WHEN I DIE

Barring sudden violent unexpected death between now and Twenty-Fifty-Something, when I die it will be of old age in a cozy cabin on the North Shore of Lake Superior, isolated among the pine and birch trees. If I’m lucky, I’ll realize the time is upon me and settle into my favorite chair facing the window overlooking the wondrous lake below. Winter or summer, I don’t care, although autumn would be the most picturesque. Leaves burning orange and red, reminding me of how lucky I am to escape this world before it really goes to hell, as every generation does.

I’ll die alone, because I’m a stubborn old bastard. My wife will have already passed [Weeks? Months? Years?] ago, and I’ll travel to the Isle of Mull off the coast of Scotland one last time to spread her ashes, along with the ashes of all of our long passed orange cats and various rescue dogs – French Bulldogs and Boston Terriers. Mingled forever now. 

I will hope to join them soon after.  

No children. Never wanted any. My companions in these final days will be new orange cats and another rescued Frenchie. By the time my body is found, those little guys will have already begun to nibble at me. Maybe, if I realize what’s to come before it happens, I’ll leave the pantry door ajar so they can tear their way into the giant bags of kibble there.

It’s okay, though. I’m fine with my pets eating me. It’s an honor. 

I apologize in advance to whoever actually finds me. I’m sure it will not be a pleasant discovery, with the aforementioned pets eating my entrails and so on. Unless it’s winter, in which case we’ll all be popsicles anyway. 

I certainly don’t need to leave a pretty corpse. There should be no funeral, no wake, no nothing. I should be transported directly to the crematorium. With my stepdad being a funeral director, I’ve seen enough of embalming – my dad, my grandpa, friends – to know it’s not for me. Creepy. I long said I never wanted to see my grandma embalmed in her coffin, because I did not want that image lingering when I thought about her. 

But the way funerals are set up, I didn’t have a choice.

No, please, straight to the oven with my stinkin’ old self. 

From there, I hope one of my still living friends will do me the honor of carrying my ashes to Mull. 

Now, if those assholes are all dead, I’ll figure out something else. 

But I fear my plan will be thwarted. 

That’s right, I said thwarted, like a villain in an old-timey comic book.

Except I won’t be the villain. 

It will be one of my former students. Perhaps the most successful writer ever to graduate from the Creative Writing program under my tutelage, now a best-selling science fiction and fantasy writer whose Chronicles of Dead Stars series has been read by millions. 

Raymond Rothschild.

How I loathe him. 

The hate was instantaneous. He walked into my office a few days before class began, expressed his admiration of my work – I suppose I was considered a bit of a cult writer back then, but it was a very small cult. He wanted some pointers, he said, so that he could one day publish his own novels. 

I wanted to say, “That’s what the class is for.”

Instead, I tried to be helpful. I asked what he was currently reading. He hemmed and hawed. I asked about his favorite book. 

“Well, see, that’s the problem.”

Warning lights and sirens. 

“See, I don’t really read much. I’m afraid the voices of other writers will dilute my own. I have all these stories in my head, and I can’t take the risk of one day being accused of stealing ideas because I happened to have read Stephen King’s similar tale.”

I wanted to say, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

I said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Then went on to explain why he needed to read, broadly, and how he would never develop a voice if it was only talking, never listening, so to speak. 

To which he replied, “I appreciate your opinion.”

It only grew worse in the workshop. Smug. Loud. Wanted the first and last word. When I’d completed discussions of another student’s work, he’d interrupt before we moved on to say, “While I can see the Professor’s point of view here, I’d try this instead…” He would then quote something from, oh, Wonderbook, and act as if he’d come up with it all on his own. 

So at least he read something.

I had never told any of my students in any of my classes to shut up before. 

Until Raymond. Once.

Maybe twice.

Still, he stayed after every two-hour workshop to debate my comments to his classmates, when I just wanted to get home to my wife and pets. 

He always followed me back to my office. He took no hints. He sent several emails every day asking what I thought about some new idea he’d had. Always something fantastical, and always awful. His work read as if he was smirking the entire time, expecting to shock the reader, who he considered inferior. Just mannered, tortuous descriptions, dialogue, and special effects. Prose so purple, Prince would spin in his grave, if he hadn’t been cremated.

Not one single recognizable human emotion. No one iota of beauty. The most typing I’d ever seen committed to paper that held not a single line of art whatsoever.

Even less so than my publishing contracts.  

He ended with a B minus in the class because he didn’t bother to revise his first drafts. He turned them in as-is with a Post-It Note: I appreciate your opinions, but, you see, I plan to stick with my own vision.

In the text itself, he’d taken the time to answer my written marginal notes with “Yeah, but” statements.

“This seems inconsistent with the character’s behavior earlier in the story. It’s hard to accept this turn.” Yeah, but a smart reader will grasp he was hiding his true nature all along, see.

“The confrontation would be more dramatic with dialogue instead of summary.” Yeah, but that’s not the point. See, the point is…

Why did I bother?

He signed up for my screenwriting class the next semester, which happened to coincide with my second heart attack. A small one, luckily, but I lessened my class load by handing screenwriting to a colleague.

***

I will one day retire, my entire teaching career worth of memories, stained by one student.   

My wife and I will most likely sell the house, buy the cabin on the North Shore, and spend the other half of the year in Mull. I will continue to write and publish with indie presses for a while, receiving the sorts of modest praise – and little money – a cult writer like me can expect when he’s old and used up. 

No matter. I’m sure I’ll enjoy my retirement. Traveling the world with my wife, enjoying time with our remaining friends, my two grown nieces, and our pets. New adventures – riding a catamaran on the Pacific off the coast of New Zealand. A private safari guide in the Serengeti. I might even win a lifetime achievement award for one of my books in France. My only award in all those years. 

A happy life. 

It would have been a happy death. 

Except when Raymond Rothschild enters the picture again.

You might ask, how will you know all this? You will be dead. You won’t experience a single second of it.

I’m going to assume it’s kinda like Enter the Void with a touch of Swayze’s Ghost thrown in. Suspend your disbelief a little while longer. 

I knew he’d been rising. A bestselling fantasy epic, By the Throats of the Chanters, bought by HBOMax. A techno-noir time-travel novel, Whenemy, which became a series on NetDisney Plus-Plus. I mentioned Chronicles of Dead Stars, a multi-volume science-fiction behemoth that swept every award, earned rave reviews, and instigated a bidding war for the movie rights.

I told my friends and my wife it didn’t bother me, and I was happy for his success. 

It was a lie.

I hoped for his failure. I would’ve settled for a scandal that destroyed his career. Instead, it seemed his every hack word and gaudy paragraph earned him more money, praise, and renown. 

If Raymond knew my true feelings towards him, it never phased him. In every interview, every media profile, every acknowledgements page in his books, he always praised his “mentor” – me – and said he owed me a debt he could never repay.

I used to joke, “It’s easy. I’ll take a check.”

That wore thin soon enough.

In spite of that, I expect to be mostly happy in my golden years.

Until…

***

The first sign of trouble will be how long my body remains in the morgue. Things should be moving quickly, but something will go wrong. Instead of being sent to the crematorium, I will instead be loaded into an airplane cargo hold for a flight down South. 

Once we arrive at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, I will be transported by van to a funeral home. 

This was not in my will. This was not my final wish.

How will it happen? 

Immediately on my death, the few media outlets and genre podcasts that grieve my passing will find themselves talking to Raymond Rothschild, a self-proclaimed expert on my work, and somehow the executor of my estate.

How does he wrestle the power of attorney away from my own legal representative? 

The last time I see him, while alive, will be at a book signing. I’m not pleased to see him, but in public I have to play along. He will buy a copy of my collected stories and have me sign it. 

Horror of horrors. 

I will have signed many, many copies by this point, so I won’t notice that I’m not signing the title page of my book, but a document of some kind, held in such a way as to hide its purpose.

I’ll be very lucky in one way if he doesn’t use this against me while I’m still alive, but for the moment, I’m only thinking about the very end of my life, and my wishes to be incinerated, swept up into a baggie, and flown overseas to begin my afterlife as pretty much fertilizer, along with my ashen family.

But this dickhead. 

He will slither his way onto many literary podcasts and hold court about my work. Of course, getting every “insight” about it completely wrong. 

“I see Yellow Medicine and the entire Billy Lafitte series as Professor Smith’s way of expressing his male frustration with an ever increasingly feminized world.”

No it isn’t.

“His portrayal of Minneapolis gangs in All the Young Warriors points to a deep-seeded problem with immigration in our country, and the good Doctor’s views come down on the side of –”

No no no no no no no it doesn’t. 

He will make an appeal to my former students and colleagues, falsely telling them, “One of Professor Smith’s final wishes was for us all to celebrate his teaching and writing career in a celebratory blowout funeral.”

Oh god, if only I wouldn’t be dead by then.

“See, I spoke to Neil – sorry, that’s what his friends call him – several months before he passed on.”

Nope. I will not have spoken to him for years, I can promise you. And I never let him call me Neil.

“He mentioned something he’d seen online. Something called ‘extreme embalming.’ They take the body of the beloved, and instead of stuffing them in a coffin, the embalmers pose them as if they are still alive. Dressed as they did in everyday life. For example, a man posed on his motorcycle. A boxer standing in the corner of the ring, with gloves, robe, and shorts. A woman at a table in a New Orleans Saints jersey, a can of beer in her hand, a cigar in the other. Neil told me this was the way he wanted to go. 

Here it comes. The part I’ll be most worried about.

“Not in an expensive casket. Not as an object of pity. Are you kidding? What he really wants is for all his friends, students, colleagues, and admirers to see him one last time doing what he most loved. Sitting at his desk, writing the great American novel.”

Fuuuuuuuuck.

That explains how I’ll end up in New Orleans, driven to Cease & DeCist Funeral Home in Midtown, where extreme embalmers will take my old, partly pet-nibbled corpse, pack it full of plastic, wax, steel rods, screws, stitching, then pump me with chemical fluids such as Permaglo, Cavity Special Dry Filler, ToneMaker, and TintSmooth. They will dress me in baggy jeans. Hopefully, I’ll be much thinner than I am now, but I’m sure they will keep the tail of my plaid L.L. Bean flannel untucked. A worn-in pair of my own Red Wing boots on my feet, which will probably be bolted to the floor.

While I don’t often wear ball caps, I’m pretty sure Raymond will have them snug on a Southwest Minnesota Mustangs cap. Shame, because it looks as if I’ll be keeping most of my hair right through to the end.

I will be posed in a faux-leather office chair, even though I’ve written most of my works post-Covid on the couch, legs propped on an ottoman, laptop on my lap, dog or cat at my side. Over-the-ear-headphones listening to my playlist for that particular project.

Instead, Raymond will insist on a real writer’s desk. Handcrafted from endangered wood, or possibly one that belonged to one of my writing heroes: James Ellroy? Vicki Hendricks? Walter Mosley?

Turns out it will have belonged to, you guessed it, Raymond Rothschild.

My hands will be posed on the keyboard in a way my hands have never looked on a keyboard. My thumbs were usually splayed out for both the spacebar and the touchpad.

On the screen – I bet it’s going to be a Mac. I have never used a Mac in my life – will be a fake page of text.

Surprise. 

It will be every marginal note I ever gave Raymond, followed by his justification for not bothering with my suggestions. 

At the very bottom of the page, “You lose, old man.”

A can of Diet Coke is placed beside the computer.

Diet. 

Disgusting.

I will weep. 

But it will turn out to be leaking cavity fluid from my eye socket. 

Many of my students will attend the wake. Some older colleagues, a few friends still able to fly and take care of themselves. I will be honored, if embarrassed. Then they will ridicule me. Reminisce about my classes. How they thought I was boring, monotone, smug, and hyper-critical. Some of them will have gone on to decent writing careers, more lucrative than my own but nothing like Raymond’s empire. Some will have become faculty members across the country in strong creative writing programs. Some will have abandoned writing altogether and instead pursued, oh, stand-up comedy or library science or commercial airline piloting. Happy regardless. 

Then, just like that, the evening will be over. My students, my legacy, will slowly drift out of the parlor, into their cars, and off to dinner. Some of my oldest friends will straggle. Some will have to be shaken awake. Some will bow their heads and wonder why I never got that Big Five break, before reminding themselves I never crossed a literary bridge I didn’t burn.

They will laugh.

It’s a good line.

Then, just me. And Ramond.

He will stare at my grotesque tableau, a weak grin on his face. 

If I could speak, I would say, Okay, you’ve had your fun. Please let me burn.

Raymond will walk across the room and stand behind my chair. He’ll pat a friendly hand on my mostly rubber shoulder before leaning down to whisper into my ear. “Tomorrow, I’m going to give you the greatest eulogy ever delivered, one writer to another. I can say whatever I want about you, your work, your advice, your personality, your beliefs, your grudges, and so much more, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You will be remembered the way I want you to be remembered, which I’m sure you’ll hate. Because after tomorrow, the entire world will think I was your favorite student of all time.”

He will stand. Laugh. 

“After that, I think I’m going to wheel you and this whole setup into my study, our desks facing each other, as you slowly fall apart like bad taxidermy.”

Raymond will turn and start to walk away. Then stop for one more look, and spit, “Asshole.”

That’s what I’m afraid of. 

So if you’re reading this now, please find Raymond Rothschild and stop him before this goes any further. Make sure my ashes make it to the Isle of Mull. 

If I’m going to be remembered at all, I’d rather it be, “Dude was a pretty good writer. Wonder what happened to him,” instead of a freakish corpse at a desk at the mercy of my worst student.

I can’t think of a better definition for “writer’s block” than that. 

— Anthony Neil Smith is a novelist (Yellow Medicine, The Drummer, Slow Bear, many more), short story writer (Exquisite Corpse, Juked, Punk Noir, Cowboy Jamboree, many more) and professor (Southwest Minnesota State U). He likes Mexican food, cheap red wine, and Italian cop flicks from the 70s.