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.
Mrs. Popov settled into an armchair not far from her husband’s Steinway—the one Elsie assumed he’d used to compose his ubiquitous Wipey, Wipey! Cleany, Cleany! jingle for Chubbins toilet paper, as well as the source of the piano wire with which he’d ended his life. Elsie waited for Mrs. Popov to begin. After a minute or so, she broke the silence herself.
“How would you like to remember your husband?”
“I was a ballerina,” Mrs. Popov said.
“Oh, for what troupe?”
“I almost danced the black swan.”
“When was that?”
“I went to Russia to study. I’m from Kansas, you’ve probably heard.”
“That’s how you met Mr. Popov?”
“I have a picture of me dancing.” Mrs. Popov rose and rummaged through a drawer.
Elsie doodled on her notepad—a caricature of Mrs. Popov in a tutu. Until middle age, she had made her living as a portrait artist in South Florida, where she had first developed the skill for making subjects look better, worse, or the same as they actually were.
Photo album in hand, Mrs. Popov pointed out pictures of herself—Mrs. Popov next to a samovar with a state official, Mrs. Popov with a beer stein at a cultural fair in Vienna, Mrs. Popov with champagne toasting her off-off-off Broadway production. Elsie was paid by the obit, not the hour. She had a formula—the survivor got an hour of me-time, then she’d have to start pressing for actual content. She gave Mrs. Popov 30 minutes extra. Her husband was a famous suicide, after all. Circulation would skyrocket; the issue could make its way to Boston, LA, New York, London, Moscow. Mrs. Popov flipped the album to a photo of the young Popovs kissing, she in white, he in a suit. Elsie jumped at the opportunity to get the interview on track.
“This is your wedding? Tell me about that.”
“There’s a tradition in Russian weddings. The first toast, you take a shot of vodka and all the guests chant gorko until you kiss.”
“It means bitter. You chase away bitterness from the alcohol with a kiss. Like love takes the bitterness out of life.”
“What a wonderful tradition,” Elsie said, though a kiss never tempered the taste of vodka for her. Something sour was better—lemon or pickle. Elsie turned the page to a shot of the Popovs dancing in formal attire, holding a stiff-armed distance from each other.
“And what’s this?”
“After Anton’s first opera debuted in London, we were presented to the Royal Family. This is the reception afterwards.”
“May I take this picture for the obituary?”
“You don’t want the wedding picture? It was such a beautiful day.”
“This one has better composition.”
Mrs. Popov carefully pulled the photo from the album.
“Even though things ended like this, I have no regrets. He had no regrets. We did everything we wanted. We lived life without limits. A tortured man would have left a note. He had nothing left to say. He was done, he wanted to leave on his own terms.”
With that, Elsie shut her notebook and stood to leave. Mrs. Popov sprang up and grabbed Elsie’s elbow with such force, the older woman winced.
“And please, don’t mention the second opera,” she said. “Such a shameful point of his life.”
So it did seem, Elsie noted, that Anton Popov had at least one regret.
Ronnie Parker ran the Gazette from a farmhouse in the center of town. The bottom floor had been converted into offices, the top into apartments. Elsie lived upstairs. Ronnie covered her rent and Subaru lease, wrote them off as business expenses, deducted the cost from Elsie’s pay. She suspected he was overcharging her. But she was too weak to shovel her own snow, too tired to haggle with mechanics and landlords, too old to save for the future.
Before Elsie left work, she stopped by Ronnie’s office.
“Filed the Popov obit,” she said.
“Can’t believe with a guy that rich and famous, the wife gets the cheapest obit. Did you try to upsell her?”
“It was a suicide. I wanted to be delicate. Anything new?”
“Shawn Libby was riding across the lake on his snowmobile and fell through the ice. Family ordered the angel obit. So definitely don’t mention that bastard kid over in Fineburg. Not sure how they want to play that time he shot his cousin in the ass. He saved him in the end.”
“I’ll feel it out.”
Elsie filled her thermos with stale office coffee and drove to the lake. She could see the jagged hole where Shawn had fallen through. Sometimes in these situations, they didn’t recover the body till warm weather thawed the ice. Sometimes they never did.
A bareheaded man on a snowmobile sped across the fragile ice. As he neared, Elsie recognized him—local handyman Norris Jones, an aging Lothario 20 years her junior. She had hired him to install blinds in her home when she was new to town. The workday had ended with the blinds open and Elsie heaving atop Norris. Then, a confession:
“I have a wife,” he’d said.
“All my lovers do,” she’d responded.
That had been before Elsie had learned the delicate dynamics of small-town affairs. Norris’s long-suffering wife was a town clerk. Most years, Elsie’s applications for motor vehicle registration were lost in the system. She’d reapply with a late fee, then record the amount in a small ledger under a column titled: Sex with Norris, 1982.
From the side of the lake, Elsie waved Norris over. He sped across the ice until he reached the shore.
“You need help?” Norris was red-faced and red-eyed.
“Be careful,” Elsie said. “You know what happened here.”
“Shawn was my best friend.”
Elsie took a hard eye to Norris, to his snowmobile, to the gray sheen of the lake.
“Mind if I ride along?” she asked.
Norris helped Elsie onto the snowmobile. She wrapped her hands around his waist, and they raced in circles until her hat fell off, her scarf unspooled, her gloveless fingers froze. She tucked her hands under Norris’s coat, crept them beneath his waistband, wondering how far to go, if it was worth embarrassment and rejection to feel another body’s warmth on hers.
Elsie’s life had been shaped by two risks. At the age of 20, she dropped out of nursing school to become an artist; at 40 she moved from Florida to Maine to be close to her married lover. She’d met Garth while busking as a caricature artist in Miami Beach.
On vacation, Garth and his wife, Colleen, had posed for a couples portrait—she in an icy-eyed scowl, he at a foot’s remove. Elsie gave Colleen a smile, bigger breasts. She placed Garth closer to his wife, curved his arm around her waist. Colleen was pleased, adopted the smile in the picture. Garth tipped Elsie well, asked for her card, called her that evening while Colleen was in the spa. Hours later, at Elsie’s apartment, Garth leapt from the tangle of sweaty sheets and pulled on his pants.
“It’s not really cheating,” he said. “My wife and I, we’re done. Just together for the kids. I got another 15 years of hard time, then I’m free.”
Garth was 10 years Elsie’s junior and worked as a boat mechanic for the summer residents who swarmed along the lakes of Maine. From Columbus Day to Memorial Day he closed his shop and traveled. He began to rendezvous with Elsie under the guise of going to boat shows, fishing trips, hunting expeditions. A year into their relationship, Garth popped the question.
“You ever think of moving up north? Closer to me? We could meet like this every day. Like a real relationship. Then when Molly turns 18, it’s me and you, together for real.”
“Sounds like a great life for you. Not so much for me. What would I do in Maine?”
“Me. Do me. Love me. Isn’t love enough of something to do?”
Soon after Garth’s relocation request, Elsie picked up a job as a courthouse sketch artist for the sentencing of Benny the Blade, a drug lord who’d been convicted of moving cocaine-filled bananas and coconuts through the Port of Miami. She outlined Benny’s sharp face as he testified.
“Why’d you do it?” the defense attorney asked. “Why’d you risk it all?”
“I was in love.” Benny said in a soft baritone. “I was in love, and my woman wanted a house. So I decided to buy her the best house in Miami.”
The prosecutor rolled his eyes skyward. A bailiff touched her hand to her breast. The judge remained buried in his papers. Elsie stopped sketching.
“Why’d you keep doing it after you got the house?” the defense attorney asked.
“In that house we made five little kids. They all need houses too.”
The prosecutor charged up to the stand minutes later and contested this notion, claiming, “Self-interest! Not love and family!” But Elsie had drawn Benny in that moment—open-faced, his hand twisting a lock of hair, his eyes aimed directly at her.
The next week, a Category 1 hurricane had hunkered down over South Florida, taking out the lights, downing trees, bringing the city to a standstill. Elsie had parked her car illegally during the storm—the assigned spot at her complex was under a palm and vulnerable to falling coconuts. After the storm lifted, she found her car hitched to a tow truck, bobbling away from her. As she screamed into the final bands of wet hurricane wind, the truck turned a corner and she saw that one of her windows had been bashed out. She took a taxi to the impound lot and retrieved her car. By the following week, she’d cleared out her apartment and headed north to Maine.
The day Anton Popov’s first obituary ran, Elsie received a call from Irina Ivanovna Smirnova demanding a second.
“She doesn’t know him.” Irina’s voice was hypnotic, calming. “The marriage was for papers. I am the one he loves. I speak for him.”
“This is quite unprecedented,” Elsie said. “I’ll need to speak to my editor.”
Ronnie was in his office cleaning his fingernails with a toothpick. Elsie relayed Irina’s request.
“I don’t know, would that be a problem?” he asked.
“The widow might be angry.”
“I meant money-wise,” Ronnie pulled up a file on his computer, checked his records. “The wife’s check’s cleared. We’ll give the mistress her moment.”
Irina Ivanovna Smirnova ordered an angel obit and agreed to pay an additional $500 redundancy charge. She wanted to interview in person, so Ronnie tacked on another $200 travel fee and Elsie agreed to meet in a beach town an hour from Irina’s home in Boston.
Elsie had a deep and abiding fear of interstates, the roaring trucks, the urban gridlock, the desolation of rural stretches, the constant need to gauge the speed, timing, and intentions of other drivers. When she had moved from Florida to Maine, she’d taken U.S. 1 the entire way. She took that same highway now to the address that Irina had given.
The women met in an empty seaside café, on a drab and leaden day. Irina was big-boned. Her nose had been broken. She walked with a limp. She shook Elsie’s hand with no double take over her corpse-like appearance or the tremor ravaging her liver-spotted hands.
“I am the real Mrs. Popova.” Irina pulled out a picture of herself and Anton Popov in formal attire.
“This is your wedding?”
Irina pulled out a photocopy of a handwritten letter embossed with Popov’s initials.
“He sent his suicide note to me,” Irina said. “Not her. He left what’s important to me—his final opera. He said he can’t be with me in this life, he will haunt me till I die, we’ll meet in the next life.”
Elsie examined the letter. It was completely in Cyrillic.
“Does he say why he killed himself?”
“The opera. He thinks it will only be successful after he’s dead.”
“How did you meet Mr. Popov?” Elsie asked, opening her notebook.
Irina pulled out a stack of composition paper—more Cyrillic and musical notations.
“This is our story, the opera. He called it Irina and Anton.”
“I can’t read music or Russian.”
“Just write that it’s wonderful, a masterwork, the best of all time. I have included a translation of the libretto and a demo recording.”
“What’s the opera about?”
“It’s a typical opera. The tenor and soprano are in love, and someone gets in the way.”
“And you? What should I call you?”
“Don’t say a word about me. I’m already in there.” Irina tapped the opera score.
Elsie nodded and got up to leave. Irina stood up as well, looming large over Elsie’s hunched body. Before Elsie could go, Irina spoke:
“And please, don’t mention the second opera, that abominable opera buffa. Why he didn’t stick with opera seria, I’ll never know.”
“What’s the difference?” Elsie asked.
“Opera seria is akin to tragedy. It usually ends in death.”
“Don’t all operas end in death?”
“Opera buffa ends in marriage.”
Elsie and Irina parted, and Elsie drove back to Maine on U.S. 1 wondering which was the more tragic fate—death or marriage. She’d always thought herself lucky for avoiding marriage, considering it to be worse than bondage, a death of the self. In all her affairs, she’d told herself she was doing the other woman a favor. She was not a destroyer but a liberator, freeing women of the delusion of conventional marriage. She was known across the county as a homewrecker, a label she embraced. Though she never successfully wrecked a home. Even Garth and Colleen never divorced. After Colleen died, Garth stopped seeing Elsie. The relationship had been a three-legged stool—one leg went, and the whole thing collapsed.
In the newsroom, Elsie scoured the Internet for information on Irina Ivanovna Smirnova. Irina was a composer too, taught at a conservatory in Boston, had published widely, including a paper on Popov’s good opera. She also raced stock cars, claimed that movement was like music, that it inspired her, made her feel alive.
Elsie shuffled through the packet Irina had given her and scanned the libretto. Anton and Irina meet in an enchanted wood, fall in love, become bedeviled by an angry raven that shape-shifts after drinking from a dark pond in the center of the forest. The woodsman—a baritone—warns of the water’s corrosive dangers, but the raven continues to drink until she transforms into a wolf and eats Anton and Irina. The woodsman shoots the wolf dead, leaving the trees forever haunted by the dissonant harmony of the trio’s voices.
Elsie searched online for the second opera but could find no trace of it, no audio file or synopsis, only the title—Ernestina’s Best Friend—and reviews lambasting the work as “an absurd grotesquerie best forgotten” and “a crime against civilized human sensibility.”
Elsie looked out the hazy windowpanes. Dull snow covered the earth. At the edge of the yard, just before the lawn gave way to forest, was a small family cemetery with a concrete bench where she took her lunch in warmer weather. As she ate, she’d consider the names and dates on the weather-worn stones, fantasizing about another sort of cemetery, one for lovers, those who managed to make it to death solitary and disentangled, which in her opinion was a sorely undervalued feat.
Elsie rose from her desk and stepped into Ronnie’s office. Ronnie looked up from his roast beef sandwich.
“I filed Anton Popov’s second obit,” Elsie said.
“That Russian has turned into quite the moneymaker. Great job. You’re a helluva obit gal.”
“Why did you hire me as obituary reporter?”
“It takes a seasoned individual to write about death all day.”
“A dying woman in a dying business. I should put that on my card.”
“Don’t be so negative,” Ronnie shook his head. “Life’s not all about darkness.”
“Mine is,” Elsie said. “What’s wrong with being bitter if it’s accurate?”
Ronnie laughed and returned to his sandwich. Back at her desk, Elsie began writing the obituary of Merton Ross Thornton, age 50. He had OD’ed, his body and breath slowing to nothing with Narcan sitting on the mantel and no one there to revive him. His estranged wife, Cheryl, had ordered the devil obit as a warning to others.
“I’d rather he beat me,” Cheryl had said. “I’d rather he stole. I’d rather he fucked around. But he threw his whole life away for heroin. Can you imagine?”
With the Thornton obit half complete, Elsie decided to call it a day. Ronnie had already gone home to his family. The odor of roast beef still permeated the office air. Elsie climbed the exterior wooden stairway leading to her apartment. Inside she cranked the heat and, still in her parka, sat on the living room couch waiting for the temperature to rise. She’d had the couch 10 years. She tallied the number of married men who had sat upon the cushions. Only three. It had been a slow decade. Hot, dry air poured from a ceiling vent onto her face, thawing her frozen nose. Elsie had researched opioids for the Thornton obit. Addicts compared the high to being under a warm blanket. A slowing of time and body. A fuzzy womb-like feeling.
I could use a new way to be warm and alone, Elsie mused. She picked up her cell phone and dialed Norris.
“Can you come over for a small job?” she said when he answered. “I need some help moving my couch across the room.”
“I’ll be there in 30 minutes,” Norris said.
Norris arrived an hour later. Elsie opened the door and handed him $100.
“Actually, what I need is for you to find me some heroin.”
Norris’s eyes widened, and he cocked his head to the side.
“You’re kidding right? You know that shit can kill you.”
“I’m 79,” Elsie said. “You think I care?”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Everyone’s throwing their life away for this stuff. It must be pretty fantastic.”
Norris came back two hours later reeking of weed. He handed Elsie a baggie and a kit—needles, a strap, a spoon, a lighter. She dumped the kit in the trash.
“You’re gonna need that,” Norris said.
“I lived in Miami 20 years. I think I can figure out how to do drugs.”
Elsie tapped a small mound of powder between her first and second knuckle and snorted.
“Less addictive this way,” she said before sinking to the couch.
Norris did the same and fell on the cushion next to her. His eyes closed, his head nodded down to her shoulder. Elsie managed to crook her head toward him until her nose touched his ear. She hazed away, dove into herself, wondering if she would ever feel flesh on her lips again.
The day Anton Antonovich Popov’s second obituary ran, Mrs. Popov called the paper demanding to speak to Elsie.
“I’d like another obituary,” she said, more calmly than Elsie would have predicted. “It seems that further information has come to light about my deceased spouse.”
“I gave up my career. I put up with his arrogance, the incessant banging on the piano at all hours. I’m the one that found him. You know what piano wire does to a neck?”
Elsie did not want to know.
“I’m going to need to speak to my editor and get back to you,” she said. “No one’s ever ordered a third obituary, and I don’t know the policy.”
Shaking her head, Elsie went to Ronnie’s office, where she found him doodling big-breasted women in the margins of last week’s Yankee Gazette.
“The Popov widow wants another obit,” she said. “A devil this time.”
“Well, I suppose it’s only fair that we grant her the last word.”
Ronnie tacked on a $500 double redundancy fee, and Elsie scheduled another interview.
The eaves of the Popov mansion were trimmed with icicles drawn down like daggers to the melting snow. Elsie rang the doorbell, listening to several bars of Stravinsky before Mrs. Popov emerged—tipsy, bright-eyed.
“Thank you so much for coming back,” she said, guiding Elsie to a sofa near the piano.
“It’s no problem at all,” Elsie said, sitting.
Mrs. Popov perched next to Elsie and slid so close, their knees touched.
“I suppose you think this is all about the other woman,” she said.
“I wouldn’t presume that necessarily,” Elsie said, scooting away from Mrs. Popov.
“I’ve known about Irina for years,” she continued. “She’s an insignificant annoyance. You of all people should know. I’ve asked around about you. You’re one of her kind.”
Elsie said nothing. Mrs. Popov reached for a crystal decanter of vodka on the side table. She began to take a swig but caught herself before liquid crossed her lips.
“Would you care for a drink?” She offered the decanter to Elsie, who—hands shaking—took the vodka and swallowed. “What I want you to write about this time is the great shame of Anton’s life. His second opera, Ernestina’s Best Friend.”
Elsie gave the decanter back to Mrs. Popov, opened her notebook, and readied her pen.
“Very well, Mrs. Popov, let’s begin.”
“Please, call me Ernestina,” Mrs. Popov said. “It is my given name. I had to change it for the stage. Who could ever take Ernestina the ballerina seriously?”
And so Mrs. Popov began to detail the plot of Anton’s second opera, which opens on a lovely spring evening in Saint Petersburg at the wedding of prima ballerina Ernestina, a soprano, and dashing soldier Anton, a tenor.
“Who begins anything with a wedding?” Mrs. Popov groused. “But it was the first of many mistakes.”
At the wedding ceremony, Ernestina and Anton participate in the traditional gorko toast, culminating in the opera’s first aria—Gorko No More.
Elsie interrupted: “Wait, so this opera is in Russian or English?”
“English, except for a few words like gorko, babushka, and glasnost. Anton wrote the libretto himself, and his English was terrible.”
“So why not write in Russian?”
“He wanted to be very sure I understood.”
On Ernestina and Anton’s wedding night, Ernestina becomes inebriated and passes out before consummating the marriage. Anton bemoans his loneliness, singing out the window of the honeymoon suite, until a beautiful songbird, Irina, hears and comes to comfort him. The next morning the married couple is interrogated by an immigration officer, the basso profundo, who suspects the marriage was only for a green card and vows to prove it. Meanwhile, the songbird Irina takes up residence in Anton’s suitcase, following the couple as they travel the world. Irina sings to Anton each night as his wife sleeps.
“And that’s where things get really absurd,” Mrs. Popov said. She stood up and stared out the plate-glass window. Mount Washington hulked across the valley, its white spine stark against the clear sky. Elsie’s head had been clouded by the vodka. She compared the sensation to her heroin high and found it cold and lacking. Mrs. Popov turned to face Elsie and completed the story.
As Ernestina and Anton travel the world, Irina in the suitcase, immigration officer in dogged pursuit, Anton’s mind begins to unravel under the weight of so much deception. So one morning he decides to introduce the songbird to his wife.
“And they become friends.” Mrs. Popov returned to the sofa and plopped down beside Elsie. “That’s the finale, Ernestina and Irina frolicking together in a meadow, promising to be best friends until they are old and gray. Babushka Buddy, that’s the name of the song.”
“The storyline is certainly ridiculous,” Elsie said. “But how is the music?”
Mrs. Popov grabbed a remote from the coffee table and pressed a button. A balalaika ensemble played the overture accompanied by three accordions and a klezmer band. Elsie winced.
“It gets worse from there,” Mrs. Popov said, turning the music off. “That opera is the first time I heard of Irina. The night of the premiere he introduced us at an after party. He said he was trying to revolutionize marriage and music. He failed on both counts. Friendship is no way to end an opera or a love triangle.”
“So what do you want me to write about? How his second opera is a failure and he’s a cheater?”
“I want a story where I’m the hero and Irina is the villain.”
Mrs. Popov took a long draw from the decanter and handed it to Elsie, who swallowed a bit and handed it back.
“Isn’t Anton the better villain?”
“You would take her side. That is why you are the perfect person for this job. What I want you to do is tell me—in your professional opinion as a writer and a homewrecker—how to portray that whore in the light that would most deeply disturb her.”
Elsie stopped to think of all the husbands she’d borrowed, of all the wives to whom they’d returned, of how the faces of the other women loomed largest at the first and last bit of attraction, how they’d faded to oblivion during the space in between. She closed her notebook and stood up. Mrs. Popov stretched out her legs and reclined on the sofa, holding the decanter upright on her belly.
“If you want to disturb her, ignore her,” Elsie said. “All the third obituary will do is make you look bitter.”
Elsie reached down and removed the decanter from Mrs. Popov’s hands. Outside, the icicles melted from the eaves of the house, an arrhythmic dripping onto the snow. A squirrel jumped from the roof onto a bird feeder suspended from a maple branch. Two nuthatches pecking birdseed took flight in opposite directions. Mrs. Popov did not react to the thudding of the squirrel’s body as it lost its grip on the feeder and hit the ground. She did not react to the brush of Elsie’s rough lips on her forehead. Mrs. Popov breathed lightly and through her nose. Her eyes remained closed. Her fists balled at her sides. Elsie set the decanter on the edge of the coffee table. She’d thought at first to leave it out of Mrs. Popov’s reach. But all the vodka was gone.
Perhaps tomorrow I will return, Elsie thought as she walked out of the house. Perhaps tomorrow we can be friends.
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