The Paper Autopsy — short fiction by Evan Retzer

I wish I could write the obituaries for my friends, my acquaintances, the people I’ve known—known in the long concrete back alleys of the world, the parts of it never shown on the tourism industry’s postcards lined up along the glittery and fake strips along which those lemmings—tourists—stumble mindless and parasitic—postcards filed away like the false memories we’ve convinced ourselves of, lined up, potential criminals—I want to handwrite their obituaries on the back of those Bourbon St. postcards, mail them out to Iceland, Siberia, the cold places—places where there’s no one to read and misunderstand—I’ll handwrite their obituaries, real sloppy. Obituaries for my friends, the ones I’ve found again under bridges or hiding in coffee shops and been happy to see—or reluctant to see—they mattered, anyway— they mattered underneath the cheap sheetrock of rooms and lives that weren’t meant to last, and they mattered in various uniforms , their social camouflage; I know they mattered because they believed, wanted to believe they were relevant, they dreamed they mattered and when it felt as if they didn’t sadness ensued and drugs and liquor were consumed in great waves—the people I’ve known, I’d compose sonnets, if I hadn’t forgotten how to write in meter, for those cockroaches who scattered too slowly when the last foot came down— I would. But instead I am stuck writing trite death notes for people I’ve never known. As an obituary writer, you’re never given enough to work with, not to truly do justice to any life within the constraints of a several sentence paragraph outlined in black print. Did they hope, aspire to anything … and had those aspirations, any of them, been met by the end? How shattered had the pieces of their fairy tale become? Had they given up hope? You can’t know. So, you gather information. Mostly, I reword and edit to length the explanations grieving family have sent in. Or in worse cases, lines sent by the deceased’s place of employment. All attempts to explain in even a small degree who their loved one had been—the unique feeling one inherited by being around them—why they had mattered, maybe still mattered, to the folks who saw them around; to the living, and to those who used to live. Sometimes, when the relatives of the deceased don’t send enough for a complete obit, I am required to call them for more information. That conversation always goes somewhat expectedly awkward:
“Mrs. McAllister? Yes, I understand that Horace was a longtime member of the Bayou Oaks Country Club—yes, he was survived by three sons—but can you give me something else? Anything? Your husband—what was the most, say, um, the most moving piece of music he heard during his life? Oh … you don’t know … well, what did he spend his time on after work? What was his favorite breakfast cereal? FiberOne? Alright, thank you. Chrissakes …” Perhaps I view my job too seriously—viewed it too seriously, shit—perhaps that is why I am about to be removed from my position—well, the papers are going under, anyway— I need a real job. All the people who still need to be eulogized; those people will just have to wait. Betty Jones—died June 22nd. She died when her emphysema breathing apparatus gave out, early in the morning when light was first starting to filter in through her cheap plastic window blinds and coat everything in its desperate transparency. I have no idea how she lived.
I’ll just write this one the easy way—since I know next to nothing about Betty—and have no real intention of finding out—when, what’s the point, anyway? When everyone who matters is already dead, and gone, memorialized in obituary and eulogy by some apathetic fuck and done little or no justice. How could Betty fucking Jones matter, in a world with no Liz, no Marcel, no Crackbaby Johnny, no Cyndi, no GG—the complex sub-molecular structure that made up who they were, the choices they would have made—did make, the choices that ended it all—all gone away, fallen apart, their fragility shattered, abandoned and fucked. We’ve let them slip through the cracks. Their true essences fell away through the blank spaces between those printed words which were some tired hack’s poor attempt to symbolize everything, yet in reality epitomized nothing. Faded, printed words, words which stared up at us blankly, because the only ink cartridge remaining was the color of despair; words like Zarathustra drunk, and on a bender. So, the easy way—it involves grabbing several of my past obits—I typically save copies of my work from even as far as three years back, call it a portfolio of my past artistic endeavors—so, clip a couple of lines from each of the past obituaries—who cares about Betty, anyway?—all people are the same, really, so similar anyway that in the end you couldn’t really pick apart the differences between their life stories and the subtleties of their personalities— her friends, when they read it, they probably won’t even notice—Betty could have been anyone—and, in fact, she’s no one; the amalgam of three past deaths. In my mind, I imagine that she was dead years before she even passed. Betty Jones—a walking corpse. At least Betty died in her sleep … not like GG, who aspirated and choked on his own vomit until the face turned blue and yellow, and the only sound that came from him was the grating, inward sucking sound of a persistent junkie struggling to breathe, straining to take in another breathe, so that he might survive to live one more day, to experience one last fix—the final fix—that personal conversation with god from which you can’t return; in vomit, GG had found absolute purity.
But that was who GG was—we all would have expected him to go out in that fashion— struggling and choking alone on the floor-level mattress of the squat house he shared with his adopted sister—they had been raised together, bouncing from various orphanages here and there across the state. His death thralls would have been masked by the sound of The Liars blaring over his tinny speaker system, fading out to the tortured howls of an anarchistic, ironic music collective. He died, just as we had imagined he might, like the singer from that band The Germs—like Darby Crash, the tourniquet still wrapped tight around his left arm, cutting off all circulation and letting that arm turn bluer than his contorted face. And yet—GG’s death, in all the realities of its gruesome details, was nothing compared to the way they slaughtered him in the back section of our Monday morning newspaper. None of these details—the things which had defined GG as the person whom he really was, the person we all knew—were present. The GG I found that Monday in the obituaries didn’t bare even a shadow of resemblance to the person I knew. They lied, lied concerning everything about him. Even used a picture from the sophomore year of his high school yearbook—from the year he had been relocated and moved in with a “nice” suburban family and they forced him to wear a button down shirt and comb over his Mohawk so that he would appear responsible, and ordinary—so that he would fit in with the rest of the norm, an aesthetic that GG himself believed to be a pestilence spreading itself amongst the populace of the town, a disease that crushed individuality and represented everything he hated. The newspaper writer didn’t know GG—he knew nothing about him, and from the information he had been fed by friends and relatives, he chose, for his article, all of the lies. He left out, didn’t want to print, anything real, any information actually given to him by GG’s true friends. Our voices were denied. Obituaries are like an autopsy. The writer tears apart the body of the deceased and attempts to reconstruct. There was, by the end of the thing, no way to sew the real GG back together.
I hear the sounds of The Beatles’ swaying melodically through my window from that hipster coffee shop down at the corner. “ … I want to be a paperback writer … paperback writer … !” In reality, an obituary writer is almost like a serial killer. We gather the dead together around us, and find a way to kill these people all over again. By the time the obituaries piece is done, you can be sure that no surviving piece of the hapless and unfortunate victim is left untainted for the world to see. We cut those people up into pieces, bury the arms and legs and childhood memories in the back of our freezers, and leave their heads on our desks where we can scar them up real nice to relieve boredom, continue to abuse the corpse until it begins to smell up the place. Despite all of this, in a way, the dead are lucky. Whatever abuse we might inflict on their surviving physical shells, after the light of consciousness departs, they don’t feel it. They can’t feel anything anymore—the pain of life, death, loss, losing friends, those injuries which are mainly psychological that don’t kill you, but you have to carry around with you every day nonetheless like a paralyzed limb, feeling the weight of it drag behind you, the weight of those memories which are too painful to forget and too real to destroy, memories which grow exponentially with each new loss—with each new obituary. The worst loss of all is the distortion of the very memories which allow any aspect of this life to retain some semblance of meaning—yes, the dead certainly do get themselves screwed around with—
Meanwhile, the rest of us still have to sit here every day, lost amongst those vapid words which could never spell out any real truth—the rest of us still have to wake up every morning; wake up, stumble around the corner to jump that grating metal-on-metal street car to the newspaper building slowly forcing down a bitter coffee, and somehow deal with it. Cut life up into its precious memories. Rearrange them until things somehow make sense. Meanwhile, I’m stitching back together the wrong corpses, lost in words I never wanted to hear. Sometimes all that you can do is continue, push on. Dreaming about the people I’ve lost, I carefully perform the autopsy of Betty Jones with Turin shroud paper and bleeding ink.

Evan Retzer has been published in numerous online and print venues. His novel, The Daydream Society, will be released by Civil Coping Mechanisms in May 2015.

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