The Last Word

by Roxana Ross

 

There’s nothing quite like starting your day off with the dead.

That was my thought every morning as I typed yet another obituary about some stranger whose entire life would now be summarized for all to see, usually in a few pathetic sentences. Truly, dead men tell no tales. And if you went strictly by the newspaper obituary sometimes, the dead apparently had no tale worth telling.

“He was a mechanic for thirty years.”

“He loved spending time with his family.”

“She was a member of First Baptist Church.”

How, I used to wonder, would I be remembered, hopefully many years from now?

I know, and everyone else knows, that there’s more to someone’s life than what’s written in the obit column.

It doesn’t tell you about their hopes and dreams, their fears, their secrets and their motivations. What they did when no one was looking. Who they loved. Loved, mind you—not married. Their regrets, their character flaws, the things that deep down set them apart from every other eighty-year-old grandfather of five who loved fishing.

But that’s not what an obituary is. If you want a longer, more thoughtful recap of someone’s life, it’s called a biography or autobiography. Again, I think that even those aren’t the truth, just someone’s version of it. I’m a firm believer in some truths being in the eye of the beholder, so there‘s always a few different versions: what happened, how one person saw it, and how everyone else saw it.

Besides, there’s not room for more than the bland facts that we get in most cases, anyhow.

Grandma has just died, and the family is sitting around the table at the funeral home, where a man is saying, “How would you like her obituary to read?”

Seventy or more years of life, and the best they can come up with is, “She was a lifelong resident of Worthington.”

I liked to speculate about the ones assuring the reader that Granny had gone to her Maker, where she would reside in all eternity. Or to her rest. The arms of the Lord. To be with her beloved husband, gone these fifteen years. To look down on us.

My money says that Uncle Joe, Grandma, and the rest of our loved ones are beyond mortal comprehension, and wouldn’t it be funny if they were somewhere the exact opposite of peaceful rest.

I had just finished typing a particularly pious version of the usual drivel one morning when I looked up to find a woman standing beside my desk who had “unhappy relative” written all over her.

I get them sometimes, when there has been a mistake, sometimes mine, sometimes the funeral home’s. I had learned early on that it was never wise to argue with a grieving family member who now had something to be angry about. Real errors were rare. Mistakes were usually typos that made it past the editor, but it didn‘t matter. Many people would happily take out all their anger over someone’s death on me.

It didn’t bother me much, since I knew some people couldn’t help it. I just tried to be as apologetic and kind as possible, inserting the phrase “of course we will rerun it correctly” into the conversation as soon as possible.

Looking back, I don’t think I could have handled it any better. I tried my best, but I—the newspaper, really—was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With my best smile, the one I thought showed a willingness to listen and be helpful, I turned to her and prepared to nod sympathetically and make apologetic noises when the expected mistake was revealed.

The woman was short, probably in her forties somewhere, and looked a bit frazzled. Her graying brown hair was tied back in a bun, which was losing the battle against the curly strands that wanted to spring loose. Old, oversized glasses that magnified watery brown eyes were perched high on her nose and decorated with a beaded string which hung around her neck. A thin mouth, pursed in what I took for frustration, was painted with a shade of coral that I hadn’t seen on anyone in more than a decade.

She wore blue jeans, canvas slip-ons, and a bright red t-shirt that said “Key West.” Her jewelry was mostly cheap and brightly colored. She could have been an eccentric aunt, but she also had something about her that reminded me of the manic street preachers I saw in college who liked to set up on the sidewalks to call damnation down on the student union. I couldn’t put my finger on why that was, though.

“Hi, can I help you with anything?” I asked, smile in place.

She pulled a newspaper cutout of an obit from her back pocket and thrust it at me.

“It’s my father. It says he has a son, but it doesn’t mention his daughter, me. I’m Caroline Marcos.”

“Oh, well, I’m sure we can fix that, let’s see…” I opened the filing cabinet beside me and pulled out a folder, flipping through until I found the fax that the funeral home had sent for that obit, which I quickly scanned.

Emil Marcos, age 87, of 592 Roberts St., died Jan. 19… Surviving are his wife, Angela Marcos of the home; a son, William Marcos of Florida; two grandchildren…

“Hmmm… it seems that the funeral home sent up the wrong information,” I said, suspecting all the while that it wasn’t necessarily true and that in fact, what we were dealing with was a “family issue” that I wanted no part of.

It happens sometimes. There’s wife number one and wife number two, or three, or whatever. Like battles and empires, the last one standing gets to write the history books.

A funeral home is a business, and if the customer wants to cut out part of the deceased’s past, that’s what the staff will do. It’s not like they know the difference anyhow. They’ll write down what they’re told.

“We’ll be happy to rerun it correctly, all you have to do is tell the funeral home to resend it to us with the new information,” I smiled again, this time adding a hopeful nod to indicate that she would, in fact, have to take it up with the funeral home. “It’s just the policy here, you know; we only accept information from funeral homes. I’m sure you understand.”

Her eyes narrowed some, but not at me. She was staring over my head, thinking.

“It was her, then, wasn’t it,” she muttered. “She wished my mother and I had never existed. All this time and she’s still a—” She stopped herself and looked back at me, apparently coming to a decision.

“It won’t matter. She’s handling everything now and apparently doesn’t want me to be a part of anything, just like she did when he was alive. Am I right? If I go over there and tell them to make a change, they’ll still do what she wants, won’t they?”

Making a face of commiseration, I handed her clipping back to her.

“It’s possible, if that’s the case… I’m sorry, really, but they’re just running a business.”

She snorted and distractedly tapped her fingers on the top of my desk. She didn’t seem angry at me anymore, which was good, so I didn’t mind letting her blow off some steam. I could smile and nod with the best of them. By now I’d had a lot of practice.

“You could buy an ad, you know, if you wanted. You could say whatever you want. Well, sort of. You can’t call this woman names or anything. Not specifically. But you could buy an ad and write up your own version of the obituary. It wouldn’t actually run in the obituary column, but it would run in the paper’s advertising section… I don‘t know what something like that would cost, but I could take you to the advertising department and get someone to help you.”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Instead she started talking again, and I went back to the smile and nod routine. I didn’t understand completely what she was talking about, but it didn’t seem to matter.

“She’s his second wife, you know.” I was right, and I hated it. “He married my mother when he was much younger. They made a terrible marriage, but he loved her. And me. But…” she sighed and shrugged. “I don’t remember much about it, but he always came to see me when he could. Even after he married her. She detested us. We were a reminder that her husband hadn’t always been the white collar citizen she helped make him. That, and… other things.”

She shot me a glance and looked speculatively at my computer before moving her gaze to the rest of the newsroom.

“I’ve never done anything to her, but she’s always been scared of me, I think. Well, now she’ll have a real reason. My mother would roll over in her grave, but hopefully she would understand…”

Leaning down, Caroline peered at my computer screen and let out a long “Hmmm,” before placing one hand on the top of the monitor, a few bangles clinking as she moved. She stood like that for a moment, intently looking at my open file of half-completed obituaries for the next day. Suddenly the screen flickered, as if it had almost lost power. The words seemed to shiver in that second, but they looked the same afterwards.

With a self-conscious laugh, she took her hand off the monitor and straightened up, putting her hands behind her back.

“It doesn’t seem to like me, does it?”

“Oh, the computers are all temperamental,” I said. “They crash all the time for no apparent reason, but it’s not like you can just touch them and make them misbehave.”

Her face turned grim for a moment and then brightened. She smiled at me and looked much happier than she had so far.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to listen to all that… People are always talking about ‘the power of the press,’ but it’s not just a saying, is it? Words have their own power. I suppose the trick is remembering to use your powers for good, eh? That can be hard sometimes.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t listen to me,” the woman added. “It’s all been very stressful. I’m sorry to go on about it. Thank you for listening, though.”

Hoping her next shopping list didn’t involve anything that required a three-day waiting period, like a gun, I suggested buying an ad, again.

“Oh, no, I don’t think that will be necessary. It’s fine, actually. I’m sure everything will be fine now.”

With a wink, she thanked me again and walked away.

I sat at my desk for a minute after she left, wondering what had just happened. She seemed harmless, though perhaps too willing to air her family’s dirty laundry to a stranger. Maybe she had only needed to rant. Maybe she realized that an obituary is just words. Words on flimsy newsprint, in ink that will come off on your fingertips. Nothing to get that excited about, in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Nothing happened for the rest of the day. I typed up the rest of my faxes without incident and went home. The next morning was fine, until I got in to work and checked my messages.

“This is Bill, over at Smither’s Mortuary. I would appreciate a call back as soon as possible. If it was someone’s idea of a joke, we’re not laughing, and neither is the Carlyle family.”

“This message is for the obit clerk. There seems to have been a problem with the Parker obituary. Call Community Rest when you get this message.”

There seemed to be one for every obit I typed the day before. I had listened to several and had one message left when the editor, Max, strode up with a crumpled B-section in his hand, his face an interesting shade of red.

“Leigh, what the hell happened?”

Confused, I took the paper from him. It was folded back on the obituary page. At first glance, it seemed normal, so rather than read through it I looked at him for answers.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Are you kidding? None of this is what you typed, at least, not before I looked it over last night.”

At our small paper, everything went through Max. There were no section editors, just him. Almost every inch of local copy was read by him before it was put on the page.

Going back to the paper, I read the first obit—one 72-year-old Gertrude Shaker—with a growing fascination. It was what I had typed, mostly. It now included three children who had died as infants, an extra brother whose home town was listed as Folsom Prison, and a paragraph that detailed how she had lived briefly in California in her twenties while singing in a band before breaking up with the drummer and moving back home, where she eventually settled down.

The next one was worse. A 22-year-old man who died after being shot when he tried to steal some drugs from his dealer’s trailer. Needless to say, that is one of those details that is never included in an obituary. The story had run on the front page, so it wasn’t a secret, but it hadn’t been in the obituary.

I gave up after the third one. I got as far as, “John struggled with his pedophiliac tendencies every day,” before I dropped it on the floor.

“I didn’t write that. ANY of that. I mean, the parts that aren’t supposed to be in there. I didn’t do that.”

“Pull up the file on your computer,” he said.

I opened up the file I had typed the day before, praying someone in layout was playing a prank, which would mean my copy would still look the way I wrote it.

It was. It was the version that had last been edited by Max. It even said so.

Without a word, Max turned and headed for the layout desk, where Phil was already humming under his breath as he laid out a page for tomorrow’s paper on his computer.

“Open up yesterday’s obit page,” Max snapped. “If you thought it was funny, it’s not. A lot of people are very upset.”

Phil seemed to come out of a daze as he stopped what he was doing and looked at Max. Phil’s laid-back look of concern was no match for Max’s flushed glare.

“Uh… Ok, um… here we go… what did I do?”

He clicked open the file and the three of us nearly banged our heads together as we got closer to read the screen.

Max was beginning to pant now, and he loosened his tie. The page looked exactly like it should have looked, with none of the weird additions.

“What’s going on, guys?” Phil blinked.

Max took a step back and looked at the two of us. I guess we looked innocently confused enough, because he suddenly deflated.

“Someone played a prank, and if I find out who it was, they’re fired. Do you understand? This. Is. Not. Funny.” He waved the increasingly wrinkled sheet in the air. “When these families start knocking on our door, what am I going to tell them? They’re going to want blood.”

He was right. To my relief, he ran interference and spent the morning making phone calls, apologizing, promising retractions and reprints of the original obits. That afternoon, he wrote an editorial blasting the culprit, whoever it was, and publicly apologizing some more.

I had a suspicion, but I kept it to myself. The very last message on my phone was from a woman named Angela Marcos who was angry that her husband’s obit had been rerun that day, with some changes. Nothing very shocking was added to Emil Marcos’s obituary, but it did include information about a daughter, Caroline Marcos, and his first wife, Isabelle, whom “he loved until her death.”

I thought about how Caroline had touched my computer, the way the words had moved, and I wondered what the “other things” were about his first family that the second wife had disliked so much.

 

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