Story: The Obituary Writer

By: Ruth Z. Deming

obituarywriter

Alicia, modern woman that she was, needed three jobs in order to survive and pay her bills. To her dismay, she learned she was pregnant. At a party at her girlfriend’s apartment, everyone including herself was as drunk as you could get without outright passing out. She and a good-looking olive-skinned man held hands and tottered into an empty bedroom. They couldn’t find the light switch but they did find the bed where they had quick in-and-out sex.

“What’s your name, anyway?” she asked the half-clothed man whose head was pouring sweat.

“Charles.”

He never asked her name.

Pushing thirty-eight, with two abortions behind her, Alicia had given up for dead the chance of finding the perfect man. This was it, then. She would have the child. Especially since her beloved cat Missy had vanished, forever.

Alicia and Missy had been the perfect couple in their Bensalem, Pennsylvania condo. To visit, you might think she lived in the past. Her Grandma Lillian, an antique dealer, left her expensive furniture to Lillian. No one else wanted it, her Tiffany lamps, mirror with inlaid pearl and a sexy gyrating Shiva. And although Alicia loved Picasso and Matisse and Arshile

Gorky’s abstractions of his Armenian childhood, she was not afraid to hang up Norman Rockwell calendars in both the living room and the bathroom.

On her blond Ikea wooden shelves in the living room, she had copies of Life magazines from the 1950s, when women were the unsung queens of the house. Full-page ads showed washing machines with smiling aproned-women standing over them as an invitation either to jump into the machine or buy the damn thing. An alluring color photo of a brilliant green bottle of Prell Shampoo advised readers to reach for Prell for that “radiantly alive look.”

She and blue-eyed Missy, who would not be long for this world, would spend evenings on the long, elegant gold-rimmed divan with tassels, as Alicia relaxed with a gin and tonic – Missy’s ears perked up when she heard the clinking of the ice – and Alicia raised her glass to the heavens:

“Almighty whomever, Missy and I thank you for our perfect lives.”

One morning, she brewed a cup of cinnamon tea and sipped on it as she slid open her patio door and went out into her glorious backyard. Although her condo was sandwiched in with other apartments, her yard was totally private. Sipping the tea, she wandered among the last of the August flowers, which seemed exhausted from hanging their pretty faces in the blazing-hot sunshine and were now readying themselves for their sad and drooping demise.

Alicia was also reflecting on Missy’s disappearance. She had disappeared two months earlier – June 29, to be exact – having taken an early morning nature walk to the jungle just beyond the condo. The Siamese cat loved exploring. She listened to all the sounds in the woods – the gurgling of the creek, the croaking of the frogs, snakes slithering through the tall grasses, and mice skirting unseen along the forest floor.

It was there that Missy, no doubt, had vanished. In this beautiful natural sanctuary. Eaten by whom? Dear God, thought Alicia, I hope it was quick. Her dear carnivorous predator cat had been eaten by another predator. Alicia cried when she thought about her girl.

Her friends were kind. They sent her condolence cards.

Never again would Missy deliver squealing mice to her mistress, placing them on the kitchen floor to tease them until they died of fright or torment. Alicia would have no need anymore of the sorrow of cats. A human child would take her place. The name “Melinda” would remind her of Missy.

She took her tea into her office, whose view gave onto the front parking lot. She closed the blinds, wiggled the mouse of her computer, then viewing her reflection in the monitor, smoothed out her curly blond hair which tumbled to her shoulders.

Would there be any work for her today?

She put her hands on her belly, looked down and told her daughter, “I love you Melinda,” and felt her squiggling inside. The father, Charles someone, had a black buzz cut. She couldn’t remember anything else about the man.

Obituary please!” read the note from the New York Times.

Although she would have no byline and the pay was lousy, Alicia relished these assignments at the most prestigious newspaper in the world. First, she quick-checked the headlines of the Times. Fighting and more fighting. Gaza. Iraq. Nigeria. And now riots in of all places Ferguson, MO, over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Figures. This was her America. Sometimes she felt so ashamed of her country she wished she could move overseas. She quickly deleted the headlines. Baby Melinda had no need of anxious hormones, cortisol, she believed they were called, traveling through her innocent bloodstream. For the child’s sake, Alicia had given up alcohol and coffee, the latter being the more difficult.

Sitting chin in hand, Alicia read the editor’s note about the terrible details of a young woman’s death. It so touched her that it took only forty-minutes to compose the obit, check it three times and send it off to her Times editor.

Dominique Angela Byrne, of Manhattan, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Stephen Byrne, sister of Deidre, Deauville and Donald, died unexpectedly on vacation on August 23. Ms. Byrne drowned at Nyali Beach in Mombasa, Kenya, when a current pulled her underwater. Life guards brought her on shore but were unable to revive her. Ms. Byrne was 28.

In her short life, the biracial Ms. Byrne, a graduate of Hunter College and editor of its Envoy newspaper, was heralded as the first African-American woman to found her own birthing center. A midwife, who trained at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, her “Angela’s Healthy Mothers” served poor women in the Bronx. Not only did the five midwives on staff deliver the babies and teach the benefits of breastfeeding, but they also taught the mostly black and Hispanic new moms how to care for their children, provide sanitary conditions for them at home, talk to the children, read to them, and maintain eye contact. Home visits up to a year after the birth of the child served to reinforce the lessons.

Ms. Byrne received top awards for her work. Her inspirational TED talk can be heard on the following website.

Alicia was glad she never met the woman.

Why, then, in days to come did Dominique invade her dreams? Asleep in Grandma Lillian’s bed with its huge white headboard, Alicia moaned aloud, waking herself up. In a repeating dream, she dove into a swimming pool where the drowning woman’s hair streamed behind her. She was as elusive as a ball rolling down a hill. Alicia kept coming up for air, unable to save her, but dove back in again and again. In the dream Alicia was pregnant, huge, in fact, the baby feeling like a moving bicycle inside her as she breast-stroked underwater, her blue nightgown flowing like a fish behind her.

She would find herself gasping for breath when she awoke, her heart thumping. Quickly, she would place her hands on her abdomen, to make sure Melinda was all right.

Although Alicia had a number of good friends – Amy, Sarah, Olivia – she decided not to burden them with her strange tale of a woman she had never met who she could not forget.

What did Dominique want from her?

*

Alicia worked three days a week in what’s known as the hospitality industry. At the Courtyard by Marriott she was allowed to sit on a high stool behind the counter where she greeted guests and checked them into the hotel. A good percentage of them stayed there during their summer vacations when they visited nearby Sesame Place. She had never been there herself, but hotel patrons told her of the delights of meeting Bert and Ernie and The Cookie Monster, climbing up a rope ladder and going on a “real roller coaster” for kids as young as three years old.

“I met Big Bird,” said Madeline, jumping up and down in a pink dress.

“You did!” said Alicia.

“Yes! He had very very soft feathers. He let me touch them,” she smiled, looking up at her mother.

The job paid well and kept her busy every moment of the day. She tried to guess which of the patrons were big tippers or poor ones, as confirmed by the housekeeping staff.

“Miss Alicia,” said one of the Hispanic housekeepers. “That big family with the four ninos stole every single towel and washcloth and left me not a penny.”

“Holy Mother of God!” said Alicia. “They’ll never get away with it.”

It was Alicia’s job to call the family and say, “There must be some mistake. You took all of our towels, mistaking them for your own.”

*

She made quite a few friends at her third job at the Bensalem Library. Although she lacked the requisite master’s degree, the head librarian Amy Greenwold was willing to bend the rules to save money. Alicia sat at the three-person Reference Desk with a placard reading “Alicia M. Kelly, Reference Librarian.”

She fielded questions by phone such as “I need the address of someone in Portland, Oregon” to “What does the ‘D’ in D-Day stand for?” or “Can I use Wikipedia in my term paper?”

When she first took the job she panicked as she put the caller on hold and asked a neighboring librarian, Jay Bhatt or Linda Jones, how to find the answer.

She soon learned it was no different than using search engines on her home computer and prided herself on being quick on the draw, taking less than ninety seconds to respond to most queries.

Before she was pregnant, the head librarian had asked her to set up a “nursing-friendly” area in the library. A small room, next to the copy machines, was created for nursing moms who could sit in a plush purple recliner and nurse their young ones. A water cooler sat in the corner and there were tiny chairs for any siblings. The library won an award for its “Nursing-Friendly Atmosphere.”

*

Ever since her parents’ divorce, Alicia remained close to her father. They would meet for dinner once a month. Alicia need only choose a place and her dad, owner of an investment firm, would meet her there and pick up the tab.

Fisher’s Seafood House dominated a street corner in a Tudor-style building near Alicia’s condo. George Pavlis himself came around to their table, asking how father and daughter were enjoying the meal.

“Best scallops I ever had,” said Alicia, tapping one golden-brown beauty with her fork.

“Your daughter has good taste, Nickie.”

“She can’t help it. It’s in the genes. And now, I’m going to be a grandpop for the first time.”

“Ah, you’re too young, Nicholas,” said Pavlis, winking at Alicia.

Fisher’s was famous for their Caesar salad and special dressing. Scooping up a dressing-soaked crouton, Alicia asked her dad if she could borrow some money.

“Dad, you know how you always told me to follow my intuition? Well, I know this sounds, well, kinda crazy, but I want to go to Kenya.”

He was silent.

She went on to explain the whole story of Dominique Angela Byrne and by the time the cheesecake arrived, her dad had pledged to help her.

Next day she gave two weeks’ notice to her three employers, pleading she needed time to think about what to do with the rest of her life, now that a little one was on its way.

So it was that Alicia and Melinda, who was burgeoning in her mom’s tummy and keeping her up at night with her in utero partying, arrived at the luxurious Kahama Hotel in Mobasa, Kenya. After a good night’s sleep, Alicia awoke, and, in her green nightgown drew the bedroom drapes and gazed three stories down on the shimmering blue swimming pool below.

She dialed room service and ordered a breakfast of fruit, a poached egg on toast, and tea delivered to Room 305. She sat at a glass-topped table and ate slowly, planning her agenda. From her pocket book, she extracted a photo of Dominique Angela Byrne, and stared at the woman’s face. Undeniably beautiful, her lustrous skin was the color of café-au-lait and her dark eyes bored into Alicia’s, seeming to know everything about her.

Their relationship had changed since they first became acquainted. Dominique had stopped her obsessive need to gain Alicia’s attention and now simply kept up a quiet patter.

In the early afternoon, Alicia, dressed in a long flowing turquoise caftan that clearly showed she was “with child,” walked carefully down the three flights of stairs – she hated waiting for elevators – and into the bright lobby of the hotel with paintings of flowers and a photo of the tall buildings of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

Spotting a dark-skinned man in a nearly floor-length orange boubou leaning against the counter, she asked, “Is that you Moses?”

“I am. And you are Ms. Kelly,” he said, bowing and extending his long auburgine-colored arm.

“Do call me Alicia, please.”

He nodded and said his taxi was ready.

At last it was daylight and she could inhale the smells and sights of Mombasa.

“You must tell me everything,” she said. “Everything about your country.”

He held the back door of the taxi open for her, but she insisted on sitting in the front so she could see everything and also show observers that she and Kenyons were on an equal basis.

“Cast your gaze, Madame, on the tall skyscrapers in the distance,” he said, pointing, before they got into the green taxi, which was a new model Toyota RAV4.

Sure enough, miles and miles away, skyscrapers, looking similar to those in Philadelphia or even New York, grazed the sky, topped by an assemblage of puffy white clouds.

Moses helped her into the front seat, as she gathered up her long skirt and placed her huge bead-bejeweled pocket book in her lap. She patted her belly with both hands as they drove down the driveway, flanked by waving palm trees, whose huge fronds were like giant green ribbons saluting them as they drove off.

What surprised Alicia the most were long stretches of bare land, looking more or less like the barren spaces in North Philadelphia where ratty crack houses had been torn down. Drugs, of course, were everywhere. Her own mother, God knows, the talented nonfiction writer, Roberta H. Kelly, author of the acclaimed “The Many Lives of Walt Disney,” had so screwed up her life with booze and prescription drugs, that it had been twelve years since she had completed another book for her publisher.

Moses narrated their whereabouts in his English-accented baritone, a canned speech for sure, but innovative and fascinating.

“This, Madame, is our elee-phant reff-uge,” he said pointing to a crude wooden sign that read “Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary.”

He drove his Toyota inside, pulled over and spoke Swahili to a gentleman, who like Moses, wore a long boubou, this time, in a blue-striped pattern.

“I can’t wait to see the elephants,” Alicia told Moses, with familiarity. “Especially the baby ones,” she added, patting Melinda and feeling the wooden-like hardness of her belly.

Moses helped her from the car, the Toyota rose high above the ground, and he took great care for her safety, advising her, “Please be careful, Madame. We don’t want anything to go wrong on your wonderful excursion across our ancient lands.”

A few other tourists, all white, wandered with guides in the distance of the compound. Moses told her he would wait in “the truck” while a guide, Joseph, showed her around.

In a glassed-in case Joseph showed her something so horrible she was afraid it would never leave her mind, like something in a carnival freak show. It was the dead head of an elephant, the bloody and mutilated face of a huge male elephant whose long white tusks had been severed by poachers. Ivory fetched high prices on the black market. This preserve, Joseph told her, was created twenty years ago to safeguard the elephant population as well as an endangered species of plant called Encephalartos. As they strolled slowly down the dirt road, Joseph guided her to rows and rows of beautiful upward-lifting emerald-green ferns, bearing stark-red oblong berries. She slipped away from Joseph and cradled the berries in her hands.

“We have many different varieties, Madame,” he said. “Some are known as Kaffir bread. How I remember as a boy, my Christian mother serving her eight children this delicious food, which we would spread with fig jam.”

Alicia smiled and walked onward.

Down the dirt road they trod. She turned around to see what Moses was doing. He was lighting a cigarette outside the Toyota. She smiled. And then saw the elephants.

They were reclining under a shade tree. A real tree like back home, not a palm tree, with its abundant leaves creating a breeze for what she assumed were a mother, a father, and two baby elephants, both about the size of a pint-sized refrigerator.

“Do they like to be touched?” she asked eagerly.

“They are like us, Madame. Touch is very important. See them lying together in a family hug?”

Hiking her skirt up, she sat down in the dirt and sat across from them. She inhaled their wild animal odor, something you could never smell in a zoo. Their deep gray wrinkled skin was a pattern in symmetry. Their huge eyes, surrounded by the gray accordion-like creases, sprouted blinking eyelashes. It was the trunk, though, that beckoned her. The mama’s trunk had two football sized nostrils with pulsating hairs within, that breathed in and out. Alicia leaned back and stared up at the sky. Raising her arms, she forgot where she was and went into a reverie – “Am I really here? Am I really pregnant?” – then snapped back to her day at the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary with real elephants she could reach out and touch.

She gazed again at the elephant family. Was there a Jane Goodall of the elephants, she wondered.

I am pleased to meet you,” she whispered. “I too have a baby. My little Melinda,” she said tapping on her belly. The elephant family was nearly asleep. She put both arms onto the back of the baby elephant nearest her. He stirred as she felt the tough, hard wrinkled skin that quivered slightly at her touch.

I must remember the feel of his skin forever,” she thought, then whispered again to the elephant family.

I may be back,” she told them. “I may very well return.”

At the entrance, she took some literature about the preserve and tucked it into her pocket book.

“May I give you a donation?” she asked a man in a camouflage outfit.

The universal money was accepted. Her Citi Card credit card.

Back in the Toyota, Alicia asked Moses what time it got dark.

“Plenty of time, Madame,” he told her. “At the nineteenth hour.”

“Uh, what’s that in American time?”

“Sorry. Seven o’clock p.m.”

Yes there was plenty of time to go to the beach.

Through the front windshield she watched as they drove past unfamiliar looking houses – small brick or wooden dwellings – tall apartment houses made from brick or concrete, or past shanty towns like she had seen on television in suburbs of Johannesburg. The poor were everywhere. Her own mother was poor and lived in a seven-story apartment building, under Section 8 subsidized housing. Government buildings were plentiful. They looked much the same as in Philadelphia, stodgy, with no thought to ornamentation or the necessity of windows.

Through the open window she could smell the beach. It was a clear day and she could see colorful umbrellas on the beach, a game of volleyball played by lithe young men and women of different shades of auburgine, and a life guard sitting on a high platform.

She told Moses she would stay here by herself. She would either call him or find a ride back from someone at the beach. And, yes, she would be very careful. She was a discerning woman, after all.

She presented Moses with a wad of currency that she had exchanged at the hotel. She could tell he was pleased by her generosity. Her heart was pounding as he helped her from the Toyota and she walked alone on the beach. The beach where Dominique Angela Byrne had drowned on August 23.

It was now the end of September, or “Septombre,” as Alicia thought of it. The dread end to summer and moving into the colder months, the snow and ice, the careful walking on the sidewalk, more like shuffling, especially now that she was pregnant, and the fearsome sliding on “black ice” while driving. Alicia wondered, on this perfect day, about the weather in Mombasa. Not a bad place to live. Did it get cold? She stopped to remove her sandals, shook them out and looked straight ahead at the slowly lapping waves on the lake. For a moment, she visualized a beautiful light-colored black woman in a two-piece bathing suit, arms outstretched and walking into the water. Then she saw the woman venture further out to sea. She dove underwater and her shapely black arms skimmed the surface of the foamy water. Alicia glanced over at the life guard in his high-up post. He seemed to be scanning the stretch of water between two green flags. Now Dominique had disappeared. Alicia hurried to the water’s edge. Shading her eyes from the sun, she looked at the horizon, where sky meets sea, and saw nothing. No waving arms. No sailboats with immaculate white sails. Nothing.

Realizing her legs and her long dress were wet and cold, she turned back. She patted her hard tummy and silently thanked her daughter for keeping still and not disturbing her with the occasional knife-like stabbing pains along her lower spine.

Under a grass roof was a refreshment stand. Alicia’s tired legs made their way there and she welcomed the shade and the sound of Bob Marley singing “Don’t worry about a thing, every little thing is gonna be alright.” She slipped onto a rattan stool and read the menu, printed in black script. A kind black face appeared in front of her.

“Madame?” said the woman. “What may I bring for you.”

“The… hot Cadbury cocoa sounds good.”

A large rounded white mug held the hot steamed cocoa, which foamed like a frothy little sea inside the cup. Inhaling it, Alicia lifted it up, blew on it, and sipped. Never, she thought, had she tasted anything like this. It was like drinking from a chocolate tree. Cradling the cup in her hands, she turned around to gaze at the water. It was then she felt her stomach begin to contract. She looked down at the cement floor and saw her bare feet and her still-wet dress. Without thinking, she quickly got off the stool, Bob Marley still singing, and went out onto the sand to think.

Contractions, she thought. So these were the contractions of pregnancy. They hurt!

She borrowed the rotary telephone from the bartender and called Moses. He was to come quickly down to the refreshment hut. He was to hurry. She was going into labor.

Moses drove his SUV carefully onto the beach and helped Alicia inside. She was quiet. Hands on belly. She knew Melinda would survive even though she was one and a half months early. Alicia chuckled out loud. How could she be so sure, so self-confident that everything would be all right. A pregnant woman alone in a country seven thousand miles away from home. A woman who had no religion, no husband, no faith in God. It was the baby that made her strong. The baby and the woman who had drowned.

“You will be fine, Madame,” said Moses. “We will go to the hospital. They will take good care of you.”

Alicia wondered if Moses were married but she was too preoccupied to ask.

The Aga Khan Hospital was a tall white structure with a roof of red clay tiles. Doctors and nurses stood outside chatting. They turned toward the taxi as Moses drove under the canopy, stopping at the sliding glass doors. Alicia was ushered into a wheel chair and within fifteen minutes was upstairs in a “birthing suite,” attended by three nurses. Their beauty astonished her. All three had short-cropped black hair and wore white blouses over black slacks.

“Midwives?” she asked.

“Indeed we are, Miss Alicia. Trained in the capital city of Nairobi. Now you just relax and we will help you.”

The nurses came in and out of the room. “Just continue breathing,” they would say. Or, “You’re doing great. The little one will soon be here.”

Four hours elapsed. Alicia, slightly tanned from her short stint on the beach, looked at her freckled arms which poked out of the blue hospital gown. She watched the clouds swim past outside the huge window.

“Miss Funzi,” said Alicia to one of the nurses. “Will you hold my hand when I need to push.”

“Of course I will, dear. I have had four babies of my own. I know all about pushing.”

The pain was not only bearable, but far less painful than she thought.

Melinda was born as dusk sent its gentle spirit across the city.

She gave a hearty cry upon leaving the warm baths of her home.

The three midwives stood by, as the doctor suctioned the mucous from the baby’s mouth and sutured her umbilical cord.

“We’ll check your daughter’s vitals and then hand her over to you,” said the doctor, whose head was covered with a white cap. Alicia hadn’t had a good look yet at her child.

The air-conditioning blew the white curtains on the windows and they billowed as if applauding the great event.

When Melinda was handed over, Alicia laughed. She said nothing but thought to herself, “Charles must have been a black man.”

Melinda had a crown of see-through black hair, a smooth coffee ice cream complexion, tiny gripping fingers that finally got to meet her mother, and a rooting instinct that drew her straight to her mother’s breast.

She weighed in at four pounds and thirteen ounces and was fully developed. All she lacked at seven and a half months was body fat.

Provisions were made for Melinda to sleep next to the neonatal unit where the baby would gain weight on both breast milk and a special formula.

Whoever this Aga Khan was, thought Alicia, he knew how to build a modern hospital.

After a good night’s sleep, Alicia chose a breakfast of mango slices, poached eggs on toast, strawberry jam and a glass of cold milk. After she had wiped her mouth with a paper napkin, she saw a woman with a clipboard enter the room.

“Mrs. Kelly,” she said, extending her hand. “Congratulations. I took a look at your beautiful daughter when I passed the neonatal unit. I’m Vernelle Biwott. We’ll get the paperwork done now of getting her a birth certificate.”

Alicia picked up her mug of Lipton tea with lemon.

“Oh, I decided on a name for her this morning,” she said.

“I’ll call her Dominique. Dominique Angela Kelly.” And, she thought to herself, I sure hope she likes elephants as much as I do.

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