Chapter 3 Letters From the Grave
From my fourth floor office in the Concord Current Building, I could see my house. I was at my desk when the moving van pulled up to my driveway. Seconds later, Jennie drove up behind them in her white Honda Accord. I saw her open the door to let them in.
I was working on an obituary for a young girl who had gotten hit by a car in the front of her house. I was the editor of my department. What it really meant that there was one secretary, one assistant, and I. We did put out one section of the paper, the obituary pages, a section where we reported on people who were sick, crippled and dying, and a weekly column called The Lazarus Letters.
It was the column that kept me employed. An independent audit had disclosed that we had raised the subscription level of the paper 15 % since I had started writing it. I had a loyal following and the bosses knew it and cut us a lot of slack. Our office was on the top floor, known as the Tomb. And in the Tomb we dealt day in, day out with nature of death and dying.
From the first day, I had somehow sensed the importance of what we did. I always called the love ones of the deceased and asked questions. It might seem somewhat ghoulish, but I was determined that part of my job was to invest a sense of dignity into these writings about the dead. I wanted the reader to know that these persons existed and mattered and that people cared about the fact that they died. Usually, I would include a quote from the loved one in the obituary.
The column developed later. I got fan mail. I know that is a strange fact. The letters were often compelling musings about how to deal with loss and how that process often changes the way that people look at life. The Lazarus Letters was a big hit from the very first day.
I didn’t start out with the idea that one day I would cover the beat of the dead, it just happened. I was once a cub reporter who ran around town collecting stories on everything from petty crimes to accident reports. I had the typical reporter’s dream about being on the look out for the one big story that would win a Pulitzer Prize.
I fell under the mentorship of one Ebb Mendes, a hard drinking old-school reporter, who had a great nose for booze, news, and loose women. I learned a lot of stuff from that crazy fool especially on how to smell out a story where it appeared no story would be. I also learned how to talk to people to get them to show me where they hid their deepest secrets.
I believe that Ebb would have been one of the world’s truly great reporters. He had such a unique talent and ability to get people to tell him things they wouldn’t normally have told anyone else. He combined a sparse yet eloquent writing style with a nose for the truth. Within moments of interviewing witnesses, victims, and criminals, he always knew who was covering up something.
I’m sure he would have gained great renown except for a tragedy in his own life from which he never recovered. His sixteen-year old son Caleb drowned on a family outing. One year later to the day, his beloved wife Nancy hung herself. He returned home from interviewing a witness to a brutal rape and murder case only to find Nancy hanging from a rafter in the garage. On the concrete floor, three words were scrawled in chalk, “You know why.”
That’s when he really started drinking. He was still good at what he did, but he no longer played all the other little games most people do to survive. The experience made him a lot more empathetic if anything. He saw the humanity in everyone, even the most brutal murderer. His story on the rape-murder case that he started on the day after Nancy died was the most honest, beautiful piece of writing I have ever seen in a newspaper story.
He started out by describing the chalk outline of the body on the floor of the victim’s bedroom. He took it from there by telling the reader about the victim’s hopes and aspirations. He didn’t just jump on the killer like everybody else in Concord did but instead explained how a high school track star evolved into someone who could only enter someone’s house through the cut screen on a back bedroom window, and how such a broken kid became someone who could only assuage his own pain by sharing it with his victims.
Ebb explained how the killer gave up on trying to socially survive because of a brutal father who repeatedly beat his wife until one night he went too far and strangled her to death in the front yard of their small home. The story made you feel like you had witnessed one of the greatest tragedies of the entire human race and not just some tawdry small town murder.
Now Ebb wasn’t one of those guys who cared more about what would happen to the killer rather than the victim. He would just as easily have sat on the jury that condemned the man to death without the slightest tinge of guilt or hypocrisy. Ebb fully understood that life was all about the suffering, the pain, the traumatic experiences, and the bad decisions.
And while Ebb understood that the path towards evil was a wide path at the beginning that slowly changed to a narrow slippery slope as it descended by increments down the mountain face that everyone else was trying to climb. He also knew that when some people first choose not lift their share of the load that life places on the shoulders of us all, they will usually continue stumbling their way downwards until they fall off the path or finally reach the parched burning sand of the valley below. The time to help people is when they are still gearing up for the climb.
Ebb told me later all of the neighbors had attended the killer’s mother’s funeral, but not one of them had offered help on the many, many nights that she had screamed in vain. Once, the victim had even knocked on several doors in the attempt to find a hero, and all of the doors on the street remained unopened. Gravity doesn’t really need our help to pull people down, but when we do decide to help, it greatly amplifies its power.
Ebb hated newsroom politics like he hated all politicians and refused to participate in the process, often showing up for meetings after a few beers and shots at Ryan’s, the bar across the street from our office. If there was a flaw in the way that the people in charge wanted a story told, Ebb felt compelled to point it out. It was a trait that made him few friends.
“That’s complete and utter bullshit!” He would say while staring out the window of the meeting room not giving the offenders the courtesy of even glancing in their direction. This sent out a message to all the other bullshitter’s in the room that said, “You are all the same to me. Quit wasting my time with all your trivial behavior.”
He hung on, but just barely. The final straw with the bosses of the Current was when he started sleeping with Rianna Adams, the publisher’s daughter. Rianna wanted more than anything in the world to marry Ebb. Ebb wanted more than anything in the world to blot out the image of Nancy hanging from the rafters, and he had to drink himself silly on a nightly basis to do that. He loved falling asleep with his arm around a warm body, but that was only so he could in his drunken imagination believe he was in bed with Nancy.
John Henry Lewis, one of the old guys in the advertising department, convinced Ebb that the way to rid himself of the clingy Rianna was to demand increasingly kinky sex on a nightly basis. Ebb was drunk at the time, so it made perfect sense. He told her that he could never marry a woman who wouldn’t immediately comply with his demands. To his surprise, she went for it.
When I tried to question the ethical issues surrounding the ruse, he would get angry, “ Do I look like a Boy Scout to you? I’ve got no time to play nursemaid to every damned emotionally stunted woman in whole damned world. All I want is get laid and sleep next to a woman at night. It’s not my fault she wants a daddy figure to kill off her daddy figure.”
When I pointed out that marriage would seem to be a perfect answer to both of their needs, he would stare at me as if I was the dumbest son-of-a-bitch in the world. “ I want my balls, Laz. They’re all I have left. I need my damn balls!”
When Ebb got fired. I got immediately transferred to the Business pages because the publisher demanded that the News department expunge Ebb’s existence completely. They even threw out his desk. This was the beginning of my Siberian exile period. It wasn’t that I hated Business; it was that I didn’t give a crap about it one-way or the other.
Ebb went to work writing filler and ad copy for a publishing company that specialized in those cheap little periodicals that sell things like cars, services, and junk. Strangely enough he did some of his best work there.
I was eating in an A&W in Harland one day and picked one of the periodicals up. I opened it up and read: “I am not going to lie, this car is a real piece of shit. It has different shades of primer for God’s sake. But it has no dents, runs well and has good tires, and Diego’s not really asking for much. Will consider a trade.”
Then another written as the paper’s advice columnist, “ Joanne from Alta Vista says she keeps losing husbands. At first, they fall in love, they get married, and after a few years, the husband leaves. My advice to Joanne is to go get herself a brand new mirror, one of them new fangled ones that doesn’t lie and supply justifications for all of her bad decisions. Look at it long and hard while imagining you’re down on your knees in supplicant pose asking God what the hell’s going on. God don’t lie; neither should your mirror. Then go pour yourself a tall ice tea and sit down at your kitchen table. Take a sip and make a list of what your mirror told you. Then go out and make better choices.”
The owner of the publishing company was drinking buddy of Ebb’s named Sawyer Boyd who was slightly crazier than Ebb. Their weekly meetings were held every Wednesday at Ryan’s. On one occasion, I overheard the discussion on what to write about a city counsel meeting where a proposal was being discussed to ban all homeless people from inside city limits. The council member making the proposal owned a dry cleaner’s shop across from a vacant lot where a lot of indigents hung out.
Sawyer looked at Ebb and asked, “ Where we going with this one, Ebb?”
Ebb replied between sips of scotch, “ I am going to treat it as if I were writing about a sentient turd floating in a toilet bowl surrounded by other sentient turds while blathering on about why he is the only turd that really matters.”
Sawyer squinted and fought back the urge to laugh, “ Exactly. I say run with it.”
The Concord Voice quickly gained a cult following in Concord. It wasn’t long before emissaries from the other surrounding communities demanded to be added to the subscriber’s list and every anarchist college student, crackpot and lunatic in the tri-county area either wanted to advertise, contribute, or just marvel at its existence. There were college kids all across the country wearing t-shirts with one of Ebb’s quotes written across the front. My favorite was the one with a picture of Ebb with the line “Everything Matters” written beneath it.
Ebb died one Wednesday while meeting with Sawyer. He took a last sip of Scotch, Glenlivet was his drink, set down the glass, looked out the window at something only he could see, and mumbled “Ain’t that a bitch,” before crashing face down on the table. I wrote his obituary.
I looked out the windows of my office and watched as the movers began to load my wife’s belongings into the truck. I saw the dresser from our bedroom disappear forever followed by the exercise bike and then the guest bedroom. She was taking everything that was paid for and leaving me with anything we owed money on.
I saw her come out and give directions to one of the men. He went back into the house and returned carrying our sound system. A memory swiftly came to mind of the two us lying on the rug in front of the entertainment center listening to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I choked up a bit, but not because she was leaving me, but more because I couldn’t even begin to think when those moments, so pregnant with possibility, had vanished into nothingness without leaving so much as an ash or wisp of smoke behind.
I went to back to work. I was writing an obituary for a ten year-old girl named Orlea Goode. She had been run over by a car in front of her house while playing with her friends. It just so happened that I knew her grandmother Dottie. She was neighbor when I was young, a twin whose sister Sara had died when I was about eight. She had been my earliest playmate, and her death had hit me particularly hard.
I can still remember when I heard about it. I was inside my father’s chicken coop gathering eggs, and my brother Glen had shouted the news. He was around the corner, so I couldn’t see him. I just stood there numb for bit, thinking about nothing.
The strange thing was that from that moment on, I couldn’t remember what had happened, or even what Sara had looked like. Dot was her twin, but they looked very different.
I looked at the page with the information, found the number, and dialed.
A husky cigarette tinged voice answered,” Hello?”
“Hello, is this Dottie Moore? This is Daniel Lazarus from the Current calling.”
There was a slight pause, “The death man, I was wondering when you’d get around to calling.”
“ I’m sorry to hear about your granddaughter, Dot. I always talk to someone in the family, to get some idea who I’m writing about.”
“ I read your stuff, Laz. I gotta admit you take a certain pride in what you do. You need to understand that the last thing I want to do is talk about Orlea right now. I just want to crawl in a hole and pull the dirt down over me.”
“ I do understand, Dot. All I need is for you to give something to work with. I feel like I need to put something into it that makes her life mean something. Let people know we’re not dealing with a laundry list here.”
She thought about it for a moment, then said, “ She was an imp; she was little fire breathing monster, Laz. I have never loved anyone or anything as much as I loved her. She would have made this world tremble with fear if she had lived to be a woman.”
I jotted the down the quote. She took down my email and said she would send me a picture of Orlea, and then we started to discuss the past. I asked her about Sara. I told her that I couldn’t remember anything about her after she had died.
“ She died the same way as Orlea, Laz. You can’t remember that? You were right there when it happened. She ran out in the street one-day, and that dumbass Mueller boy who used to speed up and down the road ran her over. I’m surprised you didn’t hear the noise. My cousin Roy, the boy who was supposed to be watching us that day, was in the garage looking at one of my dad’s girlie magazines. I heard the crash and looked away. I saw him standing at the door of the garage with his pants unbuttoned and that magazine in hand. I thought you knew.”
“I don’t know why, but I blocked it all out. I was collecting eggs and Glen yelled. I went somewhere in my head for several minutes. You know what’s weird? I can remember everyone in your family. Sara was my very first friend, and I can’t even remember what she looked like.”
“Well, when I send that picture of Orlea, you’ll remember. She’s the spitting image of Sara.”
After I hung up, I started writing the obituary. I put edited Dot’s quote emphasizing the part about how much she loved her. I saved it and waited for the picture. When it finally came, I remembered Sara for Dot was right; the girl in the picture could have been Sara.
Then suddenly the memories I had forgotten flooded over me. I could smell the dirt, feathers, and chicken shit of the coop. Glen’s scream was shrill, and it hurt my ears.
“Oh, Goddamn. Goddamn! Danny, come see this. Mueller done killed Sara! D’ya hear me? Mueller killed Sara.”
The words hit me like a heavyweight boxer. I think that they knocked me out in a way. I went somewhere very far away in my head. I can vaguely walking along by myself in a bright, colorful neighborhood. The colors were so vivid they hurt my eyes. A big dog came running up beside, and when I went to pet it, it began growling. The next thing I knew, I was back in the coop with the eggs and the chickens. I could hear the ambulance coming.
I dropped the eggs and ran up the outside stairs to my room and crawled into bed. I squeezed my eyes shut and put my fingers into my ears, so I didn’t have to listen to the siren. My mother found me asleep like that later that afternoon.
I added Orlea’s picture to the obituary and placed it on the page. It was time to go home. Then I remembered that I did not have a home anymore. It was about dusk, the border between night and day, and I looked out the window and saw the movers leaving. I watched and a few minutes later and Jenny came out and locked the door. She stopped in the driveway and looked back at the house for a minute. Then, she got into her car and drove away.
Instead I wrote an obituary for our life together. The day we got married, the preacher had promised that we would join together and become as one. Well, that one thing was officially dead, and it deserved a decent quote.
I wrote that our marriage had died like most things do, from a lack of oxygen; its poor wounded heart had just ceased beating. I wrote that two lovely daughters survived it, and that there would be no graveside service because the body had vanished into nothingness. I finished with, “ All things pass away, even love.” I printed out a copy to take home and frame and then erased what I had written.
I sat there at my desk and the events that led to me being put in charge of the Obituary page came to mind. My time reporting at the business desk was like being in purgatory. I hated it. I reported on things like pork belly futures, production reports, set-up costs, new business openings, and, worst of all, the bottom line. I talked at length to people who lived to create form in the material world, but had no time to even consider their emotional, or internal nature.
I interviewed men who had thousands of individuals on payroll, but when you looked into their eyes, you couldn’t help but notice a deep, yawning void. It was like holding a dialogue with a robot or the voice on your smart phone. I interviewed hundreds of these soulless creatures, and not once did I ever speak to anyone who ever said anything about how to alleviate the psychic devastation of life on a production line, or how the existence of their fantastically successful business sucked the very life marrow out of their employees' souls.
I love this country and have a full understanding of how capitalism has helped to produce the freedoms that we enjoy, but, too often, that freedom has become all too equated with our freedom to choose what brand of bread we buy at the market and very little with the freedom to choose how to go about nurturing our souls so that we can feel like we are truly alive.
My tenure as a business reporter fortunately ended after a bitter young, anarchist copywriter who had just been fired decided to go out with a bang. He changed the word song to slong and inserted it into a headline that read, “ She Loves His Slong .” He had even put a picture below the title of a blonde holding up a large sex toy.
The editor, who was supposed to catch this type of thing, was busy banging one of the cleaning ladies in a closet full of office supplies. He gave the go ahead to run it without even looking at the page. He got fired, of course, as did the cleaning lady.
I considered that this was a true indication of everything that had gone wrong with our country, the problem with making everything about the bottom line. The editor was short, stumpy balding fellow with bad breath, and he had somehow figured out a way to have sex with this pretty hot cleaning lady.
I felt it showed an incredible initiative, but the bosses didn’t agree. They couldn’t get past the idea that thousands of our readers had sat down to their morning breakfast and opened the newspaper to picture of a blond holding up a sex toy. I felt we needed a more honest appraisal of the event. Did we lose readership, or did people buy the paper because they just didn’t know what to expect from the Current?
The paper ran an edition where it profusely apologized for the screw-up. I had nothing to do with it at all but was moved because I was once again a part of a tainted department.
It just so happened that the guy I replaced at the obituary desk had just died. He had terminal cancer and decided to not wait for the reaper and took a handful of sleeping pills. When I took over his desk, the obituary he had written for himself was waiting. The first line said, “Here today and gone tomorrow.” It seemed to sum up the purpose of the department, so I turned the saying into a sign and hung it over the door.
Later at home, I let myself in the door, and it was pretty much the way that I thought it would be. The walls were bare and the rooms were empty. It was like walking into a tomb. In my bed that night, it felt like I was sleeping in a grave.
Some of people who study such things feel that the purpose of placing the pharaoh’s mummified body in the pyramid was part of an elaborate ceremony where the priests pried opened the mummy’s mouth and opened it so the light from a star could shine down and enter the pharaoh’s mouth, a process which helped transport the pharaoh’s soul toward immortality in the heavens.
I lay there that night with my mouth hanging open; my eyes squeezed shut, fingers in my ears and searching the ceiling for a star.