Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Xylotheque: "Cause of Death"

My book, Xylotheque, is made up of nine essays accompanied by ten photographs. Every couple of weeks, I am posting an excerpt from one of the essays along with a photograph that was not included in the book. "Cause of Death" first appeared in South Dakota Review in fall 2009, and it was cited as a “notable” essay in The Best American Essays 2010. 

Excerpt from “Cause of Death”

The man who came to see me to buy a site to bury his wife looked like a man who’d been inexplicably slapped by the earth itself. He looked like a man who’d been knocked down by a colossal sea wave while standing in the middle of a cornfield. He looked like a blind, burrowing animal that had been spit out by the dirt and left to blink and burn in the glare of full sunlight. Actually, he didn’t look all that different from many of the people I met while working at the cemetery, but I remember this man while I have forgotten many others. He was blindsided by grief, bewildered, as though he had been unexpectedly thrust on a stage beneath blinding lights and asked to play the role of a man who has just lost his wife. And he was still only figuring out how to be an actor, how to play this role, and it was vastly unfair that he didn’t get acting lessons or at least a dress rehearsal. He was just in his forties—and his wife had been, too—and this was completely unexpected, he told me. It was just completely unexpected, he told me again. He repeated this phrase a number of times during our morning together, as though offering an explanation or even an apology for why he had not come sooner, had not prepared for this, had not filled out the paper work last week before this had happened to him and he could think more clearly. Completely unexpected: this was why he blinked his eyes so rapidly and seemed unable to concentrate fully on what I was explaining about the internment paper work. Yet he tried to be kind and attentive, decorous, as though he didn’t want to be any trouble at all, as though he was there to please me. It was as though he was the one doing all the comforting and had come to make his wife’s death easier on me, and not the other way around.

To read more of this essay, look for my book Xylotheque, available from the University of New Mexico Press and other online retailers.