Jacob Duckworth came home the same time every night. His coworkers at East Provincial Bank noted his leaving at four in the afternoon because he was the only grown man in the company with a backpack, and this sparked many rumors that climaxed in a security guard checking its contents because of the possibility parts of a dismembered corpse. Within were only a smattering of books and magazines that were dutifully dog eared, highlighted, written in and worn, helping the material serve its purpose. The written word for Jacob was not meant to be revered and kept pristine but rather to be used, written in, and then devoured. After the rumors stopped they would still mark his leaving but the reason had changed. Jacob never spoke of his personal life and this became another subject of workplace small-talk. Jacob wasn’t a writer under a pen name, he wasn’t the bastard son of King, either. Jacob arrived at his ascetic apartment a half hour later and from then on, he would read and enjoy the barren silence of isolation.
On Sunday, the nineteenth of May Jacob committed his first act of violence. With a black ballpoint pen in hand, Jacob immersed himself in Mindfulness Magazine and it was within that issue, dated one week prior, that he read the quote by Dean Rolston, “To acknowledge that you are dying is to recognize that you are alive.” From the moment his eyes moved over these words he knew he was going to commit the one act he swore he never would do. He got up from his black veneer plywood desk and opened a drawer on the opposite side of his apartment next to the entryway closet. Tucked away hidden among scrap paper and junk mail was a box cutter that was still bright yellow with gloss. He charmed the blade out of its sheath and placed it to the page of the magazine. His hands trembled and he sweated, but he slowly dragged the box cutter into the magazine and extracted from it a bit of flesh. A six-inch-long and two-inch-wide piece of paper where he had read the quote. Realizing what he had done, Jacob Duckworth hid the blade deeper into the same drawer covering it was an advertisement from Target.
Jacob Duckworth would have those words thumbtacked just above his door so that he could see it as left, and if he need to see while he was at the desk, he had found another magazine and done the same to it. In doing so he would never forget the phrase that had become his lord. The following Monday Jacob sat at his desk on a stiff nylon mesh desk chair and his eyes didn’t move from the keyboard all morning. Todd, from another section that Jacob wasn’t entirely sure of, stopped by to see Jacob but was so entranced at Jacob’s enrapturement that he too was still and solemn for a moment. Then, he grew concerned and asked, “Jacob, are you okay?”
Jacob was lost in his thoughts and made many dead-end turns before he found his way back and responded, “I… just have a lot on my mind. You ever heard of the Latin phrase Memento Mori?”
Todd’s eyebrows jumped to nearly match his hairline and enjoyed, like one would an expensive wine, that this was the first time Jacob had shared his thoughts with anyone in the office. “I can’t say that I have, what does it mean?”
Jacob hesitated. He finally said, “It means remember that you will die, I know it sounds morbid and all but it’s supposed to be a reminder of what actually matters in life and to not get caught up in the bullshit of it all, you know? I’ve just been snagged onto that lately.” Before Todd could respond Jacob stopped and addressed the reason Todd came in the first place.
Day molted to weeks and still Jacob could only remember that he was going to die and that his great and only lord, the paragraph which reminded him of this fact, had multiplied to where the cabinets, towels, toilet seat covers, cutlery, and even the toilet paper had relation bore its marking. Jacob on as a passing thought coming home from work on a Tuesday realized too that there seemed to be more reminders than he recalled making but simply welcomed them and forgot about it.
Two months after his initial discovery of the sentence that had become his entire life, he was meditating. It was a Tuesday morning with light clouds and a slight chance of rain later in the day. Yet concepts like Tuesday or rain meant nothing to him for he had abandoned work and never left the temple of the lord. On this day of God contemplation Jacob suddenly stood up without warning even himself. He had a thought without words or pictures and he had to rise to his feet to chase the spectral thought. It led him to the window where in the rush of the Tuesday temperate and windy afternoon, the entire range of human existence stopped to enjoy it as if they didn’t know they would one day die. Thinking he had seen what he had needed to, Jacob walked back to his seat but was pulled back to the window before he made three trepidatious steps. He saw smiles and great cries of elation, he saw the glimmer in the exchanges between two people, he saw in all this the other half of an equation he skipped over. Of course, he thought, I have to remember to die, but I can’t miss that. He opened his phone to look for someone to cast his net of connection to anyone but the passing of weeks into months caused Jacob to stop looking. Instead, after taking a shower and changing, he stepped outside for the first time.
In his forced optimism, he had thought his paper deity world sort the erratic world but the horns of dozens of cars still blared, the jeers of working women and men still contaminated the air about, infecting all within earshot. His God did not provide shelter from reality but He did not abandon his sole subject. Jacob began to see the infiniteness of human life and he saw each expression of life, from the rowdy kids yelling on the streets to the old man tuning his radio to nostalgia, as a picket sign against the corporation of death. He saw the small twine that jutted from our human chest that propel us into the future despite the deaths that exist somewhere within that line. He sensed it all and wept.
For the next few weeks Jacob followed the same routine. He would wake up at 6 in the morning when the first stay lights of Ra wedge their way between his curtains and fill up the room. Rising immediately after waking, Jacob Duckworth got dressed and left his apartment heading nowhere in particular. Some day he would walk an hour to downtown and other times he would bring a backpack containing a change of clothes and walk three hours to a neighboring city, but in either situation his goal was the same; he wanted to observe how his kinfolk lived despite the eventuality of death. He took notes of people’s comings and goings and hypothesized their entire life. One day he noticed a frail man leaving the hospital, his head shone and his limbs seemed as if there was a large knot tied at each joint. Jacob followed the man, which Jacob thought to be thirty, from the hospital where the man undoubtedly received his cancer diagnosis to the park. The smile never left his face as he watched the children play and it didn’t leave his face when fed seeds to the pigeons flocking near the bench he was sitting at that made him sit too upright.
Jacob sat next to the old man at last and stumbled through an introduction then said, “I’m just curious how, despite your obvious diagnosis, that you’re able to be so happy.”
Muhammad Ali Marshall was quiet and instead of responding immediately to Jacob he swished and gargled the words in his mind like a sommelier to wine, the entire while with a smile. “My name is Muhammad Ali Marshall. I guess my mom called me that because she sensed the inner turmoil of duality that I would one day face. Like Ali, who preached peace while fighting, I had to face blackness while those of my same skin toned questioned my blackness because of my interests and speech.” He paused and looked Jacob up and down, “And I see you’ve had to deal with the same thing.” Jacob nodded in response. “And just as I thought I was done fighting with complicated dualities, two years ago I started having to deal with dying while still living.”
Jacob kept his eyes fixed on Muhammad’s which seemed to not dwell in the past or future and only noted what was before him. For the remainder of their time at the park the sat silently together and for three hours they observed families coming and going, watched nature die while other parts of it bloomed, and told times passing with the falling of the sun. When Muhammad got up Jacob asked, “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“I hope so, but I can’t promise you anything.” Jacob noticed the string from Muhammad’s chest and hoped that it meant he had a few years ahead of him, but in the same thought realized that life doesn’t operate on the same logic as human hope. So, when he got home and rested his head on a cool pillow, he prayed to the paper deity who he had not even considered for the last four hours. Thunder groaned that night and the patter of rain passed through the city, Jacob realized this all in a dream where he was watching Muhmmad fight in the ring with a ghost, Muhammad couldn’t land a punch on the ghost but a groan of thunder accompanied each blow he received. When Jacob woke up, he knew Muhammad had beaten the ghost but he had no idea how. By noon he was at the park again with Muhammad Ali Marshall. The baggage under his eyes were purple and black, he walked slower than he did the day before and his black skin grew ever more ashen but despite this condition, he smiled when he saw Jacob. He didn’t address his new appearance. He didn’t address in part because he didn’t want to materialize the truth in his words and part because he knew Jacob could see that Muhammad’s thread that lead him towards his future had vanished, and so Muhammad spoke, “A bigger storm is coming soon.” Jacob nodded. He’d noticed the stampede of clouds closing in, and knew there would be a cacophony of cymbal crashes for the next night or two, it seemed to Jacob that fortune brought them together for a reason that day. “What is dying like?” Jacob asked. He stared through to Muhammad’s fading soul.
“It’s a lot like living,” He said. “The only difference is that every second becomes a moment to cherish, and one to weep from. Each second has been filled with so much emotion since then that I felt like I’ve lived two lives.” Nurses came for Muhammad shortly after and Jacob would only see Muhammad again through the words he thought to best express his life.
Just as Muhammad expected, thunderstorms enveloped the next two days. Despite his wanting to outlast the storm, he knew he at last had to die because two lives were to many for someone who barely lived long enough for one. So, he surrendered himself to the permanent silence the day before the storm let up just as the orchestra of thunder was at its peak. Jacob knew Muhammad had passed but hadn’t heard anything about it from the news or newspaper until two days after his passing where he read he would be buried that weekend. After the funeral and hospital friends who came to say their goodbyes, Jacob encountered the immortal words of Muhammad Ali Marshall. The epitaph read, “Memento Vivere”.