Life Is a Joke and Death Is the Punchline

“Predestination” by Trevor Shikaze, a new original story recommended by Electric Literature


There’s a New Yorker cartoon by Paul Noth in which God says, “Look, if I have to explain the meaning of existence, then it isn’t funny.” The idea that all of life is a joke animates Trevor Shikaze’s “Predestination,” a story about a man who knows he is about to die. If life is a joke then death delivers the punchline, and this story, which could easily be macabre, is somehow full of laughs.

In the world of “Predestination,” the Engine accurately predicts when people will die, but it’s the way you die, which remains unknown, that ties up all the loose threads and reveals the “meaning” for your existence. Devoted readers of this magazine will recognize a similarity with Helen Phillips’s “The Knowers,” from RR Issue №69. In that story a wife chooses to learn her death day against her husband’s wishes. Because he hasn’t learned his death day, the knowledge of her own is a burden she must bear privately in order to protect him. The story is a tender and profound meditation on marriage and how the marital vows — to death do us part — are complicated by individual attitudes toward mortality.

So why publish another story about foreknowledge of death? Maybe it’s because the premise might not actually be that far-fetched. But it’s also because there are innumerable ways to deal with the single thing we all have in common. Taken side by side, “Predestination” and “The Knowers” give very different insights into that existential question implied by Noth’s cartoon: What is death’s role in the meaning of life?

There’s a reason that condolences are often stiff and empty. “I am deeply sorry for your loss” may still be a decent thing to say, but it’s also hollowed from overuse. Changing the script would require that we understand that person’s loss. In “Predestination,” Shikaze shows us when that loss of life is your own, the script for condolences gets even thinner. Ronan’s neighbors and coworkers smile encouragingly. Lots of “Good for you!’s” and “How are you?’s” But he’s not dead yet; he is for the moment healthy. There are still things to do. Laughs to be had (if you’re the reader) and for Ronan, still copies to be made and a cat to feed named Mr. Butts.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading


Life Is a Joke and Death Is the Punchline

by Trevor Shikaze

A popular theory of the moment, around the time of Ronan’s predestined end, held that death comes as a culminating thought. Your death, according to this view, makes perfect sense to you when it happens because it ties up the main themes of your life. You basically say, “Oh, of course this is how I go!” and then you go, having learned whatever it was you came to this plane of existence to learn. Your final thought is then entered as a line in the Great Book of the Universe, preserved there for the edification of the angel masses.

Absurd, of course, yet Ronan did sometimes find himself wondering about the mechanics of it all, now that his time was drawing near. He would find himself in the copy room, listening to the machine arrange itself within, and in the idle moments while his job still pended, while the toner cartridge warmed to a hum, before he could do much of anything but wait, he would wonder. What would it be like to die?

Of course people had wondered about this since forever, but knowing just when you were due to expire lent the matter a certain vividness. Not that there was much point in wondering, since you had no way of knowing until it happened, and then, if you were a rational materialist agnostic like Ronan, you had to assume that when the event rolled around you probably wouldn’t know, because that’s probably how it went, this life and death business: lots of wondering and then nothing.

Ronan glared at a motivational poster tacked up above the copy machine. Today was the first day of the rest of his life. That was true — and as hackneyed as ever. Yet in recent years the slogan had seen a resurgence. It was everywhere now. In fortune cookies, on bus shelters, on banners at the mall. The copy machine sucked papers through itself and spat the job out.

“It’s the foreknowledge, Mom, it’s the foreknowledge that grinds at me.”

He spoke to her softly in his cube, on the phone.

“Oh, honey, think about how we feel. If only there were something we could do.”

“How you feel? Think about how I feel!”

“I know. It isn’t fair for any of us. A parent should never have to outlive their child.”

She was not the right person to talk to about this. But who else could he talk to? Ronan had noticed that people just didn’t like to discuss it. Oh, they loved to talk in the abstract about death, especially if theirs was far away, off in their seventies or eighties. But Ronan’s was coming right up. He would die young, at thirty-four, just three months from now. Try bringing that up at a party.

“I wish I had never entered my name into the stupid system!”

“Oh, Ronan, we’ve all done it. Everyone’s curious.”

He grimaced at the ceiling tiles and sighed loudly.

“What difference does it really make, honey? You die when you die. I don’t see why it should matter whether or not you know in advance. Why don’t you quit that job and come out and spend the rest of your time with us? There’s a whole basement here — you’d practically have your own suite.”

He stared at the cube wall. It was a generous offer, but moving back into his parents’ basement was not, to his mind, an instance of living your best life. He’d never been to the Grand Canyon. He’d never been to Paris. Mom and Dad’s basement was not on his bucket list — and this bucket, by the Engine’s calculation, was very soon to be kicked.

“Of course there’s a possibility it won’t happen. At least not on the day the Engine says it will.”

The nurse taking his blood pressure gave him a pained smile.

“I mean,” Ronan continued, “this whole thing, it’s all averages and analytics. Big data. The Engine’s predictive model says I’m going to die in two months — but only predictively. You hear stories. You know, someone’s waiting for it, and then their time comes and goes and they don’t die. What’s the statistic? It’s like some fraction of one percent, right?”

She forced that smile. He realized even as he spoke that she must hear this all the time.

“I mean, someone has to slip through. Why not me? All the Engine can do is model. It can’t know.”

She jotted a number on his chart and asked him to put his pants back on.

“I just have a very strong feeling about it,” he said. “That I’ll slip through.”

The nurse told him his levels looked normal except for slightly elevated blood pressure, and that if she had to guess, she’d wager on him dying in an accident. Maybe a car crash. But she was no fortune teller. He thanked her and she hurried off to her next patient. In the waiting room, a man looked quaveringly up from the lifestyle magazine draped on his knees.

“Probably an accident,” Ronan said to the man.

The man blinked and his eyes fell back to the magazine.

On his way home Ronan stopped at the liquor store and picked up a three-liter plastic jug of vodka.

“I’m having company over,” he said to the indifferent youth behind the counter.

“Always good to stock up. Are you a member?”

“What, here? No. I brought my own bag.”

In his apartment building’s lobby, he ran into Lynne, a neighbor who lived two floors down. Ronan was standing by his mail cubby — which was empty — when he felt the unmistakable breeze that Lynne’s body made whenever she glided past. The breeze smelled like Herbal Essence and the meaning of life. He glanced toward his feet, at the organic grocery store bag and the jug of vodka within, which he told himself Lynne might mistake for a jug of laundry detergent if she wasn’t looking too closely.

“Hi, Ronan.” She made the face. He hated to see this face, yet he was in love with Lynne so he’d take what he could get. The face said, I am so, so, SO sorry. She tried to sound cheerful: “How are you?”

“I’m okay.”

She gripped his arm and gazed earnestly into his eyes. “Stay strong,” she whispered, then she left him.

He rode the elevator to his floor, got in and set the vodka on his kitchen table. Mr. Butts came charging out of wherever he’d been sleeping and meowed plaintively.

“If only you knew, Mr. Butts,” Ronan said. “I’m going to die. Who will feed you then?”

He wept as he spooned low-fat cat food into Mr. Butts’s dish. He crushed up one of the pills the vet had prescribed to manage Mr. Butts’s heart condition. He mashed the bits into the food. Mr. Butts ate happily. Ronan sat at the table and opened his breadbox. He ate a slice of bread just to put something in his stomach, then he poured himself a nice big mug of vodka.

“Statistically,” he said to Mr. Butts, “it’s not a sure thing. And I got a feeling. But . . .” He pressed his fingers to his temples and kneaded. “You know, you hear them interviewed — the people who didn’t die when the Engine said they were supposed to. And they always say, I just had this feeling.”

Mr. Butts jumped up on the chair across from Ronan and looked at him contentedly.

“But the thing is,” Ronan continued, “everyone must feel that way. Everyone probably thinks they’ll slip through. It’s just that for the vast majority of people you don’t get to interview them after the date. Because they end up being wrong. Being dead. Dead wrong. Ha.”

Mr. Butts yawned and licked his paw. Ronan drank and called his best friend Tom.

“How are you?” Tom said.

“Why does everyone say it like that now?”

“Say what like that?”

“How are you. They emphasize the are. Why?”

Tom sighed from far away. He lived on the coast, one hour behind. Ronan was getting wasted and Tom hadn’t even put dinner on yet.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Ronan said, beating Tom to the punch. “Remember Jill’s sister?”

Jill was a girl who used to go to the same all-ages shows that Ronan and Tom went to when they were teenage punks in the suburbs. Jill’s sister had had a crush on Ronan — or so Jill had told Tom one night while they were making out. Ronan never tested the claim.

“She’s an accountant now,” Tom said. “We’re friends on Facebook.”

An accountant, Ronan thought. But she’d been so young and pretty and antiestablishment. Aloud, he said, “How does it happen?”

“How does what happen? Are we talking about death again now?”

“Do you think I should get on Facebook?”

“Ronan. Don’t. It’s too late.”

That night, after looking at porn on his tablet, Ronan got on Facebook. He’d always made fun of Facebook before, but he was desperate for connection. He created a profile, friended everyone he could think of, and blacked out.

“I’m on Facebook,” he said to Lynne from downstairs as she passed him in the hall.

She gripped his arm. “That’s good. Good for you.” She made a good-for-you fist and shook it at him in solidarity. “Good for you.”

“I’m on Facebook,” he said to Yeudall at work. Yeudall’s print job was queued after Ronan’s. Ronan was printing a long document.

“Oh,” Yeudall said.

“Are you on Facebook?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Yeudall wouldn’t look him in the eye. No one at the office would. Why were they suddenly treating him like a leper? Death wasn’t contagious . . . well, sometimes it was, but if they were all about to die in a group — some horrible outbreak situation — the Engine would have warned them beforehand. No one else in the office was slated for immediate death. Yeudall was in fact destined to live another forty years. Ronan had looked him up.

“I thought you hated Facebook,” Yeudall added.

“I just never really got it before. Now I get it.”

“You mean now that you’re — “ Yeudall broke off and glared at the floor. Beads of sweat glistened on his upper lip.

The machine finished printing Ronan’s job and switched to Yeudall’s. The fire alarm went off. In the hall, someone called out that it was probably just a drill or some kid had pulled the thing again, and they might as well stay in their cubes.

“No one’s dying today!” the person yelled. “Per the Engine!”

Everyone laughed and then collectively they stopped short, and Ronan knew that his co-workers now sat flushed, cringing in their cubes, worried that they’d offended him by mentioning death. He popped out into the hall.

“That’s right!” he joshed. “No one’s dying today!”

No one laughed. Silently, mournfully, they filed out to their building’s desolate courtyard.

“Everyone treats me like I’m already dead!”

“Well, dear, you are predestined — “

“That’s not the point, Mom! If you think about it, we’re all predestined! Every single person is eventually going to die someday! So my time’s coming up a little sooner! So? So what!”

He paced drunkenly around the kitchen. Mr. Butts dashed between his legs, trying to play.

“Not now, Mr. Butts!”

“Oh, honey, what kind of a name is that for a cat?”

“It suits him, Mom! You have no idea!”

“Are you on your cell phone? You always shout when you’re on your cell phone.”

“I only have a cell phone! This is my phone! Mr. Butts, get off the table!”

Ronan looked at porn and collapsed on the futon in his living room. He wondered why he called it a “living” room. What made it a quote-unquote living room? Nothing that Ronan could see, except that it wasn’t a room equipped for any other definable purpose, any real purpose, like cooking or crapping or sleeping. In the old days, you always had a TV in a living room, but Ronan didn’t own a TV — the only TV he ever watched was the one at the gym. How long has it been, he asked himself, since I went to the gym? A long time. The treadmill, for some reason, had started to give him the existential creeps. Running in place — ugh. It seemed like a metaphor for something. But exercise was good for you; exercise was pushing back at death, and that was good. He wondered if maybe he should go to the gym. At the very least, it might offer some distraction. He could use some distraction. He’d already looked at porn. What was left?

“Oh, hey,” he muttered to himself, “Facebook.”

He went on Facebook. His friends were all there. Everyone wanted to reminisce. Everyone wanted to tell him how much he’d meant to them. Everyone wanted to memorialize tearfully while they still had time. He barely even knew some of these people. And Doreen? What was she doing here? He hadn’t spoken to Doreen in fifteen years. Who invited Doreen?

He logged out, logged off, logged into bed. He lay there like a log.

What could this stupid life of his possibly add up to?

“I’m going on a round-the-world trip!”

Yeudall seemed to want to escape from the copy room, but his job was still pending and Ronan had blocked the door.

“Good for you, man. Good for you.”

“Yeah. No more dicking around for me. It’s time to live!”

In the apartment lobby, Lynne asked him when he planned to leave.

“Soon! I booked it so that I’m in Paris when I die. Paris!”

At the mention of death, she stared askance. Her forehead buckled and her lips began to quake.

“I’m sorry,” she said, backing away. “I’m so sorry! I’m so happy for you!”

She covered her face and ran for the elevator.

“Mr. Butts? Mr. Butts, where are you?”

Ronan pulled the place apart before he found Mr. Butts curled up dead under the dresser. The discovery caused him to bawl uncontrollably for three hours. Too bad there wasn’t an Engine for housecats. Ronan could have used a warning. He called the airline and canceled his flight.

“Mom? You know that suite in your basement?”

“Oh, honey. You’re coming home?”

“I just don’t know what else to do with myself. I don’t know what I want. I quit my job. They threw me a party. I didn’t go.”

“It’s a confusing time for you. I’m sure they understand.”

But they didn’t. They didn’t understand. How could they understand? Tom met him at the airport and drove him to the suburb where they’d grown up, and the whole way they talked about everything but death.

Because what could they say? No one, really, no one understood. Certainly not Tom. Certainly not Ronan. So even though they wanted to talk about death, they didn’t. Not as they sped by chugging smokestacks, or toxin-bright rivers, or Jesus billboards that asked if they were ready to see the light. Not even when they ran over a skunk. They just laughed about the smell, and the fact of an animal where evolution had said, “Okay, for this one we’re gonna focus on the ass!” And though the predictive models had foreseen it, and the Engine had told him when to expect it, when the aneurysm hit, as he sat glumly masturbating to porn on the morning of his last day, Ronan’s final thought, the one that supposedly summed up his life, was, No, not YET —

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