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That Obituary Summer


I’D GO IN AT 4:00, climbing stairs past a landing where linotypes clattered behind frosted glass. Another flight took me to the newsroom. I always ate beforehand at a grill down the street, open-faced hamburger and mashed potatoes with dark gravy. I could have taken a supper break, but I ate early because I didn’t want to miss anything. The two-star went to press at midnight. After the papers came up, we sent out for chili mac and beer. Sometimes we’d replate for a late-breaking story, but usually we played whiffle ball among the desks until 1 a.m. Then McCarthy, the night city editor, phoned the foreman to chisel a star off the plate, and the press in the basement rumbled back to life with the one-star. Staffers with families went home, and the rest of us bar-crawled the dark, humid city. It was my first newspaper job, and I wrote almost nothing but little stories about death.

I wrote about Herman Munger, 63, a truck driver who died of a heart attack, and Elise Pietrekewicz, 82, a lifelong resident who died of cancer. I wrote about Hope Williams, 36, a housewife with four children, found in her car with the engine running. McCarthy wanted something to humanize every obit, so I wrote a sentence each about Elton Schumacher’s railroad memorabilia, and Paul Acker’s collection of wooden-hulled power boats. People often had complicated families, so survivors’ lists were long. McCarthy drew the line at “companions,” “special friends” and pets. “No dogs, for Chrissake,” he’d mutter. “Let’s leave ‘em some dignity.” The next day I’d pour over what I’d written, testing each sentence for the elegance of concise writing. McCarthy told me I was good.

One night I heard steps on the stairs and looked up to see Harold Killenberg come fast through the door. He was the paper’s business manager. I’d only seen him before downstairs in a suit and tie. Here he was in the newsroom in a polo shirt and plaid slacks, breathing audibly from the climb.

“Mary Louise is dead,” he said in a low voice, bending over McCarthy’s ear. Everyone stopped typing. Mary Louise Bolen was the publisher’s ex-wife, the mother of his two sons. I picked up a pencil and notebook, the long, narrow kind with spiral binding at the top. Killenberg saw me, and he and McCarthy headed for the door, heads together. I heard: “Choked on a piece of chicken . . . country club . . . . ” Then they were out of earshot.

Ten minutes later, McCarthy was at my desk. “Clear everything off,” he said. “Just play it straight. The funeral home will call about 10, and the family will bring something in by 10:30. This’ll go on one, so you’ve got till 11:00, make it 11:15. For God’s sake don’t misspell anybody’s name.” I wrapped it up at 11:15 on the dot. McCarthy stood over my typewriter as I wrote, carrying half-sheets to the composing room, pencil-editing on his way down the stairs.

It was a good clean obit, and honest as these things go. It mentioned her career as a reporter on the paper, her marriage to Roy Bolen, their divorce 22 years later. It listed the civic activities she undertook after her marriage, and devoted a paragraph to the Arts Center, where she chaired the board and led an expansion drive. Family filtered in and out of the newsroom as I wrote, more for company and comfort, it seemed, than to look over our shoulders. I interviewed both sons for vignettes. The only bump was the dog, a Lhasa Apso. Mary Louise’s younger son insisted on including Ginger among the survivors. McCarthy, known for blowing up at any hint of family interference, gave in without a fight. “Put the dog in,” he said quietly. “It’s their paper.”

After the two-star came up, the publisher himself came into the newsroom, with his much younger second wife. I’d never seen him in person before. Looking dramatically saddened, he shook my hand and thanked me, though he got my name wrong. “Your story was very dignified,” he said. “Mary Louise would have appreciated it. It’s a shame you never got to know her.”

But I did know her, at least a little. Unlike the other dead people I wrote about that summer, I’d actually met her. McCarthy and I were at the Turtlehead one night when she joined us. After closing time we went to an all-night eatery called Annie’s, for liver and onions. Mary Louise was about 55, still slender, with streaky blonde hair and a lopsided smile. She had had a couple of drinks, and she and McCarthy were old friends, so she was in a confiding mood. “I loved raising my boys,” she said. “But Roy is such a cipher. He hasn’t written a thing for 30 years. He inherited the paper, he’s worked there all his life, and he couldn’t name the press foreman’s wife to save himself. ”

She obviously still read the paper; she talked about the news and wanted to know what went on behind the scenes. She and McCarthy traded war stories. “I covered the cops, you know, before I married Roy,” she said, turning to me. “City hall, the university. I covered the recruiting scandal.”

I hadn’t had many bylines, but she recognized my name and mentioned a feature I’d written. She said it was getting late, kissed McCarthy on the cheek, touched my arm, and left.

The next time I saw her was at her funeral. The line was long, but I took my time. “Doesn’t she look wonderful?” I heard someone whisper. No, I thought, she looks like very thin old paper, like a touch would crumble her.

That Obituary Summer continues...

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About John Palen

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Poet, fiction writer, retired journalism teacher, gardener, family man. For 10 years I wrote, edited and distributed an independent, alternative monthly newspaper, covering local government in Midland, Michigan. Now living in Central Illinois and writing fiction, which has been published or is forthcoming in Ragazine, Sleet, and Press 1.

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