Clarence and the Dead

an old name for a new story

Few things are more tragic in the eyes of the universe than the death of a baby. After all the energy expended to create what we know as life, the cessation of that life before it can produce autonomously is a sadness recognizable by every consciousness. And who can say why it should happen?

His name was Clarence. They could not explain him. They could explain everything else—the exact biological mechanisms that created the colors of his chocolate-milkshake skin and big round distant black eyes, the shapes of his disfigured hands and Dizzy Gillespie cheeks. They could explain the mental mechanisms that drove his parents to the chemical streets, and possibly to their separate suicides (though the cause of death could not be determined with certainty in either case), and those that naturally caused the rest of us to attribute all the ruin around that child to everything but the child himself. But they could not explain his life, which not only produced nothing, but destroyed so much.

They explain it to us like some endless cycle of energy exchange. You know, that's what they teach us in school, something like that—it's been so many years, and me, I was never good at science. I guess that's why I never finished school, since it pervades everything. But the way I remember it is life is like a shortcut or something, like living organisms are some kind of repositories for the energy it takes to process the universe. We're shortcuts for whatever is running this show, so it can see through our eyes and, I guess, doesn't have to look for itself. What I always thought about it was if that was true then whatever is running the show probably has to be some kind of shortcut for something else even bigger, but that's not important. At least, I don't think that's important. With Clarence, you never did know and you never do. But it's all this junk that makes it so hard to make any sense out of him. They teach us all this meaning of life and it sounds so easy, compact, commonsense, but what we don't realize until that ultimate tragedy occurs is that it occludes the meaning of death.

Clarence was not my sister's child, but she was the one who lasted the longest with him. You'd never expect that, when you knew that everywhere Clarence went, death followed. You wouldn't, because my sister had always been frail in some sense—she functioned properly but her every pore emitted an unmistakable weakness, from her first day to her last. The only way I can explain it is she had lived her whole twenty-seven years on the cusp of life and death, and so when Clarence tried—not that the child had any will or say in the matter, I mean—to push her over the line, she was so good at walking that tightrope that she held on when anyone used to the comforts of liveliness would have been caught off guard and fallen over straightaway. In any case, she was the most caring and gentle soul you could ever meet, and she took that child under her thin but expansive wing for nigh on a year, until…

Well, when it happened, of course, they explained it to us. That's what they do. That's what we all do, I think, when something happens that shakes us to the core, is we try to explain it so we can say, this is how it happened, and we pretend that's the same as why it happened and we can go on believing as we did before. They told us maybe it was a sickness, you know, a virus or a contagion or what have you, I told you I'm no good at science and I haven't got a memory for it. He carried it, probably from his parents—probably, because if it was a sickness, it was one so potent that it would be dangerous to keep the boy around long enough to operate on his body and find out what it was, they said. But they took his body and we haven't seen it since, so what I think is that they did all that—with machines, of course, it's not like they use human beings for that type of work anymore—and they just couldn't find anything wrong with him that would cause all the things to happen that so obviously did. They told us it could be something passed on from his mother, which was plausible since she lived in a world of chemical disfigurement and ever-mutating venereal pestilence, signs of which were already plastered immutably on his withered little fingers. Obviously you can't just pass on something in your genes by breathing the same air as another person, but you know how you can be born a carrier of something awful, even get something non-genetic during birth, and you have no idea you can infect someone else until everyone around you starts getting sick. I've heard that can happen sometimes.

Anyway my sister took care of that boy like he was her own, and like most of us round here she didn't have a man stick around to help her but to her it didn't make any difference. And just like how her weakness must've made her able to weather whatever it is that killed everyone before her, it was that stigma of weakness she carried all her life that galvanized her to be the strength for baby Clarence, and perhaps that's my salvation for having hated her for that weakness so long. It's like maybe she was saving up all that energy for those final moments. Like a long-distance runner, only this was her life, not some foot-race.

Looking back on it all, I think my sister knew about Clarence the way my mother knew. I never was allowed to see him, and that was before my mother said never to bring him to our house again. I thought at the time it was just because she didn't want me in her boy's life after all the hard feelings between the two of us, didn't need me to decide he wasn't strong enough the way I had decided she wasn't. But she knew his mom and pops (how is anyone's guess, their whole lives revolved around the chemicals, but she didn't touch the stuff) and if she was the one who ended up with the baby then she must've seen what happened to them, how they just faded away. And that's how everyone round here describes it. They withered away, the talk goes, withered like Clarence's little fingers had done in that poor accursed womb. And they weren't the only ones—my sister wasn't the first to try to take the boy in after his parents died. She watched the same thing happen to the next couple, whose lives and minds weren't quite so immersed in the drugs, and who were still together even into death, just like she and Clarence would be. She watched the cousins, infant playmates, fall while Clarence took his first steps. She could have seen it a hundred times over for all I know, but only after all that did she take him in herself. She must have known that she was putting herself in the line of fire of something she knew nothing about. Unless she, too, believed it was the drugs.

That's what they suggested when it was all over. Tried to pin some new concoction on the streets as the culprit in all the deaths we knew were connected to Clarence. And I'd have thought the same, you know, and maybe my sister did too and that's why she took Clarence even after everyone else rotted from the inside out. But once the same happened to my sister—and the child in her care!—that whole theory should have been tossed out with yesterday's news reel. She was clean, despite the best efforts of her no-good "friends." It's what she always told us, even the day we all got suspicious of some marks inside her arm looked like needle pricks. Sure, she was mad, but you'd expect that of anyone wrongly accused, as I tell anybody who tries to say that it proves a damn thing. Turns out she was using a real manual fireplace for the first time (the only time) in her life and she'd poked herself with some of the tools. Burns, not pricks. Anyway she was clean and it was no drug that did her or Clarence or any of 'em in. Besides, if it was, why aren't people still dying? You know, they act like they have all the answers, but they sure never gave me one for that. And when she died with him that night on a park bench in the city, I never got one then either. A whole lot of maybe-hows but not a single why.

Early deaths are always framed as mistakes. Like somehow the universe, or whatever is controlling it, just dropped the ball for a moment. Random error. You can't explain random error; it's the overall mechanism you have to look at, they'll tell you. You watch the way most people live long and die predictably and in between learn much and produce much, all in accordance with the preponderant idea of how these things work, and you disregard the few who do not when you calculate why it all happens. It's all very methodical—everything operates by a few simple rules, and everything not explained by those rules…well, it's random. Inexplicable, but expected. The way I see it, though, you can either explain it or you can't, none of this having it both ways.

If Clarence's life served any purpose at all, it was to tell everybody to stop trying to find meaning where there isn't any. Trouble with that is then you have a meaningful event saying events aren't meaningful, that there aren't any rules in this game, that energy can be used to simply extinguish other energies for no reason at all. And the funny thing about that is it's so damn sad that you suddenly see why whoever's running this show wouldn't want to see the whole thing himself. But that theory's already false by then, because if he were actually using us to see it for him then that would mean he's got a purpose, got a rule. And it's all that kind of junk that makes it so hard to make any sense out of Clarence, so you're just left with the same question: Why?

Well who can say?

They never could explain it, except to say that it was tragic. And there never really was any doubt about that.