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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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].
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and the bells clanged,