Famous Last Words

Jennifer Salvato Doktorski

Henry Holt / Christy Ottaviano Books

chapter one
The Obit Page
 
 
Samantha Elisabeth D’Angelo, the Herald Tribune’s youngest-ever obituary writer, died Friday. She was 16. Born and raised in Chestnutville, New Jersey, D’Angelo would have been a senior at Chestnutville High School in September. She is survived by her fabulous-looking and infinitely cooler mother and father, Christina and David D’Angelo, and her quirky grandmother, Alfonsina D’Angelo. A funeral mass will be held Saturday at 9:00 a.m. at St. Rose of Lima Church. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Snore, the D’Angelo family foundation for other extraordinarily boring high school students whose lives are so dull, they make up their own obituaries.
I’m not dead. But sometimes I feel like I might as well be.
I stare at my computer screen one second more before quickly highlighting select all and hitting delete. I don’t want Bernadette, the copy-desk editor, to catch me screwing around with my own fake obituary when I should be working. My second day here, she dubbed me the bane of her existence because of my atrocious spelling. I’m now halfway through my third week, and our relationship hasn’t improved. Not even a smidge.
“How many obits we got so far?” asks AJ Bartello, the college intern who has been training me since the beginning of June.
“Only seven,” I tell him.
We’re having a slow day.
“If we don’t double that number soon, Bernie is going to make us write a freakin’ feature,” he says.
At nineteen, AJ is a two-year veteran of the obit desk and has earned the right to call our boss Bernie. She told me, however, that I must address her as Bernadette.
“Not another feature. I can’t make the so-how-did-you-feel-about-your-dead-husband phone call again,” I say.
Standard obits include the same basic information in the same order. Name, age, hometown, date of death, survivors, and services. But on days when there aren’t enough regular obits to fill the page, Bernadette picks the standout death du jour for a feature. That means we have to call a surviving family member, chat about the deceased, and gather enough interesting quotes to write a lengthy profile, complete with a photo. Yesterday, I made the mistake of asking her why we couldn’t fill the space with some famous person’s obit, someone outside our coverage area.
“Can’t we run an AP story?” I asked Bernie.
What good is having an international news-gathering agency at our disposal if we don’t use Associated Press wire copy on the obit page?
Bernie was irritated by my question. “AP reporters already know how to gather news. Their well-documented expertise dates back to the Mexican War,” Bernie said with a less-than-hospitable southern accent. “You’re here to learn something.”
So far, what I’ve learned is that most people are not feature-obit material. Take me, for instance. My life is definitely lacking superlatives. At school, I’m not the head cheerleader or class slut or teacher’s pet. Just one of the nobodies who will graduate in approximately twelve months without a special mention in the yearbook. I’m going to be seventeen at the end of the summer, and nothing big has ever happened to me. I’ve never tried illicit substances, engaged in premarital anything, or attended a prom. I don’t have a driver’s license yet, and I still sleep with a night-light. But if I keel over while I’m working here, I’d finally have some real headline potential: SAMANTHA D’ANGELO, THE HERALD TRIBUNE’S YOUNGEST OBIT WRITER, DEAD.
I glance at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. It’s already 3:15 p.m. Bernadette usually makes the feature call by 4:00.
“Moronica!” she yells across the newsroom. Damn. Bernadette’s not wasting any time today.
“She’s using the feminine,” AJ says without looking up from his terminal. “She means you.”
Harry Walters, the editor in chief, may be the big boss at the newspaper, but clearly, Bernadette is the boss of me.
“Does she call everyone Moron or Moronica, or just the people she doesn’t like?” I ask.
“For Bernie, it’s all the same. She doesn’t like people. She’s a riot during our annual sensitivity training,” AJ says.
“And she just gets away with it?”
AJ peers at me through glasses so ugly, they’re cool.
“She’s been here for, like, a hundred years. I don’t think Harry has the heart to fire her. Maybe he thinks she’ll just keep coming in anyway, like Bartleby. It’s like she holds up that wall behind her,” he says.
I glance over at Bernie/Bernadette, who’s inhaling a supersize meal. With spiky champagne blond hair and a substantial belly, she’s Heat Miser meets Ursula the sea witch.
“She’s certainly big enough. It wouldn’t kill her to lay off the fries,” I blurt out before covering my mouth.
I hope only AJ heard me. My inner monologue has been slipping out lately. I have to admit, though, it feels pretty good.
“Moronica!” Bernadette says again. “How many?”
Lucky for Bernadette, I also have an inner censor.
“Seven!” I yell.
“That’s not going to cut it. Come over here and give me a rundown.”
Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap, my mind screams. I take the ponytail holder off my wrist and pull my long, brown, style-resistant hair into a messy twist before heading over to the copy desk. I cut through the Nerf basketball court behind me, swing around the group of desks that serves as the features department, and arrive at her corner desk.
“Read me the list,” she says, only half looking up as she alternates between editing copy and taking bites of a greasy burger.
“Um, civil engineer, teacher, homemaker, pastry chef,” I say.
“Stop! The pastry chef—male or female?”
“Male. Does it matter?”
“Not really. Where did he work?”
“The Waldorf Astoria.”
“Let’s do him,” she says. “Call the funeral home and get a number for the family.”
“Okay,” I say, afraid to argue that we still have a couple of hours and some more obits might come in.
Even though I get a byline, it doesn’t compensate for the stomach pains that accompany merely thinking about writing feature obits. This probably sounds pretty bad, but I keep hoping more people in our northern New Jersey coverage area will die. Not a lot of people. Just enough to fill the darn obit page. Before I started working here, I got nervous every time I called Vinnie’s Pizzeria to place an order. Now I phone grieving families on a daily basis. It’s like I’ve been living my life in dog years.
As I recross the Nerf court, Harry bounces the orange ball off the back of my head.
“Still here, D’Angelo?” he asks. “I thought Bernie would have broken you by now. You’ve written a record number of feature obits since you started. Must be your name. People don’t seem to die when you’re at the obit desk.”
As I slink over to my seat, Harry starts singing “Hark, the Herald D’Angelo Sings” as he takes a jump shot. Lean, with unruly black hair and a goatee that’s turning gray, Harry looks more like an aging 1970s rock star than an editor.
I sigh and reach for my desk phone just as my cell vibrates in my pocket. I replace the receiver on its cradle and sneak a glance at my phone’s screen: a new text message. I’m sure it’s from my friend, Shelby. We haven’t been getting along so well lately, and I’m choosing to blame her. Apparently, prompted by the excessive consumption of Mike’s Hard Lemonade at a party in early June, she strutted (or maybe staggered) up to the most popular guy in our class, Rob McGinty, and confessed my longtime crush on him.
Ever since then, my bestie has been calling me relentlessly and begging forgiveness. Not only am I angry about her newfound party-girl ways, I’m pissed about how her drinking is affecting me. Rob lives in my neighborhood. What if I run into him? What about when school starts again? He has a girlfriend.
“You’re scowling,” AJ says, interrupting the cloud of fury building in my head.
“Am not,” I say. Now I’m a defensive first grader.
“Don’t worry. Harry likes you,” AJ says.
“How can you tell?” I ask. I don’t bother to correct his misread of my scowl.
“He talks to you,” AJ says. “You’re on his good side. I’d try to stay there if I were you.”
“Why? Is his bad side that bad?” I ask. I ignore a second text from Shelby. I can’t deal with her neediness right now.
“Bernie’s annoying but harmless. Harry goes off. We really need to keep one of those tranquilizer guns around here. You know, like the kind they use for rabid animals?”
“So far, he just seems a little goofy to me,” I say.
“Goofy? Where do you get goofy?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe that collection of windup toys he keeps on his desk, next to his Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots?”
“Good point.”
“And when he hired me, he told me to put my palms flat on the desk. Then he whipped out this rubber ink stamp and put a red armadillo on the back of each hand. It was just weird,” I say.
“Not if you’re a bouncer. Did he say anything?” AJ asks.
“He said, ‘Welcome aboard. Armadillos are my favorite animal. They’re so misunderstood.’ As if that explained everything.”
“I don’t know about the hand-stamp thing, but he once threw an AP style manual at the back of my head for not getting to the phone by the third ring,” AJ says. “Then there was the time he came storming out of his office and swept everything off a reporter’s desk. There were pens and notebooks flying everywhere.”
“What did the reporter do to piss him off?” I ask.
“Made a mistake on a big story. We had to print a retraction. Harry was like a polar bear on crack. He kept screaming, ‘Sloppy desk, sloppy reporting,’ over and over again. I seriously thought his head was going to spin around and we’d have to call in a priest for an exorcism.”
I sneak a glance at Harry, who’s happily playing basketball with Dan, one of the pressmen. Harry just seems like a fortysomething overgrown kid to me. AJ is not the type to exaggerate, though. With his nearly shoulder-length brown hair, ripped-knee jeans, and seemingly endless collection of classic-rock tees, AJ is the embodiment of laid-back. He’s starting his second year at Rutgers-Newark this fall, but I gather he’s more interested in playing drums with his band, Love Gas, than in working for the New York Times someday. Sometimes I think he might seem a lot cuter if he just tried a little harder.
The phone rings. Maybe it’s a funeral director with, like, seven or eight obits. That would be sweet. Then we can deep-six the pastry-chef feature.
“Obit desk,” I answer.
“You sound so friendly when you say that. It’s creepy, you know?”
Ugh. Shelby. Not sweet.
“Do not call me on this line. I told you that.”
“But when I call your cell, I don’t get to hear you say ‘obit desk.’ Besides, you’ve been screening me all day.”
“I’m busy,” I say.
“You’re not still angry about the Rob McGinty thing, are you? Because I thought I was helping, really. You’re always so afraid to talk to him, and I think you’d have a chance with Rob if you’d just—”
“Look, we’ll talk later, okay?” I say through clenched teeth. Please, oh, please let her summer job at the mall come through.
“You’re not going to let this ruin our last real summer, are you?”
“Not the last-real-summer thing again. I’m hanging up now.”
“Don’t you—”
Click.
“Was that your spacey friend again?” AJ asks.
Shelby’s right about one thing, I’ve always been shy around most guys. Not AJ, though. On my first day, AJ and I did these mock interviews of each other as part of my training. The exercise lasted only an hour, but the Q&A between us never stopped.
“Yes, she calls the obit desk almost as much as your girlfriend, Jessica,” I say. “Call, text, do something. Communication is the key to any healthy relationship.”
“She’s not my girlfriend, she’s my … I don’t know,” he says.
“I’m sure Jessica appreciates you referring to her as your I-don’t-know.”
AJ just shrugs. “Things are unclear at the moment.”
“Right. I understand completely.”
I don’t, really. In fact, I’ve been trying to get a read on this situation since I started working here. AJ says this Jessica person is not his girlfriend, but he wears a black leather cord around his neck with a plain silver ring that looks, well, girlie. Is it Jessica’s? Would a guy wear a girl’s ring? Seems odd. When it comes to dating, though, what do I know? I’m more familiar with the surface of Mars (thanks to NASA’s excellent website).
We stare at each other for a few seconds before I continue. “Anyway, if Shelby calls on the obit line again, can you do me a favor and pretend you’re my boss and tell her you’ll fire me if she doesn’t stop calling?”
“No problemo,” he says. “If you didn’t sound twelve, you could probably do the same for me with Jessica.”
“Shut up,” I say. “Just be thankful no one can tell how short you are from the sound of your voice.”
“Short? I’m not short. Five-nine is average. Like you should talk.”
He’s right. People who are five-one should not throw stones.
“Sorry. It’s just that Shelby is making me insane. Her foreign-exchange-student boyfriend returned to his homeland, and she suddenly remembered she’s the yin to my yang,” I say.
“So, your friend turned into a total ho this year, and now you don’t like her?”
“Nooo. I told you. The party? She blabbed to that guy and made it sound like I was totally crushing on him. Plus, she abandoned me all year long while she strolled the halls holding hands and making out with Olaf,” I say.
“Bitter much?”
Maybe I am. A boyfriend—and perhaps some help in the boobage department—would make it so much easier to navigate the slim passageways between high school social circles. If Chestnutville High is as good as it gets, I’m going to pull a Sylvia Plath. Last real summer? I’m still waiting for my first real summer. My first real everything.
“Why don’t you get started on that feature obit while I make a coffee run?” AJ says.
“Why don’t you get started on the feature while I make the coffee run?”
“Because I can drive through Dunkin’ Donuts, which is faster than walking to the deli. Plus, you’re a way better writer,” AJ says.
“Flattery will get you nowhere.”
“Yes, but my car will get me to Dunkin’ Donuts.”
“Fine,” I say, silently cursing the state of New Jersey for making the legal age to drive without an adult seventeen, and my guidance counselor for hooking me up with this summer job after my parents expressed their concern that working the Snack Shack at the community pool wasn’t challenging enough. Honor Society and Advanced Placement classes just aren’t enough for those two. It’s not easy being the sole offspring of two lawyers. A little sibling diversion would have been nice. Still, I’m a people pleaser by nature.
So in April I went to Mr. Arbeeny for some advice about finding a summer job that would look good on my college applications. I told him I like to write—my straight-A grades in all my English classes prove I’ve got some skills in that area. So Mr. Arbeeny mentioned my “flair for writing”—how very guidance counselorish of him—to his old friend Harry, and here I am. At first I was excited to have a summer job doing real writing. I’ve harbored secret dreams of starting my own blog for a while now. But, somehow, I didn’t anticipate I’d be fetching coffee for editors and writing about dead people all day.
On the upside, here’s what I’ve discovered: High school, if you live long enough, doesn’t mean all that much when you’re dead. Obit writers don’t get to say a lot about a life in four paragraphs. There just isn’t space to mention GPAs or SAT scores, honor rolls or varsity letters, Chess Club or in-school suspension. But were my life to end right now, at best my own obit would be short, like me. At this point, all I’ve got is a decent headline.
I search for the funeral home’s number so I can get the scoop on the pastry chef. I sigh and pick up the phone.
Oddly enough, even though I’m surrounded by death all day, this gig is tons easier than high school. I enjoy being the youngest person in the room. It’s like I’m the foreign-exchange student around here.
“Moronica! Where’s my feature?” Bernadette yells.
Except I’m not Olaf. I’m Moronica.


 
Text copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski