieg Larsson, check. Sylvia Plath, nothing. Same for Hemingway and Fitzgerald and all the others I could think of who died young but would be more than seventy now if they had lived.

What the fuck?

I walked to the multiplex I’d passed after seeing Cobain. Then I’d been too wrapped up in the lingering buzz of the music to notice the marquees. Not now.

There were twelve films I could have gone to see, none with titles that I recognized except for a few ending in a number or a word like Returns. But I did recognize the names of all the stars. Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Brittany Murphy and John Candy were all there. So was Brandon Lee, but not his dad Bruce, who would have been just past three score and ten by now.  Also missing was James Dean, who would have been a bit older.

Among the producers and directors was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who I suspected would be hitting the apparent limit pretty soon. Theo van Gogh, who’d been gunned down by a Muslim extremist in his forties not all that long ago, it seemed, was accounted for. And there was Barbara Rubin, unsurprisingly directing Ledger this time around. She must be getting close.

Perry Moore, who co-produced the Narnia films and was maybe forty when he died, only a couple years ago, was listed as the producer on two of the films showing tonight. There was one by Tony Scott, although a banner across the poster for it in the lobby said Final few days. Come to think of it, Ridley’s younger brother had been pretty close to seventy when he died. The great Irving Thalberg, on the other hand, from the early days of film, had died in his late thirties but would have been well over a hundred now and was certainly not on the roster.

Okay, so there seems to be a pattern, but what the fuck does it mean? And if all these singers and writers and film people who died young are here until they hit a terrestrial seventy, what happens to them after that?

And, oh, by the way, where does that leave me?

I sat down on a nearby bench and attempted to give it some thought.

Maybe all those singers and such are still here. Maybe they work, making music and films and such, until they hit seventy and then retire, or whatever it’s called here. Of course, no one was around selling maps of where the stars live so I couldn’t imagine how to prove or disprove that theory.

It was interesting, though, that the stars were the only people I could actually see, although even that observation was rife with flaws. I did see Kurt Cobain and if I did go to his show I supposed I really would see Tupac. But while I’d bought his latest books I hadn’t actually seen Douglas Adams, and if I went to a film I would be seeing an image of Heath Ledger, but not the man himself. But that, of course, raised the matter of a film with him in it being made after he had died.

I needed a drink.

On the other hand I could simply give up and just accept things as they were, seeing as they really didn’t seem too bad. Nice try, I said aloud after a moment or so. Apparently my curiosity hadn’t died with me.

There was always the possibility that I hadn’t died and was lying in some hospital bed, in a coma, dreaming up all that was around me. I’d never been in a coma but I’d heard or read somewhere that it was a lot like being under anesthetic and I had been there. Like most people, I woke up after surgery with no sense at all of how much time had passed and no recollection of having dreamed while I was out. It was a complete blank.

So while I couldn’t be certain, the odds were that I wasn’t in a coma.  And the same rationale led even more strongly to a conclusion that I wasn’t anesthetized and undergoing surgery at this very moment.

Which left, what?

Heaven, or whatever there was after life, although it wasn’t like any version of Heaven I had ever read, heard or seen a film about. Which made sense, I suppose, since so much of what we imagine Heaven to be—assuming we even believe there is one—we make up ourselves. So a place where musicians and such go to live out, so to speak, their three score and ten if they don’t make it there the first time around  makes about as much sense as anything.

But it still didn’t answer the question where they go when they reach seventy, not to mention why I was there. I was certainly no musician.

I had died young, though, way sooner than my allegedly allotted three score and ten.  So it was logical to imagine that I had a few decades here, wherever here was, before moving on again, perhaps to where the musicians went, or maybe not.

The way I was taught Heaven is a state of being, not necessarily a physical place, and  those who die possessed of some possibility of goodness are made ready for a life of perfect service of God in Heaven in whatever ways are necessary. Hell, on the other hand, whether a Dante-like version or one of the myriad Hells of bad jokes or cartoons, or worse yet, the screeds of some other teachings, doesn’t really exist; it’s merely the absence of Heaven.

Good news, then. Apparently, as a lawyer might say, I’m not not in Heaven.

A way-station then, where I’m being made ready?

Strangely, none of this freaked me out in the least. In fact, I suspected that the deep creases that often formed between my brows from worry or concern were gone, although there was no mirror handy to confirm this and no one nearby to ask.

I put down the glass of Scotch I hadn’t realized I’d been drinking from and headed home again. When I got there I sat down and put my feet up and, glass of Scotch in hand, thought about it some more.

I’d always thought that artists like musicians, actors, writers and painters, and come to think of it, athletes, were the luckiest people around, at least the ones who made a financial go of it. After all, they made a living doing something they would have done anyway, which wasn’t true for most of us, especially those of us who were CPAs. That’s why so many of us spend as much of our off time as we can going to concerts or movies or the theatre or museums or ballgames, or watching them on TV. Just look at the popularity of fantasy sports leagues….

Oh, shit. Could that be it?

Musicians and such—at least the ones with some possibility of goodness, perhaps?–who died young got the balance of their three score and ten being musicians, the thing they love the best. Not so CPAs. No, they spend their balance going to see the musicians.

It made some sense. After all, while I could while away an afternoon watching a football game or accompany a friend who had tickets to an appealing sports event, I never did consider myself a real sports fan. And there were no athletes around this place, at least as far as I could tell so far.

So, it looked as though I had thirty more years to enjoy the music and the films and such, but then what?

I got up to refill my glass.

*   *   *   *   *


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