This story is by Mark Heyer and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s obit day. Obituaries and remembrances must be filed by 4pm to make the Saturday edition of the paper.
First though, an early lunch of fermented grapes and, for entertainment, the anti-vax, anti-mask and what-have-you demonstration in the park across the street. Don’t worry, I’m checking my email. I shall see to your dead presently. Your poignancies may be entrusted to an intern, but a 35-year-old intern. Old enough to be president. So.
To be honest, I don’t believe in an after-life. Always figured if there were a god, they’d be so tired of all your crap by the time you were ready to ‘hit save and logoff’… No way they’d be going, “Oh goody, another thousand years with this mook (or gavone – for the roman catholics).” Times billions.
But I also don’t believe in judging the flavors of metaphysics anyone cleaves to. Believer, unbeliever, doubter, fantasist. I wouldn’t laugh at your illusions. Wouldn’t even call them illusions. Certainly not while we’re together. I’m polite that way.
It is fair to observe though the, let’s say, godful have a much more murderous track record than the godless. The big exception being the godless communists who are, in consequence, vitally important to the godful. Especially the hyper-godful.
We can debate how ‘godless’ they were, the communists, inasmuch as some sort of blind faith usually lay at the root of any protracted slaughter.
Kidding of course. We can’t debate. The hyper-godful don’t debate. They simply believe what they believe. They might possibly agree to the word ‘faith’ but candidly advise that it was demonstrably the ‘wrong’ faith. And we wouldn’t get any further than that, notwithstanding that they also feel that way about catholics, muslims, and, apparently per today’s demonstration, science. Notwithstanding further… the dark practices of the no longer godless (re-engodded?) Russian Republic.
Which leads us back to my lazy river raft of slovenly ecumenism. Namely, that I don’t much care what you believe in. But I suppose you should.
There’s a problem-solving tool called The 5 Whys. In essence, it begins with a recognized problem and asks why it is there, and then asks ‘why’ to each response, up to 5 times. The same children’s tactic which has stumped parents for millennia, raised to a branded methodology.
We can’t go to the zoo.
The car won’t make it.
We’re out of gas.
I forgot to gas up after work.
Since this technique has unfailingly resulted in a trip to the zoo since zoos had dinosaurs, at some point someone got the bright idea to say, hey, maybe we could run the whole corporation on this basis.
But the hyper-godful loathe The 5 Whys, both the great strength and fatal flaw of their program.
We don’t trust the vaccine.
We believe an article on social media that says it’s a government plot.
We just do.
You seldom get beyond three Whys deep with the faith-girded. After all, there must be a jumping off point when there is only faith. No evidence or logic. Pure faith. Exactly why a social media meme is more worthy of serious consideration than peer-reviewed science is… a matter of faith.
In consequence of which, the great enemy of faith in an ‘age of information’ is – altogether now – people of faith. Willful ignorance is entirely under siege from without and within. So much so that I find myself rooting for it. Somehow it must endure. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Meandering thus on my raft, I must soon return from ‘lunch’ to the day’s labors. The 4pm obit/remembrance deadline looms. It can be a point of sharpened anguish for the already bereaved.
“Obviously we had our hands full with ‘the arrangements’. Can’t you make an exception? Think of her grandchildren.”
If you’re smart, or as in my case, eventually became ‘smart,’ you don’t assay a reply viz. “The grandchildren will feel better if they know she’s on the last page of the newspaper they don’t read?”
Death is no time to play The 5 Whys.
And the newspaper itself is dying, so turning away business is not the thing. In fact the ideal ‘he leaves behind’ list goes on for several generations (inches) and includes pets, plants, and polygamy.
Still, you don’t make the rules, and, yes, you can ‘put your supervisor on the phone,’ but he will hate you for it and will mutter re: ‘isn’t that what I pay you for?’ Which you don’t recall from the internship interview and which likely does not 5 Whysvery well either. You begin to notice how few things do.
Less fraught are the remembrances – Anniversaries in Heaven. These are next to the obits in the paper, but are technically classified ads. And solicited. You send reminders.
“We were just noticing – it’s Eustace’s first Father’s Day in Heaven. If you’d like to remember him in Saturday’s edition….” This is the other thing your boss ‘pays you for.’
Remembrances outnumber obits these days. And covid certainly swelled your database of prospects.
‘First Easter in Heaven’ is a biggy, what with the resurrection and all. You sent email to everyone in the db on Monday. Time to reload the cannon with one more pinot and check replies.
Some definites. Some requesting more information – though the requisite details were in the email. And Ms. Angela Bustamonte Esq. – who calls you a ‘tragedy vampire.’ You leave a few righteous dollars on the bar and hurry back to the office.
The social contract of late capitalism requires that we not hold each other responsible for what we must do to keep the faint fires lit. The guy who tries to sell you a service agreement for your doomed $79 microwave, the call center agent who explains the fatal limits of your overdraft protection, the poor soul who reminds you your departed uncle is missing his first Easter with the fam. And their ilk. You don’t compound their misery by acting like this was all their idea and they’re getting rich off it. But Ms. Angela Bustamonte Esq. apparently feels otherwise.
Your boss has already reminded you not to forward complaints to him. So, you will handle Queen Bustamonte yourself. With relish.
Getting in the right frame to address the charge of ‘tragedy vampire,’ you consciously over-indulge every other correspondent. Some are too grateful. They actually weaken your resolve, make you feel manipulative. You need to be at full strength.
But finally… the Saturday filing is complete. Angela time.
First, gather dox.
32, Bard College, labor law, Facebook BLM and Pride banners, understated elegance at professional functions, low-key dinners with non-work friends, a waking dream in a yellow sun dress and straw hat somewhere in Southeast Asia. But no selfies. All told, about 3-5 galaxies out of your solar system.
Soldiering on, you locate the photos of the beloved uncle. Big hug at her law school graduation, family bar-b-q, pier fishing with young Angela. A caption reads “Always forgive.” His advice no doubt. Lovingly repeated to mark his passing.
You enjoy a boss-mandated shield of anonymity – simply known to her as firstname.lastname@example.org. Doesn’t seem fair now though. Fine, no shields.
Dear Ms. Bustamante,
I’m sorry you took umbrage at our outreach efforts. Many experienced similar tragedies in the past year. They, unlike you perhaps, often find solace in a public reconnection with their lost loved one. Our intent is simply and gently to suggest a way to do it. If it offends you, I can only refer you to the many who were touched to be thus remembered.
In closing, I’d ask you to remember that few people find abundant success in life, let alone as early as you have. You might consider whether their need to go on breathing the same air is born of a vampire’s craving or their common humanity with you.
Tim Nalwing, Intern
Her reply was swift.
Interesting. Emailing me from your personal account? Don’t mind if I dox you back, do you, dear? Hmmm, aren’t you a little old to be an intern? Scratch that. I don’t want to trigger your passive-aggressive defense of vampirism again. Is it a novel or a screenplay – the internship rationalization? Also, is the hero a passive-aggressive vampire defender? Sorry, dear, counsel has had 2 Ketel One dirties and misses Uncle Ramon terribly. My fishing buddy. You gotta fishing buddy, Narwal? And please – your intent was hardly to remember him. How could you, after all? You are a vampire, dear, an interning vampire perhaps but a vampire nonetheless. But I have to forgive you. Don’t ask… But I will probably laugh at you first. Where do I go to laugh at you? Angie.
I sent her the address of the bar. 8pm.
Mr. Angela Bustamante Esq – how does that sound? Beyond improbable? I suppose. Still. And by the way, the hero defends inter-planetary squatters. And I’m making him less passive-aggressive in the re-write. So.