Excerpt

The Strangest

Michael J. Seidlinger

October 15, 2015 
The following is from Michael J. Seidlinger’s The Strangest, a 21st century reimagining of Albert Camus’s 1942 masterpiece. Seidlinger is the author of a number of novels including The Fun We’ve Had and The Laughter of Strangers. He is Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in innovative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry as well as the Book Reviews Editor at Electric Literature.

Someone died, I don’t know. It’s pretty obvious that someone died. People die every minute. When it hits home, it’s plain and clear. Someone died. You can’t just say it’s a coincidence.

I got the phone call. I made sure to make a note of it.

Someone called. Apparently someone died.

Based on the number of likes and comments, it looks like it’s a big deal. But then again, tonight is like most nights: Not worth remembering. I don’t believe much of anything if it isn’t there in the morning.

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I tell myself, it’s real if it’s still there. I remind myself. I think it’s something worth considering.

It sounds bad.

Get there in the morning—skip the hospital, the person on the phone said the funeral is tomorrow. Halfway across the city.

I never travel that far, not for anything.

Wish I could just build a big pillow fort and live there for the rest ofmy life. That’s a good one. Statuses like that get at least a couple dozen likes. People feel the same way. They see what it’s like when people die. It feels, well it feels like being forced to do something. I shouldn’t talk. I’m not like this. This isn’t me.

This isn’t me.

They don’t like it so I delete it. I post it again, this time with a picture of someone I don’t know. That one catches on.

The phone call, though—the voice was so unfamiliar, it probably was someone I knew.

“He’s dead,” the voice said.

“Dead.” I don’t pick up the phone. I don’t know why I picked up the phone. I never pick up the phone. I don’t like talking on the phone. I have to be eating something in order to talk on the phone, so I started on the only food near me, day-old pizza or something. “You are crying.”

“Andrew, oh my god…”

“Oh my god,” I say it because I have nothing else to say.

“He… I knew he was having trouble, but I didn’t think…”

Didn’t think. What am I thinking right now?

Death and coping with death: The Downer Story of the Year.

In twelve steps you find out who you really are. A few people seem to agree. One reply, Fuck you Meurks. I have a lot of trolls. Everyone says to ignore the trolls but the trolls know how to really get to you. The good ones, anyway. This is not a good one.

I have nothing to say so I don’t say anything. She keeps talking, sobs at one point and then, clearing her throat, she tells me about the funeral. Details.

“We’re all getting together after the funeral. Like old times.” Then she starts sobbing again. Tears, I imagine.

This is where I say something.

And then she says something.

And then I say something back, but it’s not what she expected.

She kind of laughs, and expects it. Says, “Zachary, always the one that makes it awkward. If I didn’t already know you, I’d hang up.”

Is this a compliment?

I don’t know.

I don’t say anything else because I don’t have to say anything else. I don’t have to say anything. I just listen to her breathing and then I listen to her telling me again, one last time, about the funeral. I think this is where the call ends but I stay on the line until the dial tone stops.

Because I was on the phone, I have to play catchup. A lot has happened since the call. Likes, retweets, blogs, reblogs: I think about the person that died. There’s nothing there. ‘Andrew.’ Who is this ‘Andrew?’

And then I open a new tab and start writing out a blog post:

That feeling that you get when you know you should be doing something but you don’t know what it is you’re supposed to be doing and the feeling that’s missing when something bad happens and everyone but you feels it: This is now. This is where I am, currently. What’s your current mood? Meurks is asking, you might as well respond.

They respond.

People go on and on about their problems.
W

hen they have an open forum, they go on forever.

It’s a lot easier to not listen when you don’t have to stare at a person face-to-face.

Then I remember:

Funeral tomorrow. I could probably not go, but my name is in the program.

Should I go to a funeral if I’m expected to be there?

Followers respond like a guilty conscience. Mostly “yes” with a “but” that has to do with if anyone else is expecting me. I think for a moment. Nothing comes to mind.

I look up from the screen; I look at the laptop set in front of me. I look around my apartment. It must have gotten dark since I sat down. The sun was up before I got the call, long before any of this began.

I think about turning on a light. The thought passes.

Then I remember, my name in the program.

If my name is in the program?


This time they answer, “yes” with no “buts” and then I stand up, pacing the entire length of my bedroom until I stop at the one lamp I own. I turn on the light. I turn it off. I look outside, seeing that the streets have a busy night ahead.

Must be Friday.

Or Saturday. Or Sunday.

Not Sunday. I had work today.

I won’t have work tomorrow.

quickly blame this ‘Andrew’ for the fact that I will have to travel tomorrow. But at least I get off from work.

I should probably call my boss.

Phone drains before I can get to his number.

* * * *

Tomorrow feels a whole lot like today except I am outside with a bunch of people, 31 people to be exact. 31 people sounds like a lot. It’s a lot for a funeral. How many people do you want at your funeral, and how many do you think will cry? I hold onto my phone, making sure to monitor how much battery is left. There’s no outlet here. There should be, but then there wouldn’t be any trees. Or… grass. There wouldn’t be any graves. We wouldn’t be outside if there were outlets. We shouldn’t be outside.

2 of the 31 people in attendance keep talking to me. One walks over and makes me feel like I’m supposed to say something profound. He puts his arm around me, brings me close, and says, “Andrew was great, just know that. It isn’t your fault.”

“Why would it be my fault?” I shouldn’t have said that but I shouldn’t have to talk to someone I don’t want to talk to.

“It’s not, man, it’s not! Don’t get me wrong. It’s just…”

The guy trails off and then walks away with his head down. I don’t watch because he’s walking in the direction of the coffin and all the people standing around it.

I like this tree. It has enough shade.

Almost like I’m not even outside since there’s a breeze today. Only 4 of the 31 people are crying, and they aren’t crying in the way where you make a sound. They are sort of sobbing. I don’t know why. The other friend doesn’t leave when he walks up. He keeps talking.

“My condolences. I know he was a close friend of yours… your best friend.”

I look down at my phone.

How many people will remember you when you’re gone?

“He was going through a hard time.”

Know that feeling when you are so self-conscious you have to pre- tend you’re the one that’s dead?

“I just didn’t think he’d do this…”

Without looking up from the phone, I make conversation, “Do what?”

He sort of stutters, “You—you mean you don’t know?”

What am Isupposed to know except how to eat, sleep, and maybe fuck?

I say, “No.”
“He offed himself, dude. Just like that, pull of the trigger.”

Suicide is never the answer.

I delete that almost immediately after posting it.

This guy keeps talking, “And his brains, oh hell… what must it be like to wrap your lips around a shotgun…”

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

That one gets a bunch of likes. But I don’t like the sound of it so I delete it too.

The guy then tells me, “But he was a good guy. You two were inseparable. This must be so hard for you…”

Trails off. I’m not really typing anything but I pretend to.

He doesn’t leave.

Someone else, one of the people running the funeral joins usand asks me if I’m ready.

I say “Yes” just so that I don’t have to hear anything else.

“I understand you and Andrew were close.”

People say that they know me but how the hell do you know a person if they haven’t decided to show everyone who they really are?

“Yes.” That sounded decisive.

This person shakes my hand, “Our minds and hearts go out to you. Andrew was a great person.”

Who is great and who is merely adequate?

“Well, then, shall we? Let us show Andrew how much he means to us.”

And then that guy that won’t leave me alone adds, “Yeah, Andrew would have liked it simple and to the point.”

I don’t know what ‘Andrew’ would have liked or disliked, but I do know that I don’t like this.

31 people in a half circle listening to one person delivering some sort of speech.

I don’t fit in here.

I stand with hands gripped to my phone. I listen but it’s not the kind of listening where you hear words. I only hear the man’s voice, and the rise and fall of every sentence he speaks. When he stops, he looks at me.

He leans in and whispers, “Ready when you are.”

I whisper, “Ready?”

“Please, you may deliver the eulogy.”

Is this what “ friends” do to friends? Would a great friend force another great friend to stand up in front of 31 people and talk about how great their friend was?

I walk slowly, no eye contact, gaze on the phone.

People are sobbing. I walk to the elevated platform where I’m supposed to speak. Public speaking.

Who really likes public speaking except for those people that really seek validation from others? I don’t want these people looking at me! I don’t know what to say! Shit what do I say?

I delete this quickly, before it can filter out to all of Meurk’s friends and followers. I search for “good eulogies.”

I find one.

I stand there and read it word for word.

Eye contact, always eye contact. The eulogy has directions, saying when to stop and look up. I ignore it.

I don’t fit in here.

This is not me.

I don’t do stuff like this. Something must have happened— must have been something I said—because things start to move quickly.

When I’m done reading the eulogy I read, I look up and see that the people that had looked sad now simply look at me, sort of in disbelief.

It was something I said, I’m sure.

I walk back to where I stood before I had to deliver this speech. The guy continues where he left off, and you get the impression that after a couple minutes everyone forgets.

Ever felt like you wanted to just crawl into a hole somewhere until everyone forgets that you exist so that you can start over?

I don’t post that. I think about saving it to drafts. I don’t.

I think about texting it to someone but who?

Who is there to receive it?

I don’t save it.

I look up and catch someone staring at me.

I clench my jaw.

I don’t fit in here.

* * * *

That could have gone a whole lot better. How would it have been any better than what it became? A discussion-in-comments begins before I decide to stop following it. Meurks does this a lot: Whole threads evolve without so much as a single follow-up response.

Nothing to blame. Don’t blame me.

No one said anything is reassured.

The funeral is over. I don’t need to see any of these people again. That’s what’s certain, and I can almost call it reassuring. But they go around, reassuring themselves by talking through their sadness. Their reassurance reduces mine. I pull back, looking to be out of plain sight. It’s too late, though.

Someone tells me, “What a wonderful eulogy, Andrew was a really great person.”

They spot me.

And another, “Such a tragedy when life ends so abruptly.”

I nod.

I think I agree with everything they say.
“

Yes.”

Sometimes they sniffle, other times they wipe away tears.Some just look sad. But I can see that they look at me differently.

Like I don’t belong here.

Hate when people judge you even though you were put on the spot. A few likes but no comments, no follow-through.

I delete it a bit later.

Do you care?


When Meurks says it, it brings out the trolls.

When I say it, it brings a good number of the 31 people in attendance to a halt, almost too upset to say anything else.

I did say that, yes.

One person believes it’s because I’m the one upset.

No one believes you’re sincere when it sounds wrong.

A comment says, Amen.

I look up from my phone to see the same friend from before, this time with puffy eyes.

He grabs my hand and shakes it. No matter that I don’t shake back. He says, “Great eulogy dude.”

Ever feel so uncomfortable you hate the person and blame that person for the discomfort?

Delete that. It sounds wrong.

He says, “I didn’t think it could hurt this much.”

I reply, “I know,” so that I don’t have to say anything else.

Someone next to him, a woman, asks, “You’re coming along right?” I don’t know what she’s talking about but because I don’t want to have to say something and then her say something back and then say something again, I settle for, “Yes. I am.”

15 of the most awkward social situations… 1’s got to be a funeral.

“Zachary.”

“Zachary!”

I don’t realize that’s my name until a hand is on my shoulder. It’s the guy that spoke the most during the funeral. I realize he’s a priest when I see that he’s wearing all black with that white collar thing.

What do you call the white collar thing priests wear?

Gets a response that’s almost instant. White collar.

What am I going to do with that kind of information?
I hold back, not saying anything to the priest. He thanks me for the eulogy although I can tell that everyone, everyone, knows how badly of a eulogy it was; they just won’t tell me.

Makes it so much worse. Can’t stand it when people treat you as something lesser. Eat it up trolls—this one stays.

They look through me, having already deemed me inadequate, and they feign sympathy. They offer apologies and positive thoughts that aren’t really there. “Yes.”

“Thanks.”

That’s all they’re going to get.

I agree. See? “Yes.” I am strange.

I do not fit in.

This wasn’t my idea. I did not volunteer to speak at a funeral. And I’m the one that’s judged because I was forced to do something I wasn’t comfortable with.

I delete it as soon as I post it.

31 people take their time offering their condolences. I notice the priest leaves first. Another dead person, another funeral.

 

 

From THE STRANGEST. Used with permission of OR Books. Copyright © 2015 Michael Seidlinger.


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