The Summer They Kept Dying

by Greg November

In August, astronomers discovered a hole in the universe: a billion light years across with no matter in it. I mentioned this to Jonas as we ripped up carpet, some of it practically new, in yet another old-timer’s room. It was the summer they kept dying.

“Talk about lonely,” Jonas said.

We carried rolls of ripped-up carpet to the van. We carried plastic-wrapped rolls into the building.

“So what’s in the hole?” Jonas said.

We scooted on our kneepads, not facing each other.

“Nothing. That’s the point. It’s empty.”

“How could a space so large be empty?

Jonas was the sort of guy who could declare something, establish a fact of existence, but make it seem like he was asking a question.

Each time a resident died, the carpet got changed. Corporate policy and all. This was our job for the summer. Other teams worked other jobs. At least Jonas and I, working here in Newington, weren’t putting on highway miles. At lunch we went to a pub and ate burgers and drank beer. When we returned to work, Jonas started in again about his father. It was his turn. I’d talked about mine yesterday.

“He earned his money late in life and never knew how to act with it,” Jonas said. “In his head he was still struggling. At fifty-two he bought a boat. A twenty-foot sailboat. He had no idea how to sail. He knew how to pull the boat from the slip, bump it against the dock, and fiddle his way into the harbor. He knew how to pour drinks and smoke cigars and remark on the weather. My mother wore sarongs and my brothers did their homework. I was the oldest. Once, he brought us all out at night to look at the stars from the middle of the bay. My brother, the youngest, lost his balance in the dark and tumbled off the boat and my father threw himself in after him, still holding his drink.” Jonas stopped there because the plastic on the roll we were hoisting into the room snagged on the doorframe and we had to jostle it this way and that.

I’d known Jonas for years, the two of us having come on with Burroughs around the same time, but it wasn’t until that summer that I learned about his father, or that I told him about mine, and the colon cancer that took him when I was in high school.

Jonas peered at me from around the carpet roll. “Back up. Let’s try this again?”

For a moment I didn’t know what he meant. Then I felt him pushing.

We muscled carpets in and out of hot rooms, sweating beer and beef patties, pickles. The old-timers appraised us from their walkers and chairs. Other teams had other jobs; Jonas and I erased death. We couldn’t laugh in its face, not exactly, so we talked to ignore it. It was a bit like sailing through the darkest part of the universe.

 

Greg November lives and writes in Seattle, WA. He is a 2021 Jack Straw Writer, which means at some point in the coming year, you’ll be able to hear him on the radio if you happen to be in Seattle. He teaches writing at North Seattle College and Highline College, reads submissions for New England Review, and was a finalist for the 2020 Curt Johnson Prose Award for Fiction. His work has most recently appeared in Boulevard, Carve, Epiphany, and Juked, among other places. He has an MFA from UC, Irvine.

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