Personal Essays

Laid Waste, 2010, Amanda Burnham
Courtesy the artist and Benrimon Contemporary

How the Dead Live

There’s a peculiar odor to burning hope—it’s the smell of exhaust fumes, human sweat, and a fast-food container interred under a seat cushion.

A few months ago I was laid off from my job. It wasn’t a job I loved, or even liked, especially. I had actually just that week started a search to find a new job, and when I found a better job, the words “fuck you and fuck this job” would ring loudly from cubicle to cubicle. But the job ended up saying it to me first.

I have a family that depends on me. I have a son with a heart problem. He saw more doctors the year he was four than I saw all through my 20s. Not having a job, for me, has implications beyond self-worth and career path and rent.

But look: I know a thing or two about job searches, I wrote a book about them. Six weeks later I found another job. I was back at work and it was a relief, a blessing. My feelings about the job itself never even needed to enter the picture. I had a place to go during the day, and my presence there was going to keep my family alive, the end. But this job came bundled with a bouquet of emotions, the biggest and brightest of which were stress and worry and depression. Not because of the job itself, but because this new job was not located conveniently to where I live. Technically it was only 15 miles from my house, but that meant a trip of anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, each way, depending on traffic. The new job came with a commute, and so I became a commuter.

I became a person who leaves his small apartment every morning, and noses his car out onto the highway, and just sits there, aimed at the horizon, surrounded by other cars all aimed at the horizon. We sit there and inch our way along from one exit to the next, trying to fit our cars through the same tiny space, each way, every day. The amount of time, as it began to add up, day after day, became almost impossible to quantify. I gave up. Everyone does. I stared straight ahead, and kept staring.

You hear phrases like “soul-crushing” thrown around, and you don’t really think about what it means. But now I do. On my commute, as I sit and don’t go anywhere and wonder whether today will be a 37-minute commute or a 79-minute commute, I think about the phrase “soul-crushing” a lot. I think about it a lot, a lot, a lot.


At my previous job I walked to work. Even when the weather was rainy and windy and snowy, and the drivers of Boston angrily refused to let me cross the street in the God-damn crosswalk the way God and the police intended, I still enjoyed my walk. I enjoyed the city, and the tops of the buildings, and the trees, and the sun barreling down Mass Ave. to sting me in the face on brisk fall mornings. And work was whatever, but then I walked home, and I didn’t spend any significant part of my life wishing I were anywhere other than where I was, right then.

My feelings about God are very closely tied to my feelings about junior high school gym class.

But, holy Jesus fuck, do I spend time wishing I were somewhere else now. Have you seen traffic? This commuting thing, are you familiar? Have you seen these assholes out on the road, going to their shitty jobs in their shitty cars their whole shitty lives? Have you seen us? It is wasted time, doing no one any good of any kind. We just sit there, burning hope and spitting out carbon monoxide.

Sometimes, on a rare night when there is no traffic, and I’m rushing down the highway at 65 mph, and I’m being passed on both sides by cars doing 85 or better, I think: I get it. When this is your life, you probably wouldn’t mind getting in a terrible car accident, just to break up the day a little. Just to have a memory of something happening during the time you were between other things.


But about being present and not letting my mind wander off to things like how fast I could fly down the highway and wrap my Civic around a bridge embankment and still be alive but also have a pretty decent excuse for missing a few hours of work:

It’s unhealthy, sitting in traffic and wishing I’m anywhere else under the sun. What I’m doing is important to my family. What I’m doing is not worse than what so many other people do, for much less. But thinking about the clock of my life ticking away every day while I’m sitting there, just waiting to be somewhere else, I feel the gulf between my body (where I am) and brain (where I want to be) widening. The two growing further apart, until I’m only aware of the distance between them. Some mornings in the shower I hear voices left over from my dreams, and they seem to have strongly held opinions, but I have no idea what they’re saying. Sometimes at night when I am reading a book to my kids, I realize that we are halfway through the book, and my mouth has been saying the words, but I haven’t been paying attention to them whatsoever, and have in fact been thinking about something completely unrelated. I lose that time, even though I’m right there.


My feelings about God and religion and whether or not there’s any meaning in the universe are very closely tied to my feelings about junior high school gym class.

Think about how incomprehensible it is that something as horrible, as unendurable as junior high school gym class, could occur. Think about the absence of justice in the world, that people who can get away with treating you the way they do in junior high are given this weekly opportunity to showcase their superiority to you. Think about lying in bed every night and wishing, praying, so desperately, night after night, for something to be other than how it is. And yet nothing changes. Thursday still comes, and you still have to go to gym class, with all those people whom you hate, and who hate you. They make comments about your body in the hallways, or whisper things about you in study hall. They don’t like your clothes or your hair or your taste in music or where you live or your voice or the way you walk. And you have to get naked in a locker room with them. So there’s no God. More importantly, there’s no hope for deliverance from the things that cause you stress and worry and depression.

Sometimes when I am reading a book to my kids, I realize my mouth has been saying the words, but I haven’t been paying attention to them whatsoever. I lose that time, even though I’m right there.

But this one time. It was the end of gym class, and the girls went off to their locker room, and the boys went back to theirs. And you were in there, just trying to get your clothes on as quickly as possible and not be noticed or singled out by any of the alpha predators, the adrenaline keeping you swift and efficient in a way it never would out there in the gymnasium with the rope ladder and the pommel horse and the badminton rackets. You kept your head down and were trying to be ready to sprint as soon as the bell rang, so you could just go and be on to the next part of our lives. Not that the next part of our lives was any better. Probably after gym class came Mr. Schibi’s geography class, and that was where Neil Gorsky sat behind you and kicked your chair and put actual spitballs in your hair, and what could you do, complain about it? You just had to take it. So there wasn’t technically anything to look forward to, except being through this part of your life, being away from now.

There were a few minutes left, and you were gathering your stuff and hoping, Please God, of course you don’t ever listen to me ever, but please let the bell ring soon so we can just get out of here before one of them looks or tries to talk to me, or tells me to come arm wrestle him, or whatever, please.

And suddenly someone began singing.

“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair…”

I don’t know why. And I don’t remember who it was, exactly. Obviously it wasn’t one of us, the ones who pray for invisibility, it was one of them. The people who terrified us. Of course you learn, later on, that what you think is happening is not always what is happening. The quarterback is secretly taking piano lessons, or the guy with the Confederate flag on his jean jacket can dance. But for whatever reason, at this moment when we just wanted to be somewhere else, one boy sang this line out loud.

And then two other guys joined him.

“Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air…”

And that was how, I swear to God, all the boys in Gideon Welles Junior High eighth grade fifth period gym glass, starting singing “Hotel California” in a locker room. Everyone. Boys, singing, unprompted.

It was amazing and weird and electric. Even in the moment, I couldn’t believe it was happening. It’s one of the things I remember best about junior high. I remember a lot of things—they’re mostly horrifying—but I remember this, too.

And while we were singing the coach stood there, leaning up against the concrete wall. He was looking at us and shaking his head. Like, these kids. Like it didn’t even really surprise him. He’d seen this before. The bell rang, and we crowded through the narrow door, jostling for space, all trying to cram through, then out into the hallway, swept into traffic, and on to the next thing.


Sometimes you try to be in the moment, but the moment sucks, and you think back to another moment, which also sucked, but had a twist ending. Do long, traffic-filled commutes ever come with twist endings? Not the car-accident kind, but the good kind. The kind that will make a moment in your life stick out as so magical it almost makes up for how unbearable everything else was at the time. Something that says, “OK, yes, there was all that, but there was also this.” You inch along and you pray, and the days pass, and you look, and you wait.