It was her approval I sought because this was the only period in my career where I actually believed in what I was doing. I had written some stories that made an impact, but obituaries were my favorite. We had our own morgue – a graveyard of rusted file cabinets overflowing with hand labeled manila folders bursting with yellowed clippings. On Wednesday afternoons, I would be assigned as many as three obits, and I would creep down to the morgue and try to figure out whether the person who died was a Poseyville Lester or a Round Swamp Lester, and if their estranged children could not remember the date of their wedding anniversary I would dig up their spouse’s obituary in hopes of finding it. This, as with everything we did, was a matter of historical record, and I took it very seriously.
For a time our archives were maintained by an overweight and overwrought library science major named Alice. Alice was laid off unceremoniously when we received our first major pay cut, as the recession hit in 2008, and after that we didn’t have an archivist and nobody bothered to stuff the drawers with more stories.
Occasionally someone would borrow a stack of files and then leave them on her desk, as if she might eventually return to file them in their rightful place. The light bulb burned out over her workspace, and no one bothered to replace it. Members of the production team burnt out, and no one bothered to replace them.
We were doing twice the amount of work and being paid about half of what we had made the year before. The paper was thin, so we had to write short. We began the insanely depressing practice of betting on when we would all be told to pack up and go home. But somehow we survived, mostly due to side jobs, canned beans, or leaning on our significant others.
By the time I left the paper in February of 2011, I was back up to being paid for 32.5 hours per week. I never did make it back to 40, which I had when I started, and I never did get a raise. What I did get was a half decade’s worth of delightful and harrowing life experiences to base my first novel on.
Robert Long had taught me how to write. He was a poet and ex-alcoholic who mercilessly hacked the flowery bits from my copy until I started to get it, and began to behave less like a writer and more like a news reporter. With no experience in the field, I was placed at a desk alongside his own. He was a senior editor at the time, and I learned more about writing in the short months beside him than I did after 16 years of formal education. The desk was a roll top designed for a child. I am very tall, and was always banging my knees on the desk. But I was so proud to have it.
I was just working up the nerve to ask Robert to sign my copy of his book of poems, “Blue,” which is a quite sad and lovely collection, and I don’t like poetry. But then he came down with one of those swift and fierce cases of cancer, and he was dead within a month. Asking an autograph of a dying man is something you just don’t do, so I will live with Robert’s memory and not his signature.
It was awfully hard watching Robert die. First of all, he had no real family to speak of, and as are most poets, he was really such a private person. Secondly, he clung to the paper until the very end, which approached rapidly. He would wheeze up the stairs and sit at his desk and stare into space. He was speaking and typing in gibberish.
We tried to act natural because we didn’t know how to behave. We wanted him to die with dignity. We weren’t delusional enough to think he might survive. We could see the cancer in the room, wrapping its cold hands around his body and forcing the wind right out of him, which it eventually did, less than six weeks after his diagnosis.