It was a tiny city, or seemed tiny, because everyone carried a coffin. The streets were flooded with people traveling in fours, sometimes even sixths, lugging around dead people (loved ones, even) in wooden boxes, who had dropped like flies from some disease or heartache or set back, or failure. And this sudden collapse from breathing and eating, and shitting and fucking, and lying and scratching, and cheating and stealing, would even threaten to set the steady monotonous procession of citizens (condemned to pall bearing) should one become instantly overcome with severe weight loss of one’s every ounce and pound. Some didn’t care and spent the better part of their afternoons saying it was God trying to teach them a lesson about being selfish and greedy and illiterate and lazy and promiscuous, indulging in too much food and drink, trinkets and TV, microwaves, computers, automobiles, shoes, clothes and almost anything made of plastic and steel from cheap and foreign labor, wiping out trees, covering every inch of earth with the dull gray slabs of rough concrete or the hot smooth black of tar, blotting out the sky and sun and moon and stars with black noxious soot. But now almost everyone in the fast city was dressed in black. And the city was not so fast. People crept along the avenue, sweating beneath hats hammered onto their swollen skulls by the sun’s persistent rays, straining from the weight of a loved one. The thing is, no one dared to get out of line, spring a quick step off the curb to hail a cab. Morgues were empty. Funeral parlors were empty, too. All subsequently went out of business. But it wasn’t a total loss for capital: Coffin manufacturers fought tooth-and-nail to find trees to make more coffins—which were definitely in great demand—and the workers (who were dropping like flies) to employ their labor and chop the trees and shape them into pretty boxes to carry ugly people. They winced at the thought of having to resort to using prison labor to make their coffins. The streets are not safe enough as it is with these bloody plagues, let alone an army of thugs running around loose with chainsaws and axes, came the cry from the city council; until one of their scientists came up with the idea of making plastic coffins. Though it seemed like a good idea, detractors complained that the streets would look like an endless Tupperware party with human corpses basting like pigs on a spit or chickens in a window display case on a rotisserie. But more people dropped like flies. Apparently, they believed in science but not dialectics. After all, social scientists argued, think of how lovely it would be to be able to always see your loved ones—kind of like a viewing that never ends, until you do. Your loved ones would always be in view and on display as if they were still with us—not locked away in some dark, dank wooden box with its lid clamped shut forever to roam the streets of Purgatory. This is the argument that sold them on the plastic see-through coffins. In another city, half a century ago, the entire population was nearly cremated by a bomb. It was rumored, by citizens of nearby cities and towns, survivors dressed their loved ones in T-shirts that asked: Will You Keep Me When I’m Gone? The survivors themselves wore shirts that said: You Bet! But in this tiny city of floating coffins flooding the narrow streets like yellow cabs clogging the arteries of its midtown and downtown shopping areas, the survivors practiced this ritual not in words but deeds. To be kept meant literally kept: lugged around in a coffin box from sun up to sun down and kingdom come, or come what may.
Tony Medina is professor of creative writing at Howard University. Author and/or editor of seventeen books for adults and young readers, his most recent books are An Onion of Wars, Broke Baroque and The President Looks Like Me & Other Poems.