Nana B Agyei CC
Problems of Imagination
I wonder what song will play on the radio as I die.
Most likely it’ll be an advertisement. Probably the one for O’Reilly Auto Parts, the one with the goddamned jingle you just can’t shake loose once it’s got its hooks in your brain. O, O, O, O’Reilly— the final syllable stretching out for almost two whole seconds--Auto Parts! Ow!
I try to picture what it would be like for my final thoughts in this world to be of an aftermarket automotive parts distributor with franchises in 47 states. Perhaps it would strengthen my resolve if my courage faltered, a final affirmation recorded in a tiny studio somewhere in Missouri by singers and musicians who dreamed of performing at Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall instead of using the talents God gave them to promote a national retailer of spark plugs and carburetor gaskets and brake fluid.
The O’Reilly Auto Parts jingle—I’ve decided that’s definitely what will be playing on the radio as I die— would soften and grow distant. It would be like falling asleep, or so I’m told. I can’t remember who told me, but someone did and I’m holding them to it. They promised it would be painless, that your eyelids would become heavier and heavier, until you just... died.
I think about death every half an hour or so. Not in a morbid way, you understand. No, mine is a dispassionate, clinical fascination, or so I’ve managed to convince myself. A thought experiment, if you will, in which I try to visualize the precise moment when consciousness surrenders to the impossible immensity of oblivion. Despite the frequency with which I attempt this experiment, I have yet to conclusively prove my hypothesis, a cruel reminder of the limitations of the human mind. You can do anything, they told us as children. Except truly conceive of and visualize the complete annihilation of your being. Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if we could picture that moment. Maybe it would be exactly the same. Our understanding of infinity can only ever be a crude, simplistic reduction; a child’s drawing in thick, heavy crayon of a truth our minds aren’t big enough to comprehend.
I loved the smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes when I was a kid. I remember helping my father refuel his big white van when I was maybe ten or eleven years old, relishing the intoxicating scent of the gasoline as it ran through what I imagined to be miles of unseen pipes and tubes hidden deep underground before being deposited in the tank of my dad’s van, inhaling the sweet fumes as deeply as my little lungs would allow. Dad didn’t seem particularly concerned. Although my primary role was that of Solemn Custodian of the Gas Cap, sometimes he’d let me squeeze the handle that made the gas come out. On very special occasions, he’d let me steer the van for a few seconds if we were driving home on the backroads. Feeling the weight of the vehicle shift as I moved my hands, I often wondered what would happen if I were to cut the wheel sharply, swerving the enormous van into oncoming traffic. I supposed we would both die, whatever that meant.
To me, suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning was the perfect method for ending one’s life. Relatively quick, completely painless—so I’m told—and comparatively little mess for someone else to deal with. By someone else, I mean whichever poor bastard had the misfortune to find my corpse sitting behind the wheel of our ailing 2005 Ford Focus station wagon listening to the radio. Probably my spouse, if I were selfish or absentminded enough to kill myself in our driveway, which, let’s be honest, is hardly out of the question. Maybe it would be the downstairs neighbor we like, the one who always scores us an eighth of kush when he goes to the dispensary to pick up his prescription, but it would probably be the downstairs neighbor we don’t like, the one who subscribes to Guns & Ammo and has bumper stickers on his pickup that say things like Trooper Lives Matter and probably belongs to a far-right paramilitary group. I often think about my spouse when I think about killing myself. Not in the way that some married men think of suicide when they think of their partners, you understand. I don’t sigh or roll my eyes when my spouse speaks. I don’t make jokes about prison wardens or probation officers or balls and their chains. We never fight. Well, almost never. Sometimes we fight when I forget my spouse has PTSD and start yelling at the news. I yell at the news a lot these days. If I ever took the time to scrawl down a hastily written list on a faded yellow Post-It titled Reasons to Live— not that I’ve ever done that, of course—they’d be at the very top.
There would be some mess, of course. If police procedural dramas on TV have taught me anything, it’s that everybody soils themselves at the moment of death, a final indignity we have no choice but to endure regardless of how we check out. A telling choice of words for the act of dying, to check out. A final debt to be paid, a transaction to be completed, one last obligation to which we must attend despite having endured a literal lifetime of petty, thankless responsibilities. It would be almost poetic, if capitalism allowed for poetry or the arts or anything else that didn’t increase productivity and create additional value for shareholders. I like to think I’d be kind and considerate enough to at least climb into a sleeping bag before locking the doors and turning the ignition. Sometimes I even believe it. Does sound like a lot of extra work, though.
I’ve always been the nervous type, even as a kid who loved the smell of gasoline and got to steer his dad’s van every once in a while. I remember attending my first school in Aberdeen, a bleak, gray smudge of a city perched on Scotland’s northeastern coast. I suffered from debilitating stomach aches almost daily; only lying flat on my back eased the pain. I saw one stoic, skeptical doctor after another. They all looked the same: stern, gaunt men in their fifties with strongly angular cheekbones, thin arms folded across their chest, a bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrow arched in disbelief. One doctor finally diagnosed them as “abdominal migraines,” and prescribed me some tiny blue pills that looked a lot like Valium. They weren’t Valium, of course—at least, I don’t think they were—but they did make me feel better. Only decades later did I dumbly realize that the stomach aches had been caused by anxiety. Except that was the ‘80s, when kids didn’t need anxiolytic benzodiazepines or seatbelts or adult supervision. Turns out we didn’t need homes or jobs or hope, either.
I came across a really great metaphor recently that said anxiety feels like constantly hearing the boss music in a video game, except you never actually see the boss. It’s always just out of sight, waiting to kill you after all you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. Just like real life. Game over. Problem is, this metaphor only makes sense if you know what video games are or what a video game boss is or what video game boss music sounds like. Maybe you don’t know anything about video games. Maybe you actually did something with your life. So think of it this way. You’re camping in the woods. Doesn’t matter if you’re by yourself or with someone else, maybe a friend--ha!—or maybe your spouse who loves camping but secretly doubts you could even put up the tent by yourself without completely losing your shit, not that you resent their quiet apprehensions about your masculinity or anything. Either way, the tent’s finally up and you’re in sitting in it, trying to avoid touching the sides because of course it rained all fucking day and now the tent is soaked. You try to make the best of it, even though the supposedly waterproof matches you bought from Bass Pro barely worked and you could barely start a fire at all because the wood you spent hours gathering from the nearby firs was almost too damp to burn. Now it’s nighttime. It’s too cloudy to see the stars, which is the whole reason you even suggested this stupid trip in the first place. You’re lying there in your cold, sodden sleeping bag, contemplating the magnitude of your failure, when you hear a sound. Almost like a sudden, phlegmy cough or the snort of a horse. Whatever it is rustles in the brush right outside the tent, twigs snapping under the heft of its bulk. You can feel your heartbeat in the hollow of your throat just beneath your larynx, a gently insistent rhythm throbbing tightly in your temples like the promise of a migraine.
A black bear.
You know it’s a black bear because the ranger who gave you the trail map you lost earlier told you there were plenty of black bears this far north. He asked if you had bear spray, and shook his head ever so slightly when you said you didn’t. He told you black bears weren’t as aggressive as brown bears, but that hungry males could still be dangerous, especially this time of year when they were preparing to hibernate for the winter. Black bears don’t attack right away, he told you at the ranger station, still looking you up and down. Sometimes they’ll stalk you for hours, maybe even the better part of a day . In the event of a bear attack, the ranger said, you should yell and shout and make as much noise as possible, maybe even throw rocks at it. You lie as still as you can, the bear’s occasional snorts and your partner’s breathing the only sounds.
That’s what anxiety feels like.
My bear followed me from childhood to adolescence and finally to adulthood, always just out of sight but never straying far from its prey, sensing my vulnerability as the weakest of the herd. I didn’t even realize I was being hunted until I was well into my twenties. The ranger never told me bears could stalk you for years.
People go to the woods to escape. To get back to nature, as if this were a state of being we once knew but had somehow forgotten rather than an aspirational ideal used to sell Gore-Tex hiking boots and $400 cable-knit fishermen’s sweaters made from the finest Italian Merino wool. Not all who wander are lost. There are no radio jingles in the woods. No back-to-school specials on arts and crafts supplies, no Columbus Day mattress sales, no zero-percent financing on the 2022 Hyundai Elantra with no money down and payments as low as $179.99 a month for 72 months—only nature’s sweetly delicate music. Going to the woods feels like going to church; God’s house, if He does indeed exist. My mind feels clear in the woods. I can think, or at least I think I can. And when I stop to think in the woods, I think about death. My death, the inevitable yet forbidden conclusion to a thought experiment my mind is too weak to grasp.
A black bear’s sense of smell is seven times sharper than that of a bloodhound. Their noses are so sensitive they can smell a carcass from over a mile away. I read somewhere that dogs can smell cancer cells. A heightened sense of smell in humans is known as hyperosmia. Dogs don’t have a special word for it. I don’t have cancer—at least, I don’t think I have cancer—but I feel sick, like something inside me is rotting. I may lack the imagination necessary to conceptualize my own death, but I can picture the decay that’s slowly spreading through my body just fine. It’s the size of a child’s fist, clenched tightly in the pit of my gut. It’s almost white; a soft, pale color you might call eggshell if you were looking at paint swatches before settling on a new color for the living room. It’s hard, like the gristle on a leg of lamb you might eat for a Sunday roast, and covered with a thin, filmy membrane. It’s lumpy and misshapen like gnarled, arthritic knuckles, larger than a tumor but smaller than a vestigial, prehistoric organ.
It trembles as it grows, blossoming like a poisonous flower with every moment I spend in the world.
I wonder if the bear can smell the disease that has invaded my body. Surely it can. How else would it know to avoid eating my spoiled, infected meat when it finally grows weary of the hunt? Disease is all that stands between me and the abyss. Some days I can feel it growing, like the biting, acidic pain of chronic heartburn. Watching cable TV makes it worse. Listening to the radio makes it worse. Browsing the Internet makes it worse. Other days it remains content to bide its time; silent, patient, waiting. The only place that soothes its hot, corrosive fury is the woods, where there are no radio waves or cellular signals upon which it can gorge itself. It knows this, just as the bear instinctively knows it can wait patiently for its prey to falter. It tries to stop me fleeing to the woods, to keep me imprisoned behind locked doors and drawn curtains with my TV and my radio and the Internet.
Where it can feed.
Sometimes, I wonder if the sickness will kill me. Is it a parasite, or a symbiote? Such distinctions are important. I suspect it would allow me to die, if I had the courage to check myself out. Which, of course, I do not. I know this, just as it knows this. Ever the pragmatist, I can’t help wondering whether I can even afford to kill myself. How much is vulcanized rubber tubing, anyway? The friendly, helpful staff at my local O’Reilly Auto Parts store would know. How much gas would I use before the carbon monoxide molecules bonded to the hemoglobin in my blood, preventing oxygen from reaching my brain? A quarter tank? Half a tank? Matters of fuel economy take on new significance. I may not be able to visualize my own death, but I can picture the sequence of events preceding it just fine. Securing the thick rubber tubing to the rusting exhaust pipe of the car. Threading it through the two-inch opening in the driver’s-side window. Sealing the gaps with duct tape. Turning the key in the ignition.
Switching on the radio.
When I was a kid, the kind of kid who loved the smell of gasoline and exhaust fumes and sometimes thought about steering his dad’s van into oncoming traffic, I thought that suicide was for cowards. Not because I possessed the experience or sophistication of thought necessary to arrive at such judgments by myself, but because that’s what I heard my parents say. There was nobility in suffering. Meaning. Purpose. If my parents said it, then it must have been true. Except it wasn’t. It was a lie, just like everything else they told us. We can’t be whatever we want to be. We can’t do whatever we want to do. It’s far too late for that. The sky is not the limit, and the world will never be our oyster.
We can’t even imagine our own death.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Dan now lives and writes in Rhode Island. His nonfiction has been published in a wide range of publications, from national outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The Independent, and Pacific Standard, to small literary journals including Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, Literary Mama, Full Stop, and Pithead Chapel, among others.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.