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!

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