A Concordance of One's Life

By Jim Nelson

Short stories, General fiction


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3 mins

The Obituarist

My computer tallies the obituaries I've written. An hour ago, like an odometer rolling over, my computer reported to me "5,000 items, 107.48 MB total." Five thousand obituaries, all revised and updated on a series of frustrating personal computers I've owned since the start of my tenure in 1983. So quirky and surprising, I called my editor to relate the news. He uh-huhed me and humored my numerology until I announced I was quits, time to retire. He began to talk me out of it, then acquiesced. I told him to conjure up a replacement and send him over so he could begin my entry. There are flexibilities with and within my profession, but writing one's own obituary is bending the reeds too far.

The rules: What are they? Who laid them down, who decided what should be respected and what could be glossed over? To have played the game so long and yet be unable to elucidate its boundaries and limitations. Some can be surmised. Some arise out of necessity.

Obituaries are written well before the subject has died. Journalistic deadlines are unforgiving. Research consumes precious time. I happen to work for a daily that archaically employs fact-checkers, and as undermanned as they are, they do not brook sloppiness. It's fair to say that the bulk of my days are spent reading newspapers, magazines, press announcements, and biographies, auto- and otherwise.

After my obituary has been fleshed out and revised and prodded and proofed—here is why my profession is so odd—it's filed away in a folder on my computer called The Freezer. My subject is not dead, after all. Publication awaits a heart attack, a drug overdose, a plane crash. A missed step on an icy set of stairs outside a packed Georgetown auditorium, a broken neck twisted gruesomely in the snow, the limousine driver aghast at the fall he's witnessed, a double-click of my mouse, and the politico's obituary arises from The Freezer, ready for its final revision and publication.

My editors and my fellow obituarists have a little list, The Nearly Departed we call it, celebrities and politicians and artists and authors whom we agree are not long for this world. The unlucky are crossed off the list the same day their obit hits the back pages of the Times. The unluckier are those added when that slot opens. There is no announcement, no press release of their addition. My subjects are not informed privately. We guard The Nearly Departed, not even speaking of it around lower staffers. Is it out of etiquette or some nobler purpose we do not make public our little deal pool? Or is the reason as crass and self-serving as the embarrassment of admitting we're little more than vultures circling for the first moment we can unlock the work we've invested dearly in? Ah, there is one aspect to this game I am unsure of.

I interview their colleagues and relatives under a variety of pretenses. Ethically I'm bound to supply my name and the name of my publisher, but beyond that, ethics take on a certain…plasticity. When I say I need a quote for the Sunday supplement, which Sunday? Which supplement? And my name means little to anyone outside of the Times. Of the thousands of obituaries I've choreographed into print, not once have I enjoyed credit. It takes a peculiar modesty to pen the death notices of the famous and infamous. It takes even slimmer pride to gallop down to the newsstand and slap through the pages to locate the twelve column inches of your painfully sculpted prose. When someone particularly famous dies, there's whole milk in my morning cappuccino.

There are others like me at the Times, but none with as much experience. I've written five thousand obits but my colleagues are developing thousands more as well. The Times is prepared for at least ten thousand celebrated lives to expire. Of the glitterati and politicos that fell within my sphere, only thirty-five hundred or so have expired. Those remaining fifteen hundred obituaries are on ice in The Freezer waiting for that special phone call from my editor. The liver transplant didn't take. Or, Dropped dead on the back nine. Or, The pack-a-day finally caught up with him. Fifteen hundred unpublished obituaries is a sweet chunk of intellectual property, as the Times' retained lawyers say. My legacy.

I maintain and revise obituaries for three, eight, sometimes twelve years. Maintenance consumes much of my time, for the type of elderly I follow are forever hunting up one more notable achievement to stuff and mount. The fire that drove them into the public sphere decades ago burns on. Famous novelists hire ghostwriters to scribble their supposedly pithy observations on the state of American letters. Former presidents who think they're still in office make statesmanlike trips to Africa and Southeast Asia and sometimes even Kansas. A once-notable alcoholic chef says something honest and direct when a reporter is in earshot. (Washed-up alcoholic chefs are the most honest and direct people in the world.) These last-chance events can be condensed to one or two sentences, and will be, because the noteworthy details in the lifetime of someone long-famous never happens just prior to death. Those that die without warning (those not Nearly Departed), their obituary is handled by a staff reporter. James Dean's death was not detailed by a professional obituarist. Elizabeth Taylor's will be. It's open on my computer this very minute.

Five thousand obituaries, thirty-five hundred in The Morgue, fifteen hundred waiting for a lub and no dub. A heartbeat ceasing is tacit permission to publish. Death seals an obituary.

Most of the stories in The Freezer will be published after my death. There is irony in that somewhere. When I understand that irony, perhaps I will then accept my mortality. It has not happened yet.



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