One of the ironies of life is that every living thing will die. This reality haunts especially the more self-aware among us. Living in this conflicted space: trying to defeat death while also trying to pretend that death does not exist. In either case, the point is moot. 

Lee Wells re-address of George Maciunas interpretation of Philip Corner’s "Piano Activities"

Lee Wells re-address of George Maciunas interpretation of Philip Corner’s “Piano Activities”


a short story


Sometimes suicidal people get a Death Prediction Card that says something suicide related, like RAZOR or BRIDGE or TAILPIPE. [1] And sometimes those people end up killing themselves by those means. And sometimes they don’t.

Mikey Radcliff’s Death Card will say ROPE.

On his informed consent paperwork, he will check off the symptomology boxes for “anxiety” and “depressed mood.” In the section titled “please describe” he’ll write that he sometimes finds life overwhelming and fantasizes about hanging himself, but he’ll add that he is definitely not suicidal.

There is no way for him to know that his Death Card will say ROPE. No way to know that the rope that his Death Card refers to is the rope that will be lifting a piano into the second story of the Smith’s bi-level craftsman. This rope will break just as Mikey is standing underneath it.


As instructed, he gets to the clinic 15 minutes early. It looks no more interesting than the lobby of the local oil change garage. There’s even a vending machine in the corner with candy bars and soft drinks. Waiting in line to turn in his paperwork, Mikey darts his eyes from place to place as if searching for something, a clue or an answer or a friend. When he gets to the receptionist, he begins expressing how unpleasant he finds this process.

“This whole thing makes me really uncomfortable. I mean the idea is bad enough already,” he says. “But isn’t this death predicting machine like notoriously unreliable? What about that guy with the OLD AGE Death Prediction Card? He thought he had it made! Then he gets ran over by some old dude in a freaking Lexus SUV!”

“Death Prediction Cards are never wrong,” says the receptionist.

“Yeah, I know. But OLD AGE, old dude. Get it?”

“I get it,” she says.

“It’s just not right,” Mikey continues. “I mean, I don’t even know if I wanna know, you know? But this friend of mine, Janice, she died. I’ve been thinking about her. I don’t know. I just wonder, if I know how I’m gonna die, maybe I won’t worry about dying so much.”

“The procedure is fast and painless,” says the receptionist.

“Cool,” says Mikey. “Hey, you know, I just got a story published today in The Iconoclast Review. [2] The T.I.R., It’s kinda a big deal, you know. They called it ‘cold and technical.’ Nice, huh?”

The receptionist doesn’t respond.

Just as Mikey shuffles over to take a seat, a small, older gentleman comes into the waiting room. His nametag reads, J. S. CHONG, LAB TECH. He gestures to Mikey to follow him through the swinging door. Mikey rises to follow and is quickly whisked into the death prediction process. Chong directs him to sit in a padded aluminum folding chair.

In what seems like a single motion, the technician inserts Mikey’s right index finger into a small plastic cylinder; it makes a clicking sound pricking Mikey’s finger; it draws blood; Chong then deposits the entire mechanism into a slot on the wall.

Immediately the sound of an inkjet printer churns as an 8.5×11 piece of 20# paper is dispensed with a single word on it: ROPE.

After staring at this piece of everyday copy-paper for several moments, he says, “Is this it?”


For the next 6 hours, Mikey furiously paces around his apartment, talking to an imaginary friend. Though just a psychological device he learned in counseling, Mikey vividly imagines this clear-headed and action-oriented figure. He calls this figment of his imagination, Jesus.

Jesus rarely says anything. But he’s a good listener.

“Seriously, Jesus,” says Mikey. “Okay. Let’s figure this out. How is ROPE going to kill me. I mean, do you think I’d really hang myself?

“Or is it Rope my story in The Iconoclast Review? It’s a rock-climbing story. I don’t climb rocks. I wrote it about Janice. It’s about the rope she used when she died. She died rock climbing.” [3]

“Tell me about Janice,” says Jesus.

“Janice climbed a lot. And she was careful. It was weird, she was warming up for the big wall with another climber. No one special, just some random dude, supposedly some player from the San Diego Chargers. And supposedly she just goofed up her bowline. It came loose and buzzed right through her harness.”

Mikey pauses.

“She fell 67 feet.”

Sitting down in his armchair, slapping its padded armrests. Mikey is momentarily still. Then he shakes his head as if trying to get his racing thoughts in order.

“Jesus,” says Mikey. “There’s so many dishes to do. I can never figure out how to stack ‘em, you know? When there’s that many.”

And then, “I don’t know, that plot for that space invaders story, it’s just not working. Seriously, what the hell do I do about the robots?”

He’s holding a bottle of medicine, shaking it. He holds still, looking at the bottle as if contemplating something absurd.

“Naw,” he says.

He gets up to pace.

“Pacing never helps,”says Jesus.

“Well,” says Mikey. “I don’t know, it sorta helps, but I really should go for a run. It’s just, I can’t breath, you know?”

He checks the clock. It keeps getting later and later. He got his Death Card at 9:30am. He came home at 9:45. Now it’s almost noon. He’s been in this anxiety-inducing loop for over 2 hours now. [4]

He puts his running shoes on, but he’s still in his jeans. He sits back down.

“Jesus,” he says. “Janice, man.”

He gets up and picks up a guitar and starts to play Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet.” He sings the lyrics wrong. He looks them up online. He plays it through a couple times, pretending to be on stage. [5]

“I should write more stories with music in them, maybe a musical. Like a rock opera, yeah? I still got those songs I wrote for Sassy Sally Rides Again. I don’t know. They never used them.”

He turns on the television. He checks his email. He checks reddit and Facebook and Huffington Post and some decidedly pornographic Tumblr blogs.

It’s now 2:15.

“I’m getting hungry,” he says. “But I don’t know if should eat if I’m gonna run. If I eat, there’s no way I’m gonna run. But then, if I don’t eat, I’m gonna lose my mind. Maybe something small.”

He looks in the fridge. He rifles through the crisper: carrots, apples, a mushy avocado. He doesn’t choose anything. He looks in the freezer. Frozen pot stickers. He picks them up.

“I don’t know. These things give me gas. I’ll be burping up leaks and scallions on my run. I hate that.”

He eats a pop tart.

“Maybe I should take a dump.”

He takes a shower instead. The shower helps. He’s ready to run. He puts on his best shorts, track shorts, 3” inseam, bright red, one pocket for his keys. But he flips through his shirts for several minutes. He doesn’t pick one.

“Jesus, remember being in cross-country with Janice, how fast she was?” he says.

“Yeah,” says Jesus. “That was cool.”

“19:00 flat in the three-mile. She would kick my ass all the time. But I didn’t care about that. And then after we stopped doing races and we’d just go for random runs, no watches, no routes, just running until we didn’t feel like running anymore. And then, that one time, after a really great run, I kissed her. And she pushed me away. She said it was gross because we were sweaty. But I’m pretty sure that she meant that I was gross.”

“Then,” says Jesus. “That weekend, she went out to the big wall.”


At 3:45pm, finally out on the street, Mikey is running and acting more normal. He’s not wearing a watch. He’s not following a route. He has no way to know how far he’s ran or how long he’s been running. Just paying attention to his feet and his lungs, a kind of a meditation. Breath in this present moment. Breath out, I smile.

The imaginary Jesus fades away, disappearing into whatever ocean of unconsciousness such figments reside. Mikey replaces Him with an imaginary Janice. He apologizes to her for unspecified infractions and imagines her telling him that it’s all okay.

He runs the streets as if he’s casually looking for her, scanning the sidewalks and front porches. Coming around each corner, ready to bump into his old friend. As if she’ll just turn up not all together unexpectedly, because old friends in their old neighborhoods should tend to do so.

He repeats a question in his head, “Hey, Janice. Where are you?”

And in his head he hears her answer, “Right here, dude.”

Then he squints into the empty space next to him, as if he really does see something.

He smiles, “Naw, Smithy, you aren’t there. Are you?”

He hears her say, “You aren’t looking hard enough.”

At this point Mikey has run longer and farther than he expected. From his apartment across town to where he and Janice grew up, their old neighborhood, the Ranchilito. He can see the cultural shift from his new life to his old one. From grown men on children’s bicycles and doggie dookie-lined parkways. To unlit streets and historically protected bi-level bungalows.

He’s getting close to Janice’s old house now, her parents’ house. There’s something going on there. It looks like they got a new piano and they’re moving it in through the window on the second floor. He stops and walks up to the porch.

“Ah,” he says. “There you are.”




[1] I, the unnamed narrator, though making every effort to appear omniscient and detached am in fact neither all-knowing nor truly objective. In issues such as suicide my personal reactions are both intense and decidedly value laden. However, in the interest of maintaining the author’s vision, I have described and will continue to describe these events without overt commentary.

[2] The Iconoclast Review (TIR) is arguably the preeminent alternative literary journal in America. Consistently on top 50 lists and especially noted for being progressive without ever slipping into ridiculousness. Back in ’06, Mikey had discovered the writing of Susan Baines Martinez in the TIR. Her story, “Gigantic,” was remarkably understated. It inspired Mikey to refine his voice to express deep emotions with great economy. His story, “Rope,” is perhaps the pinnacle of this effort. Mikey’s story is told from the perspective of the rope. It is a cold and technical piece. Described as brilliant in its evocation of unnamed emotion.

[3] Mikey and Janice met in college. They are alumni of Hesperian College, a small liberal arts school in Southern California.

[4] Mikey suffers from a form of Panic Disorder where he unconsciously misreads physiological sensations (such as elevated heart rate) as signs that something terrible is happening to him. It is commonly described as a sense of “impending doom.” Thoughts like these then increase the intensity of his physiological sensations, triggering more anxiety and fear. Thus creating an increasingly intense cycle of agitation. If left unchecked, Mikey can land on a full-blown-panic-attack, which in his case feels like a heart attack.

Luckily, after 2 trips to the ER, he has come to understand his condition better. His psychiatrist has explained to him that it is as if his instinctive fight or flight response has been triggered. Except there is no real danger. The act of going out on a run has had positive effects for Mikey, as running is a natural response to being in a fight or flight situation. Running completes the cycle, instead of circling it back into another more intense loop.

[5] Mikey has always had trouble with the line, “When we made love, you used to cry.” Whenever he sang those words, he’d feel a sudden rush of self-consciousness and stumble through the lyric. He has tried to mumble the words, or to carefully annunciate those words, or to sing them quickly, or extra slowly. But all those efforts just made it worse.

This was the case for years. Until one day, while singing this song, he imagined himself actually making love to a woman friend of his, who shall remain unnamed. To his surprise, the lyric came out beautifully. Although not foolproof, he found that, whenever he applied this “trick” he was substantially more comfortable, and generally satisfied with his singing.

When he mentioned this to his counselor at the time, Mr. Benjamin Rule, LMFT, he was told that this is a classic case of embracing the symptom. Mr. Rule meant that Mikey was anxious about representations of sex, so paradoxically, the cure for his anxiety was to more fully represent sex in his mind.

Mikey then tried, unsuccessfully, to apply this technique to other situations. He decided to apply his new “embracing the symptom” technique, telling every person he was attracted to that he found them attractive. What happened was, Mikey was overwhelmed with anxiety the whole day, and only managed to tell one person. That person, as we all know, was Janice.

[0] This story is based on the Machine of Death (MOD) short story collection, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki. The MOD stories revolve around a machine that tells people how they will die. The machine is never wrong. But it is sometimes vague, misdirecting and/or ironic.




  1. WeaverGrace · May 8, 2014

    Thanks for attracting my attention to your blog. I especially appreciate your sense of irony regarding the rope.

    • Juan Zung · May 8, 2014

      Hi, WG, thanks for reading! I’m a sucker for irony.

      Also I really enjoyed reading your awareness raising post on the trans-gender community. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

  2. Pingback: Writing Group Dynamics: Constructive Criticism | GHOZT WRITER
  3. Christopher Peter · May 13, 2014

    I enjoyed reading this. It was interesting that you gave away the the exact way Mikey would die right at the start of ths story, as opposed to the more obvious approach of keeping that as the twist at the end. it did have the effect of focussing the ending more on Mikey’s emotional connection with Janice, who he obviously missed terribly. It seemed to work anyway.

    • Juan Zung · May 13, 2014

      Hey CP, thanks for the feedback! Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to accomplish by giving away the ending right from the start.

      Part of it is trying out vonneguts advice ( I think was Vonnegut) who said something like: tell the reader everything from the beginning. My results are much much spottier than his, of course.

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