Within Mr. Vanitas’ snifter, fine Scotch swirled; it clung in languorous beads along the rim. At length, he admired its legs. Then he spoke. “And so friends, yet another month we commence together. The floor is now open.”
Nine in total shared the silence of the café. But Mr. Vanitas, he did not quite call them friends. Aficionados, perhaps. Chairs creaked anxiously. Larkish shadows, spit from the occasional candle, canvassed the walls.
“May I?” Eyes wide and far too dazzling, a middle-aged woman inquired of the room.
“Of course, Rita.” Mr. Vanitas smiled between sips of Scotch; an oaken subtleness teased the plastic smoothness of his lips. He knew the café owner forbade drinking on its premises, but fistfuls of hundreds turned the cheek of many a steely individual. Besides, no one possessed the nerve to rebuff him. Of that, Mr. Vanitas always remained quite confident.
“Thank you.” Her smile infected the gathering, eyes so very, very bright, but gourmet finger sandwiches soon passed through the room; her giddiness discarded for poached shrimp and alfalfa sprout delectability. “I died last week.”
A smattering of polite applause. “Excellent, Rita.” Mr. Vanitas, enthusiasm sincere, placed his glass down and brought his hands together. Only four meetings under her belt, and already she absorbed his teachings without question. “So very wonderful. Do you wish to share further with us?”
“Yes, Mr. Vanitas, I would. It was so much easier than I could ever have imagined, really. Completely impulsive. A car accident. The road had been very slick, and I took the turn—”
“How fast were you going?” interrupted a pudgy man jammed into a tweed coat.
Mr. Vanitas glowered at Jenson; the vibe of the café quavered. Even Rita’s eyes dimmed—just a tad. Scotch eventually moistened Mr. Vanitas’ lips back to a reassuring smile. “As you were, Rita.”
“I took the turn rather fast,” daring a curt glance toward Jenson, “and then skidded. My husband has told me countless times what to do if such a thing occurred. Of course, I ignored it all. The ravine came up quickly. The tree quicker still. I never stood a chance. Beyond that, however, I’ve sadly nothing more to recount.”
From the gathering, disappointed sighs.
“Everyone, it’s okay.” Mr. Vanitas raised a bandaged hand. “What is important is that Rita took her first step. I am so very, very proud of her. Now the next time, Rita, you must focus on the retention of your sensations. What did you smell, taste…this is most important for your development.”
She withdrew a compact mirror from her purse, dabbed makeup around the concave dent in her brow. “I will certainly strive to do my best, Mr. Vanitas.”
He nodded appreciatively. “Anyone else?” His fingers worked between his shirt buttons, scratching atop ribbons of gauze.
“Yeah.” Jenson’s meaty face shimmered—a prancing goblin—within the flickering café. “I got something.” He rose from his chair, shook the coat from his arms with a chuff. Then he yanked hard on his sweater collar, revealing a welt that ringed his neck. “Hung myself,” altogether cool and matter-of-factly, “while I had my dick in my hand.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” gasped Mrs. Delancy from across the room.
“I’m not shitting any of you. Rigged the noose from my attic rafter.”
Alexander Green balled his sandwich to the other side of his cheek. “I’m surprised it held.”
From the gathering, sly chuckles. “You assholes want to hear or not?”
“Now, now, Jenson,” Mr. Vanitas scolded. “We’ll have none of that.”
“Well, we’re always talking about pushing the envelope,” Jenson snorted. “I figured, why not off myself while choking my chicken, you know?”
“Autoerotic asphyxiation is what you mean.” Glancing at the disgust creasing the pruned ruins of Mrs. Delancy’s face, Mr. Vanitas silently amused himself. “And while some within our group may be somewhat…put off…by the visuals your death may induce, I will admit, it was another admirable effort on your part.”
Jenson settled back into his chair. “Yeah, well, that ain’t the best of it. My wife tried getting me down. Dumb fuck, who would’ve figured she’d stand below me? Crushed her on my way down.”
“Cheese and crackers!” Stanley Henderson covered his mouth.
Jenson chuckled, spittle spraying his jolly cheeks. “Never even had a viewing. Her family disowned her before we met, and you know we had no kids. My own kin died awhile back, and fuck knows I never needed friends. Only ones there were the funeral director and his partner.”
Mr. Vanitas eyed Jenson carefully from above the rim of his snifter. “I was not aware of that.” He pulled his gaze away, slowly scanning the group, fixating finally on a man seated in the corner of the café. “Robert.”
The gathering froze; Alexander Green shoved shrimp back into his mouth while keeping entrails from escaping the cavity of his torso; Ms. Bernadette fingered the bubbling hole in her throat. Even Jenson stiffened, jowls blue tinged.
“Yes, Mr. Vanitas?” squeaked a shaky reply.
“What do you wish to share with us tonight?”
The man absently fumbled with his shirtsleeves. “I slit my wrists right after last month’s meeting, Mr. Vanitas.”
“Yes, of course you did, Robert. As well the meeting before that. And the one before that. Where is your sense of adventure?” He shook his head sadly. “I believe you’ve strayed from the intent of our group.”
From the gathering, a strained hush.
“I haven’t, Mr. Vanitas.”
Mr. Vanitas knocked back the remainder of his Scotch, then shattered the snifter upon the floor. “Memento mori! Do you know what that means, Robert?”
“No, Mr. Vanitas.”
“It means, remember that you will die. But do you understand what it means, Robert?”
A pitiful shake of his head.
Mr. Vanitas rose, lurched through the small arrangement toward the man. The gathering shrunk in their chairs. “Death is our inevitability, Robert. Born we are only so that we may die. Raised as children so that we may one day fit the black jeweled crown of death upon our skulls. Only the chosen may come to revel in its splendor, lather its sweet decay across perpetually damned flesh. We live only to die, and die only to die again. A fortunate lot, are we not?”
A resounding yes reverberated through the café. “And so we indulge ourselves, over and over again. But it’s never enough, Robert. In our deaths, we live out our agonies, our ecstasies, our artistic splendors. But it’s never enough…” his voice trailing away.
“So then we never die, do we, Mr. Vanitas? Not now…not ever?”
Mr. Vanitas paused in the middle of the room—deftly unbuttoned his shirt, bandaged fingers moving with fluid grace. It dropped to the floor, besides Jenson’s tweed coat. Exposed, the expanse of bloody bandages wrapping his torso; a fine mesh network. He picked at it, laboring meticulously, unsheathing ribbon by ribbon, layer by layer, until ruinous, smoking flesh peeked through; a glint of bared rib. Then lastly, with a wet rip, the veil of gauze that surrounded his head came unwound. Before them, Mr. Vanitas preened—bandages clutched tightly within each hand, a figure of charred wickedness. “Perhaps Jenson is better suited to answer your question.”
Jenson winced, the stench of broiled muscle full in his nose. “What are you talking about?”
“No one remained to see you off, is that not what you claimed, Jenson?”
The fat man’s eyes widened as Mr. Vanitas wrapped his dressings tightly around Jenson’s neck. “You see, Robert, we do not truly die until the very last person we know in life dies. Not until then.” He jerked mercilessly until Jenson’s final death wheezed from his throat. “I do expect you to die in the best interest of our group from this moment forward, Robert.”
~ Joseph A. Pinto
© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.