Keep it clear, and keep it in a straight line.
That was the gospel according to Vern Higgins, who headed up the journalism department at the University of Rhode Island, where I got my degree. A lot of what I heard at school went in one ear and out the other, but not that, because Professor Higgins hammered on it. He said that people need clarity and concision in order to start the process of understanding.
Your real job as journalists, he told his classes, is to give people the facts that allow them to make decisions and go forward. So don’t be fancy. Don’t go all twee and hifalutin. Start at the start, lay the middle out neatly, so the facts of each event lead logically to the next, and end at the end. Which, in reporting, he emphasized, is always the end for now. And don’t you ever sink to that lazy crap about how some people believe or the general consensus of opinion is. A source for each fact, that’s the rule. Then write it all in plain English, unadorned and unvarnished. Flights of rhetoric belong on the op-ed page.
I doubt if anyone will believe what follows, and my career at Neon Circus had very little to do with good writing, but I intend to do my best here: the facts of each event leading to the next. Beginning, middle, and end.
The end for now, at least.
Good reporting always begins with the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why if you can find out. In my case, the why’s a tough one.
The who is easy enough, though; your less-than-fearless narrator is Michael Anderson. I was twenty-seven at the time these things happened. I graduated from URI with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. For two years after college I lived with my parents in Brooklyn and worked for one of those Daily Shopper freebies, rewriting newswire items to break up the ads and coupons. I kept my résumé (such as it was) in constant rotation, but none of the papers in New York, Connecticut, or New Jersey wanted me. This didn’t completely surprise my parents or me, not because my grades were lousy (they weren’t), and not because my clip folder – mostly stories from the URI student newspaper, The Good 5 Cent Cigar – were badly written (a couple of them won awards), but because newspapers weren’t hiring. Quite the opposite.
(If Professor Higgins saw all these parentheses, he’d kill me.)
My parents began urging me – gently, gently – to start looking for some other kind of job. ‘In a related field,’ my father said in his most diplomatic voice. ‘Maybe advertising.’
‘Advertising isn’t news,’ I said. ‘Advertising is anti-news.’ But I caught his drift: he had visions of me still grabbing midnight snacks out of their fridge when I was forty. Slacker Deluxe.
Reluctantly, I began making a list of possible advertising firms that might like to hire a young copywriter with good chops but no experience. Then, on the night before I planned to begin sending out copies of my résumé to the firms on that list, I had a goofy idea. Sometimes – often – I lie awake nights wondering how different my life might have been if that idea had never crossed my mind.
Neon Circus was one of my favorite websites in those days. If you’re a connoisseur of snark and schadenfreude, you know it: TMZ with better writers. They mostly cover the local ‘celeb scene,’ with occasional prospecting trips into the stinkier crevasses of New York and New Jersey politics. If I had to sum up its take on the world, I’d show you a photo we ran about six months into my employment there. It showed Rod Peterson (always referred to in the Circus as ‘the Barry Manilow of his generation’) outside Pacha. His date is bent over, puking in the gutter. He’s got a happy-ass grin on his face and his hand up the back of her dress. Caption: ROD PETERSON, THE BARRY MANILOW OF HIS GENERATION, EXPLORES NEW YORK’S LOWER EAST SIDE.
Circus is essentially a webazine, with lots of click-friendly departments: CELEB WALK OF SHAME, VILE CONSUMPTION, I WISH I HADN’T SEEN THAT, WORST TV OF THE WEEK, WHO WRITES THIS CRAP. There are more, but you get the idea. That night, with a stack of résumés ready to send out to firms I didn’t really want to work for, I went to Neon Circus for a little revivifying junk food, and on the home page discovered that a hot young actor named Jack Briggs had OD’d. There was a photo of him staggering out of a downtown hotspot the week before, typical bad taste for Neon Circus, but the news item accompanying it was surprisingly straight, and not Circus-y at all. That was when inspiration struck. I did some research on the Internet, just screwing around, then wrote a quick and nasty obituary.
Jack Briggs, noted for his horrific performance in last year’s Holy Rollers as a talking bookshelf in love with Jennifer Lawrence, was found dead in his hotel room surrounded by some of his favorite powdered treats. He joins the 27 Club, which also contains such noted substance abusers as Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Briggs shambled onto the acting scene in 2005, when …
Well, you get it. Juvenile, disrespectful, downright nasty. If I’d been serious that night, I probably would have dragged the finished obit to the trash, because it seemed to go beyond even Neon Circus’s usual snark and into outright cruelty. But because I was just messing (it has since occurred to me to wonder how many careers have started while just messing), I sent it to them.
Two days later – the Internet speeds everything up – I got an email from someone named Jeroma Whitfield saying they not only wanted to run it, they wanted to discuss the possibility that I might perhaps write more in the same nasty-ass vein. Could I come into the city and discuss it at lunch?
My tie and sportcoat turned out to be a case of serious overdressing. The Circus offices on Third Avenue were filled with men and women who looked a lot more like boys and girls, all running around in rock-band tees. A couple of the women wore shorts, and I saw a guy in carpenter overalls with a Sharpie poked through his Mohawk. He was the head of the sports department, it turned out, responsible for one memorable story titled JINTS TAKE ANOTHER SHIT IN THE RED ZONE. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was (and is) journalism in the Age of the Internet, and for every person in the offices that day, there were another five or six stringers working from home. For starvation wages, I hardly need add.
I have heard that once upon a gilded time, in New York’s misty and mythic past, there were publishers’ lunches at places like the Four Seasons, le Cirque, and the Russian Tea Room. Perhaps, but my lunch that day was in the cluttered office of Jeroma Whitfield. It consisted of deli sandwiches and Dr Brown’s Cream Soda. Jeroma was ancient by Circus standards (early forties), and I disliked her pushy abrasiveness from the start, but she wanted to hire me to write a weekly obituary column, and that made her a goddess. She even had a title for the new feature: Speaking Ill of the Dead.
Could I do it? I could.
Would I do it for shit money? I would. At least to start with.
After the column became the most-visited page on the Neon Circus site and my name had become associated with it, I dickered for more dough, partly because I wanted to move into my own apartment in the city and partly because I was tired of getting peon’s wages for singlehandedly writing the page that was bringing in the most ad revenue.
That first dickering session was a modest success, probably because my demands were couched as tentative requests, and the requests were almost laughably humble. Four months later, when rumors began to circulate of a big corporation buying us for actual strutting money, I visited Jeroma’s office and asked for a larger raise, this time with rather less humility.
‘Sorry, Mike,’ she said. ‘In the memorable words of Hall and Oates, I can’t go for that, no can do. Have a Yook.’
Holding pride of place on Jeroma’s cluttered desk was a large glass bowl filled with menthol-flavored eucalyptus drops. The wrappers were covered with gung-ho sayings. Let’s hear your battle cry, read one. Another advised (it gives the grammarian in me chills to report this) Turn can do into can did.
‘No thanks. Give me a chance to lay this out for you before you say no.’
I marshaled my arguments; you might say I attempted to turn can do into can did. The bottom line was my belief that I was owed a wage more commensurate with the revenue Speaking Ill of the Dead was generating. Especially if Neon Circus was going to be bought out by a major corporate playa.
When I finally shut up, she unwrapped a Yook, popped it between her plum-colored lips, and said, ‘Okay! Great! If you’ve got that off your chest, you might want to get to work on Bump DeVoe. He’s a tasty one.’
He was indeed a tasty one. Bump, lead singer of the Raccoons, had been shot dead by his girlfriend while trying to sneak in through the bedroom window of her house in the Hamptons, probably as a joke. She had mistaken him for a burglar. What made the story such a deliciously fat pitch was the gun she used: a birthday present from the Bumpster himself, now the newest member of the 27 Club and perhaps comparing guitar chops with Brian Jones.
‘So you’re not even going to respond,’ I said. ‘That’s how little respect you have for me.’
She leaned forward, smiling just enough to show the tips of her little white teeth. I could smell menthol. Or eucalyptus. Or both. ‘Let me be frank, okay? For a guy who’s still living with his parents in Brooklyn, you have an extremely inflated idea of your importance in the scheme of things. You think nobody else can piss on the graves of dimwit assholes who party themselves to death? Think again. I’ve got half a dozen stringers who can do it, and probably turn in copy funnier than yours.’
‘So why don’t I walk, and you can find out if that’s true?’ I was pretty mad.
Jeroma grinned and clacked her eucalyptus drop against her teeth. ‘Be my guest. But if you go, Speaking Ill of the Dead doesn’t go with you. It’s my title, and it stays right here at Circus. Of course you do have some cred now, and I won’t deny it. So here’s your choice, kiddo. You can go back to your computer and get humping on Bump, or you can take a meeting at the New York Post. They’ll probably hire you. You’ll end up writing shit squibs on Page Six with no byline. If that floats your boat, go team.’
‘I’ll write the obit. But we’re going to revisit this, Jerri.’
‘Not on my watch, we’re not. And don’t call me Jerri. You know better than that.’
I got up to go. My face was burning. I probably looked like a stop sign.
‘And have a Yook,’ she said. ‘Hell, take two. They’re very consoling.’
I cast a disdainful look at the bowl and left, restraining (barely) a childish urge to slam the door.
If you’re picturing a bustling newsroom like the one you see behind Wolf Blitzer on CNN, or in that old movie about Woodward and Bernstein nailing Nixon, reconsider. As I said, most of the Circus writers do their work from home. Our little news-nest (if you want to dignify what Circus does by calling it news) is roughly the size of a double-wide trailer. Twenty school desks are crammed in there, facing a row of muted TVs on one wall. The desks are equipped with battered laptops, each one bearing a hilarious sticker reading PLEASE RESPECT THESE MACHINES.
The place was almost empty that morning. I sat in the back row by the wall, in front of a poster showing a Thanksgiving dinner in a toilet bowl. Beneath this charming image was the motto PLEASE SHIT WHERE YOU EAT. I turned on the laptop, took my printouts concerning Bump DeVoe’s short and undistinguished career from my briefcase, and shuffled through them while the cruncher booted. I opened Word, typed BUMP DeVOE OBIT in the proper box, then just sat there, staring at the blank document. I was paid to yuk it up in the face of death for twentysomethings who feel that death is always for the other guy, but it’s hard to be funny when you’re pissed off.
‘Having trouble getting started?’
It was Katie Curran, a tall, svelte blond for whom I felt a strong lust that was almost certainly unrequited. She was always kind to me, and unfailingly sweet. She laughed at my jokes. Such characteristics rarely signal lust. Was I surprised? Not at all. She was hot; I am not. I am, if I may be frank, exactly that geek all the teenpix make fun of. Until my third month working at Circus, I even had the perfect geek accessory: spectacles mended with tape.
‘A little,’ I said. I could smell her perfume. Some kind of fruit. Fresh pears, maybe. Fresh somethings, anyway.
She sat down at the next desk, a long-legged vision in faded jeans. ‘When that happens to me, I type The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog three times, real fast. It opens the creative floodgates.’ She spread her arms, showing me how floodgates open, and incidentally giving me a breathtaking view of breasts snugly encased in a black tank top.
‘I don’t think that will work in this case,’ I said.
Katie wrote her own feature, not as popular as Speaking Ill of the Dead, but still widely read; she had half a million followers on Twitter. (Modesty forbids me to say how many I had in those days, but go ahead and think seven figures; you won’t be wrong.) Hers was called Getting Sloshed with Katie. The idea was to go out drinking with celebs we hadn’t dissed yet – and even some we had went for the deal, go figure – and interview them as they got progressively more shitfaced. It was amazing what came out, and Katie got it all on her cute little pink iPhone.
She was supposed to get drunk right along with them, but she had a way of leaving a single drink but a quarter finished as they moved from one watering hole to another. The celebs rarely noticed. What they noticed was the perfect oval of her face, her masses of wheat-blond hair, and her wide gray eyes, which always projected the same message: Oh gosh, you’re so interesting. They lined up for the chop even though Katie had effectively ended half a dozen careers since joining the Circus staff eighteen months or so before I came on board. Her most famous interview was with the family comedian who opined of Michael Jackson, ‘That candy-ass wanna-be-whitebread is better off dead.’
‘I guess she said no raise, huh?’ Katie nodded toward Jeroma’s office.
‘How did you know I was going to ask for a raise? Did I tell you?’ Mesmerized by those misty orbs, I might have told her anything.
‘No, but everyone knew you were going to, and everyone knew she was going to say no. If she said yes, everyone would ask. By saying no to the most deserving, she shuts the rest of us down cold.’
The most deserving. That gave me a little shiver of delight. Especially coming from Katie.
‘So are you going to stick?’
‘For now,’ I said. Talking out of the side of my mouth. It always works for Bogie in the old movies, but Katie got up, brushing nonexistent lint from the entrancingly flat midriff of her top.
‘I’ve got a piece to write. Vic Albini. God, he could put it away.’
‘The gay action hero,’ I said.
‘News flash: not gay.’ She gave me a mysterious smile and drifted off, leaving me to wonder. But not really wanting to know.
I sat in front of the blank Bump DeVoe document for ten minutes, made a false start, deleted it, and sat for another ten minutes. I could feel Jeroma’s eyes on me and knew she was smirking, if only on the inside. I couldn’t work with that stare on me, even if I was just imagining it. I decided to go home and write the DeVoe piece there. Maybe something would occur on the subway, which was always a good thinking place for me. I started to close the laptop, and that was when inspiration struck again, just as it had on the night when I saw the item about Jack Briggs departing for that great A-list buffet in the sky. I decided I was going to quit, and damn the consequences, but I would not go quietly.
I dumped the blank DeVoe document and created a new one, which I titled JEROMA WHITFIELD OBIT. I wrote with absolutely no pause. Two hundred poisonous words just poured out of my fingers and onto the screen.
Jeroma Whitfield, known as Jerri to her close friends (according to reports, she had a couple in preschool), died today at—
I checked the clock.
—10:40 A.M. According to co-workers on the scene, she choked on her own bile. Although she graduated cum laude from Vassar, Jerri spent the last three years of her life whoring on Third Avenue, where she oversaw a crew of roughly two dozen galley slaves, all more talented than herself. She is survived by her husband, known to the staff of Neon Circus as Emasculated Toad, and one child, an ugly little fucker affectionately referred to by the staff as Pol Pot. Co-workers all agree that although she lacked even a vestige of talent, Jerri possessed a domineering and merciless personality that more than made up for it. Her braying voice was known to cause brain hemorrhages, and her lack of a sense of humor was legend. In lieu of flowers, Toad and Pot request that those who knew her express their joy at her demise by sending eucalyptus drops to the starving children of Africa. A memorial service will be held at the Neon Circus offices, where joyful survivors can exchange precious memories and join in singing ‘Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.’
My idea as I started this diatribe was to print a dozen copies, tape them up everywhere – including the bathrooms and both elevators – then say see-ya-wouldn’t-want-to-be-ya to both the Neon Circus offices and the Cough Drop Queen for good. I might even have done it if I hadn’t reread what I had written and discovered it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t even close to funny. It was the work of a child having a tantrum. Which led me to wonder if all my obits had been equally unfunny and stupid.
For the first time (you might not believe it, but I swear it’s true) it came to me that Bump DeVoe had been a real person, and somewhere people might be crying because he was gone. The same was probably true of Jack Briggs … and Frank Ford (who I had described as ‘noted Tonight Show crotch-grabber’) … and Trevor Wills, a reality-show star who committed suicide after being photographed in bed with his brother-in-law. Those pix the Circus had cheerfully put online, just adding a black strip to cover the brother-in-law’s naughty bits (Wills’s had been safely out of sight, and you can probably guess where).
It also came to me that I was spending the most creatively fecund years of my life doing bad work. Shameful, in fact, a word that would never have occurred to Jeroma Whitfield in any context.
Instead of printing the document, I closed it, dragged it to the trash, and shut down the laptop. I thought about marching back into Jeroma’s office and telling her I was done writing stuff that was the equivalent of a toddler throwing poo on the wall, but a cautious part of my mind – the traffic cop most of us have up there – told me to wait. To think it over and be absolutely sure.
Twenty-four hours, the traffic cop decreed. Hit a movie this afternoon and sleep on it tonight. If you still feel the same way in the morning, go with God, my son.
‘Off so soon?’ Katie asked from her own laptop, and for the first time since my first day here, I wasn’t stopped cold in my tracks by those wide gray eyes. I just tipped her a wave and left.
I was attending a matinee of Dr Strangelove at Film Forum when my mobile started vibrating. Because the living room–size theater was empty except for me, two snoozing drunks, and a couple of teenagers making vacuum cleaner noises in the back row, I risked looking at the screen and saw a text from Katie Curran: Stop what you’re doing and call me RIGHT NOW!
I went out to the lobby without too much regret (although I always like to see Slim Pickens ride the bomb down) and called her back. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the first two words out of her mouth changed my life.
‘What?’ I nearly screamed.
The popcorn girl glanced up at me over the top of her magazine, startled.
‘Dead, Mike! Dead! She choked to death on one of those damn eucalyptus drops she’s always sucking on.’
Died at 10:40 A.M., I’d written. Choked to death on her own bile.
Only a coincidence, of course, but offhand I couldn’t think of a more malefic one. God had turned Jeroma Whitfield from can do into can did.
‘Mike? Are you there?’
‘She had no second-in-command. You know that, right?’
‘Uh-huh.’ Now I was thinking of her telling me to have a Yook, and clicking her own against her teeth.
‘So I’m taking it on myself to call a staff meeting tomorrow at ten. Somebody’s got to do it. Will you come?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe not.’ I was walking toward the door to Houston Street. Before I got there, I remembered that I’d left my briefcase by my movie seat and turned back to get it, yanking at my hair with my free hand. The popcorn girl was looking at me with outright suspicion now. ‘I’d pretty much made up my mind to quit this morning.’
‘I knew. I could see it on your face when you left.’
The thought of Katie looking at my face might have tied up my tongue in other circumstances, but not then. ‘Did it happen at the office?’
‘Yes. It was pushing on for two o’clock. There were four of us in the bullpen, not really working, just hanging out and swapping stories and rumors. You know how it goes.’
I did. Those gossipy bull sessions were one of the reasons I went to the office instead of working at home in Brooklyn. Plus getting a chance to feast my eyes on Katie, of course.
‘Her door was closed, but the blinds were open.’ They usually were. Unless she was taking a meeting with someone she considered important, Jeroma liked to keep an eye on her vassals. ‘The first I knew was when Pinky said, “What’s wrong with the boss? She’s all Gangnam Style.”’
‘So I looked, and she was jerking back and forth in her office chair, grabbing at her neck. Then she fell out of the chair and all I could see was her feet, drumming up and down. Roberta asked what we should do. I didn’t even bother answering that.’
They burst in. Roberta Hill and Chin Pak Soo lifted her up by the armpits. Katie got behind her and gave her the Heimlich. Pinky stood in the doorway and waved his hands. The first hard heave on her diaphragm did nothing. Katie shouted for Pinky to call 911 and went at her again. The second heave sent one of those eucalyptus drops flying all the way across the room. Jeroma took a single deep breath, opened her eyes, and spoke her last words (and very fitting they were, IMHO): ‘What the fuck?’ Then she began to shudder all over again, and stopped breathing. Chin gave her artificial respiration until the paramedics arrived, but no joy.
‘I checked the clock on her wall after she quit breathing,’ Katie said. ‘You know, that awful retro Huckleberry Hound thing? I thought … I don’t know, I guess I thought someone might ask me for the time of death, like on Law & Order. Stupid what goes through your mind at a time like that. It was ten to three. Not even an hour ago, but it seems longer.’
‘So she could have choked on the cough drop at two forty,’ I said. Not ten forty, but two forty. I knew it was just another coincidence, like Lincoln and Kennedy having the same number of letters; forty past comes around twenty-four times a day. But I still didn’t like it.
‘I suppose, but I don’t see what difference it makes.’ Katie sounded annoyed. ‘Will you come in tomorrow or not? Please come in, Mike. I need you.’
To be needed by Katie Curran! Ai-yi-yi!
‘Okay. But will you do something for me?’
‘I guess so.’
‘I forgot to empty the trash on the computer I was using. The one back by the Thanksgiving dinner poster. Will you do it?’ This request made no rational sense to me even then. I just wanted that bad joke of an obituary gone.
‘You’re crazy,’ she said, ‘but if you absolutely swear on your mother’s name to come in tomorrow at ten, sure. Listen, Mike, this is a chance for us. We might end up owning a piece of the gold mine instead of just working in it.’
‘I’ll be there.’
Almost everyone was, except for stringers working among the primitives in darkest Connecticut and New Jersey. Even scabby little Irving Ramstein, who wrote a joke column called (I don’t understand it, so don’t ask me) Politically Incorrect Chickens, showed up. Katie ran the meeting with aplomb, telling us that the show would go on.
‘It’s what Jeroma would have wanted,’ Pinky said.
‘Who gives a shit what Jeroma would have wanted,’ Georgina Bukowski said. ‘I just want to keep getting a paycheck. Also, if remotely possible, a piece of the action.’
This cry was taken up by several others – Action! Action! Piece-a-da-action! – until our offices sounded like a messhall riot in an old prison movie. Katie let it run its course, then shushed them.
‘How could she choke to death?’ Chin asked. ‘The gumdrop came out.’
‘It wasn’t a gumdrop,’ Roberta said. ‘It was one of those smelly cough drops she was always sucking on. Craptolyptus.’
‘Whatever, dude, it still came flying out when Kates gave her the Hug of Life. We all saw it.’
‘I didn’t,’ Pinky said. ‘I was on the phone. And on fucking hold.’
Katie said that she had interviewed one of the EMTs – no doubt using her large gray eyes to good effect – and had been told that the choking fit might have triggered a heart attack. And, in my effort to follow the dictum of Professor Higgins and keep all the relevant facts straight, I will jump ahead here and report the autopsy on our Dear Leader proved that to be the case. If Jeroma had gotten the Neon Circus headline she deserved, it probably would have been HEAD HONCHO POPS PUMP.
That meeting was long and loud. Already displaying talents that made her a natural to step into Jeroma’s Jimmy Choos, Katie allowed them to fully vent their feelings (expressed mostly in bursts of wild, semihysterical laughter) before telling them to get back to work, because time, tide, and Internet waits for no man. Or woman, either. She said she would be talking with the Circus’s main investors before the week was out, and then invited me to step into Jeroma’s office.
‘Measuring the drapes?’ I asked when the door was shut. ‘Or the blinds, in this case?’
She looked at me with what might have been hurt. Or maybe just surprise. ‘Do you think I want this job? I’m a columnist, Mike, just like you.’
‘You’d be good at it, though. I know it and so do they.’ I jerked my head toward our excuse for a newsroom, where everyone was now either hunting and pecking or working the phones. ‘As for me, I’m just the funny-obit writer. Or was. I’ve decided to become an emeritus.’
‘I think I understand why you feel that way.’ She slipped a piece of paper from the back pocket of her jeans and unfolded it. I knew what it was before she handed it to me. ‘Curiosity comes with the job, so I peeped in your trash before dumping it. And found this.’
I took the sheet, refolded it without looking (I didn’t even want to see the print, let alone reread it), and put it in my own pocket. ‘Is it dumped now?’
‘Yes, and that’s the only hard copy.’ She brushed her hair away from her face and looked at me. It might not have been the face that launched a thousand ships, but it surely could have launched several dozen, including a destroyer or two. ‘I knew you’d ask. Having worked with you for a year and a half, I understand that paranoia is part of your character.’
‘No offense intended. In New York, paranoia is a survival skill. But it’s no reason to quit what could become a far more lucrative job in the immediate future. Even you must know that a freaky coincidence – and I admit this one’s fairly freaky – is just a coincidence. Mike, I need you to stay on board.’
Not we but I. She said she wasn’t measuring the drapes; I thought she was.
‘You don’t understand. I don’t think I could do it anymore even if I wanted to. Not and be funny, at least. It would all come out …’ I reached, and found a word from my childhood. ‘Goosh.’
Katie frowned, thinking. ‘Maybe Penny could do it.’
Penny Langston was one of those stringers from the darker environs, hired by Jeroma at Katie’s suggestion. I had a vague idea that the two women had known each other in college. If so, they could not have been less alike. Penny rarely came in, and when she did, she wore an old baseball cap that never left her head and a macabre smile that rarely left her face. Frank Jessup, the sports guy with the Mohawk, liked to say that Penny always looked about two stress points from going postal.
‘But she’d never be as funny as you are,’ Katie went on. ‘If you don’t want to write obituaries, what would you want to do? Assuming you stay at Circus, which I pray you will.’
‘Reviews, maybe. I could write funny ones, I think.’
‘Hatchet jobs?’ Sounding at least marginally hopeful.
‘Well … yeah. Probably. Some of them.’ I was good at snark, after all, and I thought I could probably outsnark Joe Queenan on points, possibly by a knockout. And at least it would be dumping on live people who could fight back.
She put her hands on my shoulders, stood on tiptoe, and planted a soft kiss on the corner of my mouth. If I close my eyes, I can still feel that kiss today. She looked at me with those wide gray eyes – the sea on an overcast morning. I’m sure Professor Higgins would roll his eyes at that, but C-list guys like me rarely get kissed by A-list girls like her.
‘Think about going on with the obits, would you?’ Hands still on my shoulders. Her light scent in my nostrils. Her breasts less than an inch from my chest, and when she took a deep breath, they touched. I can still feel that today too. ‘This is not just about you or me. The next six weeks are going to be a critical time for the site and the staff. So think, okay? Even another month of obits would be helpful. It would give Penny – or someone else – a chance to work her way into the job, with guidance from you. And hey, maybe nobody interesting will die.’
Except they always do, and we both knew it.
I probably told her I’d think about it. I can’t remember. What I was actually thinking about was lip-locking her right there in Jeroma’s office, and damn anyone in the bullpen who might see us. I didn’t, though. Outside the rom-coms, guys like me rarely do. I said something or other and then I must have left, because pretty soon I found myself out on the street. I felt poleaxed.
One thing I do remember: when I came to a litter basket on the corner of Third and Fiftieth, I tore the joke obit that was no longer a joke into tiny shreds and threw them in.
That night I ate a pleasant enough dinner with my parents, then went into my room – the same one where I’d gone to sulk on days when my Little League team lost, how depressing is that – and sat down at my desk. The easiest way to get past my unease, it seemed to me, was to write another obit of a living person. Don’t they tell you to get back on a horse right away if you’ve been thrown? Or climb right away to the top diving platform after your jackknife turns into a belly flop? All I needed to do was prove what I already knew: we live in a rational world. Sticking pins in voodoo dolls doesn’t kill people. Writing your enemy’s name on a scrap of paper and burning it while you recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards doesn’t kill people. Joke obituaries don’t kill people, either.
Nevertheless, I was careful to make a list of possibles consisting solely of proven bad people, such as Faheem Darzi, who had claimed credit for the bus bombing in Miami, and Kenneth Wanderly, an electrician convicted on four counts of rape-murder in Oklahoma. Wanderly seemed like the best possibility on my short list of seven names, and I was about to whomp something up when I thought of Peter Stefano, a worthless fuck if there ever was one.
Stefano was a record producer who choked his girlfriend to death for refusing to record a song he had written. He was now doing time in a medium-security prison when he should have been at a black site in Saudi Arabia, dining on cockroaches, drinking his own pee, and listening to Anthrax played at top volume during the wee hours of the morning. (Just MHO, of course.) The woman he killed was Andi McCoy, who happened to be one of my all-time favorite female singers. If I had been writing joke obits at the time of her death, I never would have written hers; the idea that her soaring voice, easily the equal of the young Joan Baez’s could have been silenced by that domineering idiot still infuriated me five years later. God gives such golden vocal cords to only the chosen few, and Stefano had destroyed McCoy’s in a fit of drugged-out pique.
I opened my laptop, typed PETER STEFANO OBIT in the proper field, and dropped the cursor onto the blank document. Once again the words poured out with no pause, like water from a broken pipe.
Slave-driving, no-talent record producer Peter Stefano was discovered dead in his jail cell at the Gowanda State Correctional Facility yesterday morning, and we all shout hooray. Although no official cause of death was announced, a prison source said, ‘It appears his anal hate-gland ruptured, thus spreading asshole poison through his body. In layman’s terms, he had an allergic reaction to his own vile shit.’
Although Stefano had his foot on the necks of a great many groups and solo artists, he is especially noted for ruining the careers of the Grenadiers, the Playful Mammals, Joe Dean (who committed suicide after Stefano refused to renegotiate his contract), and of course Andi McCoy. Not content with killing her career, Stefano choked her to death with a lamp cord while high on methamphetamines. He is survived by three grateful ex-wives, five ex-partners, and the two record companies he managed not to bankrupt.
It went on in that vein for another hundred words or so, and was not one of my better efforts (obviously). I didn’t care, because it felt right. Not just because Peter Stefano was a bad man, either. It felt right as a writer, even though it was bad prose and part of me knew it was a bad thing. This might seem like a sidetrack, but I think (actually I know) it’s at the heart of this story. Writing is hard, okay? At least it is for me. And yes, I know that most working stiffs talk about how hard their jobs are, it doesn’t matter if they’re butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, or obituary writers. Only sometimes the work is not hard. Sometimes it’s easy. When that happens you feel like you do at the bowling alley, watching your ball as it rolls over just the right diamond and you know you threw a strike.
Killing Stefano in my computer felt like a strike.
I slept like a baby that night. Maybe some of it was because I felt as if I’d done something to express my own rage and dismay over that poor murdered girl – the stupid waste of her talent. But I felt the same way when I was writing the Jeroma Whitfield obit, and all she did was refuse to give me a raise. Mostly it was the writing itself. I felt the power, and feeling the power was good.
My first compu-stop at breakfast the next day wasn’t Neon Circus but Huffington Post. It almost always was. I never bothered scrolling down to the celebrity dish or the side-boob items (frankly speaking, Circus did both of those things much better), but the Huffpo headline stories are always crisp, concise, and late-breaking. The first item was about a Tea Party governor saying something Huffpo found predictably outrageous. The next one stopped my cup of coffee halfway to my lips. It also stopped my breath. The headline read PETER STEFANO MURDERED IN LIBRARY ALTERCATION.
I put down my untasted coffee – carefully, carefully, not spilling a drop – and read the story. Stefano and the trustee librarian had been arguing because Andi McCoy’s music was playing from the overhead speakers in the library. Stefano told the librarian to quit macking on him and ‘take that shit off.’ The trustee refused, saying he wasn’t macking on anybody, just picked the CD at random. The argument escalated. That was when someone strolled up behind Stefano and put an end to him with some kind of prison shiv.
So far as I could tell, he had been murdered right around the time I finished writing his obit. I looked at my coffee. I raised the cup and sipped. It was cold. I rushed to the sink and vomited. Then I called Katie and told her I wouldn’t be at the meeting, but would like to meet her later on.
‘You said you’d come,’ she said. ‘You’re breaking your promise!’
‘With good reason. Meet me for coffee this afternoon and I’ll tell you why.’
After a pause, she said: ‘It happened again.’ Not a question.
I admitted it. Told her about making a ‘these guys deserve to die’ list, and then thinking of Stefano. ‘So I wrote his obit, just to prove I had nothing to do with Jeroma’s death. I finished around the same time he got stabbed in the library. I’ll bring a printout with a time stamp, if you want to see it.’
‘I don’t need to see a time stamp, I take your word. I’ll meet you, but not for coffee. Come to my place. And bring the obituary.’
‘If you think you’re going to put it online—’
‘God, no, are you crazy? I just want to see it with my own eyes.’
‘All right.’ More than all right. Her place. ‘But Katie?’
‘You can’t tell anybody about this.’
‘Of course not. What kind of person do you think I am?’
One with beautiful eyes, long legs, and perfect breasts, I thought as I hung up. I should have known I was in for trouble, but I wasn’t thinking straight. I was thinking about that warm kiss on the corner of my mouth. I wanted another, and not on the corner. Plus whatever came next.
Her apartment was a tidy three-roomer on the West Side. She met me at the door, dressed in shorts and a filmy top, definitely NSFW. She put her arms around me and said, ‘Oh God, Mike, you look awful. I’m so sorry.’
I hugged her. She hugged me. I sought her lips, as the romance novels say, and pressed them to mine. After five seconds or so – endless and not long enough – she pulled back and looked at me with those big gray eyes. ‘We’ve got so much to talk about.’ Then she smiled. ‘But we can talk about it later.’
What followed was what geeks like me rarely get, and when they do get it, there’s usually an ulterior motive. Not that geeks like me think about such things in the moment. In the moment, we’re like any guy on earth: big head takes a walk, little head rules.
Sitting up in bed.
Drinking wine instead of coffee.
‘Here’s something I saw in the paper last year, or the year before,’ she said. ‘This guy in one of the flyover states – Iowa, Nebraska, someplace like that – buys a lottery ticket after work, one of those scratch-off thingies, and wins a hundred thousand dollars. A week later he buys a Powerball ticket and wins a hundred and forty million.’
‘Your point?’ I saw her point, and didn’t care. The sheet had slipped down to reveal her breasts, every bit as firm and perfect as I’d expected they would be.
‘Twice can still be a coincidence. I want you to do it again.’
‘I don’t think that would be wise.’ It sounded weak even to my own ears. There was an armful of pretty girl within reaching distance, but all at once I wasn’t thinking of the pretty girl. I was thinking of a bowling ball rolling over just the right diamond, and how it felt to stand watching it, knowing that in two seconds the pins were going to explode every whichway.
She turned on her side, looking at me earnestly. ‘If this is really happening, Mike, it’s big. Biggest thing ever. The power of life and death!’
‘If you’re thinking about using this for the site—’
She shook her head vehemently. ‘No one would believe it. Even if they did, how would it benefit Circus? Would we run a poll? Ask people to send us names of bad guys who deserved the chop?’
She was wrong. People would be happy to participate in Death Vote 2016. It would be bigger than American Idol.
She linked her arms around my neck. ‘Who was on your hit list before you thought of Stefano?’
I winced. ‘Wish you wouldn’t call it that.’
‘Never mind, just tell me.’
I started listing the names, but when I got to Kenneth Wanderly, she stopped me. Now the gray eyes didn’t just look overcast; they looked stormy. ‘Him! Write his obituary! I’ll look up the background on Google so you can do a bang-up job, and—’
Reluctantly, I freed myself from her arms. ‘Why bother, Katie? He’s on death row already. Let the state take care of him.’
‘But they won’t!’ She jumped out of bed and began to pace back and forth. It was a mesmerizing sight, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Those long legs, ai-yi-yi. ‘They won’t! The Okies haven’t done anyone since that botched execution two years ago! Kenneth Wanderly raped and killed four girls – tortured them to death – and he’ll still be there eating government meatloaf when he’s sixty-five! When he’ll die in his sleep!’
She came back to the bed and threw herself on her knees. ‘Do this for me, Mike! Please!’
‘What makes him so important to you?’
The animation ran out of her face. She sat back on her heels and lowered her head so that her hair screened her face. She stayed that way for maybe ten seconds, and when she looked at me again, her beauty was – not gone, but marred. Scarred. It wasn’t just the tears streaming down her cheeks; it was the shamed droop of her mouth.
‘Because I know what it’s like. I was raped while I was in college. One night after a frat party. I’d tell you to write his obituary, but I never saw him.’ She drew a deep, shuddering breath. ‘He came up behind me. I was on my face the whole time. But Wanderly will do as a proxy. He’ll do just fine.’
I tossed back the sheet. ‘Turn on your computer.’
Cowardly bald-headed rapist Kenneth Wanderly, who could only get it up when his prey was tied down, saved the taxpayers a bunch by committing suicide in his Oklahoma State Penitentiary cell on death row in the early hours of this morning. Guards found Wanderly (whose picture is next to ‘useless piece of shit’ in the Urban Dictionary), hanging from a makeshift noose made of his own pants. Warden George Stockett immediately decreed a special celebratory dinner in the gen-pop dining hall tomorrow night, followed by a sock hop. When asked if the Suicide Trousers would be framed and placed with the penitentiary’s other trophies, Warden Stockett refused to answer, but gave the hastily assembled press conference a wink.
Wanderly, a disease masquerading as a live birth, came into the world on October 27, 1972, in Danbury, Connecticut …
Another craptastic piece of work from Michael Anderson! The worst of my Speaking Ill of the Dead obits were funnier and more trenchant (if you don’t believe me, look them up for yourself), but that didn’t matter. Once again the words came gushing out, and with that same sense of perfectly balanced power. At some point, far in the back of my mind, I realized it was more like throwing a spear than rolling a bowling ball. One with a sharply honed point. Katie felt it, too. She was sitting right next to me, crackling like static electricity flying from a hairbrush.
This next part is hard to write, because it makes me think there’s a little Ken Wanderly in all of us, but since there’s no way to tell the truth except to tell it, here it is: It made us horny. I grabbed her in a rough, ungeeky embrace as soon as it was done and carried her back to the bed. Katie locked her ankles at the small of my back and her hands at the nape of my neck. I think that second go-round might have lasted all of fifty seconds, but we both got off. And hard. People stink sometimes.
Ken Wanderly was a monster, okay? That’s not exclusively my judgment; he used the word to describe himself when he ’fessed up to everything in an unsuccessful effort to avoid the death sentence. I could use that to excuse what I did – what we did – except for one thing.
Writing his obituary was even better than the sex that followed it.
It made me want to do it again.
When I woke up the next morning, Katie was sitting on the couch with her laptop. She looked at me solemnly and patted the cushion beside her. I sat and read the Neon Circus headline on the screen: ANOTHER BAD BOY BITES THE DUST, ‘WICKED KEN’ COMMITS SUICIDE IN HIS CELL. Only not by hanging. He had smuggled in a bar of soap – how was a mystery, because inmates are only supposed to have access to the liquid kind – and shoved it down his throat.
‘Dear God,’ I said. ‘What a horrible way to die.’
‘Good!’ She raised her hands, balled them into fists, and shook them beside her temples. ‘Excellent!’
There were things I didn’t want to ask her. Number one on the list was if she had slept with me strictly so she could persuade me to kill a suitable stand-in for her rapist. But ask yourself this (I did): Would asking have done any good? She could give me a totally straight answer and I still might not have believed her. In a situation like that, the relationship may not be outright poisoned, but it’s probably damn sick.
‘I’m not going to do this again,’ I said.
‘All right, I understand.’ (She didn’t.)
‘So don’t ask me.’
‘I won’t.’ (She did.)
‘And you can never tell anybody.’
‘I already said I wouldn’t.’ (She already had.)
I think part of me already knew this conversation was an exercise in futility, but I said okay and let it drop.
‘Mike, I don’t want to hurry you out of here, but I’ve got like a zillion things to do, and …’
‘No worries, mate. I’m taillights.’
In truth, I wanted to get out. I wanted to walk about sixteen aimless miles and think about what came next.
She grabbed me at the door and kissed me hard. ‘Don’t go away mad.’
‘I’m not.’ I didn’t know how I was going away.
‘And don’t you dare think about quitting. I need you. I’ve decided Penny would be all wrong for Speaking Ill of the Dead, but I totally understand you need a break from it. I was thinking maybe … Georgina?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. I thought Georgina was the worst writer on the staff, but I didn’t really care anymore. All I cared about right then was never seeing another obituary, let alone writing one.
‘As for you, do all the nasty reviews you want. No Jeroma left to say no, am I right?’
She shook me. ‘Don’t say it that way, you monkey. Show some enthusiasm. That old Neon Circus get-up-and-git. And say you’ll stick around.’ She lowered her voice. ‘We can have our own conferences. Private ones.’ She saw my eyes drop to the front of her robe and laughed, pleased. Then she gave me a push. ‘Now go. Buzz on out of here.’
A week passed, and when you’re working for a site like Neon Circus, each week lasts three months. Celebs got drunk, celebs went into rehab, celebs came out of rehab and immediately got drunk, celebs got arrested, celebs got out of limos sans panties, celebs danced the night away, celebs got married, celebs got divorced, celebs ‘took a break from each other.’ One celeb fell into his pool and drowned. Georgina wrote a remarkably unfunny obituary, and a ton of Where’s Mike tweets and emails arrived in its wake. Once that would have pleased me.
I did not visit Katie’s apartment, because Katie was too busy for canoodling. In fact, Katie wasn’t much in evidence. She was ‘taking meetings,’ a couple in New York and one in Chicago. In her absence, I somehow found myself in charge. I was not nominated, I did not campaign, I was not elected. It just happened. My consolation was that things would surely go back to normal when Katie returned.
I didn’t want to spend time in Jeroma’s office (it felt haunted), but other than our unisex bathroom, it was the only place where I could hold meetings with distraught staffers in relative privacy. And the staffers were always distraught. E-publishing is still publishing, and every publishing staff is a nest of old-fashioned complexes and neuroses. Jeroma would have told them to get the hell out (but hey, have a Yook). I couldn’t do that. When I started feeling crazy, I reminded myself that soon I would be back in my accustomed seat by the wall, writing snarky reviews. Just another inmate in the madhouse.
The only real decision I can remember making that week had to do with Jeroma’s chair. I absolutely could not put my ass where hers had been when she choked on the Cough Drop of Doom. I rolled it into the bullpen and brought in what I thought of as ‘my’ chair, the one at the desk by the Thanksgiving poster reading PLEASE SHIT WHERE YOU EAT. It was a far less comfy perch, but at least it didn’t feel haunted. Besides, I wasn’t writing much anyway.
Late Friday afternoon, Katie swept into the office clad in a shimmery knee-length dress that was the antithesis of her usual jeans and tank tops. Her hair was in artfully tumbled beauty shop curls. To me she looked … well … sort of like a prettier version of Jeroma. I had a passing recollection of Orwell’s Animal Farm, and how the chant of ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’ had changed to ‘Four legs good, two legs better.’
Katie gathered us and announced that we were being purchased by Pyramid Media out of Chicago, and there would be raises – small ones – for everybody. This occasioned wild applause. When it died down, she added that Georgina Bukowski would be taking over Speaking Ill of the Dead for good, and that Mike Anderson was our new kultcha kritic. ‘Which means,’ she said, ‘that he will spread his wings and fly slowly over the landscape, shitting where he will.’
More wild applause. I stood up and took a bow, trying to look cheerful and devilish. On that score, I was batting .500. I hadn’t been cheerful since Jeroma’s sudden death, but I did feel like the devil.
‘Now, everybody back to work! Write something eternal!’ Glistening lips parted in a smile. ‘Mike, could I speak to you in private?’
Private meant Jeroma’s office (we all still thought of it that way). Katie frowned when she saw the chair behind the desk. ‘What’s that ugly thing doing in here?’
‘I didn’t like sitting in Jeroma’s,’ I said. ‘I’ll bring it back, if you want.’
‘I do. But before you do …’ She moved close to me, but saw the blinds were up and we were being closely observed. She settled for putting a hand on my chest. ‘Can you come to my place tonight?’
‘Absolutely.’ Although I wasn’t as excited by the prospect as you might think. With the little head not in charge, doubts about Katie’s motivations had continued to solidify. And, I have to admit, I found it a little upsetting that she was so eager to get Jeroma’s chair back into the office.
Lowering her voice, even though we were alone, she said, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve written any more …’ Her glistening lips formed the word obits.
‘I haven’t even thought of it.’
This was an extremely bodacious lie. Writing obits was the first thing I thought about in the morning, and the last thing I thought about at night. The way the words just flowed out. And the feeling that went with it: a bowling ball rolling over the right diamond, a twenty-foot putt heading straight for the hole, a spear thunking home in exactly the place you aimed at. Bullseye, dead center.
‘What else have you been writing? Any reviews yet? I understand Paramount’s releasing Jack Briggs’s last movie, and I’m hearing it’s even worse than Holy Rollers. That’s got to be tempting.’
‘I haven’t exactly been writing,’ I said. ‘I’ve been ghostwriting. As in everyone else’s work. But I was never cut out to be an editor. That’s your job, Katie.’
This time she didn’t protest.
Later that day, I looked up from the back row, where I was trying (and failing) to write a CD review, and saw her in the office, bent over her laptop. Her mouth was moving, and at first I thought she must also be on her phone, but no phone was in evidence. I had an idea – almost certainly ridiculous, but weirdly hard to shake – that she had found a leftover stash of eucalyptus drops in the top drawer, and was sucking on one.
I arrived at her apartment shortly before seven, bearing bags of Chinese from Fun Joy. No shorts and filmy top that night; she was dressed in a pullover and baggy khakis. Also, she wasn’t alone. Penny Langston was sitting on one end of the sofa (crouching there, actually). She wasn’t wearing her baseball cap, but that strange smile, the one that said touch me and I’ll kill you, was all present and accounted for.
Katie kissed my cheek. ‘I invited Penny to join us.’
That was patently obvious, but I said, ‘Hi, Pens.’
‘Hi, Mike.’ Tiny mouse-voice and no eye contact, but she made a valiant effort to turn the smile into something a tad less creepy.
I looked back to Katie. I raised my eyebrows.
‘I said I didn’t tell anyone about what you can do,’ Katie said. ‘That … sort of wasn’t the truth.’
‘And I sort of knew that.’ I put the grease-spotted white bags down on the coffee table. I didn’t feel hungry anymore, and I didn’t expect a whole lot of Fun Joy in the next few minutes. ‘Do you want to tell me what this is about before I accuse you of breaking your solemn promise and stalk out?’
‘Don’t do that. Please. Just listen. Penny works at Neon Circus because I talked Jeroma into hiring her. I met her when she still lived here in the city. We were in a group together, weren’t we, Pens?’
‘Yes,’ Penny said in her tiny mouse-voice. She was looking at her hands, clasped so tightly in her lap that the knuckles were white. ‘The Holy Name of Mary Group.’
‘Which is what, exactly, when it’s home with its hat off?’ As if I had to ask. Sometimes when the pieces come together, you can actually hear the click.
‘Rape support,’ Katie said. ‘I never saw my rapist, but Penny saw hers. Didn’t you, Pens?’
‘Yes. Lots of times.’ Now Penny was looking at me, and her voice grew stronger with each word. By the end, she was nearly shouting, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. ‘It was my uncle. I was nine years old. My sister was eleven. He raped her too. Katie says you can kill people with obituaries. I want you to write his.’
I’m not going to tell the story she told me, sitting there on the couch with Katie next to her, holding one of her hands and putting Kleenex after Kleenex in the other. Unless you’ve lived in one of the seven places in this country not yet equipped for multimedia, you’ve heard it before. All you need to know is that Penny’s parents died in a car accident, and she and her sister were shipped off to Uncle Amos and Aunt Claudia. Aunt Claudia refused to hear anything said against her husband. Figure the rest out for yourself.
I wanted to do it. Because the story was horrible, yes. Because guys like Uncle Amos need to take it in the head for preying on the weakest and most vulnerable, check. Because Katie wanted me to do it, absolutely. But in the end, it all came down to the sadly pretty dress Penny was wearing. And the shoes. And the bit of inexpertly applied makeup. For the first time in years, perhaps for the first time since Uncle Amos had begun making his nighttime visits to her bedroom, always telling her it was ‘our little secret,’ she had tried to make herself presentable for a male human being. It sort of broke my heart. Katie had been scarred by her rape, but had risen above it. Some girls and women can do that. Many can’t.
When she finished, I asked, ‘Do you swear to God that your uncle really did this?’
‘Yes. Again and again and again. When we got old enough to have babies, he made us turn over and used our …’ She didn’t finish this. ‘I bet it didn’t stop with Jessie and me, either.’
‘And he’s never been caught.’
She shook her head vehemently, dank ringlets flying.
‘Okay.’ I took my iPad out of my briefcase. ‘But you’ll have to tell me about him.’
‘I can do better.’ She disengaged her hand from Katie’s and grabbed the ugliest purse I’ve ever seen outside of a thrift-shop window. From it she took a crumpled sheet of paper, so sweat-stained it was limp and semitransparent. She had written in pencil. The looping scrawl looked like something a child might have done. It was headed AMOS CULLEN LANGFORD: HIS OBITUARY.
This miserable excuse for a man who raped little girls every chance he could get died slowly and painfully of many cancers in the soft parts of his body. During the last week, pus came pouring out of his eyes. He was 63 years old and in his last extremity, his screams filled the house as he begged for extra morphine …
There was more. Much. Her handwriting was that of a child, but her vocabulary was terrific, and she had done a far better job on this piece than anything she’d ever written for Neon Circus.
‘I don’t know if this will work,’ I said, trying to hand it back. ‘I think I have to write it myself.’
Katie said, ‘It won’t hurt to try, will it?’
I supposed it wouldn’t. Looking directly at Penny, I said, ‘I’ve never even seen this guy, and you want me to kill him.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and now she was meeting my eyes fair and square. ‘That’s what I want.’
I sat down at Katie’s little home desk, laid out Penny’s handwritten death-diatribe beside my iPad, opened a blank document, and began transcribing. I knew immediately that it was going to work. The sense of power was stronger than ever. The sense of aiming. I quit looking at the sheet after the second sentence and just hammered the keyboard screen, hitting the main points, and ended with this abjuration: Funeral attendees – no one could call them mourners, given Mr Langston’s unspeakable predilections – are warned not to send flowers, but spitting on the coffin is encouraged.
The two women were staring at me, big-eyed.
‘Will it work?’ Penny asked, then answered herself. ‘It will. I felt it.’
‘I think maybe it already has.’ I turned my attention to Katie. ‘Ask me to do this again, Kates, and I’ll be tempted to write your obituary.’
She tried to smile, but I could see she was scared. I hadn’t meant to do that (at least I don’t think I had), so I took her hand. She jumped, started to pull away, then let me hold it. The skin was cold and clammy.
‘I’m joking. Bad joke, but I mean what I say. This needs to end.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and swallowed loudly, a cartoon gulp sound. ‘Absolutely.’
‘And no talking. Not to anybody. Ever.’
Once again they agreed. I started to get up and Penny leaped at me, knocking me back into the chair and almost spilling us both to the floor. The hug wasn’t affectionate; it was more like the grip of a drowning woman muckling onto her would-be rescuer. She was greasy with sweat.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered harshly. ‘Thank you, Mike.’
I left without telling her she was welcome. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I don’t know if they ate the food I brought, but I rather doubt it. Fun Joy, my rosy red ass.
I didn’t sleep that night, and it wasn’t thinking of Amos Langford that kept me awake. I had other things to worry about.
One was the eternal problem of addiction. I had left Katie’s apartment determined that I would never wield that terrible power again, but it was a promise I’d made to myself before, and it wasn’t one I was sure I could keep, because each time I wrote a ‘live obit,’ the urge to do it again grew stronger. It was like heroin. Use it once or twice, maybe you can stop. After awhile, though, you have to have it. I might not have reached that point yet, but I was on the edge of the pit and knew it. What I’d said to Katie was the absolute rock-bottom truth – this needed to end while I could still end it. Assuming it wasn’t too late already.
The second thing wasn’t quite as grim, but it was bad enough. On the subway back to Brooklyn, a particularly apropos Ben Franklin adage had come to mind: Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead. There were already three people keeping this one, and since I had no intention of murdering Katie and Penny via obituary, that meant a really nasty secret was in their hands.
They’d keep it for awhile, I was sure. Penny would be especially keen to do so if she got a call in the morning informing her that dear old Uncle Amos had bitten the big one. But time would weaken the taboo. There was another factor, as well. Both of them were not just writers but Neon Circus writers, which meant spilling the beans was their business. Bean-spilling might not be as addictive as killing people with obits, but it had its own strong pull, as I well knew. Sooner or later there would be a bar, and too many drinks, and then …
Do you want to hear something really crazy? You have to promise not to tell anybody, though.
I pictured myself sitting in the newsroom by the Thanksgiving poster, occupied with my latest snarky review. Frank Jessup slides up, sits down, and asks if I’ve ever considered writing an obit for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator with the little tiny head, or – hey, even better! – that Korean butterball, Kim Jong-un. For all I knew, Jessup might want me to off the new head coach of the Knicks.
I tried to tell myself that one was ridiculous, and couldn’t manage it. Mohawk Sports Boy was a crazed Knicks fan.
There was an even more horrific possibility (this I got to around three in the morning). Suppose word of my talent found its way to the wrong governmental ear? It seemed unlikely, but hadn’t I read somewhere that the government had experimented with LSD and mind control on unsuspecting subjects back in the fifties? People capable of that might be capable of anything. What if some fellows from NSA appeared either at Circus or here at my folks’ house in Brooklyn, and I wound up taking a one-way trip in a private jet to some government base where I would be installed in a private apartment (luxurious, but with guards on the door) and given a list of Al Qaeda and Isis militant leaders, complete with files that would allow me to write extremely detailed obituaries? I could make rocket-equipped drones obsolete.
Loony? Yuh. But at four in the morning, anything can seem possible.
Around five, just as the day’s first light was creeping into my room, I found myself wondering yet again how I had come by this unwelcome talent in the first place. Not to mention how long I’d had it. There was no way of telling, because as a rule, folks do not write obituaries of live people. They don’t even do that at The New York Times, they just stockpile the necessary info so it’s at hand when a famous person dies. I could have had the ability all my life, and if I hadn’t written that crappy bad joke about Jeroma, I never would have known. I thought of how I’d ended up writing for Neon Circus in the first place: by way of an unsolicited obituary. Of a person already dead, true, but an obit is an obit. And talent only wants one thing, don’t you see? It wants to come out. It wants to put on a tuxedo and tap-dance all across the stage.
On that thought, I fell asleep.
My phone woke me at quarter to noon. It was Katie, and she was upset. ‘You need to come to the office,’ she said. ‘Right now.’
I sat up in bed. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I’ll tell you when you get here, but I’ll tell you one thing right now. You can’t do it again.’
‘Duh,’ I said, ‘I think I told you that. And on more than one occasion.’
If she heard me, she paid no attention, just steamed ahead. ‘Not ever in your life. If it was Hitler you couldn’t do it. If your father had a knife to your mother’s throat you couldn’t do it.’
She broke the connection before I could ask questions. I wondered why we weren’t having this Code Red meeting in her apartment, which offered a lot more privacy than Neon Circus’s cramped digs, and only one answer came to mind: Katie didn’t want to be alone with me. I was a dangerous dude. I had only done what she and her fellow rape survivor wanted me to do, but that didn’t change the fact.
Now I was a dangerous dude.
She greeted me with a smile and a hug for the benefit of the few staffers on hand, quaffing their post-lunch Red Bulls and plugging lackadaisically away at their laptops, but today the blinds in the office were down, and the smile disappeared as soon as we were behind them.
‘I’m scared to death,’ she said. ‘I mean, I was last night, but when you’re actually doing it—’
‘It feels sort of good. Yeah, I know.’
‘But I’m a lot more scared now. I keep thinking of those spring-loaded gadgets you squeeze to make your hands and forearms stronger.’
‘What are you talking about?’
She didn’t tell me. Not then. ‘I had to start in the middle, with Ken Wanderly’s kid, and work both ways—’
‘Wicked Ken had a kid?’
‘A son, yes. Stop interrupting. I had to start in the middle because the item about the son was the first one I came across. There was a “death reported” item in the Times this morning. For once they scooped the webs. Somebody at Huffpo or Daily Beast is apt to get taken to the woodshed for that, because it happened awhile ago. My guess is the family decided to wait until after the burial to release the news.’
‘Shut up and listen.’ She leaned forward. ‘There’s collateral damage. And it’s getting worse.’
She put a palm over my mouth. ‘Shut. The fuck. Up.’
I shut. She took her hand away.
‘Jeroma Whitfield was where this started. So far as I can tell using Google, she’s the only one in the world. Was, I mean. There are tons of Jerome Whitfields, though, so thank God she was your first, or it might have been attracted to other Jeromas. Some of them, anyway. The closest ones.’
She looked at me as if I were an idiot. ‘The power. Your second …’ She paused, I think because the word that came immediately to mind was victim. ‘Your second subject was Peter Stefano. Also not the world’s most common name, but not completely weird, either. Now look at this.’
From her desk she took a few sheets of paper. She eased the first from the paper clip holding them together and passed it to me. On it were three obituaries, all from small newspapers – one in Pennsylvania, one in Ohio, and one in upstate New York. The Pennsylvania Peter Stefano had died of a heart attack. The one in Ohio had fallen from a ladder. The one from New York – Woodstock – had suffered a stroke. All had died on the same day as the crazed record producer whose name they shared.
I sat down hard. ‘This can’t be.’
‘It is. The good news is that I found two dozen other Peter Stefanos across the USA, and they’re fine. I think because they all live farther away from Gowanda Correctional. That was ground zero. The shrapnel spread out from there.’
I looked at her, dumbfounded.
‘Wicked Ken came next. Another unusual name, thank God. There’s a whole nest of Wanderlys in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but I guess that was too far. Only …’
She handed me the second sheet. First up was the news item from the Times: SERIAL KILLER’S SON DIES. His wife claimed Ken Wanderly Jr had shot himself by accident while cleaning a pistol, but the item pointed out that the ‘accident’ had happened less than twelve hours after his father’s death. That it might actually have been suicide was left for the reader to imply.
‘I don’t think it was suicide,’ Katie said. Beneath her makeup, she looked very pale. ‘I don’t think it was exactly an accident, either. It homes in on the names, Mike. You see that, right? And it can’t spell, which makes it even worse.’
The obit (I was coming to loathe that word) below the piece about Wicked Ken’s son concerned one Kenneth Wanderlee, of Paramus, New Jersey. Like Peter Stefano of Pennsylvania (an innocent who had probably never killed anything but time), Wanderlee of Paramus had died of a heart attack.
Just like Jeroma.
I was breathing fast, and sweating all over. My balls had drawn up until they felt roughly the size of peach pits. I felt like fainting, also like vomiting, and managed to do neither. Although I did plenty of vomiting later. That went on for a week or more, and I lost ten pounds. (I told my worried mother it was the flu.)
‘Here’s the capper,’ she said, and handed me the last page. There were seventeen Amos Langfords on it. The biggest cluster was in the New York–New Jersey–Connecticut area, but one had died in Baltimore, one in Virginia, and two had kicked off in West Virginia. In Florida there were three.
‘No,’ I whispered.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘This second one, in Amityville, is Penny’s bad uncle. Just be grateful that Amos is also a fairly unusual name in this day and age. If it had been James or William, there could have been hundreds of dead Langfords. Probably not thousands, because it’s still not reaching farther than the Midwest, but Florida’s nine hundred miles away. Farther than any AM radio signal can reach, at least in the daytime.’
The sheets of paper slipped from my hand and seesawed to the floor.
‘Now do you see what I meant about those squeezie things people use to make their hands and arms stronger? At first maybe you can only squeeze the handles together once or twice. But if you keep doing it, the muscles get stronger. That’s what’s happening to you, Mike. I’m sure of it. Every time you write an obit for a living person, the power gets stronger and reaches further.’
‘It was your idea,’ I whispered. ‘Your goddam idea.’
But she wasn’t having that. ‘I didn’t tell you to write Jeroma’s obituary. That was your idea.’
‘It was a whim,’ I protested. ‘A goof, for God’s sake. I didn’t know what was going to happen!’
Only maybe that wasn’t the truth. I flashed back to my first orgasm, in the bathtub, assisted by a bubbly handful of Ivory Soap. I hadn’t known what I was doing when I reached down and grabbed myself … only some part of me, some deep, instinctual part, had known. There’s another old adage, this one not Ben Franklin’s: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Sometimes the teacher is inside us.
‘Wanderly was your idea,’ I pointed out. ‘So was Amos the Midnight Creeper. And by then you knew what was going to happen.’
She sat on the edge of the desk – her desk, now – and looked at me straight on, which couldn’t have been easy. ‘That much is true. But, Mike … I didn’t know it was going to spread.’
‘Neither did I.’
‘And it really is addictive. I was sitting next to you when you did it, and it was like breathing secondhand crack.’
‘I can stop,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Pretty. Now here’s one for you. Can you keep your mouth shut about this? Like, for the rest of your life?’
She did me the courtesy of thinking it over. Then she nodded. ‘I have to. I could have a good thing here at Circus, and I don’t want to bitch it up before I can get on my feet.’
It was all about her, in other words, and what else could I have expected? Katie might not be sucking on Jeroma’s eucalyptus drops, I could have been wrong about that, but she was sitting in Jeroma’s chair, behind Jeroma’s desk. Plus that new look-but-don’t-touch tumbly hairdo. As Orwell’s pigs might have said, blue jeans good, new dress better.
‘What about Penny?’
Katie said nothing.
‘Because my impression of Penny – everybody’s impression of Penny, in fact – is that she doesn’t have all four wheels on the road.’
Katie’s eyes flashed. ‘Are you surprised? She had an extremely traumatic childhood, in case you missed it. A nightmare childhood.’
‘I can relate, because I’m living my own nightmare right now. So save the support-group empathy. I just want to know if she’ll keep her mouth shut. Like, forever. Will she?’
There was a long, long pause. At last Katie said, ‘Now that he’s dead, maybe she’ll stop going to the rape survivor meetings.’
‘And if she doesn’t?’
‘I guess she might … at some point … tell someone who’s in especially bad shape that she knows a guy who could help that someone get closure. She wouldn’t do it this month, and probably not this year, but …’
She didn’t finish. We looked at each other. I was sure she could read what I was thinking in my eyes: there was one sure-shot, never-miss way to make sure Penny kept her mouth shut.
‘No,’ Katie said. ‘Don’t even think of it, and not only because she deserves her life and whatever good things there might be for her up ahead. It wouldn’t be just her.’
Based on her research, she was right about that. Penny Langston wasn’t a super-common name, either, but there are more than three hundred million people in America, and some of the Penny or Penelope Langstons out there would win a very bad lottery if I decided to power up my laptop or iPad and write a new obit. Then there was the ‘in the neighborhood’ effect. The power had taken a Wanderlee as well as a Wanderly. What if it decided to take Petula Langstons? Patsy Langfords? Penny Langleys?
Then there was my own situation. It might take only one more obit for Michael Anderson to surrender completely to that high-voltage buzz. Just thinking about it made me want to do it, because it would take away, if only temporarily, these feelings of horror and dismay. I pictured myself writing an obituary for John Smith or Jill Jones to cheer myself up, and my balls shriveled even more at the thought of the mass carnage that could follow.
‘What are you going to do?’ Katie asked.
‘I’ll think of something,’ I said.
That night I opened a Rand McNally Road Atlas to the big map of the United States, closed my eyes, and dropped my finger. Which is why I now live in Laramie, Wyoming, where I’m a housepainter. Primarily a housepainter. I actually have a number of jobs, like many people in the small cities of the heartland – what I used to refer to, with a New Yorker’s casual contempt, as ‘flyover country.’ I also work part-time for a landscaping company, mowing lawns, raking leaves, and planting bushes. In the winter, I plow out driveways and work at the Snowy Range ski resort, grooming trails. I’m not rich, but I keep my head above water. A little more above it than in New York, actually. Make fun of flyover country all you want to, but it’s a lot cheaper to live out here, and whole days go by without anyone giving me the finger.
My parents don’t understand why I chucked it all, and my father doesn’t try to hide his disappointment; he sometimes talks about my ‘Peter Pan lifestyle,’ and says I’m going to regret it when I turn forty and start seeing gray in my hair. My mother is just as puzzled but less disapproving. She never liked Neon Circus, thought it was a sleazy waste of my ‘authorial abilities.’ She was probably right on both counts, but what I mostly use my authorial abilities for these days is jotting grocery lists. As for my hair, I saw the first strands of gray even before I left the city, and that was before I turned thirty.
I still dream about writing, though, and these are not pleasant dreams. In one of them I’m sitting at my laptop, even though I don’t own a laptop anymore. I’m writing an obituary, and I can’t stop. In this dream I don’t want to, either, because that sense of power had never been stronger. I get as far as Sad news, last night everyone in the world named John died and then wake up, sometimes on the floor, sometimes rolled up in my blankets and screaming. On a couple of occasions it’s a wonder I didn’t wake the neighbors.
I never left my heart in San Francisco, but I did leave my laptop in dear old Brooklyn. Couldn’t bear to give up my iPad, though (talk about addictions). I don’t use it to send emails – when I want to get in touch with someone in a hurry, I call. If it’s not urgent, I use that antique institution known as the United States Post Office. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get back into the habit of writing letters and postcards.
I like the iPad, though. There are plenty of games on it, plus the wind sounds that help me get to sleep at night and the alarm that wakes me up in the morning. I’ve got tons of stored music, a few audiobooks, lots of movies. When all else fails to entertain, I surf the Internet. Endless time-filling possibilities there, as you probably know yourself, and in Laramie the time can pass slowly when I’m not working. Especially in winter.
Sometimes I visit the Neon Circus site, just for old times’ sake. Katie’s doing a good job as editor – much better than Jeroma, who really didn’t have much in the way of vision – and the site hovers around number five on the list of most visited Internet landing-spots. Sometimes it’s a notch or two above the Drudge Report; mostly it lurks just below. Plenty of ads, so they’re doing well in that regard.
Jeroma’s successor is still writing her Getting Sloshed with Katie interviews. Frank Jessup is still covering sports; his not-quite-joking piece about wanting to see an All Steroids Football League got national attention and landed him a gig on ESPN, Mohawk and all. Georgina Bukowski wrote half a dozen unfunny Speaking Ill of the Dead obituaries, and then Katie shitcanned the column and replaced it with Celebrity Deathstakes, where readers win prizes for predicting which famous people will die in the next twelve months. Penny Langston is the master of ceremonies there, and each week a new smiling headshot of her appears on top of a dancing skeleton. It’s Circus’s most popular feature, and each week the comments section goes on for pages. People like to read about death, and they like to write about it.
I’m someone who knows.
Okay, that’s the story. I don’t expect you to believe it, and you don’t have to; this is America, after all. I’ve done my best to lay it out neatly, just the same. The way I was taught to lay out a story in my journalism classes: not fancy, not twee or all hifalutin. I tried to keep it clear, in a straight line. Beginning leads to middle, middle leads to end. Old-school, you dig? Ducks in a row. And if you find the end a little flat, you might remember Professor Higgins’s take on that. He used to say that in reporting, it’s always the end for now, and in real life, the only full stop is on the obituary page.
For Stewart O’Nan