Short Story: “Why You’ll Never Be Dead”

As a plane experiences turbulence, one passenger lays out five reasons why we’ll never be dead.

Passenger on seat worry about flight © H_Ko /

June 02, 2024 05:04 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: Do you think it is possible to be dead? 

Takeoff was delayed so they could get a coffin into the hold. And the whole time, we’re sitting there this guy next to me is having some kinda meltdown. 

English guy. Must be at least 20 years older than me. Overweight. Pock-marked skin. Sweating like a water feature. Rocking back and forth. His breathing is louder than the plane’s propellers. And he’s pushing his hands into his crotch as though he’s about to wet himself.

I have a quiet word with the flight attendant. She says all the other seats are taken. I say what about first class. She says I’ll have to pay more. I say come on, look at the guy. You can’t expect me to sit next to that for ten hours. You gotta bump me up. She says she can’t do it. Either I pay the price of my ticket again or I’m stuck with him.

So I sit back down. I tell him, “Hey, don’t you know flying’s the safest form of transport?” I tell him I’m a plumber and I know for a fact you’re more likely to be killed by an exploding dishwasher than die on a plane. “Honestly,” I say, “it’s statistically proven, planes are safer than dishwashers.”

He nods in agreement, and he seems to loosen up. It’s not true about dishwashers, I just made that up. But my uncle always says fiction is glue. It’s what makes the truth stick.  

This guy asks me if I ever get scared. I say no. But that’s because I don’t believe in death. And at this point I’m pretty sure he regrets sitting next to me

After we’ve taken off, his whole demeanor changes. He pesters the flight attendant for a couple of their cheapest whiskeys, he puts his chair back, he stretches his legs much as it’s possible and lets the outer reaches of his left-hand side drift over onto my territory. I’ve got a bit of shoulder, a bit of leg, a bit of loin. If a butcher’s blade fell down between our two seats, I’d have another meat to set up a charcuterie. 

I ask him what’s waiting for him on the other side. You know, if we make it. 

He pulls a face like he’s just tasted the whiskey. He says mundanity. Boredom. Emptiness. 

He tells me he’s just been over in New York for a production of one of his plays. Off-Broadway but still a decent-sized theatre. A comedy, I think. Something to do with hairdressing. 

It didn’t go well? I ask.

He says no, it went wonderfully. But he tells me he’s waited his whole life for a break like this and now AI is gonna take his place. “Maybe not straight away,” he says, “but within a few years.” And he says there’s nothing wrong with living a mundane life, but for him, he’d always used it as inspiration for his work. “If my life can’t inspire my writing,” he says, “I’m not too sure what the point of it is.” He says it’s ok for me, being a plumber, I’ve got a job the robots ain’t much interested in replacing. 

I say, “It sure seemed like your life had a point when we were taking off back there. You were clinging onto that armrest like it was a life raft.”

He shrugs. I ask him if he’s married. He is. Kids? One small boy, five years old. 

We don’t speak for another few hours. I disappear to the john. When I get back, he says, “What do you mean you don’t believe in death?”

I ain’t sure what he’s talking about, but he reminds me it was something I said earlier. 

So I tell him when I first met my uncle, the only piece of information I had about him was his profession. And I was six; I didn’t know what a plumber was. So by the end of the trip, I thought it was some kind of magician. 

He was showing me card tricks, pulling ping pong balls out of my ears, and this was in the church for my grandfather’s funeral just before they carried in the coffin. But years later, he explained it to me — these five reasons — and I understood why he wasn’t sad to bury his old man. 

The guy next to me don’t say nothing, so I’m not sure if I should go on, but then, finally, he says, “Would you care to share them?” And, as so often with the British, I can’t tell if he’s being rude or polite.

“Number one,” I say, “we could be living in an infinite universe, where everything that can exist once will exist an infinite number of times, and in an infinite number of ways. So if this plane blows up, there’s an infinite number of worlds where it don’t, and there are infinite versions of you living infinite versions of your life. And no matter how many times you die you keep coming back and back and back, so this plane blowing up here is no more relevant in the bigger picture of who you are than a play that does or doesn’t get put on at an off-Broadway theatre.”

He gestures to the flight attendant for another whiskey. 

“Number two. Eternalism. When you’re in New York, London still exists, right? Well, some physicists, they think 1776 still exists too. Life is a collection of moments. Maybe each of those moments exists forever. Maybe, I tell him, maybe you’re still writing that play about hairdressing as we speak.”

He takes the whiskey, pours it, shuffles about in his chair. I don’t think he’s listening, but I carry on. 

“Reason number three,” I say, “is maybe the essence of you, the thing that persisted from when you was a baby right up until now, despite all the changes that have taken place, from schoolboy to husband to father to playwright, maybe the witnesser or the doer, the self, whatever you wanna call it, maybe it never existed.”

The plane starts to shake. Then it drops and drops again. He clings to his arm rest and I find myself clinging to his arm.  

“Maybe,” I say, looking directly into his eyes, “maybe you was only ever one sensation giving way to another, and you’ll die no more with your final breath than with every breath you ever took. Maybe you and me, maybe we only exist for the length of this sentence. And maybe memory is like cement, making walls out of bricks that have never met.”

The plane drops twice more. The seatbelt sign flashes on. It drops again, a long drop this time, and you can feel everyone taking a collective breath. 

But it stabilizes. It’s ok. We’re ok. 

The seatbelt sign switches off. 

“Excuse me,” he says, tryna unbuckle his seatbelt with his sweaty fingers. 

I say, “You ain’t heard number four or number five.”

He says what he needs right now is a number two. He says no, no, he says it’s very interesting, and he’d like to hear more when he gets back. 

I tell him not to use the cubicle I was just in.

He says why, something wrong with the plumbing?

I say no. It’s where I left the bomb. 

He smiles. He goes to lift himself up. I put my hand on his shoulder and I sit him back down.

He breathes heavily. The sweat from his forehead is running into his eyes. He squints. “No,” he says. “You’re… no. This isn’t.”

“You wanna hear number four?”

“I want to go to the…”

“Yeah, I can’t let you do that.”

“Well I’ll scream and… and…”

“You do that and I’ll set it off straight away. As it is, the timer’s set for ten hours. If the plane gets in on time, it should explode on the runway once we’re all safely disembarked. It might get one or two of the cleaning staff, but otherwise…”

“But it was delayed,” he says, “they had to get the coffin on… and… and… the plane didn’t uhm well…”

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Maybe the pilot will make up the lost time. But either way it don’t really matter. Because we’ll never be dead.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you? You’ve… you’ve…”

“You wanna hear number four?”

I tell him anyway. I say in number four, the essence of you, the thing that persists throughout your whole life, it does exist…

“Stop it,” he says, “stop talking.”

“But this essence persists throughout my life too. And throughout everyone else’s. The consciousness that’s experiencing what I’m saying right now, that’s experiencing the sweat on your forehead and the fear gripping your entire body, it’s not your consciousness, it’s the universe’s. So the death of one person, or the death of a planeload, it’s just the universe changing jobs or outfits. Going from being a playwright to being a husband or father. That’s all it is. The consciousness carries on without us. We carry on without us.” Death is just the universe changing outfits.

He nods. He squints. He squeezes his crotch with both of his hands. 

“Sshhh,” I say, “let me tell you number five. It’s the one I’m least convinced by, but most people seem to like it the best.

“You can’t be dead, can you? Because without life, there’s no being, so dead is something it’s impossible to be. If this plane blows up, you won’t be dead. You can’t be something that isn’t. Even if it’s just a one-off world where everything happens once and turns to sand, it’s always now. For each person, it’s always now. If all we get is one life, or even one hour, then that, by definition, is eternity. You can’t be outside the only thing that is. Once, when you really think about it, is the same as forever. If this is all you ever are, then this is all you ever are.”

I leap to my feet just in time to avoid the dribble of urine as it spreads onto my seat. The guy is crying, sweating, breathing heavier than anything you’ve ever heard. This piss is spilling onto the floor.

“Hey, hey, hey,” I say, quietly as I can, “I’m only messing around. There’s no bomb in the cubicle. There’s no bomb on this plane. This is the safest form of transport. Less dangerous than a dishwasher.”

The flight attendant comes rushing over. She sees what’s happened. And she upgrades me to first class. How about that. 

Before I leave, I have one last thing to say to him. 

I say, “Hey, you got a wife and a kid, right? That ain’t boredom. That ain’t mundanity.” I tell him last week my wife died in childbirth, lost the kid too. That’s their coffin we’re carrying with us. Even today, giving birth’s a helluva a lot more dangerous than getting a flight. So don’t give me no shit about boredom or mundanity or being replaced by a robot. 

Forget about the stories you’re writing down, I say. Focus on the one you’re living.

Now he’s whimpering again. He’s rocking, he’s shivering. But when we land, you know he’s gonna go home and squeeze that wife and kid of his tighter than he ever has before. 

I settle down in first class, stretch myself out, get three servings of the good whiskey and reflect on a job well done. 

I was lying about the dishwasher. I was lying about the bomb. And I was lying about my wife and kid.

But, as my uncle says, fiction is glue. It’s what makes the truth stick. 

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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