James McAdams has published fiction in TINGE, Carbon Culture Review, and Copperfield Review, and has additional pieces forthcoming in per contra, Modern Language Studies, Literary Orphans, and r.kv.r.y. Currently, he is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university’s literary journal, Amaranth. You can contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The project manager, Epistell, gestured towards the projector’s screen and said: what I’ve asked you here to discuss may seem morbid, but it will be the centerpiece of the newspaper industry in this new digital economy. He then distributed the Revised Obituary Templates (Form 33-34,
Rev_3). The forms were divided into five sections: Narration, Illustration, Exposition, Memoration, and Singulation—what he would later call the NIEMS method. There were seven of us freelancers in the 25th floor conference room, wearing borrowed suits and blouses, taking notes, trying to look professional. I straightened my clip-on tie and checked my phone to see if Dad had called.
—The essence of news is death, Epistell said. The rest is just distraction. Someone once wrote, death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. But obituaries are events in life; only they connect us with the dead. My question to you is, what can or should we say about the dead? For instance, what do we think of this obituary?
The screen displayed a smudged obituary with identifying details removed. We contorted our necks to see: “[blotted out], 48, of Chester, Philadelphia, expired Thursday evening in a house fire. She was predeceased by her mother, [blotted out], father, [blotted out], and one child [blotted out]. She is survived by her husband, [whited-out]. A wake will be held at Shankley’s Funeral Home on Saturday, December 15th at 9 AM.”
Epistell was a gaunt man with a receding hairline and the scars of burns around the passage from his nose to his forehead, rippling the sloughed flesh and cartilage above both ears. There was a sense of exhaustion and despair surrounding him, with his wrinkled clothes and tendency to look abstractly into the distance, muttering to himself and pinching the bridge of his nose when he removed his glasses. He reminded me of Dad.
For two weeks, we freelancers had attended meetings convened to address and promote the policies, standards, and values of the newspaper’s staff and corporate sponsors. On multi-paged forms and Xeroxed documents we’d provided our names in printed, signed, and initialed iterations; we received auto-generated PCU passwords, Lotus Notes™ identifications, Kronos® accounts, cafeteria cards, and assigned cubicles with the latest edition of the AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law aligned on angled plastic trays. During lunch breaks the women sat over salads sharing pictures of children, while the older men smoked in hurried puffs behind the green garbage bins and I called Dad to see what he wanted me for dinner, since he was too weak to cook now and I, even though I was thirty-three, had never learned to prepare anything besides packaged pasta or baked potatoes.
Dad, the transportation director at Everett High School for thirty years, had recently been placed on medical leave by the school board in recognition of his prostate cancer, but most people in the school district knew this allowed a timeframe to allow the school time to investigate his decision not to cancel school due to inclement weather on Monday, January 17th, when Megan Coakley, a sophomore, swerved her car on the black ice on Upper Valley Road and plunged through the ice on Hesson’s creek.
It was the first time in thirty years he had not reported to work. He was increasingly frail, especially on days he received his chemo treatments at Temple’s oncology unit, and when he sat on the couch to watch The Weather Channel or old family videos, still wearing the tweed suits and shined Oxfords he’d worn to work, it was as if he were sinking into the cushions. Sometimes he forgot my name and just called me Son. On treatment days, without his glasses on he didn’t even recognize me.
I no longer perceived my dad as a DAD, as if he were merely a category or archetype, but as a person, an idiosyncratic and imperfect and unique human being I had never known. It was only as I approached the age he was when I was born, thirty-five, and was myself diagnosed with acid reflux disease and, most recently, hemorrhoids (which reminded me of Solar Anus, Megan Coakley’s brother’s band in high school), that I perceived how alike we were, like the TUMS we consumed in daily handfuls or the hemorrhoidal wipes we shared in the bathroom with the good shitter.
When I watched him receiving his chemotherapy drip, I couldn’t help but notice how vulnerable and scared he looked with his glasses removed. I wanted to know about Dad’s pain and the pain of others, those like Epistell, whom I could tell were on the verge of breaking apart fantastically, with sparks and the sounds of echoed drums, bringing others down with them in a spectacular tumult of concealed rage and pain. I was afraid I might do the same.
Epistell orbited around the room, his meandering steps paralleling his meandering thoughts.
—Perhaps we hope that obituary readers are tricked, he said, that we can compose a false identity, a better identity for those we’ve loved. A plastic surgeon’s death-mask, as it were. If we truly love the deceased, however, how can we lie? Why would we? His thoughts sounded scripted, the questions rhetorical and speculative.
—Should we describe multiple lives then? he continued. Is a true obituary an infinite description or an ethical gesture? This final idea seemed to cause him great angst. Epistell looked out the window, as if the grey city, with its statues and roads and bridges named for the dead, were itself a larger memorial providing an answer to all the questions that plagued him. Nobody said anything.
I thought of my deceased older brother John, strapped down to the hospital bed, machines going in and out of him, beeping and making exhaust sounds. I was ten then, curled under the bed listening to his cracking voice, screeching and metallic now like grandma’s, asking me not to tell Mom and Dad. He told me it wasn’t an accident, begged me to unplug him from the machines. I cried, silently, unnoticed by the nurses monitoring him.
Epistell returned to the lectern, flipping open the laptop and mousing around until a photograph of a blonde in a red 1970s swimsuit appeared beside the caption, “A Well-Acted Life.”
—I had this poster on my bedroom wall, Epistell said, looking down with a kind of sad reverence. She was called the most beautiful woman in the world then. He moved the mouse again and the image of an elderly woman in a wheelchair appeared. The woman looked like something formed out of melted Play-Doh. This is the same woman, Epistell said, during the terminal stage of colon cancer. She was literally eaten up from the inside, consumed by herself.
He manipulated the screen so the two images converged. So which is the actual person? he asked. How do we decide which image signifies the person? We think of the person as he or she looked when that person was the most that person—but for us, right? Like she, he said, nodding towards the figure in the red bathing suit, was the Most Farrah Fawcett, so to speak, of her entire life, in this picture. But who gets to decide? Why us? What makes our version more real than that of the boy she danced with in sixth grade who never forgot the feel of her hair’s permed curls, or the Bangladeshi family she raised money for, or the Peruvian hospice worker holding her hand and praying to Jesus when she died?
Epistell removed a pile of folders from a shelf underneath the laptop and leafed through them, muttering names to himself: Smathey, Adams, Eaton, Chan, Morowitz, Coakley. He distributed these folders as we looked at the various eerie materials, consisting of data sheets, medical records, and scanned pictures. I received Megan Coakley. He returned again to the window, his burned face away from us, looking out over Philadelphia’s naval yard and defunct sports complex, where workers placed pylons around memorial statues. The wilted snow was calcified a different shade of black than the asphalt, the cars on the George C. Platt Memorial Bridge static, pluming exhaust fumes. Everything was grey, the color of Dad’s eyes.
—The project will be to compose real obituaries, Epistell said, turning back. Obituaries that honor the singularity of the dead. We will be describing lives, not reducing them to clichés or lists of relatives and dates. He returned to the laptop and clicked back to the first slide, to what I now know was his wife’s obituary. We will create actual holy testaments to the fact that a singular human being once existed. You have all received a person: honor him or her. Narrate, illustrate, exposit, memorate, singulate. Describe a life.
Dad and I chewed in silence. We used dishtowels as napkins. Dad changed from the local news to The Weather Channel to the local news again. There had been no observable behavioral changes in Dad since the beginning of his medical leave. He still followed the same routine he had since I was a teenager, rising at 4:30 to drink coffee and study the weather patterns, and then visit John’s tombstone in the cemetery down the street. All of this he did in his slippers, and it was always 6:15 when he put on his professional shoes and I’d wake up to the sound of them
clacking on the hardwood floor above my basement room as he opened the door to say “Rise and shine, Bucko!,” although since the treatments started his steps were shuffles, his voice breaking as he called down.
He got us two more lite beers and changed the TV’s input, wobbling on his knees before the VCR player, inserting a VHS and rewinding to a Phillies game where John performed the National Anthem with the rest of the Everett High School Band and our family sat in a special glass booth with old men who let me play with their rings. One of them owned the team before selling it to a group of investors who changed the stadium name from one that honored America’s veterans to some kind of banking consortium. The stadium before Veteran Stadium had been named after Dad’s favorite coach as a kid, Connie Mack. Dad always said what he liked about Connie Mack was that he was who he was and said what he said. He hadn’t been to the stadium since the name change, which seemed so stupid to me as a kid, like everything he did then, stupid and inhuman.
I increasingly thought about how when he was my age he had a mortgage and spouse and children, while it was a minor miracle if I could meet a girl online or keep a job for more than a month. The fact that my dad, whose expectations for me had once been so high, had finally stopped lecturing me, had seemingly accepted that my identity was that of a fat, balding, bachelor who lived in the basement surrounded by boxes of John’s things, made the experience worse. I felt like I was who I was, finally, that I was too old to change, improve, and my emotions about this ranged from resignation to angry outbursts that would cost me jobs or friends, and increased my blood pressure, according to my psychiatrist.
—Look, Dad said, pointing to the TV. There were helicopters and news vans surrounding two cars blasted together, an ambulance angled close and EMTs with gurneys moving around.
—I suppose they’ll blame me for that too, he muttered.
We chewed in silence, my dad with a napkin tucked into his collar, drinking his beer out of a wine glass, cutting up his meatloaf in perfectly regular squares.
—I want to show you something, but I need you to drive, I can’t focus.
—Something we should see, something that’ll help.
I shrugged and chewed, removing a withered sliver of cardboard from my cheesesteak and slid it under the cushions.
—Help who? I asked.
Dad parked on the road above the Hesson’s creek. Moonlight sheened off the snow and the ice on the guardrail and train tracks above. Urine and snow-ash left by tires, cigarettes, and the scattered embers of fires blemished the purity of the snow. The guardrail fractured into two rusted tendrils at Megan Coakley’s crash site. Tracks from the Life Flight Copter were still visible in the field, two grooved depressions frozen into the hardened expanse of snow trampled where they congregated. Flames flickered from a metal barrel by the Life Flight tracks.
A few feet away from the fire was an improvised collection of Megan Coakley’s belongings we could see when we zoomed in with Mom’s bird-watching binoculars: photos of Megan giving the finger to the camera, clothing sewed into swaying flags and banners, a poster of The Scream with her face photoshopped in, concert stubs, detention slips, disciplinary notices, police citations, her final yearbook photo with her head shaved and the studs in her nose. They sat on the roofs of cars drinking and throwing cigarettes or flammable objects into the fire.
This was the second, or alternate, memorial.
Our high beams blanketed the field, like flashlights of the hovering dead.
—I called the police, Dad said. He leaned over the glove compartment with the binoculars.
—Why? They’re not doing anything wrong. The cops won’t do anything.
He gripped the binoculars tighter.
—It’s no different than the memorial at her parents, I continued. If anything it’s probably more honest.
The first memorial had been yesterday. I remembered everything in the Coakley house in Radley Run had been vacuumed, dusted, and polished, the magazines on the tables arranged in a fan-shape. Neighbors and relatives walked through the rooms expressing condolences and looking at pictures of Megan on the mantle, placing Hallmark cards in the kitchen next to the pasta salad. My dad stood there alone before that same yearbook picture of Megan Coakley her parents had digitally modified to provide her with hair and remove the studs, the photo enlarged and placed above the fireplace. He wore a navy blue suit with short pants and white socks, wearing a wool cap to cover his baldness. I remember thinking he looked like that mailman from Cheers, and how my embarrassment about him as a kid prevented me from inviting my friends over, when John was alive and Mom still lived with us.
—I mean that morning, my dad said quietly.
—That morning. I was here on this road when it happened, was about to call in a cancelation when...I saw it happen. I heard the sound first, then saw her face slash through the windshield before the car disappeared in the creek. I called 911 then but...
His voice was on the verge of tears.
—I swear I was about to call. About to cancel.
I reached toward him. I sort of patted his shoulders and said yeah, I know, thinking again of John’s secrets and Megan Coakley’s obituary.
That night I sat in the office parking lot in Dad’s Buick Regal writing memories of John, all his secrets, everything he had asked me to hide, and left them in an envelope sticking out of the compartment between the driver and passenger seats. I entered the office at 3 a.m. I looked at pictures in various cubicles and inspected cabinets and pockets of jackets draped over the backs of chairs, noticing how some people cleared out their stations like they would never leave and others left as if evacuated. The other team members’ assignments were on their desks or in some cases aligned on the tray. More than half had begun composing obituaries according to the template push-pinned to the cubicle’s cushioned panels; some wrote bullet points on legal pads or on their computer’s word-processing software.
Cubicle six’s subject was a fifty-year-old man from Lansdowne who’d suffered a myocardial infarction on SEPTA R3. There was a calendar of different beers from around the world turned to the wrong month on the contractor’s corkboard. He had written, “Dennis Smathey loved the Phillies, Eagles, and a medium-rare steak” and then crossed it out. Cubicle three’s subject was a seventy-three-year-old woman from Chester who “loved to barbeque and attend to her 18 grandchildren,” as the freelancer had written. In the cubicle across from mine there was a picture of an infant who had died at the age of two weeks. “Aubrey Starr Adams,” the freelancer had typed, “passed peacefully from this world to fly with the angels. Although her life was short lived, she showed a lifetime of love and laughter and will always be remembered as the happiest little munchkin on earth.” I sat at my desk and looked over what I had written about Megan Coakley earlier:
Everyone agrees about Megan Coakley. Everyone who knew her, whether for years or even by acquaintance, used the same words repeatedly. She was ambitious, confident, and successful in all her endeavors. She was respectful and hard-working. But most of all, she was adored. Megan Coakley—a 15-year-old Everett high sophomore and National Honors Society member and winner of the “Leaders of the Future” essay contest—expired Monday morning after complications from an automobile accident.
Then I noticed Epistell’s office, located at the end of the row of cubicles between the break room and the dark conference room. For some reason I felt attracted to it. There was a bamboo plant in one corner and moving boxes folded and stacked neatly, vertically aligned between a three-drawer cabinet and a bookshelf with annual hardback Pulitzers dating back to the ‘70s. The only thing on his desk besides his laptop was a picture of a woman and him wearing matching University of Maryland sweatshirts and pretending to attack a small child with lobsters’ claws.
I opened Epistell’s laptop and scrolled through the recently opened files. The camera in Epistell’s office was mounted above the door, directed at his desk, I now know. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, as I told the security officials the next morning, but among the files I opened was the anonymous obituary the team had seen earlier in the day, but without the details removed. Even with the details included, the obituary remained like those Epistell had been inveighing against. It wasn’t a holy testament, but merely a list of facts, relations, and clichés.
I minimized the window and opened the one folder on the desktop, entitled “Lauren.” It was dozens of pages long, with scattered anecdotes about and scanned photos of his wife; the last modified date was around this time last night. I heard what sounded like one of the janitors down the hall so I used my flash drive to copy the file before slinking out of the office and returning to my cubicle, where I saw Epistell sitting in the shadows at the end of the aisle, holding crutches across his lap, as if expecting me.
—It’s nice to have some company, he said.
I didn’t know what to say. I held out my keys as if he would want them, which I realized made no sense.
—It’s different here at night, he said.
—I’ve never been here at night before, I explained.
He glanced beyond me toward the halo of light emitting from his laptop. What did you think?
I sat down and turned off my monitor. I squeaked my chair out toward him, where he sat with his legs extended, feeling the stubble around one jaw.
—Is it because you were hurt, I motioned to the crutches, that you didn’t write it for her? I mean couldn’t you have done for her what you want us to do for them? I motioned toward Megan Coakley’s file.
—I was in a coma for three weeks, he said, looking at his legs. When I read that I didn’t even realize who it was.
—So this is all about your wife? I asked. I felt myself wave my hands over the whole building, almost like over the whole city, like everything for him had become about death and memory, or how to reconcile the two, and somehow the whole city had become implicated. He adjusted in his seat and crossed his long legs.
—It matters for all of us. He shrugged. I sometimes wonder how we can live our lives if we don’t have a sense of our obituaries.
—One of my college professors made us write our own obituaries.
—You have practice then, he said.
—I didn’t know what to write about myself, or what to imagine about my future. I pretended I was my brother and wrote his.
—It’s ironic, he said.
—That the measure of a person’s life is their obituary, but they have no control over how it’s written.
We didn’t talk about anything else then. He limped off somewhere into the greyer parts of the building. I returned to my office and cleared my obituary about Megan Coakley. I inserted my flash drive and opened the NIEMS Method file for Lauren Epistell, splitting the windows with Megan Coakley’s file. I tried to see Megan’s (I remembered then she liked to be called Meegan, at least as a little girl) life anew, quiveringly alive, to see it from within her, like some kind of existential flashlight that followed her everywhere, so I was writing about her experience of the world, and not the world’s experience of her. I compiled everything I could find—from social networking sites, Google Image searches, newspaper articles, Lexus Nexus searches, blogs, and YouTube videos to memories of her as a little girl playing with My Little Pony’s when I bought pot from her brother. I sent Epistell an e-mail with the subject line “NIEMS Method” and attached the obituary, which now started with “Nobody agreed about Megan Coakley.”
He commended me for it at the meeting convened at 930 a.m., saying even as a failure it was truer to the spirit of her unknown life than the fabricated attempts by the other team members, who had described not a life (with all of its contradictions) but rather a fictional stable identity. The meeting had been convened by security, whose head terminated me for stealing Epistell’s (and by extension the corporation’s) intellectual property. Epistell protested, mildly, nominally. He escorted me outside into the wind with his hand on my shoulder, rubbing it softly but not in a weird way as he collected my office belongings—my IDs, my keys, my magnetized cards—as if I were setting off for the voyage of death, like those people we had tried to resuscitate with words. And I imagined then all the survivors of the memorated dead, Mr. and Mrs. Coakley with their mantle of Hallmark cards, Dennis Smathey’s widow rooting through shoeboxes for pension statements, Janice Adams, on the floor beside the empty crib, nauseous from Effexor—and my dad, terminated from his life’s one position but still impeccably dressed, parked on the road above Hesson’s field with John’s obituary in his trembling hand, reading Epistell’s holy testaments in whatever grey light remained, all of them asking themselves, Was that really you?