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Obit Weary

The Writer

The Writer

It is sixteen minutes to eight in the morning and the dead cannot wait. You would imagine they have all the time in the (other) world, to twiddle their thumbs (or what remains), to adjust to their new permanent situation, luxuriating in the certainty of having eternity languidly stretching ahead. You would expect them to be undergoing the ultimate thinning process, to float in limbo or haunt places and/or people to while away the time waiting for D-day or do whatever you are supposed to do when you are dead. But in my line of business, the dead cannot simply be made to wait. No, I am not a mortician if that is what you are thinking. I do not tend to their earthly remains, but to a more ethereal notion-vaporous, quite volatile entity that is their memory-by writing the final proclamation of their departure from this world to a (hopefully) better one. You see, I am an obituary writer at the local French-speaking newspaper, nothing as glorious as my previous description might let you suppose, but well, it happens to be my job to exalt and laud and …I am still in the bathtub, but I have only thirty five minutes left to be at my office, a cluttered, scarred, rickety teak desk in a corner of the newspaper offices near where the lavatories are, with co-workers either casting pitiful glances my way while going about their business or cutting me dead like Suhir, the girl in charge of the Culture columns. That one fancies herself a member of the literati and always wears her feral face in a puckered look of seriousness to match the latest book of one obscure poet or another she is always carrying everywhere.

I mentally brace myself for the procession of people who will soon start trickling into my office with photos of their beloved deceased to post an obit and it would be up to yours truly to write the accompanying text which is meant to convey to the uncaring world the magnitude of their loss. They would solicit my help either in drafting a classical obit or a more custom-made, intimate version in the guise of a direct address to the dead, lamenting their departure and promising to cherish their memories. These I treat in the same way a gardener goes about topiary work, trying to inject an element of poetic emotion into what would have been ordinary and sadly banal. Some people give me carte blanche. Others are so miserly they insist on putting a restriction on the number of words (an obit notice is paid by the word in our part of the world) so as not to compound the loss of the loved one with the loss of their money. Ouch! I have again nicked my leg in my haste to shave all those stiff obdurate black hairs not unlike nasty thorns on a cactus stump. I notice in resigned misery that blood is springing out in places and sluggishly trickling in others, leaving encrusted trails. I have been planning on wearing my black velvet skirt as soft to the touch as those clouds in heaven must feel, or the inside of my thighs when I was still a nubile young girl (that is before they got acquainted with the safety razor). Well, I have been meaning to wear this new skirt to flash some flesh. (I never wear clinging garments that show my cleavage because I have one breast that is bigger than the other: A medium watermelon flanked by a melon, an equivalent of sorts of Laurel and Hardy, and I am perpetually afraid people will come to notice and jeer at this freakish feature. So you will always find me floating inside large pullovers made of homely fabrics). This is part of my diabolical plan to try to get my colleague Murad’s attention. He is very friendly and we often chat casually without having to leave our desks, his desk being a few feet from mine. He is in charge of the Lost Objects section and I would very much like him to find for me something which has been tucked away unused for such a long time, it must have grown cobwebs; I can almost envision dust bunnies gaily breeding down there.

But my plan has just gone down the drain. Literally. I stop humming to an inner tune, a compendium of various scraps of old-fashioned melodies. I stop abruptly and my hand holding the safety razor is frozen in mid-air. A luminescent idea has been hovering in suspense at the periphery of my conscience, waiting to be ushered in, but then it must have snorted in outraged disgust at the sight of the bric-a-brac littering my mind and hastily turned tail, thus eluding my grasp. It must have been horrified at the clutter that prevails, a mental landscape very much like a scene from those hide-and-seek PC games where you have to find a list of hidden items. In my case, the list runs as follows: ten mortifying recollections, five X-rated fantasies, two phobias, an obsession, and four what-have-yous, like a cluster of locusts in interconnected jumbled rooms.

The idea was there and then nothing. That is the story of my life. I grit my teeth in frustration. It could have been what I am waiting for, the image that could crystallise my vision. You see, I am an aspiring writer slaving over my first novel which, like a mule on a mountain footpath, is recalcitrant to move ahead. Obits are but a lucrative hobby (does it make them ‘hobbits’ then? Not a very felicitous pun, I agree) until inspiration finally deigns to strike and an opportunity for getting published presents itself. I should have scrawled the words for the idea, with the blood from my shaving nicks, on the smooth enamel inner surface of the bathtub on whose side I am perched. It is a small death I will be mourning for the rest of the day, the very first death of those I will be called upon to handle that morning. I turn my attention to the soles of my feet and start scraping away with a vengeance at the calloused dead skin. It comes away like shavings or, in some cases, looking much like noodles; small bits of me, similar to those forlorn hairs, irreverently discarded to clog the tub drain.

I hurriedly rinse the tub and, as always, never fail to remember my father’s own hands while scrubbing at the white surface of my grandfather’s grave. It was the only time he took me with him to recite Al-Fatiha in honor of the memory of a man who used to beat his wife with a leather belt and entertain a penchant for adolescent boys, but that is another story. What I believe is that death has been stalking me, exercising a powerful attraction. Its whiskery feelers have been insidiously slithering into all the nooks and crannies of my life, using details of my daily routine or those fragments of memories which have turned into the syntax of its arcane language. The smallest minutiae might become impregnated with a morbid prescience, like memento mori strewn around, studding my days and spangling my nights. Everything seems to be in cahoots, leaving me no reprieve by unrelentingly reminding me of the obtrusive presence of death in my life and that I earn my living because other people died. As I start to put on my clothes, my black tights look like an empty shroud or a diaphragm waiting to be filled. When I hold them aloft to make sure there is no ladder in them, I see with some dismay they have preserved the shape of my saddle-bag thighs.

It is perhaps because of death’s insistent and incessant ways of maliciously impinging on my quotidian life that I have come to experience more and more the itching need to feel alive in very odd little ways. I have been picking up habits and stealthily hoarding them like a collector who, after being stranded in a curiosity shop, never ceases to marvel at her serendipitous finds. I would, for example, sip scalding green tea, then gulp icy orange juice and refrain from going to the toilet for a while. A dull throbbing would inevitably start in the region where my bladder is; an almost perceptible tremulous thrum that would pinion me at the center of my being, radiating desperate painful messages to the rest of my body in a flurry of Morse signals. I would envision my bladder as a distended gourd full of sharp vicious nails and tense all over. I would wait as much as I would dare and then dash to the lavatory in a rush of frenzied groping with the zipper and peel the trousers from my jiggling hippo behind. I would plop onto the toilet seat and let myself be engulfed by a swishing sensation of sweet relief, relishing the moan of ecstasy, an ersatz of the other so-called petite mort I have not quite foregone the possibility of ever sampling one of these days. I am thirty six and unmarried, an old maid by our Tunisian standards, but the idea has ceased to annoy me and I have got accustomed to it the way you come to accept the colour of your eyes or the shape of your nose.

I have also acquired the strange habit of holding my breath the moment I get off the bus at the station which is a five-minute walk away from the building where I am living on my own, what with both my parents dead and my only brother (unhappily) married. I would walk in with the feeling of suffocation. I would reach the door of my flat in a febrile state rooting in my handbag for the cursed keys, and the moment I would hear the click in the lock, my breath would come out in a swoosh of release. Jacques Mayol would have been proud of me, had he not hanged himself a few years back. It would have been a more fitting death if he had just held his breath and … Well, I am straying here ….

***

I finally sit down at my desk and wistfully survey its messy surface before laughing at some of Murad’s jokes and telling him a few of my own (I have always tried to keep up a sunny exterior with everybody and never let anyone in on my inner torments: One of my mottos is, “Do not show your wounded finger for everything will knock up against it”). Next, I hopelessly grow entranced by the lithe grace of his sinuous body as he stands up and moves about the office. I love to look at the nape of his neck and fantasize about nibbling at its softness, taking small bites at the vulnerable smoothness just where his hairline ends.

And then the first client of the morning arrives. She has very mean eyes, close together, with their sunken orbits deeply set in a wafer-thin parchment skin, so thin you could divine the contours of her skull and envision what she would look like when it would be picked clean, with that characteristic permanent lipless grin instead of her present pursed lips set in a grim slit overshadowed by a beak of a nose. I mildly cower under her unwarranted resentful gaze and silently sympathize with the poor man who used to be her husband and who is staring now in helpless resignation out of the photo she has just handed me. Looking back at her, I meditate on the fact that death might rightly be considered, at times, as the cure of all diseases and the breaker of all painful chains.

After her departure, I resume my besotted reverie, discretely trailing Murad’s every gesture. Then and there, I am struck with an epiphanic thought: Why not write a letter in which I pour all my feelings for him? OK. I know you suspect I am a coward, that I will never bring myself to let him read it, but I want to indulge myself in a catharsis that would hopefully purge my system. You see, I am so in lust. Plus, it would be a change from my missives to the dead. I start scribbling furiously and the words come spewing forth in a barrage so gooey, I believe the sheet will certainly become sticky to the touch. I finish with a flourish and feel drained and relaxed. The piece is so searingly and romantically intense, I am overwhelmed with a writer’s pride. After that, I turn my attention to a small pile of obits I have to proof-read and older ones I have to classify. Aantar, the office handyman, so lethargic he could have put a koala to shame, starts his sluggish round to collect the different pieces for printing. I hand him tomorrow’s obits still in the clutch of my maudlin mood.

The following day, I am alternately agonizing over the state of my hair (I have chosen to dye it the same tint as my favourite pastry, namely, a rich warm caramel, but it has ended up looking like burned sugar minus the stench) and munching on my pen in the throes of inspiration (or lack of it) when the parchment widow marches in making an apparent bee-line for my desk. I immediately experience a twinge of guilty panic: Is she here to protest against the banality of what I wrote as a tribute to her dead husband? I must confess it was an uninspired one because I was so taken with my therapeutic purge. I stand up already rehearsing an apology when the woman comes around my desk and enfolds me in a stiff hug. Her breadstick-like arms feel so brittle, I am afraid she might crumble at my touch. I am dumbfounded when I notice that her thin cheeks are stained with tears and her eyes seem to have lost a trifle of their meanness (well, just a tiny bit). “I’m grateful for what you wrote, I couldn’t have put it better! Words are not my forte. It’s the most beautiful homage I’ve ever read,” she informs me and her discoloured front teeth remind me of the exact hue of green-grey lichen. I wonder if perhaps the woman’s recent loss might have addled her mind. But I am taken aback when I see that Murad is grinning in my direction. He then winks conspiratorially. Mistaking my bafflement for shy reserve, the woman brandishes a copy of today’s paper as if to add weight to her words. I snatch the newspaper as civilly as possible and peruse my handiwork. I feel my jaw dropping and the awful realization hits like a sledgehammer. It is my letter to Murad. In my foolish distraction, I must have handed it to Aantar along with the other obits. It was fortunate I did not address Murad by name in the damned thing. If that had been the case, I would be contemplating suicide, exile or both. I tune out the woman’s deluge of gratitude pondering my lemming-like propensity to follow my instincts into disaster.

When the woman mercifully leaves, Murad sidles to my desk and his eyes crinkle with what seems to be affectionate amusement: “Congratulations Hayet! I’ve read what you wrote. It sounds so heartfelt! How do you manage to do that? You’re so talented and you have such a way with words!” He leans towards me and his eyes assume an earnest look. I brace myself against the side of the desk. It is the moment I have been waiting for all these months. He is so close I wonder if he will become aware of Laurel and Hardy. I hunch my shoulders. “I want to ask you something, but I’m afraid you’ll find me ridiculous,” he says. I nod my encouragement, not trusting myself to speak. “Well, I’ve wanted to declare my feelings for such a long time, but words have always felt so inadequate and I’d be grateful if you agreed to …” (he falters, searching for words and I am already holding my breath to the point of turning blue) “… write me a letter similar to the one you wrote for that woman. Suhir-you know Suhir of the Culture section, don’t you?-She is so intelligent and exceptional, I need to surprise her with a declaration she’ll never forget. Needless to say this has to remain a secret.” I nod in the automaton-like manner of the bobble-head dog some people put along the back of their cars’ rear window. My torturer pats my shoulder and saunters away, unaware of the devastation he has just wrought. I feel suddenly much like a dead match: One that has been struck. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa absurdly flashes before my eyes and I experience an aching kinship of spirit with those cannibalistic sailors. I stare at the fresh mound of posts awaiting my ministrations and plunge ahead with my chore, banishing all other thoughts from my mind. The dead cannot wait.

_____________________

BIO: Semia Harbawi is Assistant Professor at the University of Tunis, Tunisia. Her publications include short stories, poems, and essays which have appeared in Wasafiri, Connecticut Review, Journal of West Indian Literature, Blood Orange Review, Logosphère, The Hamilton Stone Review, Long Story Short, Loch Raven Review, Miranda literary magazine, Arabesques Review, Taj Mahal Review, and The Istanbul Literature Review.

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