On Villainy – The Projection Mirror, 31 December 2015

Have you ever noticed how many protagonists in film and literature are orphans or otherwise without a family? From Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, writers have used the family dynamic as a disadvantage for a long, long time, as a way to build a subconscious, pre-developed handicap that affords the characters a type of pity and sympathy, to get you on their side from the start.

One of the most important ingredients in any story is a relatable character, a character the readers will care about, to get their mirror neurons firing, as a way to get you to see some part of yourself in the characters. And by putting them through great adversity, it only further brings you over to their side. It’s interesting, the more you see someone suffer, if you’re not a sociopath, the more you want to see them prevail. And even, sometimes, you may want to see a villain prevail, a character that should probably be condemned – because you understand their motivations and relate to them. For good or ill.

In Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – for the first half of the film, the anti-hero Alex is an irredeemable murderer and rapist (with surprisingly good taste in music) and yet, after his conditioning and subsequent torture, you come round to his side, or at least to a side that doesn’t want to see his continued suffering. This taps into what I think most (again, non-sociopathic) people have – a projection mirror – something we use to view ourselves as other people, putting ourselves in the story as their stand-in, trying to feel out how we might react in similar situations. It’s similar to a power fantasy, as it lets us admire ourselves by the recognition of our virtue by proxy.

This works in storytelling because it taps into our desires, desires formed by weakness, the sense of being less than, the passion and desperation to be more than we are, to get beyond our limitations and triumph in the end. In a character journey, the second act is usually when they’re brought to their lowest, being pummeled by forces beyond their control, beaten relentlessly, beaten until you feel like you’re struggling with them. This makes their eventual triumph all the more satisfying. Because we get to feel, if we can relate, some sense of triumph too. We go through their arc with them, from their lowest to their peak, and in those moments, in the best of stories, we may feel victorious too.

You could say the same for villains, as our relationship with villainy is equally complex, in the way we relate to them, and our perverse attraction to the macabre, to the extremes of love and violence. And evil.

What comes to mind when you think about evil? Hitler? Stalin? An obvious monster in the past? What comes to mind when you think of something that scares you? The dark? Car wrecks or serial killers? Dying? I don’t think that’s an incorrect response. But for me, I’ve always thought that the less obvious danger is more terrifying than something that advertises itself, and that undercurrent of fear that imbues every single moment with tension, that troubles me more than demons. The monsters that blend in with saints are scarier than fangs and horns and the monsters of our mythology and imagination. But we’re drawn to monsters, to villains. Villains we recognize, like Jack Torrance from The Shining – these characters can be terrifying in ways that vampires and zombies never will be. Because we know victims of domestic abuse, and alcoholism. And people with extreme cases of writers block.

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What makes Jack a good villain, I think, is our ability to emphasize with his struggle, and, shamefully, our ability recognize some part of ourselves in them.

To contrast these types of villains – the obvious monster and the more subtle villain – Look at the Harry Potter series. Who’s the bad guy? Voldemort, assholes. That’s who (must not be named). He’s irredeemably evil and selfish  and would be the most terrifying character in the series to piss off.

Lordvoldemort

The worst Secret Santa in history.

But was he the most hated character? Let’s look back at the 5th movie/book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Over the course of that one book, Voldemort uses what is basically mind control to manipulate Harry into retrieving a prophecy from the ministry of magic. It’s like a government building off limit to non-government officials. Now, how do you manipulate a child into breaking into the Pentagon and stealing classified prophecies? You plant delusions in their dreams. That’s what that noseless fucker did.

Think about what this implies: when this villain wants you to do something, he can make you do it – through fear and torture and hypnosis, and he does it so well that he tricks Harry into traveling hundreds of kilometers, from Hogwarts to London, in the night, to save someone who is not really in danger, someone who only becomes endangered because of Harry’s ‘saving people complex’ – some that hermione flat out tells him, knowing that if Voldemort wanted to manipulate him, that’s how he’d do it. And he does it. Harry arrives at the ministry with the rest of Dumbledore’s Army only to be ambushed by death eaters immediately.

Sirius is killed in the ensuing fight, Harry only survives because Dumbledore arrives in time, is briefly possessed by an evil sorcerer who’s using a torture curse on him. Harry loses his one link to a possible family. He loses someone he loves, someone who loves him, and yet, who do you hate more? Yes, more than Voldemort. Think pink.

Dolores-Umbridge

Her boggart is a happy child.

Yep, I hate everything about this bitch. First, she uses torture as a means of punishment, and probably wouldn’t hesitate to hurt someone. But would she murder a child? Probably not. Yes, she tries to kick Professor Trelawney out of Hogwart’s for being absolute shit at her job. And that’s terrible, obviously. But at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, Voldemort feeds the Muggle Studies Professor (Professor Charity Burbage) to a fucking snake… In front of guests! At the dinner table, no less! And still, despite all of that, who is it easier to hate?

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You can rest at ease knowing she was mauled by centaurs. Whew.

What gives? Obviously she wasn’t as bad as Voldemort, as he was a mass murderer, a sadist, someone very much willing to torture and even kill children. He kills his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and his uncle and grandparents on his mother’s side. He kills a flirtatious lady just to take her cup. Murder! Murder for a cup! And yet, most of us are so far removed from such monsters that an evil like that is not something we can understand. But a browbeating authoritarian, strictly adhering to rules and seeking to impose her idea of order – that we recognize. That’s something we understand, and that’s why we find it impossible not to hate her character –  we’ve encountered it in our own lives.

Villains like Voldemort, and Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, The Emperor from Star Wars, they may scare us as children. But it’s harder to hate them because of their lack of humanity. But assholes like Umbridge, we hate them because we know them. I’ve never been attacked by a magical Hitler or a pissed off eyeball, but I’ve been given detention for absolute bullshit by a brow-beating asshole. 

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If lightsabers existed, I’d be in Azkaban. If it existed.

Short – The Obituary Writer, 31 December 2015

1 Obituaries for the Living

My first paying job out of college was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games didn’t matter, not really, but having something to cheer for, something to look forward to, that brought us all together. And when my nephew Alex died, a tight-end on the little league football team, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well; the paper sold a ton of copies and my column got a lot of attention.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column a few months later, after a string of accidents left several young men and women dead. I was always on the scene, in the background, taking notes, the Buzzard of Isla Wor, there to eulogize them all. It was steady work and decent pay, and I got a lot of exposure. I wrote more and more, ever more dramatic and poetic. And when no one died, I’d write obituaries for the living, or fabricate it outright, from start to finish, to keep my readers entertained and my career moving forward.

Within a few months the column was a hit, with paid subscriptions to the Sunday paper doubling. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and doing personal requests when I had time, sharing them online. People started noticing me in public, too, and it’s a good feeling, to find that you suddenly matter to someone, to anyone, when people care about you and your work. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

The more I wrote, the more detached I became, turning callous and cold, keeping my distance from the very people I sought to commemorate. When I still wrote for the paper, it was impossible to distance myself completely. But I tried. I really tried. I knew what I was doing. It was easier to keep a safe distance, to avoid the families who read my column. That attitude, that coldness, it changed, to an extent, after I wrote an obituary for the son of a prominent public figure, Dr. Eddie Redding, the only doctor in Isla Wor.

The obituary was for his eldest son, Marcus, someone I didn’t really know, and his girlfriend, Kayla. They had died in a car accident just after midnight on a Thursday. The paper ran the obituary in the Sunday edition. In the first week it sold more copies than any other paper in the company’s history. Dr. Redding called my aunt the following Friday and got my number, then reached out to me personally. He invited me to have dinner with him on Sunday at Pearl’s Café on Main.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. He was dressed modestly, without a blazer or a tie, wearing a button-up shirt tucked into beige slacks, with a leather belt. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “My aunt gave me a ride.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man. I could see it in his eyes, bright and sincere.

“I’m glad you could make it,” he said.

“That’s one of the perks of being a writer,” I said. “You’re always working, even if you’re not doing anything. So I figured, as long as I have nothing to do, I could take some time off.”

He laughed.

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I mean, I don’t remember ever thinking it out and deciding, ‘this is what I’m going to do.’ It’s something I’ve always done, whether I wanted to or not. I went to the Master’s Baptist Childcare Center until I was five, when I was adopted, and the only thing I remember is story time. Best time of the day. I learned how to read and write while I was there, and I really liked Dr. Seuss. I’d copy his stories into my notebook and I’d change the character names and locations, the pronouns and verbs, re-working the conversations until I had a completely different story, a story of my own. And when I got in trouble, they’d make me copy out of the dictionary. That taught me more than anything; my punishment.”

“I’m sure you’ve been reformed,” he said.

“I’d like to think so.”

A young woman with dark hair and dark eyes approached our table. She was young, mid to late 20s and pale. She took out a pen and pad.

“What can I do for you fellas?” she asked.

Dr. Redding ordered a BLT, a small salad, and a glass of iced tea. I ordered a cappuccino.

“I’ll get that to you ASAP,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said.

And Dr. Redding said, “Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome!” she said. She brought over his tea straight away, then my coffee. A few minutes later she returned with his sandwich and salad on a serving tray. He took the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins and utensils.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“Thank you very much,” he said, calling to the waitress as she walked away.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you need anything, you just let me know.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away, returning to the area behind the counter with the grill, answering the phone and taking orders, calling them out to the cooks as they came in.

I sipped at my coffee while he ate his sandwich, chewing with his mouth closed, very proper, pausing after each bite to wipe his mouth. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling for a writer, especially early on, to think somebody cares, anybody, to think you’re doing something important, something that matters. That’s how I dealt with it when the names came in. Names and numbers, unending. Shelly, 19. Josh, 26. Alex, 9. Kayla, 23. Marcus, 33. Melissa, 34. On and on and on.

“So, what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I didn’t know much about him. I knew his brother, Will. We used to skate together, before I went off to college.”

He sighed.

“I don’t think I knew much about him either,” he said. “Not as a man, anyway, not for a long time. We stopped talking after he dropped out of college… That was such a long time ago. We didn’t see each other much after that, not as much as I would’ve liked. He was a good mechanic, always fixing things. Or trying to! He worked at Nichols’ Tire, that body shop across the river. The money was okay, for the work, and he took care of Leslie, his daughter. She just turned 6 in March, so he kept showing up on time.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was embarrassing to sit there with a completely genuine person, knowing he’d read a mostly artificial obituary, full of pretentious, platitudinous exhortations of the most common, vulgar variety, with that stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest!’ bullshit.

Knock-knock!

“So,” he said, “do you work for the paper full time?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I used to write the sports column. That’s all I did, sports and town events. Then my nephew died–he played for the Isla Wor Wolverines, that little league football team–and I wrote it up in my column. It was really popular, the newspaper got a lot of press, and one of my editors saw it. After that she asked me to take over the column permanently. That’s how I got my title, my nom de geurre. But you know what they call me at work? The Buzzard. That’s all I am to some people, the Buzzard of Isla Wor.”

“Do you—“

“Did you know him?” I asked. “My nephew.”

“I sure didn’t, Brandon,” he said. “Not well. I knew of him. I knew his name.”

“I didn’t either,” I said. “Not really. He was just riding his bike, not far from here actually, right in front of Joe’s Market. He got hit by a car and that was it. He was 9 years old. That was the first time I wrote an obituary.”

He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “How often do you have to write one?”

“Every Wednesday for my column, at least once a week,” I said. “Well, that’s when we get the information; from hospitals, from the internet, from Facebook and Twitter, local news… I try to get everything ready by Wednesday night, that way we can run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in late, between Thursday and Saturday, and it’s a little rushed.

“I’d much rather write something less morbid, or at least get some of my other work published. It’s a passion of mine, poetry and theatre, and fiction, much more so than my job. I mean, I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’ forever.”

“Are you working on anything now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I don’t know how it all works. I don’t know enough about it, I don’t think, you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. ”You’ll figure it out.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he pointed at my valise, a leather folder with a 3-ring binder along the spine, two zippered compartments, and a large slot where I kept my 8×12” legal pad. I kept my handwritten drafts tucked away in one of those compartments.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Oh, here. I brought this for you.”

I dug around in my valise until I found the first draft of his son’s obituary. I handed it to him. He handled it with delicacy and care, gently and lovingly, a holy relic, some small piece of his son that managed to survive. He flipped through the pages, trying to make sense my hurried, untidy scrawl. He closed the notebook and put it aside, calling for the check.

“Here you go,” she said. “Can I get you anything else?

I took out my wallet. He waived it away and I relented, not wanting to be that guy. I took my laptop from my satchel and sat it on the seat beside me.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She took his glass away and returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap on it. She handed him a straw.

We both thanked her as she cleared the table.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he was holding a $100 bill between his fingers, folded and sharp.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done, maybe.”

“Your book on theatre perhaps?” he asked, smiling.

“Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“You’ll figure it out, Brandon,” he said. “I have faith in you. And maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’re finished.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. We can hope, can’t we? If nothing else, we can hope. I guess that’s good enough.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Here,” he said, offering me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “Just because it’s my job doesn’t mean I do it for the money. I wrote that because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway. So if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new valise someday.”

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it open on the table, right where I’d left off.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles,” he said. “It was nice meeting you.”

I stood and we shook hands again.

“Nice to meet you too,” I said.

“Good-day!”

He walked away after leaving a tip.

“Good-day, Dr. Redding.”

The door closed behind him with the clang of a little bell, a gentle ding-dong! like metal wind-chimes against glass, tolling each time someone exited the diner.

I looked at the $100 bill.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)

 

2 Neon Purgatory

 

I wrote for the paper until I was 28, until they shut it down in 2013, moving the company’s news media to the internet. I continued writing for them, though, curating their online archives, caretaker of a neon purgatory. I never imagined I’d have such an audience, not in the early days, when I still covered little league games and town affairs. That stuff just didn’t sell, the comings and goings of the people in Isla Wor, not until they died. My column remained popular somehow, in town and online.

It was more of the same really, my column, sermonizing, masturbatory kitsch masquerading as art. They were paper houses, and from a distance you might be fooled, but if you opened the doors it’d fall apart. But I never sold my soul, no sir, not me. I sold the souls of other people, to the sound of thunderous applause.

There’s no greater barrier for screening warmth and human feeling than the internet. It’s a soulless place, somewhere you can remain hidden forever, comfortable and safe behind a labyrinth of cold tubes and wire, twisted metal snakes with open mouths, sucking in data and spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros, drunk but still drinking, spreading my work around the world, through satellites and computers to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer.

As my popularity grew, so did the popularity of my subjects, my titular characters. My purview expanded too, far beyond our little island, covering the has-beens and back-door musicians, b-list movie stars, the dead skin cells lining the drain of showers run dry. I wasn’t famous, but I had status, a certain prestige. But that didn’t solve my problems as much as it created new ones.

I left Isla Wor when I was 17 to go to college. I returned when I was 23, but I didn’t forget what it was like to be a kid in nowhere, growing up in a small town with nothing to do. We went knick-knocking, that’s what they called it. We all did it, me and my friends, slipping out at night when our parents were at work or asleep to knock on doors, and I mean really bang on ‘em or ring the doorbells and run away, hiding in the bushes, waiting for the door to open, just so we could laugh at the homeowner when he looked out into the dark, confused and angry.

So I expected it, especially when I got a nice house on the edge of town. For a while, at least, for a couple of months, I didn’t let it get to me. But with those kids, it was different. Those god damn kids. They wanted to drive me out of town or drive me crazy. I was a bad omen, they thought, the Buzzard, that’s what their parents told them. ‘You stay away from him,’ they’d say. ‘He’s a writing spider. If he writes your name in his web you’ll die.’ So they kept on knocking, in the early morning too, in the AM, when I was trying to work. It was annoying, sure. It interrupted my train of thought and delayed my editorials. An annoyance – at any given moment – is one step away from torture.

That’s what it was, this knick-knocking on my door. I pulled a couch in front of the door and sat there with a bottle of Jack Daniels, wrapped in an old quilt, and waited. I tried to get some work done, studying theater and its history, but I still had to write my column. The machine tolled on the hour, ding-dong! as names and numbers came rolling in. My editor picked them for me, passing on what she thought would best play the heartstrings of our readers. For more web traffic, really, to invite people into that space, into the darkness, to visit our electric mausoleum. And for just ¢99 you could leave .jpg flowers by those tombstones, stock photos with names and numbers. Names and numbers, names and numbers, bourbon and purgatory, and I just didn’t want to do it. It’s cynical and depressing, but that’s work.

Whenever I just didn’t want to do it, I used the form. I designed it in my third year at the paper:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died Wednesday morning. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Stephens, and had two daughters, Lisa and Tabitha. She was 34.

I took the information and shampooed it, if you will, to write it properly:   

            Today the town of Isla Wor mourns the death of Ms. Sarah Harding, a waitress at Pearl’s Café, and loving mother of two. First responders have indicated that she may have swerved to dodge a stray when she lost control of her car. She is survived by her mother Angie Harding and father Gary Stephens, and her two young daughters, 6 year old Lisa and 12 year old Tabitha. Lisa is a student at Park St Elementary School and Tabitha is a 7th grader at Isla Wor High School. Sarah was 29 years old.

          The knocking at my door!

I pushed my papers aside and pushed my chair back, my candles falling to the floor, the fire dying, replaced by a puff of fragrant smoke. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting, For God’s sake! This is beyond a joke! The hallways were dark and derelict, the tables and chairs ghostlike in the low light of the living room lamp, covered in white sheets, bearing the weight of unfinished manuscripts and wine bottles, a monument to my sloth.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no meddling kids with paper bags, just the profane moaning of the wind. I stamped off to my study, furious, cursing a bust of Mozart in the hall. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting. Without fail it was late at night, when I was working or trying to sleep. I never answered, never making it to the door in time. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working, but it’s true. It’s a lot like saying, “There’s nothing to see but the view.”

Knock-knock!

I spent more time on my book, which was to be a nonfiction history of theatre, and continued to write obituaries in my spare time. It was autonomous, industrialized consolation; I’d only have to change the names and numbers in the end, the pronouns, maybe the setting. The facts weren’t important. Whenever I wanted to spend time with my girlfriend, and later my fiancé, I wrote thousands of them, using that same form, each with a common male or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. And when they didn’t, I ran them anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me. At the time I barely noticed, but I notice now, and more than ever I feel her absence, the ballerina’s ghost on my side of the bed.

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. I was only in a position to try to justify myself because of what being the obituary writer made possible: I made enough money to study theatre and live comfortably. Nobody debates ethics when they’re starving. But it was more than that, that scab I couldn’t scratch. I wasn’t selling my soul, I was selling the souls of other people. Every time my email alert went off I knew someone was gone, that terrible clanging, Ding-dong! like metal wind-chimes against glass. And then the nightmares started.

I still remember the first time I visited the empty world. All the signs of civilization remained, the Eiffel tower, empty gondolas in the streets of Venice, but Manhattan was a ghost town. The chessboards were still there with unfinished games, but not the people, not the players, the hustlers in Central Park. It was a world without a sun or music, without bird songs or children, forever winter there, with snowflakes made of shredded paper. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer. Nothing. I always worried that some night I’d wake to an alert with my mother’s name. I tried to relax, sitting there in the dim light of my bedroom laptop. Then the email alert rang out, that ding-dong! And the name flashed across the screen:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speakers and put out my cigarette. I couldn’t stand that sound anymore, that dissonant metal against glass, so I tried to turn off email alerts. I still got them though, and I thought it must be in my head, all of it, in my imagination. Those bouquets left on tombstones, I saw no roses, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuffed in their mouths, bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats.

My dreams were disjointed bits of phantasmagoria, confusing images and sounds, mazes of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar. And I thought this must be purgatory, and I was to be forced to truly know all those people I had so briefly summarized and put aside. The obituary writer, what a dark star! how dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I was dreaming again. The knocking rang out in grotesque echoes. I slid out of bed and tiptoed to the door, waiting for the knocking to begin again, standing quietly on the other side, ready to fling the door open in an instant and catch the miserable cretin, once and for all. I waited in the dark, in the silent shadow of the bust of Mozart.

Knock-knock!

I twisted the doorknob in an instant and pulled the door open. I stood on the threshold looking out. Nothing, no one, just an empty street. And I looked down, I don’t know why, as I never had before. A kid was standing there, a little boy with a bleeding head, wearing a football jersey.

Are you the Obituary Writer?

I woke. It was morning, just after 9am, and I started work immediately. I decided to burn them all, each handwritten draft, every page, every lie, to sate whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction. You may recoil at first, when you first jump in. But if you stay in long enough, the ice cold water warms you up somehow, and when you get out of the pool, the warmth of the night air, the warmth of the world is cold.

While I was studying theatre I learned of a character named Hypokritos, one of the more popular characters in the early days of performance, before there was a stage. Hypokritos was a caricature, a falsely righteous buffoon pretending to be divine, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be wise, trying to be profound, only to be a source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke. You know the type. A solemn, thoughtful photo, black and white with sharp contrast. It was smug and pretentious, so I decided to take a better picture, a picture to show everyone what I looked like at my worst. I timed the camera and triggered the email alert, ding-dong! the wind-chimes clanged. I put the picture on my website without editing it. But it didn’t change anything. I was still Hypokritos. I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle and easier to digest. I looked over the website, the professional make-over complete, and felt ill as soon as I saw it. It was a mass grave carved into the internet, a macabre, gaudy porno, and I presided over it all. With my name at the top of every page, I might as well have autographed their gravestones.

Knock-knock-knock!

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire. The fire doesn’t burn forever. And it can be wasted. In the end it must burn out, turn into smoke and disappear. That was my fear, exhausting that fire before warning anybody’s heart or hands, and ending up cold myself. That’s what I feared, becoming one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over again, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then move the lever back, hoping it’ll strike, just one more time, just to get a god damn cigarette lit.

 

3 Speaker for the Dead

 

I gave notice to my employer, and finished all the obituaries I had before I decided to quit. All but one, the only one left to write, one for the obituary writer. I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on finishing my book. I worked hard. I thought about inviting Dr. Redding to dinner when I got it published. That was motivation enough.

Those early days were the best, when I wrote for the paper, for the town of Isla Wor. There were no email alerts then, no nightmares, no knocking, no doorbells. The writing wasn’t great, not for my first year at least, but they were sincere and they were honest. I don’t know what changed. I don’t know, just, after the eulogy for Dr. Redding’s son, after dinner–looking back, that’s when something broke, I think, something mechanical, some part of the system that processes grief. I thought of my father a lot, and the obituary he’d never gotten.

He died when I was 14, on a Friday night. I was playing JV football for the Isla Wor Wolverines. I remember my mom showing up, and she never went to my games. I was glad she finally came to see me, but I didn’t want to finish the game, so I told my coach that I was having trouble walking and asked if I could talk to my mother. He escorted me to the bleachers and told my mom that she should take me to have my legs looked at. She said that she would and we left. It was a quiet drive. I thought she was giving me the silent treatment because she knew I was faking and was upset with me. But when I saw her turn onto the interstate, I thought she really was taking me to the hospital. I told her I didn’t need to go, that I would feel better in the morning. That’s when she told me.

“Your daddy had a heart attack.”

He died before we got to the hospital.

I dreamed about him a lot in the following months. He’d knock on the door and I’d let him in, pretending to show him around like he was a stranger, pretending to be a real estate agent. After a brief tour of the house, he said he’d like to buy. He left, promising to come back with a check. The first stories I ever wrote were based on this, about real estate agents selling houses to ghosts.

Knock-knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up. My book came out just shy of my 30th birthday. The critical reception was positive, for the most part, but it didn’t do well commercially. But I was still drawn to obituary columns, always the buzzard, and kept returning to that header:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I realized that it must be done, that I couldn’t put it off any longer if I ever wanted any peace. And so I sat down to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in a dim room. I would receive ever more pressing emails from that machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, urging me to finish, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I put it in the bottom of a locked file cabinet and tried to move on.

Knock-knock!

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail it had been months since the initial release. I left a message on Dr. Redding’s voice mail and he called me a few days later. We agreed to meet at the same diner, on a Sunday. I got there early, uncomfortable still. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth. He had a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me to a booth. I found a cappuccino waiting for me, vanilla and still cold. He had yet to order.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from my new valise. I handed it to him and sat my bag aside. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he turned it over in his hands with, that he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, not necessarily, with great delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is love. That was love. It had to be, to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from his wife and kids, a lonely wife, that is love, awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, that is love, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help – that is love.

And I finally made the obvious connection, and wondered – how many names checked into his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed?

He was turning my book over in his hands, looking at the cover, holding it up to the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you could do it.”

“Open it,” I said. “Right there.”

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s mighty fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again, and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he said. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, it’s free,” I said, “but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be remembered for, not for my column, and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, maybe you could tell me about him, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years, who he was as a man, the kind of stuff you can’t find online. I wanted to do something real, something honest. For you, for your family, to any extent that I can. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must be honest.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet and timid growing up. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother when they were kids. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco .33 fishing rods down there after church. They’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks, so you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home more after that. They were so protective! When they turned four, when the twins turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday. But you know how it is, when you buy for one you buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved ‘em. Riding around, doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus fixed them whenever something happened, when Will got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got Leslie a bike just last Christmas, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And when he grew up, he always wanted to build things, to be a builder, he wanted to be an engineer, I think, working on cars and motorcycles, always fixing things. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. And he will be very much missed.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can do a proper eulogy now.”

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my writing. And I used it, that column of mine. I used it to advance my career. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it at work, too. Every day. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and keep them longer. Don’t be so hard on yourself. What you do is a good thing, whatever your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, for everyone who is very much loved and would very much be missed. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer one last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary. Honest and sincere. The door closed behind him with that familiar clanging sound, metal wind-chimes against glass.

Ding-dong!

‘The Obituary Writer’ first draft, 11 September 2015

THE OBITUARY WRITER

Copyright © 2015

BRANDON K. NOBLES

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

I Death in Isla Wor

 

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

 

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)

 

 

2 Electric Purgatory

 

 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.

 

 

 

 

3 Speaker for the Dead

 

 

I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave.

Bing-bong!

The Crying of Lot 49 and the Age of Paranoia, 12 December 2015

Paranoia is that feeling you get when a prominent fear may be largely imagined. When these fears are given air, the need to justify the initial response, to yourself if no one else, is the first thing to be lost. If paranoia is the fruit, conspiracy is the seed. In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the conspiracy behind the Thurn und Taxis carrier service and the W.A.S.T.E. symbol, along with the muted horn, are, in and of themselves, disconnected concepts before Oedipa Maas puts them together using the information she discovers searching for the Trystero. The conspiracy is created, not discovered, like natural phenomena, but conjured up by the imagination like music or poetry. It serves a similar purpose: like poetry, casting tragic events as conspiracy can be a type of catharsis, away of looking less at the impact of tragedy and the nefarious goings-on behind the scenes.

Mark Rothko Turns Down Millions of Dollars to Give Seagram’s the Finger

During the 60s, while America was collectively drugging themselves into fucking oblivion, artists like Andy Warhol and his soup cans, as well as other pop artists like Lichtenstein and Rosencrests, prospered while artists representing the abstract expressionism and avant-garde movement in America languished in obscurity.

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The delicate lines and overt irreverence represent the inner struggles of go fuck yourself.

Meanwhile, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko painted a metric fuckton of mystifying panels on other colors, known by art historians as multiforms. Just color on color, foregoing resemblance and likeness, celebrating the performance of the colors themselves and their interactions with other colors. download

You see, Rothko had a long and agonizing career trying to get somewhere with his work. He dropped out of Yale University because of a god damn Jew quota. Seriously. He spent years trying to find his voice, something that could exist outside of the white noise of the modern world, and found it in his weird-ass alien landscapes.

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Seriously. He would go on to make a fucking mint with these paintings, receiving the kind of attention and selling for the kind of prices you’d expect to be the GDP of French Polynesia. He was approached by the board of the then under-construction corporate headquarters for the Seagram’s Building in New York City. He was offered $37,000 to paint the murals, which, as you would imagine, is, adjusted for inflation, nearly $2 million.

DARKR

Go fuck yourself, French Polynesia!

The Fuck You

After Rothko visited the restaurant where his paintings were to hang, he decided he would never let his paintings hang in the same building as people who “would spend that kind of money on food”. In the end he decided to donate his Seagram’s murals to an exhibit to honor Holocaust survivors, but it would never come to be. He would later take an offer to hang his darker work in a chapel in Houston. He gave his work away rather than hang it in a gaudy restaurant, and this fuck you cost him severely. He would later commit suicide, leaving his cathedral of multiforms as a somber gallery dedicated solely to say fuck you, to money and the conventions of art.

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Speaking of conventions…

Next week (or when I finish) Van Gogh vs the conventions of art and the world –

https://brandonknobles.com/2015/12/16/vincent-van-gogh-vs-everybody/