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Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1959, Wallace came to Chapel Hill to attend the University of North Carolina. In 1984 he returned to the United States after living in Japan and began writing in earnest. Wallace has received a North Carolina Arts Fellowship and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. He currently lives in Chapel Hill with his son, Henry. Wallace joins D.G. Martin to discuss "Ray in Reverse," his newest novel.
Ray in Reverse
RAY IN REVERSE
Ray in Heaven
Ray, like the rest of us here, is dead. He sits in a folding metal chair toward the back of the group, right on the fringe, as though he's unsure of himself, of where he belongs. That's fine, he's new here, and there's always a transition from one world to the next. He doesn't know how lucky he is though! First of all, he's in Heaven, which clearly makes him at least a little special. Second, he's in Last Words. In Heaven these days Last Words is more popular than ever, so securing a place here in our group has become quite difficult. There's the waiting list, which is longer than most, and then of course the words themselves have to be of a certain caliber (there's a screening committee). Still, sometimes strings are pulled, and I wonder if this is what happened with Ray. Certainly that's why Stella Kauffman is here, this slight, pale woman with an eager, ingratiating smile, who joins us today for the first time: it was her ancestor Betty Karnovski who started the group an age or two ago, so we had to take her in.
When it's time to begin, Stella raises her hand and Betty--no surprise to me--picks her to start us off.
"I'm from New York City," Stella says, an admission that generates a little tremor through the group: New York City is so poorly represented in Heaven that some of us had forgotten it exists. Stella shifts, uncomfortable in the metal chairs provided for our group, and she squints a bit--the overhead fluorescent lights always seem too bright in the beginning--and then she clears her throat and begins. "Okay. My last words. 'I wonder if I left the oven on.'"
She utters them to us with an operatic undertone in her voice, as though she were God. Then she settles back, satisfied apparently.
A few of us nod, but none of us dare look Stella's way: we're embarrassed for her. Her last words are dreadful. She's only been here a day, of course, and this is her first session. Still . . . they're awful. She might have waited to hear the others, might have waited to hear what proper last words sound like before she made the mistake of uttering her own. They just weren't put well, and they don't really mean anything either, and that's unfortunate. Because meaning is important in Heaven. Consider your subjects: Life. Death. An overview of the former would be nice; a subtle observation of the latter, even better. Especially for somebody like Stella Kauffman--a woman from such a colorful place. Her showing is less than we would have expected. Betty is especially disappointed.
Which is not to say she had no reason to utter them, of course. Stella makes this clear to us immediately. On the night of her death she was alone, and it was a heart attack that killed her, one so sudden that it gave her very little time to recap her life experience. In fact, her last words were spoken that afternoon, three hours before she died, when she left her apartment to go for a short walk. Half a block away she remembered the oven, in which she had been baking some wonderfully delicious artery-hardening cookies, and wondered out loud whether or not she had turned it off.
"So, I said, 'I wonder if I left the oven on.' But it turned out I didn't," she says. "I mean, I did. I mean . . . the oven was off when I got home."
Everyone in the group nods, smiles, but still, we are far from impressed. Stella Kauffman must have led a very bland life indeed.
"They were my last words," she says, a note of defiance in her voice. "I like them well enough."
"As you should, Stella," Betty says. "As you should."
"Obviously they're not the best. Had I the chance to say them all over again, of course, I would do much bet . . ." she says, trailing off, realizing, as we all do rather quickly here, that this topic--the Ifs Ands and Buts of life--is one rarely explored in Heaven; Stella, wisely, does not pursue it. Instead, to leave us with something a bit more memorable, she describes for us what it feels like to have a heart attack.
She says, "It is like being on an elevator and having it stop between floors."
Very good indeed, Stella! I think, and warm a bit toward her: that is exactly what it was like. For me, I mean. The sudden jolt. The stopping. The darkness.
"And that's the way it still feels," she says, a bit harshly.
Well. I have a feeling Stella has some unresolved issues about dying she may need to work on, and if so, she's in the wrong place. There are other groups for that sort of thing.
"Ray," Betty says. "You have some last words you'd like to share with us?"
He says he does. But he prefaces his remarks by telling us that he bled to death, slowly, on a roadside near Dallas.
Ray is a tall, broad-shouldered man with a nervous energy that puts us all on edge. He's always drumming his fingers against the side of the chair, and getting up, moving around, as though he can't get comfortable. But he doesn't look like the kind of man who would bleed to death on a Texas roadside. He has a somewhat more homogenized, suburban presence, and the gaunt and darkened look of a man who does not like himself all that much. Bitter for some reason, and sad. He makes a pretty big deal about this bleeding, the last episode in his life, going on and on, but no one is really interested. No one is interested in how he died. Whether it was a gun shot or if he fell off a horse or if it was suicide, we don't really care. All I want to know is, What did you say? As you were leaking away there by the side of the road, what were they? What were your last words?
"My brother was there," he says, milking his time for all its worth, "kneeling beside me."
An audience! Good. And a family member. Some of the best last words are often spoken in the presence of a family member. Ray was lucky; some of us died in front of total strangers, too embarrassed to say anything at all.
"We were waiting for help," he says, "but both of us knew I wasn't going to make it. I knew it, anyway. Tom kept saying, 'You're going to be okay, big brother. You're going to be just fine.' He kept talking like this, but I believe he knew it, too."
"The last words, Ray?" Betty says abruptly. She looks at her wrist where a watch used to be: force of habit.
"What? Oh, right," he says. "My last words. Well, I looked up at Tom, my baby brother, who was holding my head in his hands, and I told him, 'Be sure to take care of Jenny for me.' Jenny is my wife--my widow now. 'And tell her I love her.' Loved. I said 'loved.' Yeah. Like I was dead already. Then I said, 'Besides our mother, Tom--my Jenny is the greatest, most wonderful woman I ever--"
"Ray?" Betty interrupts him.
"Is this true? Is what you're telling us true?"
"What do you mean, true?" he says. "Of course it's true." "Ray."
Ray shifts in his chair, wipes his nose with a monogrammed handkerchief, blinks his eyes.
"Okay," he says. "Okay. I guess I'm making it up, most of it. You know. So what?"
Copyright © 2000 - 2002 by Daniel Wallace. All rights reserved.