Books

Death Is the Capital of Uruguay

Untold numbers of people were about to die, though not for the reason I expected.

A man in a white shirt and dark pants stands with his back to the camera in front of a rack of coffins in various colors, individually wrapped in clear plastic sheeting, stacked three rows high.
James Harvey tends tends to the inventory of pre-sold caskets at a funeral home on April 29, 2020, in New York City.  Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This excerpt is adapted with permission from Lockdown in Hell World by Luke O’Neil, published by OR Books, copyright 2021 by Luke O’Neil.

On Jan. 1, 2020, the first normal day of the last normal year 177 people were killed by guns in America including people who used the gun on themselves. That’s almost twice as many that are killed on the average day in a typical year in our exceptionally average and typical country but by and large those deaths and the ones on the following day and the following day and the following day were invisible to most of us. No one cares about traffic in a city they don’t live in. Two days after that we assassinated Qassem Soleimani the Iranian general and I remember being worried that untold numbers of people were about to die in the coming months and I was right about that just for the wrong reasons.

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“I think it is entirely possible that this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani,” Ari Fleischer said on Fox News that night and then Mike Pompeo went on and said, “We have every expectation that people not only in Iraq, but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom,” and it occurred to me that the way we talk about the bombing violence we export to other countries is similar to the way we talk about the gun violence that we insist upon inflicting upon our own country in that in both cases it always comes framed in terms of extending freedoms and I suppose that’s true in the sense that a bullet and a bomb do provide their target with a kind of freedom.

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Refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is a kind of freedom too.

On March 11, 2020, my last normal day I went to tell my therapist I wasn’t going to see her anymore because I was moving soon and it felt like it was this big thing in my life like this momentous occasion and I felt conflicted and guilty about it like I was abandoning her and she said surprise motherfucker I was about to tell you I’m leaving too and we both said haha and then I went home and didn’t leave for weeks. No that’s a lie before I went home I went to the YMCA one last time for a swim and I had the pool almost entirely to myself which is a kind of luxury although how much pool can one person use. Liquids will take the shape of their container and gases will expand in volume to fill their container but a person stays the same size until they die and then they become very small.

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I paused to take a break in the shallow end by the giant window overlooking the square outside and it was quiet save for the occasional siren from the nearby fire station and although the sun was shining it felt like everything was blanketed in snow. At this point I was still behaving normally in a world that wasn’t which is honestly quite a reversal based on how things typically go in my brain. I asked the lifeguard if she thought it was safe to be in here and she said yes they were taking every precaution and I felt better because we want to be told things are fine by authorities even if the authority in question is just a college kid whose entire enforcement apparatus amounts to a whistle. I thought about how annoyed I would usually get when they would kick us out when a lightning storm was coming through but lightning is different than a virus I guess because you can at least see it for an instant.

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In that last visit my therapist encouraged me once again to try to find something productive to do with my time besides drinking and going to the gym and looking at the news all day and I said I would but I was lying except for the stop going to the gym part because that decision was made for me and without my input almost immediately after by the famous mouth poison. I said I had been sleeping very poorly and she said I should look into getting more tryptophan in my diet you know like the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving she said and I said I have heard of it. Apparently it can also improve your mood she said and I said that’s crazy. Apparently there’s a lot of it in pumpkin seeds too she said. Then I told her about a poem I had read called “We Lived Happily During the War” by Ilya Kaminsky and she hadn’t heard of it but she never had heard of anything I referenced. I said I thought the things everyone else does when they read that particular poem such as wow and holy shit and then after a few minutes of sitting there with my mouth open after putting it down I thought like everyone else does after reading any particular poem fuck it fuck a poem it doesn’t matter the poets have been trying to get us to see how terrible war and unnecessary death is since the invention of both poetry and death and it never works. The poets have lost that one in a rather lopsided defeat I am sad to report.

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The thing about my therapist leaving was that she was going to start transitioning into remote therapy even before the virus she said and I have to say that was a pretty prescient decision on her part. Perhaps I should have listened to her more intently all this time about everything else. I asked her if she thought I had gotten any better since she first started seeing me a few years ago and she said I was a hard one to figure out and that I had definitely taken a lot of steps forward but then I often take two steps back so it’s progress of a kind but not. After one good week of doing better I always think welp I’m cured baby time to get back to doing whatever the fuck I want and that’s not a responsible way to manage anything whether it’s your mental health or a country under a pandemic.

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I said it was kind of hard to think about anything else at a time like this when we’re waiting to find out how many people are going to die so most nights what I do is I say fuck it I’m going to drink a gallon of alcohol and then I do so even though I don’t really want to. Self-medicating is very good it’s like punting on first down every time you get the ball and occasionally running 70 yards the wrong way for a safety. I said it feels like it felt when I thought we were going to go to war earlier in the year like a creeping and overwhelming sense of existential dread but it was tempered with a sense of something like stolen valor because while I didn’t know who they were or how many people would be killed throughout all this I was fairly certain I was not going to number among them and so the despair felt unearned. Everyone knows they are going to die but it is also an impossibility to hold onto for more than a moment it’s like looking directly into the sun.

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Death is a fact but it’s easy to forget and there are lots of things like that right where you know them to be true but you don’t know-them-know-them like someone could ask you what the capital of Uruguay is and you’d go shit shit hold on then they’d say Montevideo and you’d go I knew that. And you did know it too you just couldn’t access it. Death is the capital of Uruguay is the point.

OK maybe it happened like this. On the last normal day I was wrenched out of sleep like a fish on a hook and I clambered out of bed and I slipped on the old shoes I keep by the door and I went outside to the porch and I sat there shivering in the cold watching the long tail of a plane graffiti the sky white and it looked like it was heading straight downward at a 90 degree angle and I thought holy shit it’s plummeting! But no it was just a trick of perspective and eventually it disappeared and went wherever it is planes go. For a couple of minutes those people’s lives were my problem and then they weren’t. Now they’ll just go on to live for a while and then die in some other way I won’t ever have to know about like pretty much everyone else ever.

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The last time I was on a plane was in January to go to New York to do my Hell World book reading at the Strand and so many people came I thought this is going to be my year man. Things are about to happen. Sometimes I try to outsmart the system by flying to New York instead of taking the train but you can’t fix it it takes four or five hours to get to New York no matter how you try to get around it. I won’t be going back to New York any time in the foreseeable future and that makes me sad but on the other hand think of the money I’ll save!

I drove to Dunkin’ Donuts for what would be the last time in a couple months that plane morning with a frosted windshield I couldn’t get to clear up so I had to keep firing the wiper fluid which would work for a second and then it would freeze almost instantly and I basically kept having to do that for five minutes until I got there. I thought about dying in a plane crash and so naturally I thought about a song by Albert Hammond whom I had weirdly gotten really into around then and it went like And I don’t wanna die for no good reason. I just wanna go on and on.

I just saw a while ago there was some sort of online tribute to Joe Strummer due to it was his birthday and that dude’s son Albert Hammond Jr. was going to perform I guess and I realized one way to get people to remember you when you die is to write something as good as “London Calling” so maybe I should try something like that how hard can it be.

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On the way back from Dunkin’ I had to stop in the middle of the road because there was a family of turkeys which I guess is called a “rafter” crossing and I stopped because of course I didn’t want to kill them and that seemed strange because I must have caused the death of so many turkeys in my life. I guess the difference is it’s only acceptable to me when turkeys are killed by the millions when someone else is doing it and I don’t have to be there while it happens.

I just read an article that said maybe the reason a lot of people seem to generally not give much of a fuck about the over 200,000 Americans that have died from the virus in the past seven months is because we’ve been so successfully conditioned to ignore the deaths caused by our endless wars around the globe. Remember how it was a whole thing when George Bush made it so we couldn’t look at the coffins coming back from the Middle East?

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They say that infants develop object permanence by about the age of 2 meaning that they come to understand that objects and people continue to have a separate and permanent existence even when they’re outside the bounds of their immediate sensory experience but I don’t know that we necessarily always hold onto that ability when we get older. Sometimes I look at my wife sitting over there on the couch eating cereal like she is right now and I remember that she is an entirely separate entity with her own internal life and all her own fucking things going on.

Something I think about a lot and I’m not projecting this will be the time is the idea of the final joke. Like we’ll all obviously joke online through almost everything no matter how bad but someday there might be a thing where we don’t want to anymore. Whatever the last joke is going to be it won’t be funny.

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