Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return

Martin Riker

October 5, 2018 
The following is from Martin Riker's novel, Samuel Johnson's Eternal Return. When Samuel Johnson dies, he finds himself in the body of the man who killed him. Moving from body to body as each one expires, the novel follows Samuel on a comic quest over half a century. Martin Riker is the co-founder of the feminist press Dorothy, a Publishing Project. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Conjunctions, and elsewhere.

What happened next happened quickly, and in my shock and emotional confusion, I took for granted that everything passing before my eyes was part of the standard procedure for a soul departing this world. I failed to wonder, as I sailed over the forest floor, why my flight was horizontal rather than vertical, or why I seemed to be headed into town rather than in a more heavenly direction. Not until later did I recall a noise like hyperventilating, or notice that
the voice in my mind shouting “Samuel Johnson!” did not particularly sound like my own. Even when I tripped and fell on the path, even then I was in no state to wonder why a soul would trip and fall, and only when that same soul fumbled with its keys to start a rusty truck parked by the trailhead was I at last struck by the odd turns my path to the afterlife was taking. In fact the thought that finally broke through to me was simply that I did not know how to drive. “Samuel Johnson!” cried the voice meanwhile—and the hands, the grungy hands scrambling, the heavy wheezy breathing, the truck’s unmuffled revving that brought lights on in the houses, and Thank goodness, I thought, they will see that something’s happened, they will check on Samuel, he will not be alone . . . And when the truck then plunged into darkness, it was not the darkness of death, but a darkness with headlights, unless death also had headlights, perhaps it did, how would I know, who’d never before died, who’d barely even lived, and Oh God, I thought, I’m dead . . . “Samuel Johnson!” cried the voice while the night’s black vacuum sucked me ever deeper in the only direction that road traveled—away—my soul ferried ever farther from my son, mile after mile, until the terrible Charonic truck pulled out onto a much larger road, a highway bright with moonlight, then south—away—the moonlight flittering, on my left, off the great wide river, already farther than I’d ever been from home, now farther and farther still . . . Until at some point my soul’s grubby hand grabbed and twisted the rearview mirror and I found myself facing not my own ghostly visage but rather the very-much-living visage of my lunatic killer, the man who’d just orphaned my boy! “Samuel Johnson!” cried the voice, and in that moment the truck veered, flew through the left-side guardrail off a low cliff and down into the moon-shimmering waters below. Then blackness, and blackness, and finally silence and stop.

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When I next “came to,” I was looking down upon the dark Earth from far above, at the tiny dots of light that mark the larger roads and scattered houses of rural Pennsylvania at night, and at the blacker black of the Susquehanna cutting south over the land. My movement was gentle, like oozing. There were no sounds but a comforting hum, no feeling but stillness and peace. I had just died again, it occurred to me, two deaths in quick succession, which was bewildering, yes, but this time it seemed to have stuck. And as I floated over the sleeping planet, trying to pinpoint which patch of forested darkness might contain my son, I told myself that things would be o.k. for him, after all, that his grandparents would care for him, and that the lunatic, whoever he’d been and whatever he’d wanted, was now gone. Samuel would be safe, I thought, with a good life, a warm and loving home. He would not be “better off”—how could my boy be better off without his father?—but there was nothing to be done about that now. His future was out of my hands . . . Yet no sooner had I begun to make peace with my fate than my entire field of vision was once more interrupted. My soul suddenly turned, tilted, and I saw that I was not floating heavenward at all, but rather was sitting in a long dark compartment surrounded by seats and sleeping bodies. I’d not departed this mortal coil, but had simply been looking down out the window of what I now recognized—having seen them on television and as specks of metal overhead—as a commercial airplane in flight, speeding me away from my son with near-sonic velocity. I’d not made peace with my fate; I was, if anything, more lost than ever!

“And when the truck then plunged into darkness, it was not the darkness of death, but a darkness with headlights, unless death also had headlights, perhaps it did, how would I know, who’d never before died, who’d barely even lived”

Alone there in the darkness, with no sound but the plane’s low rumble and the soft snores and rustling about the cabin, I eventually forced myself to calm down. So abruptly had I been yanked from life to death, then from one death to another, then from what I believed was a heavenly trajectory back to this mundane sphere, that I felt wholly overwhelmed. Why am I here? What happens next? A man’s balding head rested inches from my shoulder, yet I had never felt so alone. I told myself this was clearly a dream, and I should simply wait to wake from it. But as my eyelids closed, and remained closed, and were quickly joined by a slower, heavier breathing that seemed also to belong to me; and since, despite my body having fallen asleep, my mind remained perfectly awake, there in the darkness, with nothing to see or do; and since I stayed in this wakeful state for what felt like days and was in reality perhaps two or three hours, I did eventually begin to take stock of my situation.

Upon death—I surmised for myself—my soul had flown into the lunatic killer’s body, and upon its death, I’d flown again, presumably into the body closest by. That body, this one, belonged to someone seated in an airplane flying overhead—and here I was.

Was I a ghost? If so, I seemed unlikely to haunt anyone, having apparently neither a voice of my own nor any other means of expression. Unseen, unheeded: that appeared to be the state of things. Trapped, in fact, in the darkness of another person’s head, a person being carried in a metal cylinder through the emptiness of night, night itself being nothing but the default state of a planet floating meaningless through space; and I began to suffer something like vertigo, my thoughts in danger of spiraling into pure chaos, when fortunately the eyes I saw through opened, and my body rose from its seat, squeezed past its sleeping neighbor, and made its way by the tiny floor lights—everything about this environment entirely new to me, bear in mind—to a cramped metal closet that was apparently the bathroom.

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My first look—there, in the bathroom mirror—at the human form in which I’d been stranded was a little surprising, and caused my mind’s eye a hard blink, because the young man looked so much like me, my living self. He was a few years younger and better groomed, but in height and weight, skin tone and hair color, he might easily have been my twin. He was more fidgety (I was never fidgety), and as he proceeded to use the toilet, I saw that his stomach was flabbier, his whole body hairier—in fact in time I became aware of so many differences that I no longer saw any resemblance at all—but for a moment, at least, I could not escape the déjà-vu-like feeling that I had somehow become trapped inside a saggier version of myself. I later decided this was purely coincidence, but at the time this feeling fueled my imagination (although clearly reality had already out-imagined me by a considerable margin, and I was merely catching up), and I began to consider that there might be a purposeful Design at work. Perhaps the events transpiring were not random, but rather shaped by Reason, or by particular reasons, by an intention of some sort.

A punishment from God—it must be, what else?—a punishment for failing to believe or having sex out of wedlock, for my shortcomings as a father or watching too much television, one or all four, since these were the only sins I’d committed that seemed at all worthy of God’s attention. And they were serious sins, I supposed, and deserving of punishment, perhaps even a punishment like this—were it not for my son. For although sometime earlier, while floating over the Earth, I had told myself Samuel would be safe without me, that was only because I’d assumed I would be gone. Whereas now that my fate had proven otherwise, I was again convinced my son desperately needed me, if only because I was still here for him to need. To remain in this world, to continue to exist on the same mortal coil as my boy and yet have no means of protecting him—the situation struck me as indefensibly sadistic. Surely no power in the universe was so pointlessly malicious? Surely events would soon conspire to return me to my son?

Well, and why wouldn’t I return to him? I went on, my body by now back in its seat and sleeping, so that I was once again speaking to myself in the dark. Was the world so large (at that time I did not actually know how large the world was) that fortune would not soon land me back with him? True this airplane was taking me away, but airplanes, I knew, also returned, and the same people who took them in one direction tended to take them back in the other. Surely I would soon return to my son with as much haste as I now sped away!

“Was I a ghost? If so, I seemed unlikely to haunt anyone, having apparently neither a voice of my own nor any other means of expression. Unseen, unheeded: that appeared to be the state of things.”

For hours I went on this way, and by the time the pilot came on the loudspeaker to announce the plane’s descent, I had fully deluded myself with hope for a swift and sympathetic conclusion to these profoundly unsettling events. The cabin lights came up, and now my body awoke, as did the other bodies around it. The plane then landed, followed by a long period of taxiing around the runway, during which my neighbor, the one who had been sleeping by my head, spoke to my body as if they were already acquainted, as if perhaps they had spoken at the start of the flight as well. Thus I learned that his name was Burt (“by the way”) and my name—the name of the young man I was stranded in—was Christopher. I learned that Burt had come to California (this was how I learned we were in California) to join up with his wife and daughters, who’d moved here some months earlier while he looked for a job. I learned many other things about Burt, who spoke continuously throughout what ended up being an incredibly long tour of the tarmac, until at last Christopher was asked what brought him to California, and a voice that was not mine said:

“Oh, I—That’s a very long story. I was involved in—How to explain? I was doing well in college, very well, in fact, not that I’m bragging, hardly! Of course that doesn’t—only that I tend to be rather introverted, or bookish, happily, I should say, and yet! Somehow trouble manages to—Well it’s really been my whole life, hasn’t it? Happily reading, or writing, ‘steering clear’ and—But then, then, for reasons I will no doubt never understand, a moment comes, it always does, when I question the very—I panic, that is, that I’m making a terrible mistake, cheating myself of a ‘normal life,’ not that I’d particularly want one of those. But before I can come to my senses—alas!—I’ve launched myself into the social sphere, where something goes wrong, it always does, upon which I erupt, that’s what my parents call it, an ‘eruption,’ it’s the same every time. Only in this present case—that is, my parents, for various reasons—It seemed prudent that—You see, they arranged, out of the ‘kindness of their hearts,’ so to speak—or perhaps, to be fair, out of the actual kindness of their actual hearts—This morning, that is, I’m to set off for a year aboard a ship—not a passenger ship, an actual shipping-type ship, so no pool chairs or shuffleboard, I’m guessing—still, I’m off to ‘see the world,’ as my parents put it—I told them I’ve no intention of seeing any such thing ha ha—At any rate, there you have it!”

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Soon I would learn firsthand quite a lot more about Christopher Plume—more than I wished to know, more than anyone should ever be forced to know about another person’s daily existence. In this moment on the airplane with Burt, however, with Christopher still new to me, as I listened full of hope for how his plans might bring about my swift return to Samuel, I stopped short on the words “set off for a year” and “see the world,” and my mind’s heart collapsed. I spent what remained of the morning’s journey in a kind of hate-filled daze. The situation was too ripe for mere coincidence, and it occurred to me that Fate, or God, or whatever force could be behind this (for I have always believed some force must be responsible for the heinous conditions of my afterlife; I believe it even now, all these years later, with still no evidence either way), whatever force was orchestrating these atrocious events was in fact more viciously ironic than I could ever have guessed. Clearly its intentions were set against me, and rather than return me to my son, it was steering me as far away as possible.

Reader, then and there I decided the course of my future, along with my purpose in this world. As we arrived at the docks and stood in the shadow of the enormous vessel, watching Christopher’s luggage lugged up a wobbly wheeled staircase to an opening in the ship’s flank, while dinghies and sailboats sailed out around us toward the largest body of water I had ever seen, I swelled with the most absurd optimism, and for a moment almost forgot I was dead. I imagined myself embarked upon a great tragic-heroic adventure. Whatever the way back to Samuel, I declared, I will find it myself.

That achieving this goal would prove infuriatingly improbable, but not technically impossible, and would set me on a quest spanning many years and many lives, through vast deserts of boredom, perilous droughts of despair, and occasional saving oases of friendship and love, is the story I intend to tell in these pages.


From Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return. Used with permission of Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2018 by Martin Riker. This excerpt first ran in Conjunctions Magazine.

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