MARILYN GUINNANE - GINNY REAPER
Marilyn began writing short stories at age 8 or 9. At puberty she took a long hiatus, lasting 21 years. She met Hollywood producer Norman Lear out in Tahiti who convinced her to write if that's what she wanted to do, so she quit her job as an international flight attendant and taught herself to write, all over again. She often lamented that she'd been a better writer as a child, but she wasn't convinced that an MFA program was the way to go, as she was in agreement with the critics in that these programs are churning out cookie cutter writers.
She has written three novels, the first of which landed her a NY agent (who blew a book deal). The second novel was god-awful. The third is her best work to date but she hasn't been successful in finding an agent to even read it.
She has optioned a screenplay, has won in a minor screenwriting contest and has had her short stories rejected by every lit-mag you can think of.
Actually, the knock on her apartment door wasn’t a jarring one. Nothing insistent about it. At least not at first . . . but even later, the knock seemed sort of playful. Christine was busy packing a suitcase, a chore she enjoyed under the circumstances. She wasn’t of a mind to take a break now that she had it all mapped out in her head, what she needed to take on the trip. And despite her excitement about their honeymoon in Rio (they were taking the honeymoon before the wedding, which was to follow two weeks later) Christine was anxious, about what she couldn’t have told you. But a gnawing anxiety had nagged at her all morning, interspersed with joy in a rather perplexing juxtaposition.
The knock recurred, a little more pronounced, a little more urgent. Instead of knock (space) knock (space) knock, she was now treated to knock knock KNOCK! She silently cussed, still determined not to answer. Then, who ever it was began knocking comically, in some sort of staccato rhythm, like someone playing conga drums.
“Oh it’s Judd, for Pete’s sake,” she said aloud. “He forgot his key again.”
It wasn’t her fiancé when Christine answered, however. It was the Grim Reaper, in full attire, scythe and all. Christine gave a start, but quickly recovered. “Oh, a costume party---what fun! Sorry though, you have the wrong house.” She tried to close the door but the Reaper pushed on it with a scythe-free hand, keeping it open.
“Excuse me?” Christine said, frowning, and edge to her voice. “You’re preventing me from closing the door! My door.”
“I have need of a bathroom.”
It was unmistakably a woman’s voice. Christine’s breath came easier. “How clever; you’re a woman. A woman Grim Reaper.”
“Well,” the Reaper said. “I’ll cop to being female but I wouldn’t say woman exactly.” She removed the drab heavy hood so that her long brown hair cascaded down.
Christine could have sworn that this person’s eyes had just changed from brown to blue. Her imagination, surely. “My God, you’re as white as a cloud. As a cloud,” she repeated. “That’s some impressive make-up.”
The Reaper stared at her a moment. “Bathroom.”
“Oh yes, yes. Come in.”
She directed the Reaper through her bedroom to the bathroom. “Crazy lay-out, this place,” she said almost apologetically. “This was a big old mansion, broken up into apartments. I guess you could tell. My bathroom was once the broom closet or something.”
The Reaper nodded as if bored.
“So may I take your scythe?”
The Reaper ignored her, closed the bathroom door with emphasis. Christine waited by her open suitcase that was atop the bed, fussed a little at the bikini top that was the last item packed, folding and re-folding it. She wondered why she hadn’t heard the toilet flush. It occurred to her that perhaps the Reaper was constipated and the very notion found her stifling a giggle. The Grim Reaper was constipated, she imagined telling Judd later. They would get a laugh out of it. She and Judd had the same sense of humor. Christine hoped that the Reaper wasn’t in there shooting heroine or something; the Reaper’s whiteness having made her look sickly.
The toilet never flushed, the sink offered no sound of running water. When the Reaper emerged from the bathroom, scythe in tow, the hood was back in place, her long silky hair tucked back inside. She was wearing dark pink lipstick. She hadn’t been wearing lipstick when Christine answered the door; she was certain of it. How strange. Strange because the Reaper wasn’t carrying a purse so where did she keep the lipstick? Was it Christine’s own then? You don’t just help yourself to another woman’s lipstick! Manners! Was she born in a barn?
“Actually I wasn’t born at all,” the Reaper said. “But don’t worry, I’m not a politician. Politicians aren’t born; they’re excreted.”
“I think we can attribute that quote to Cicero. Not sure.”
“Listen, just so you know, I absolutely hate my job.” Her face was expressionless but her eyes . . . her eyes had turned from blue to something very dark. The blade of the scythe gleamed, catching the ceiling light.
As casually as she could muster, Christine moved across the room to the dresser. The top drawer contained a loaded gun, a .38. She damn well knew how to shoot. She nodded weakly toward the Reaper when she slowly turned. “We all hate our jobs,” she said softly. In spite of herself she was somewhat mesmerized by the scythe with its almost hypnotic death-presence, even if her heart was now pounding to where she could hear it. She was incredibly focused, aware of every minute detail that comprised not just the Reaper but the entire room. Fear has an aura in a life-death situation. She was so focused that she could see and feel and sense it;
it was opaque, it was sheer, at once. And not only was it true that time slowed to a stop in a crisis just as she had forever read, but she had never felt so keenly intelligent as now.
“Please, not the gun-in-the-drawer routine,” the Reaper said. “Such melodrama.” The Reaper hiked up her robes so that her fish-belly-white legs showed. She sat on the bed next to the opened, half-packed suitcase. “Soft mattress,” she casually observed. “You look too young for such a soft mattress.” Plunking the scythe down next to her, flat on the bed, the Reaper leaned back on her arms, kicking her legs like a child enjoying itself.
“Um, look, if you don’t mind I have to finish getting ready for a trip, so---”
“Yes, I know,” the Reaper interrupted. “You’re packing for a flight to . . . to . . . ah yes, to Brazil. You and your boyfriend---excuse me, fiancé---his name is Judd? You and Judd planned to spend the holidays in Rio.”
How badly she wanted to say, who are you? What are you up to? What do you want? Is it money? But when she opened her mouth to speak, all that emerged was a sharp ‘uh’.
The Reaper’s eyes turned brownish-gold. “I have to say that this job ranks right down there with scrubbing latrines,” she stated, glancing around the bedroom, sporting something close to a hang-dog look. “I’d sooner be polishing halos but of course that’s a cartoonish notion. Imagine trying to polish light!
“Well well, you do have pretty good taste. One actual painting in the whole place but it’s a good one. A Despert, if I’m not mistaken. One of his Tiki Series, yes?” The Reaper nodded toward the framed painting next to the dresser where Christine still stood.
Christine would have swallowed hard except she found herself unable to swallow. She didn’t answer until something struck her in a wave of relief. “I know! I’ve got it! This is an elaborate joke! Judd put you up to it, that funny rascal!” She applauded, grinning. “You’re a magician; that’s how you change your eye color. I’m duly impressed. You must tell me how you do it.”
The Reaper’s eyes turned gold. “Yes, the eyes. Dead give-away. Pardon any pun.”
“Pun,” Christine echo’d and nodded affirmatively.
“Insofar as Judd is concerned, he had nothing to do with me. You set up my arrival shortly before you were born,” the Reaper said. “You don’t remember, that’s all.”
In a flash Christine found her courage and it was blizzard cold. “Explain!”
“Okay, I’ll explain. You have choices as to how you’re to exit when your contract is up.”
“Please, no further interruptions. You are not a physical being, you need to remember. You are a spirit being trapped temporarily in a physical body.” The Reaper tapped on the scythe’s handle. “And look, the scythe is just a prop; it’s just for show, so the, uh, person knows who I am. Reapers don’t pass out calling cards, Christine. What I have is this goofy outfit; the hood, the scythe, the robes. Says it all, tells the tale, however you want to put it.
“Anyway, you’re given choices before you’re born. You can go in your sleep when your time comes but you need excellent karma to get approval on that choice. You can go in a fiery crash of some sort, which is quick and saves funeral expenses for your loved ones in case money is tight. We refrain from using the term death, mind you, preferring, oh, exit or, simpler yet, the word go. So your exit from all the misery here can be from incurable disease or----”
“I think you’re crazy.”
“Me, crazy? Certainly not, but may I suggest that you are? You have an ego, which is the only thing anchoring you to this third dimension. The
ego is quite insane. Every walking, breathing person has an ego which makes insanity rampant on this good green earth! Everybody you meet is a little wacky, depending on how big her or his ego is---don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed.”
“Well at least not everyone on earth uses someone else’s lipstick.”
“We of the higher realms call your insanity disease ego-mania. You do get to leave your ego on the cutting room floor when you exit. Hooray, right?”
Christine darted a quick glance at the scythe. “Cutting?”
“Poor choice of words. Sorry.”
“I don’t care to exit, lady.”
“You may not care to exit but I’m no lady.” The Reaper laughed heartily, having said that. “Oh if you only knew.”
“Sounds like you’re talking about sex. Is sex bad?” Christine wondered why she was asking this nut-case such a question. Any question.
“Bad? No. How could sex be bad? Sex is fun. It’s good as long as it’s free. Selling your body sullies it, of course.”
“That what you did? Sell your body?”
“You think that because I said I was ‘no lady’. Okay, I did have an eye for the men, once upon a time. Heh. Plus, I was a bit notorious, you
could say, but sex had nothing to do with that.” The Reaper yawned.
“Why do you have this job that you hate, masquerading as a Grim Reaper? And who’s paying you, hmmm?”
“Let’s start with this: why do you have a job you hate?”
“Pays the bills.”
“Ah. You answered your own question, dear. I have a debt to pay.”
“What do you mean?” Christine glared at her.
“It’s a karmic debt. And if I don’t want to come back as a poor starving child in Bangladesh, I have to work off the karma.”
“What if I offered to pay your debt for you? What if----”
“You’re just . . . not . . . getting it.”
“Here’s what I am getting: you came here with your magician’s tricks of changing your eye color and also you’re a psychic because obviously you are able to read minds.”
“And you’re handing me a line of bull-crap about ‘contracts’. My contract is up! As if life were a business agreement!”
“It sort of, you know, is.”
Christine stood akimbo. “Oh really!”
“Oh come on; wake up! Judd had no desire to leave Home and come
into this incarnation, which is why you chose a short contract.” The Reaper looked heavenward, reading something that was invisible to Christine. “Eleven thousand three hundred fifteen days,” she finally said, still squinting. “Today is your birthday, is it not?”
“So time’s up. That simple.”
“But I love Judd. We’re getting married!”
The Reaper covered her mouth as she again yawned. “And oh of course he loves you as well.” She proceeded with well-rehearsed words. “He has cancer, Christine,” she said dully. “He doesn’t consciously know it yet. On a higher level he knows it because he chose it. It’s all scripted, Miss Goldilocks. Every last detail.
“Yet you’ll view me with hideous hatred. Did I do the scripting? No, a thousand times no. Who did? You did! You and Judd. That’s not his name, by the way.”
“Oh really. What is his name, pray tell.”
“Depends on which lifetime you’re referring to. In his last incarnation, he was called Henri.” The Reaper used the French pronunciation: Ah-ree. “And you were Leslie.”
“Uh-huh, I’ll bet. And were Henri and Leslie married?”
“You were his mistress. You loved one another, deeply and abidingly. Do you doubt it?”
“Do you have any proof whatsoever that any of this is true?”
“Oh I hate this. I hate my job! Bangladesh is actually starting to seem attractive.” The Reaper paused to gather her thoughts. “I mean, if only I had the ability to convey how absurd this all is. Know this much, little flaxen-haired beauty: I am incapable of lying. I have no ego!”
“The Creator gave us free will!”
“Yes, and you exercised it, before you were born.”
“I can change things!” Christine was becoming agitated, even shrill. “Free will, damn you!”
Raising one eyebrow, the Reaper looked Christine squarely in the eye and waited.
“Then . . . then . . . wait a minute, let me sort this out. I can’t change anything?” Christine paused. “At all?”
“Suicide. You have that choice. But I’m betting you’re not up for it, all things considered. Beyond that option, it’s an unbreakable contract.”
“Judd and I can appeal! We’ll appeal to the angels! To the archangels! We’ll go straight to God!”
“It entered your mind moments ago that you two have already put
money down on a house. You were thinking that the wedding is all planned; you have your wedding gown in your parents’ closet, wedding invitations have gone out. You truly need to understand something, Blondie.”
“Christine, then. Listen carefully.” The Reaper chewed her lip contemplatively, then said: “I’m doing you a favor. You and Judd have had a few other happy lifetimes together. When you are ready, you meet your soul-mate, so lucky you, he is your soul-mate. The real McCoy, not just some romanticized fairy tale. He is your other half, literally.”
“Okay. Okay fine.”
“It goes beyond the fact that Judd really didn’t want to come back for another go at physical life. In your other lifetimes together, you grew old and decrepit and senile. Many tears were shed over one another’s declining years. Tears of worry, tears of great sorrow. So when the two of you decided to come back for this, your last time around; you decided that you’d exit while you were still young.
“Truth to tell, it wasn’t necessary to come back at all and, as noted, Judd really didn’t want to. But you talked him into it. You craved to eat a big ripe peach again, you told him, with the juice dribbling down your chin. So he agreed to come down the old tiresome birth canal one more time, to
make you happy, but as I keep saying, he really didn’t want to leave Home.
“To make him happy, and to avoid growing old again, you said, ‘Okay, let’s exit when we’re thirty-one.’ He agreed. So look, his cancer is fast acting---are you getting the picture?”
“Don’t paint any more pictures, okay? I don’t want to die. I don’t want Judd to die.” But Christine was having a problem with denying the truth of what the Reaper was saying inasmuch as it had begun to resonate. She was fighting back tears.
“There is no death!” The Reaper grabbed the scythe and slammed its staff onto the floor to drive home her point. “You know,” she continued, “the usual Reaper for this region wanted to visit with an old friend of his who had just arrived Home after a stint on the physical plane----”
“Physical plane? You mean earth?”
“No, not earth. Some other galaxy but what difference does it make? I’m such a sucker. ‘Would you fill in for me?’ he asked with, oh, you know, that pleeease look he gets. I mean, I shouldn’t complain because I get to work off a little extra bad karma this way, but----”
“What karma? What’d you do, kill someone?”
The Reaper ignored the jab. “Absolutely not! Back when I was having a human experience---well, in one of my lifetimes---I,” the Reaper
grinned devilishly, “I sort of, well, purloined a bit of paper and ink. Embezzled, they called it in court. A mere caper. The law has a poor sense of humor, don’t you agree?”
“How much did you steal?”
“Oh that tacky word: steal.”
“Mmmm, well, a cool million. Back then a million was real money. They termed it ‘grand larceny’ in the newspaper, right after the blurb about the law relieving me of my beautiful stallion.”
“Your boyfriend, I take it.”
“Bitchy comments are beneath you.”
“You expect me to care?”
“What a life we had, Jerry and I, till we got caught.” It tickled the Reaper to recount the story, her eyes twinkling and changing color like a chameleon, in flashes of green as she remembered the money, pink Champagne as she recalled making love with Jerry, azure as she thought of being out on the open sea. “Yachts, invitations to parties in Pacific Heights . . . . aaaaah. Well never mind.”
“They sent a thief to kill me. A fine how-do-ya-do.”
“I take umbrage at that remark! I am a spirit of exemplary character
now that I’m no longer afflicted with ego-mania. Back then I had my, well, human quirks you might say. A few foibles; nothing seriously rotten. Besides, you should see what you’ve done in some of your own earlier lifetimes. Judd, too. I’m telling you, it’d curl your hair!”
Christine was no longer paying attention. Having broken into a cold sweat moments ago, it was with her still. She longed for Judd’s arms around her with all her pounding heart. She spoke his name aloud, sniffed, wiped her eyes.
“Besides,” the Reaper went on, still reliving another life, “all they need to do is print more of the stuff. More paper, more ink. It’s so crazy! You hand someone a wad of paper with some dead presidents inked on one side and they give you the keys to a yacht! HA HA HA!” she laughed, impervious to Christine’s discomfort.
“Our . . . our flight to Rio leaves at ten A.M. tomorrow.”
“Oh stop.” The Reaper shook her head in a show of disgust. “Give me a break, would you please? Something else you get to choose is whether you want a slow exit which prepares your loved ones; an abrupt exit; or a visit from the Reaper, who comes to sort of ease the way and offer something painless. A little polite conversation, a few jokes, well, you know.” She turned her hands into make believe weights-and-measures
scales. “Abrupt departure/Reaper, abrupt departure/Reaper---you chose Reaper. Here I am and you haven’t even offered me a cup of coffee.”
“I hate you.”
“Now that didn’t come from your soul!” The Reaper’s irises turned black. “Hatred rides in on an ill wind! You don’t want that kind of karma, not at a time like this! Take it back!”
“Shut-up!” Christine surrendered all pretenses of bravery as her shoulders heaved in a bout of sobbing. She went to a stuffed chair in the corner, by a Peter Max framed poster of (of all things) an ascending angel, fell into the chair in a boneless mass. The Reaper’s back was to her now so that she actually entertained an urge to kill her. Self-defense, right? That gun in the dresser, the loaded .38.
“You can’t bump someone off who is already, well, not of this world shall we say,” the Reaper said, reading Christine’s mind again.
“This is no way to spend my 31st. After all, I’m still a baby! I’m still just a baby, barely starting out in this world.”
“A baby. You can say that again,” the Reaper said sotto voce.
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘they always take it so hard’. Besides, this is your re-birth day. A cause for celebration! Look Goldilocks, I’ll show you how to revel
in your soon-to-be-freedom.”
Slipping the hood of her costume off once more, the Reaper stood, stepped out of the cumbersome robes, kicked the robes to one side. She had on a pink silk knee length slip that accentuated her curves. Out of nowhere she manifested a head band, a cigarette holder avec lighted cigarette, while thirties jazz sounded in the room from an invisible sound system so that the Reaper could dance the Charleston, out of step with the beat of the music but from all appearances wholly enjoying herself, tossing her hair about with wild abandon.
Christine momentarily forgot her woe and grabbed a tambourine from atop the dresser. The thirties jazz began to fade when she approached the Reaper, whose cigarette disappeared, whose headband dissolved as well, while the jazz dissipated into nothing. “Come on, no one dances like that,” Christine commented. “What era are you from, the Roaring Twenties?” She handed the Reaper the tambourine. “Watch, you play the tambourine and I’ll show you how to dance.”
“I don’t do tambourines. You have a guitar?”
“What?!! Oh brother, now I’ve heard it all. I guess that’s a joke:
harp, heaven. Huh? That it, a joke?” She was picking up where she left off insofar as being on the verge of tears, then anger, then tears. “What if I told you to leave!”
“I’d go, but I’d be taking you with me. Sure you want me to leave?”
“You have no power over me!”
The Reaper drew a long breath. “I’ve explained that I came at your own request. You gave me the power. You two had a choice. Judd didn’t want a reaper. You did. You made your request at the time of your contract. You checked the box: reaper.”
“I thought it was Grim. Grim Reaper.”
“You who are born with amnesia don’t know anything. Do I look grim?” The Reaper threw in a few more Charleston dance steps, flashed her perfect teeth in an ersatz smile. “I wasn’t even grim at my sentencing! ‘Your honor,’ I said, ‘are you quite certain that I can’t keep the thoroughbred? He’s called Man O’ War and with all the money he’ll earn, I could pay everything back!’ The silly man went apoplectic. For the love of Mike, I wasn’t kidding. The freakin’ horse won the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness! Of course I didn’t own him anymore. The warden, who was a lover of fine horse flesh, filled me in.”
“I’m trying to filter this death stuff through my brain,” Christine said
“Filter it through your soul instead. A far more reliable source.”
“Judd checked ‘no reaper’?” Her voice broke.
“That would be incorrect. He left the reaper box blank. He checked instead ‘quick illness’.” The Reaper made a check mark gesture, with a flourish, on thin air. She sported a big Cheshire Cat grin.
“Oh God, my sweet darling Judd. My sweet sweet love.”
The Reaper laughed wildly. “HA HA HA!! Humans are so sloppy sentimental. How many times do I have to say it: no one dies. No . . . one . . . dies. You try saying it. Go ahead.”
“No one . . . ” Christine began. “What else did I check?” She put an unsteady hand to her throat.
The Reaper’s onyx-black eyes flashed to baby blue, morphed into amber. “You checked ‘surpise me’.”
“You mean . . . you mean I’m at your mercy?”
“That’s hardly a nice way of putting it, do you think? First you seriously ponder putting a bullet through me---”
“Oh dear me; I wouldn’t have done it,” Christine’s voice was sweet with entreaty. “Of course I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t have, you know. Shot you. Why that’s just silly!”
“Would you, um, like some coffee?”
“Actually I was just kidding about you not offering me any. Coffee goes right through me.”
“Oh I get it! A joke. Goes right through you. Jeez, you’re so clever.”
“Man O’ War wasn’t entered in the Kentucky Derby or he’d have won it, too.”
“How could you know that? Another little joke?”
“No joke. I’ll tell you something no other living human being knows: Man O’ War came back to planet Earth as the very great Secretariat. And why? He wanted to win the Triple Crown. Or, well, I sort of talked him into it. ‘You got cheated,’ I told him.”
“I see. You, uh, talk to animals. Right.” Christine’s wheels were spinning. So maybe this reaper was nuts, after all. “And did the horse paw the ground and whinny a reply?” She made her foot paw the floor.
The Reaper was lost in reverie. “How I loved that stallion. Still do. Can you even imagine how proud I was of Secretariat winning the Triple Crown, breaking all records? I was there with him, all the way. I mean I was with him in spirit, of course.”
“Of course,” Christine echo’d.
“So back to the here and now. Judd’s intent is to follow you in a couple of weeks. Puh-leeze don’t start blubbering gain.”
“Why? Why follow?”
“So you wouldn’t go together, obviously. Too upsetting for your friends and parents, what with the wedding completely planned and . . . all that.”
At that moment, Judd entered the bedroom.
“Sweetie! I didn’t hear you come in.” Christine’s voice was filled with palpable relief.
Judd regarded this strange looking female standing there, white as road paint. “Who’s this? Who’s this standing here in her slip?”
Her face lit up. “Do you like it?” the Reaper asked suggestively, striking a pose. “For the life of me I don’t know why slips went out of style. They’re so sexy, don’t you think, Judd? Don’t you think so?”
“Chrissy, aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Christine was glaring at the Reaper. “I would, of course, but this person refuses to tell me her name.”
“Ginny,” the Reaper interjected, extending a flour-white hand to Judd. “Ginny Reaper.”
“Nice scythe,” Judd replied, nodding toward the bed, absently
shaking hands with the Reaper. He found her whiteness off-putting. “Wow,” he added, “your hands are as cold as an Eskimo’s twat!”
“Ginny, then, was just leaving. On her way to a costume party, Judd. She got the wrong apartment, wound up showing me some old-fashioned dance steps; well, it’s a long story.
“The cavalry is here, dear Ms. Reaper. It’s time for you to say toodles! Thanks so much for the story about when you did time for grand theft! That was eye-opening, I must say.” Christine gathered the Reaper’s robes off the floor, reached for the scythe. “Cheerio!” She shoved the Reaper’s back, her hand becoming entangled in her long glossy brown hair.
“Excuse me but would you mind terribly if I got dressed before you give me the bum’s rush?”
“I’ll leave the room,” Judd said, doing his best to avoid sneaking a peek at the Reaper’s pink silk slip, which he couldn’t help but notice hugged her body.
“NO!” Christine bellowed. “You will NOT leave the room!”
Judd shot her a quizzical look. “Okay, all right then; I’ll turn my back.”
He waited. All was tomb-quiet. After long moments, he turned around again. There was no sign of Ginny Reaper, neither hide nor hair.
Nor scythe. He raced to Christine, lying on the bed where the scythe had been.
“Chrissy? Chrissy? Honey, wake up!” He patted her delicate hand.
Her eyes were open; she was not breathing. There were no marks, no visible cause of death.