Three days after Anton Antonovich Popov garroted himself with piano wire, Elsie Green motored up his looping driveway—voice recorder and notepad in her shoulder bag—to write Popov’s first, and her 200th, obituary.
Popov, composer of an acclaimed debut opera, a second opera reviled by audiences and critics alike, a small body of symphonic work, and countless commercial jingles, had purchased the small mountain in cash, clear-cut the top, and constructed a heptagonal lodge at the peak—one wall for each note in the musical scale. A haze of steam wafted from the heated driveway. Winter had just begun to relent, and the foothills of western Maine were a mush of gray.
The doorbell sounded The Rite of Spring—Stravinsky, Elsie knew. The door flung open to reveal Mrs. Popov, 50ish, petite, and glassy-eyed in a swirl of dark fabrics and liquor fumes.
“I’m here to do the obit,” Elsie said.
Mrs. Popov started at the sight of Elsie. Seventy-nine, hunched, shriveled, and afflicted with a tremor, Elsie possessed the pallor of her subjects. She was old to be working, much less as a reporter. Newspapers were a grueling, dying business that favored younger, dumber blood. But when Ronnie Parker bought the Yankee Gazette out of bankruptcy court, he’d fired everyone on the editorial staff but Elsie—the arts and entertainment reporter—and transformed the paper, which now published only paid obituaries and advertisements for caskets, estate attorneys, and various bereavement services. Ronnie had convinced half of New England that a Yankee Gazette obit was necessary for closure. Many of the state’s funeral homes included a Yankee obit as part of their full-service funeral packages. The move had proven profitable. Maine may have lacked industry, growth, and innovation, but with the nation’s oldest-skewing population, there was a guaranteed annual surplus of death. The opioid epidemic had also been a boon for profit margins.
Inside the Popov home, Elsie ignored the piano wire dangling from the bannister. This was a $500 standard obituary. The cause of death would neither be stated nor covered up. She would stick to polite, dry fact. For another $500, the Gazette offered an angel obit, in which the surviving family members could reimagine the deceased’s life without regard to any truths that might tarnish their loved one’s reputation. For $2,000, the devil obit allowed publication of any insult and injury to the departed. The negative obit was a great untapped market, Ronnie had insisted, since it was impossible to libel the dead.
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