Marian Lundgren scanned the obituaries on her laptop in the living room while drinking one of her husband’s malbecs. This wine was called The Waxed Bat and it gleamed in the glass like black onyx. For one hazy instant, she understood why people became connoisseurs. It might be for the same reason others collected gemstones, but wasn’t that simply a higher form of hoarding and weren’t connoisseurs just esoteric drunks?
Since she’d turned sixty-seven, reading death notices had become a habit. Her contemporaries were suddenly leaving earth like birds in migration and she noticed a discomfiting pattern in their flight. When a cheerleader died, the remembrances came as thick and fast as rice thrown at weddings while the deaths of class pariahs drew callous silence.
A girl named Irene Lester, someone she’d known in high school, was the latest casualty. This girl had been hopelessly plain and mutely apologetic. Marian couldn’t remember her ever speaking at all. She’d just scurried through the halls between classes to avoid being mocked like a squirrel seeking shelter from menacing humans. Her obit summed up decades of sad isolation: ‘She was on the clerical staff at Hoffmann-La Roche for many years before retiring. Irene’s beloved cat, Cinnamon, who just recently passed away, and her nieces were the loves of her life.’
No cause of death was given as if the reason had been terminal disappointment. There was only one terse condolence in the guestbook: ‘She had a tough time through the years. Laura and Jean, you did the best you could for her—”
Marian began to type: “Irene was a gentle, earnest person with a heart of gold. ‘What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.’ RIP, Irene.”
The next day Marian was surprised to get a phone call from Irene’s niece, profusely thanking her for her ‘eloquent’ tribute to her aunt.
“Most people had no idea who she was,” Laura confided to Marian over the phone. “She was ten years old when I was born. She was my first friend.”
Marian didn’t bother telling Laura she’d hardly known Irene, herself, but had embellished a sketchy impression from fifty years ago. They’d been in the same Algebra class.
A week or so later, she read that another schoolmate passed away. This guy had been a loner with furtive posture and died mysteriously after a “long illness”, leaving no survivors.
The hurts of those few years apparently spliced some kids’ genes with a lethal desolation like exposure to carcinogens. Marian hadn’t been cruel to them, but she hadn’t been especially kind, either. Remembering them was the least she could do, especially after she’d downed some wine which had become her routine while sifting through online graveyards, usually at two in the morning, her most pensive time of day.
“Leonard was a highly sensitive soul who kept his own counsel,” she wrote though they’d never exchanged two words. “’The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards solitude.’”
She noticed that condolences for popular alumni said next to nothing about their attributes. Observations were vapid and generic: ‘nice, pretty, friendly, fun.” The sympathies were meant to be self-referential, confirming the mourner’s identity as someone who’d mattered because of his or hers association with the deceased.
“I grew up with Gary. We were in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and entered Order of the Arrow together. He was a close friend and fishing buddy as a child. He was part of our “gang “on Bergen Drive” or “I had the wildest crush on Sheila and when I asked her to the Cotillion, I was bowled over when she said yes’
They still wanted to shine in the rays of former glory that was now light years away.
It made Marian more adamant about reminding them of classmates they’d shunned and bullied. Those people had hoped, suffered and also grown old. They’d had a share in this world, too. It didn’t end with high school.
About a year after Marian had written her first online condolence, she got a phone call from a classmate named Paul Horton. The last time, she’d seen him, they’d both been on the same commuter train to New York. Marian hadn’t met her husband yet and was living with her parents and working in the city. She’d noticed Paul staring out the window in a seat across from her aisle, and she’d hidden behind a magazine to avoid conversation. She snuck glances at him and he seemed absolutely transfixed on whatever he was watching. Maybe, he’d been avoiding her, too.
“Is this Marian?” he asked over the phone.
“Yes?” She didn’t recognize his voice.
“Marian? It’s Paul Horton.”
“Paul Horton?” Marian repeated his name, surprised. Paul had been a modestly handsome boy who was active in student government, on the track team, the yearbook committee and known for throwing great parties she’d never been invited to.
“Yes. I know it’s been a very long time,” he said.
“How are you, Paul?” she asked, imagining he was calling because their fiftieth reunion was coming up and he was probably a co-chair on the reunion committee.
“Not well, Marian. I have cancer.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said sincerely.
“The doctor told me I can continue treatment or choose to do nothing. I think we both know what that means.”
She didn’t reply.
“I’d really like to see you, Marian,” he told her.
“Why?” she asked bluntly. The two of them had never been more than acquaintances and his illness didn’t sway her. She’d lost others to cancer, people she’d truly loved, and she wasn’t generous with her affection.
“As a courtesy.” He almost spoke as if she owed him something.
“What’s this about, Paul?”
“I’ve been reading your condolences. You know, for people from our class who died? They’ve given me pause for thought.”
Apparently, he had as much time on his hands as she did. Or maybe it was common for people their age to read the obituaries. She now recalled her mother used to do it.
“Where do you live?” she asked him.
She’d thought he would have ended up in an upscale suburb or even left New Jersey, altogether. Passaic was a comedown even from the nothing town they’d grown up in.
“Sure. I can visit you,” she said.
“I’d really appreciate that. Except for the home health aide, I don’t see many people.”
“No one from Essex Valley?” That was the name of their high school.
“No one,” he told her, ominously.
She drove over to see him a few days later. He lived in a small, ancient brick building with a fire escape. It looked like subsidized housing. The afternoon was lovely and his street was clean, but dismally squalid, more suited to be veiled in rain than exposed by sunlight. He buzzed her in and she walked up two flights of stairs to his apartment.
He was waiting for her at the door on a walker. She was shocked by how thin, stooped and ravaged he looked, but after all, he was dying. He was covered in chemo sores as if he’d tussled with vultures, already. They kissed briefly and he led her to the parlor.
The apartment was sparely furnished and surprisingly neat though tainted by that putridly stringent hospital smell meant to mask the odor of bowel movements and rotting bodies. She sat on a worn, mustard colored couch across from him.
“You look wonderful,” he told her.
“I know you can’t say the same for me.”
“I can still recognize you.”
He laughed, startled by her candor. She’d been tortuously indirect as a girl, rarely making eye contact as if afraid you’d read her mind.
“Do you see anyone?” he asked. “Anyone from school?”
“No one. How about you?”
“I already told you I didn’t.”
“I was surprised to hear that, Paul. You were so popular.”
“Definitely.” She saw his tall, mild, brown-haired visage briskly strolling in her mind’s eye. He’d been unusually poised for a boy that age, already very ivy league. “Weren’t you even a class president?”
“Our Sophomore and Junior years.”
She nodded and aimlessly looked around. The muddy colors in the room reminded her of the interiors of some houses during the seventies. There was only one picture on the wall. A somber-looking lighthouse.
“Do you have children?” he asked her, without much interest. “Grandchildren?”
“Two sons. No grandchildren,” she said, keeping her voice pleasantly distant.
“I have a daughter. She lives in Texas.”
“So you’re married?”
“I got divorced. Many years, ago.”
She nodded and he lit a metal pipe he’d been holding in his hand.
“Do you mind?” he asked her. “It’s medical marijuana.”
“Would you –?“ he offered the pipe to her after inhaling and she waved her hand.
“No, thanks. I haven’t smoked since having kids.”
“You did smoke?”
“Didn’t everyone? “
“That’s right,” she was starting to feel inexplicably annoyed, not entirely sure of what she was even doing there. “What did you want to see me about, exactly?”
“How come you write those remembrances? Were you friendly with those people? I don’t recall you being friendly to anyone. I’m not saying you were hostile. Just very shy and withdrawn. I don’t think I ever saw you smile once.”
“I was clinically depressed,” she said, succinctly. “I got over it in college when I started smoking pot.”
“Well, that explains a lot.”
She was almost tempted to ask for a hit off of his pipe, but restrained herself.
“You were a nice-looking girl, but very unsociable.”
“When did you lose touch with everybody?” she asked him to change the subject.
“A long time ago. My first year in Princeton, I was diagnosed as schizophrenic. I had to drop out.”
Her eyes widened. She didn’t know what to say.
“They detached themselves after that,” he said, bitterly. “It didn’t happen all at once. When I was young, I kept going off my meds. I was even homeless for a while. Even now, none of them will have anything to do with me. One of them told me to my face that I was toxic and to leave everybody alone.”
“Have you tried to get in touch with them? Since you got sick?”
“Of course, I have,” his eyes clouded with either anger or grief. “I told them I have cancer. They don’t believe me. They’ve blocked my calls.”
“That’s pathetic,” she said aloud, then realized her words might be construed as rude. “I mean, you were part of that crowd. You all seemed so close.”
“We were. We were very close.” He sounded a little desperate. She hoped he didn’t think she’d act as a liaison.
“It was a very long time ago, Paul,” she told him. “Very, very long ago. Fifty years.”
“You make your friends for life, then. I believed that, Marian. I would have laid down and died for any one of them. They meant everything.”
He spoke as if these events were still fresh and urgent and maybe to him, they were. He might even be dwelling on his fall from grace all day long. His sense of time and space could be completely altered. After all, he was schizophrenic.
“Are you on your meds, now?” she asked carefully.
He nodded. “Oh, yeah. Haldol. I don’t want to be trouble for anyone. I just do what people ask me to, now. They’re still all very close. They never lost contact. I really thought – I believed they loved me.”
“It was high school, Paul.” She gently reminded him. What did he expect from adolescents? They were amoral humans at their most selfish and unhinged. No wonder, she’d plunged into despair, surrounded by people like that. It was a very sane reaction.
“What exactly do you want from me?” she asked.
He got up from the chair, clutching to his walker and ambled toward a desk in the corner. He withdrew a sealed envelope from the drawer and handed it to Marian. The envelope read: ‘To be opened after my death.’
“After I die, I want you to put this online. They’re my words. It will explain everything. It will make them understand. You can’t read it until then, Marian. Until you see my obituary. My daughter will post one for me. She’ll make all the arrangements. She promised me she would. I wrote this the last time I was hospitalized. I want them to see it.”
He handed it to her.
“Will you do that for me?” he asked, again.
“Of course, I will,” she assured him, mainly so she could get out of there.
She left shortly after that. It was dusk and their visit felt surreal, but that was natural considering the situation. He might have been a ghost. Very soon, he would be. She had no fear of death, herself. The worst she imagined was a liquid film noir landscape, maybe Paul’s state of mind when he was off his meds.
On the drive home, she remembered seeing him on the commuter train to New York. He’d been staring out the window with a feral intensity, probably hallucinating or hearing voices. She could just envision him inflicting his ravings on the in-crowd, needing money, a place to stay or simply companionship.
After seeing Paul, Marian stopped reading obituaries, but months after their visit, she googled his name. He’d passed away two weeks before. There’d been a funeral and a wake and if she’d known, she would have gone. His death notice was posted just as his daughter promised. The obituary was unusually brief, composed quickly like an unpleasant chore to be done with. There wasn’t a single condolence in the guestbook.
Marian had stashed his envelope in a kitchen drawer where she kept coupons, matches, and crochet needles. She opened it and read his letter:
“I never got my degree, but I’m glad to be a mental patient, because it taught me to be humble. Jane Fonda has been here to visit me as has Orson Welles and President Jimmy Carter. When I was a child, I used to sit and tell stories to myself. I shut off the sound on the tv and made up dialogue or conducted music on the radio. I thought I could get women pregnant at the age of six. I don’t consider myself schizophrenic, now. That’s why I stopped taking medication. I don’t think schizophrenia exists, only mental telepathy, extra sensory perception and exquisitely-tuned nerve endings. I used to shout at my mother. It was hyperactivity from chocolate chip cookies. I wandered around, looking for kids to play with like an incarnation of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world and I’ve travelled there through sound waves. My name is Julian English. Everything burns me like fire.”
She stared at the letter, then crumpled it up. Of course, she wouldn’t post this. She didn’t even want to keep it or send it to his daughter. She’d burn it with the respectful formality accorded a ritual.
She did post her condolences and lit a candle for him, online. She knew exactly what to say about Paul and even found the right quotation from a novel called The Hour of the Star . It intimated that, ultimately, the universe was loving and transcendently impartial as opposed to the ruthless stratosphere of high school.
“’I will remember Paul as a visionary spirit,’” she typed. “‘For at the hour of death you become a celebrated film star; it is a moment of glory for everyone, when the choral music scales the top notes.’”