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'John Dugan, a retired fire fighter, was killed last night when he returned to the 7-11 where a robbery...'
'Police are still searching for clues regarding the murder of school teacher Marcia Evans, who was...'
'Residents of Elm Grove attended the funeral of Mike Taylor, who worked as a grocery store manager and was well respected in the community of...'
'Retired mechanic Elmer Plamp, who was burned in a tragic house fire last month...'
'Local business woman Deborah Danziger, who died yesterday after a long battle with...'
'Notice a familiar pattern?' asked Elliot to his friend Gordy.
Gordy considered the question as he perused the sheet of paper which Elliot had slid across the table toward him. It was an innocent sheet of A4 paper with snippets of newspaper articles - originals, not copies – which detailed the various deaths, some natural, some not, of several strangers. Elliot had collected a great deal more, but had provided just these five for the time being, all of which had been cut and pasted onto the A4. The specific dates, places and even the brand of newspapers were not important in order to solve the riddle posed. Elliot had given that much information to Gordy. Gordy noticed the obvious, that being the fact that only the opening sentences of the newspaper articles had been pasted onto the A4. The answer to the puzzle therefore lay within no more than a collection of five different, yet somehow related, sentence fragments.
Elliot displayed an arrogant kind of patience, the kind needed when the more informed try to enlighten those less endowed with analytical skills. Elliot raised the coffee mug and took a deep gulp, trying not to disturb Gordy who needed all the quiet he could get. Elliot then placed the mug down with the gentlest of hands. There were a few local people in the diner who were quickly finishing lunch before they rushed back to work, while two bank employees were squeezing just a bit more time out of their afternoon break to politely argue about who would pick up the check. Elliot gave them all a quick glance then turned back to face Gordy, who was already stumped.
'I dunno Elliot. You got me. What am I supposed to see here?'
Elliot smiled at his friend, though it was forced. He wanted Gordy to see the obvious and think of the implications, what it said about society. Elliot moved the paper back toward him using the flat palm of his ample right hand.
'Gordy, my friend. Would you agree that all these people have met with a tragedy which led to their demise?'
'Demise? That means death, huh?'
A backwards tilt of Elliot's eyeballs confirmed that Gordy was correct in his assumption.
'Aw shit!' came Gordy's reply. 'It was so damn obvious! They were all killed... or, or at least died. Yeah, that's it. These five people all died – murder, natural death. That kind of thing. I knew it but I figured it was too easy. I figured you wanted me to go deeper. That's what you say, right? Goin' deeper?'
'Yes and no. Yes about going deeper but no about the connection you made. Trouble is, you went deeper in the wrong direction.'
Gordy was lost. Elliot realized it was hopeless to try and spell it out any further. Especially for a guy whose spelling never got beyond the eighth grade.
'Don't you see Gordy', began Elliot rhetorically, 'the headlines all mention what these people did for a living.'
The light dawned on Gordy's face, until a passing storm cloud blotted it out again.
'I get it, kinda. You're always talkin' about goin' deeper.' A sheepish grin came across Gordy's face, 'I don't think I went deep enough Elliot'.
'Indeed', said Elliot curtly. Then, sensing hurt feelings, he mellowed both his voice and demeanor.
'The point here Gordy is that we have people who have died or been killed. Ultimately, people who have all passed on, whether naturally or not. I think you'd agree that's a tragedy.'
'Of course Elliot, of course,' came the quick reply of Gordy, who was anxious to catch up with Elliot.
'In such a tragic circumstance, who cares about what they did for a living? That's my point! We strive so much in this life for status, for gain, and all to impress, or at least keep up with, the rest of society, most of whom are strangers anyway. Our work seems so important to society that people feel the need to report about a person's career, even in death, when it is no longer important or even relevant. And not just in newspaper articles and obituaries, TV news reports too. It's become a convention of society.'
The last sentence confused Gordy, but he had got the gist.
'Oh. Oh, so, it's like, I mean... why bother about the person's job after they've died? Like, they'll be remembered for the good things they did, like raising a family, being good parents, giving to charity, going to church on Sundays...but who cares about what they did?'
'Exactly,' said Elliot, though with a slight trepidation inside, having not seen this much insight in Gordy since he had explained to Elliot how cow excrement can be recycled and converted into methane. Elliot tried to reclaim his position.
'You see Gordy,' he began again, this time with a gesture of his right hand, 'things like the deceased person's kids, spouse... well, to be fair, they're mentioned too. After all, we'd like to know that the person was loved by others in this life, even though these loved ones are now left behind. But why mention their damn job? If they had discovered a cure for a dreaded disease, found a new planet, got rid of world hunger, or if they were famous... then I can understand a mention, brief mind you, about what they did in life.'
Elliot paused to take a swig of coffee. Gordy followed suit. This attracted the attention of Gladys, the waitress. Predictably, she'd already started to make her way to their table, a hot pot of steaming black coffee at the ready.
'Can I get you guys a refill?'
'Thanks Gladys,' Elliot replied, speaking for himself and Gordy.
The hot liquid splashed inside the cup but in that way that only seasoned waitresses can achieve, so that not a drop escapes onto the table. After a quick thanks was given to Gladys, she made her way back to the counter, awaiting the onslaught of dinner patrons, though not due for several hours. Today was Thursday. Meatloaf.
Suitably refreshed, Elliot continued, with Gordy attentive as ever, clearly wishing to be as intellectually gifted as his leader.
'Gordy, now I think about it, who cares if we walked on the moon, discovered a new planet or even if we were famous, what does it matter? I mean, in the end, we're still gone. But like I said, society is just so damn obsessed with money, fame, fortune and power that even the most mundane job gets a mention after we're dead, as if to show the world that this is the highest level we achieved, whether it's a banker, fire fighter or chicken plucker. At least those who are true humanitarians, like those who work for the good of mankind, Mother Theresa for example... well, her job definitely deserved a mention.'
Elliot looked at Gordy, for once hoping for enlightenment from his unenlightened friend, who only a few minutes ago had started to show promise. Gordy actually picked up on this hope in Elliot's face.
'I think Elliot that at the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that in this life, and this society more so, we are defined by our job. Our job defines us. I'm not just Gordy Riley, no. I'm Gordy Riley the farmer. And I'll be Gordy Riley the farmer in the obituary section of the newspaper when my Maker calls me home. Now that's one guy who couldn't care less about our jobs or the size of our bank accounts. Ah man! I shouldn't have cussed earlier. God was listenin'!'
'I just wish that our jobs didn't define us Gordy,' said Elliot, ignoring Gordy's current spiritual concerns but spurred on by his companion's sudden depth. 'I wish we could be defined and remembered in other ways. But society only cares about the outside, like the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the size of the house we live in and so on. So, if the best we could aspire to is to have been a gas pump attendant, then society will have to know that. And then it will be up to them to decide what the clothes, car and house of a gas pump attendant look like.'
With a look of determination, as if ignoring Elliot's previous lament, Gordy prepared himself. It his was turn to deal the intellectual cards.
'You know Elliot, I remember having a friend a while back named Jerry. Then we lost touch after he moved out of state, got a new job. Anyway, he worked in a mortuary. I don't mean making the bodies look pretty for their funeral. No, I'm talkin' about the dirty stuff, like cuttin' bodies open, seein' what it was that killed them in the first place. Whether it was a bullet, illness or just plain old age. Well, Jerry saw all kinds of bodies and smelled all kinds of decay. But he was OK with it, I mean he could separate job from home life, until one day he suddenly breaks down at work. He can't do it no more.'
Elliot had a look of pure interest on his face, encouraging Gordy to continue. He had to anyway, for the punch line had not been delivered yet.
'Well, Elliot, he told me that he had to find new work. Do you know why? What it was that caused him to turn his back on almost eight years of working with dead bodies?'
Elliot shook his head, intrigued and concerned. Gordy felt a surge of narrative power, having his friend in suspense. But he chose not to defer the end of this tale any longer.
'Jerry told me that corpses are referred to as 'it'. Not 'he', not 'she' – just it! '
Elliot's countenance fell slightly, not from disappointment but, like Gordy before him, out of a sense of not having quite 'got it'.
'It got to him Elliot. Here he was looking at people's moms, dads, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandparents, best friends, all lying dead on a slab. Or even worse, looking at the corpses of lost people, with no family, who no one would miss. And for the longest time, he was immune to it. He didn't get emotional and think about these people when they were alive, celebrating birthdays, holidays and planning and dreaming. No. At the end of work, he'd scrub his hands and close the door on it all. Then he'd come home and celebrate the living with his own family.'
'So what you're saying then is Jerry suddenly got mushy,' said Elliot with a certain feigned disinterest in his voice, in an attempt to convince Gordy that he was still the intellectually superior one.
'In a way, I guess. Yeah, I reckon you could say that. And in a way, I think his feelings and yours are similar.'
'How so?' asked Elliot, with a familiar curtness in his voice again.
'Well... I mean, well, look at it this way. You're upset that after you live this life, you're kind of reduced to the job you did. Just like Jerry was upset that after living life, especially if it was a life cut short by murder, you're reduced to an 'it'. That's all you get for your go around life.'
Elliot had to concede intellectual defeat. Then again, he wasn't too perturbed, as Gordy's succinct analysis made things a little more clear. Yes, that was it. Being reduced to the job you did, as if the job itself is most important. As if the job will die along with one deceased worker. As if the whole company will crash with one less employee. No; employees can be replaced. Lives cannot.
'Maybe it's all about giving a face to the dead person Elliot. I mean, the reason why a person's job is mentioned. After all, maybe because our job is what we do every day, maybe that's the reason why it's mentioned after someone dies, to make them seem as if they're still alive?'
The question at the end of Gordy's speech served to reveal his doubt about the whole issue, an issue that until today, he had never considered. Gordy wasn't just giving an opinion though, he was trying to give comfort, or so it seemed, to his learned friend.
'But that's the point Gordy! Why must it be one's job that gets a mention? Does the family really care to read that anyway? Why does what we did for a living when we were alive make a scrap of difference when we're dead? All that worry about money and status, saving for this, investing for that, struggling to pay the bills, get your kid braces, save up for that romantic trip... will it matter when we're dead? Will it matter even that much to those we leave behind? It just isn't fair that we work so damn hard and then death comes, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes at the point of a gun, and then what? Does everyone really need to know what we did for a living?'
'What about what you said earlier though – you know, about those whose career kinda deserves to get mentioned? What was her name? Mother Rebecca?'
'Theresa,' shot Elliot.
A moment of reflection followed, accompanied by a sip of coffee for both men. Elliot sensed his friend had been hurt again by his snappy reply and so calmed himself before continuing again.
'Well Gordy, my life as a janitor at the local elementary school hasn't proven to be anything in that woman's league. Sure, I help people. I help people eat on clean tables, help clean up urine-stained floors in the bathroom, help ensure that the rooms smell fresh every day. And then, when they mess it all up again, I go back and get everything back to normal. And I listen to lippy kids swear at me but I can't say a word back. I take orders from teachers younger than me, who think they can treat me like a slave, thinking they're better than me and such. And all for a pittance of pay. And what do I have to look forward to? After I die, they'll tell the world, assuming the news of my death even goes to print, that I was a janitor. Before they mention my parents, well, OK, they're dead anyway, before they even think to ever mention the time I saved a little girl from choking, they'll mention my job. I'll bet that kid's forgotten about me anyhow. Yes sir! They'll announce to the whole world that I was a janitor, a low wage payin', abuse takin' crap little job – but they'll print it for the people to see. As if they even care!'
Elliot was spent. He looked down at his coffee, leaving an uncomfortable silence. Gordy gathered all the brainpower he could muster, looking for a solution to his friend's dilemma. He himself was content with life as a farmer. He didn't care what they printed after he died, because dead people can't read. Besides, he knew that God had a better plan for him in heaven than all the earthly riches could provide. Anyway, he felt that his earthly job was a respectable one. That was good enough for him, Gordy Riley. But not for his friend Elliot Pomroy, who hated his job. All the more reason to not want his job to follow him in the obituaries after his death. Of course!
'I've got it Elliot! The solution!'
Elliot looked up, desperate for an answer to a problem which seemed to have grown more in the last half hour in a coffee shop than in the past year.
'You can't change the system. Like you said, newspaper articles and even TV news reports feel like they have to tell the world what we did with our lives. We can't change that. But you can change. That word you taught me – nonconformist – well, that's what you gotta be. You have to be the one to change. Quit your job! After all, even they're not gonna say in the paper that Elliot Pomroy, who quit his job as a janitor some time ago, died yesterday in his home.'
Gordy's bright earnest face was almost enough to cause Elliot to hold back his anger. But not quite.
'Gordy, you really are the dumbest fool in this entire town aren't you? I've tried to help you but I guess I was wasting my time. I can't quit my job. I've got bills to pay, like the rest of us. I've got a house to pay off, such as it is. And I do need to eat from time to time. So how the hell can I quit? I never said I didn't want to work, even though I hate my job. No, I thought I made it clear. I just don't want my job to be the sum of my parts after I've gone!'
Gordy's face registered a real pain, like that of an admonished schoolboy. If only the kids were this sensitive, thought Elliot to himself.
'I gotta go!' snapped Elliot, throwing some change on the table to pay for his coffee.
Elliot stormed out, violently pushing the door open. Gordy looked down, averting the eyes of the waitresses, who wondered what storm had just hit their diner.
Gordy stood up quickly and went to the restroom, which was thankfully located just behind the booth where he had been sitting with Elliot. Relieved to find no one else inside, he went to one of the stalls, locked the door and immediately began to weep. He remembered to beat his forehead as he did so, a reminder of his stupidity in front of one as intelligent as Elliot Pomroy, whose league he would never be a part of.
That night Elliot came to see Gordy and gave both a heartfelt apology and thanks. He realized how rude and nasty he had been – though Gordy would not add to the guilt by mentioning his crying in the restroom stall – and then, to the amazement of Gordy, Elliot declared that he would take the advice given after all.
'I'm going to quit my job Gordy. You were right. Be a nonconformist!'
Seeing Gordy's mouth open wide, Elliot began to explain.
'I've been wanting to see the world anyway. Well I've decided. Sell my house, though I won't get much. But it will be enough to buy a one-way ticket to any number of places. Places where people's jobs aren't mentioned in newspapers or on TV news reports. Places that don't even have newspapers or TVs in the first place. Places where a person's job is not seen as the defining quality of their worth in this life. Places where they send you off into the next life without so much as a care about what you did in this life! Yes sir, Gordy, that's for me. I can have the house sold by month's end - hell, I've had offers from Steve Ketcham in the past. Then I'll quit my job and, all being well, I can be out of here within six weeks!'
It took about an hour or so for Elliot to convince Gordy that the decision had not been made in haste, nor that it had been made to assuage Gordy's own guilt at having made such a stupid comment in the diner – at least it had seemed stupid back then. But Elliot, with all his rhetorical and linguistic panache, convinced his simple backwater friend named Gordy Riley that he was completely certain of his decision. Hell, Elliot even threw Gordy a bone, consisting of a pat on the back for his wise advice to Elliot, that Elliot himself was too foolish (!) to have recognized at the time.
Having departed Gordy's house later that night with friendship intact, Elliot revised his plans somewhat. In the time it took him to get from Gordy's farmhouse to his own abode, Elliot had decided that in true nonconformist style, he wouldn't wait until the house was sold to quit his job. No. Inspired by his sense of self, Elliot would quit his job tomorrow and spend the weekend choosing the location for his next life instead. He'd been thinking about the Amazon actually. He'd then talk to Ketcham and get a price for the house that his parents had left him. He wanted it sold as soon as possible. He only needed enough money to buy a one-way ticket to a new life. If he were going to a new society where money and the false prestige associated with it did not matter, then he better get an early start. Quit the job, choose a new place to live and then abandon this life.
With this decision made though, Elliot felt a certain displeasure as he entered his house that night. It was the displeasure borne out of a sudden ironic revelation. If indeed the societal focus on money had been declared forbidden, by means of its pairing with society's need to know one's earthly profession even after a person dies, then how could Elliot justify his need for the stuff now as the only means to get him to his new life? Elliot made his way to his ragged armchair, sat down and pondered this heavy question. And he pondered some more.
Blessed relief came to Elliot a short time later, after having first spent several tortured minutes reflecting on how money could comfortably fit in with his game plan when he had spent an afternoon declaring it to be a dirty part of a status-obsessed society who only cared about the financial bottom line. Elliot now reassured himself that money was not the problem, which he realized he had already made clear enough to Gordy in the diner anyway. The problem involved too much importance being placed on one's career, which by extension provided the money which in turn bought the nice house, big car, breast implants and all the other goodies which society was all too concerned with. The job a man did in life and the money it provided was of course necessary and money indeed paid for the necessities in life. Why shouldn't a man also use money to pay for the little luxuries, like a new life, as a reward for all his hard work? Buying a new life was justified, Elliot silently declared to himself. But it wasn't justified to make the job a man did the last word on his short life.
Elliot reprimanded himself for his self-doubt with an abrupt shake of the head, akin to the movement a dog makes when mauling a rag doll. Elliot was back to where he had started. He knew the answer all along. Money, career, material things – they had their place in life. Just not first place, especially after life ends. And Elliot's job, more to the point the sale of his house, would provide the money needed to do the right thing and bring happiness back to his life. That was a wholesome use for his money. But Elliot wasn't finished with himself yet. In an instant, one fuelled by boyhood excitement, Elliot decided to donate the money from the sale of his house to various charities and the local church, minus of course the cost of a one-way plane ticket and a bit extra for the cab fare needed to take him from the airport in his new country of choice to his final destination of the Amazon. Elliot had heard about the Amazon and more and more over the past few months had been thinking about this mystical place, though never knowing exactly why. Now he knew. This would be where his new life would be. Fly to Rio and then on to the rainforests. Presumably he would need more than just cab fare to get from the airport to the rainforest though.
By noon the next day, Elliot had quit his job, thus ruffling a few feathers. He would have quit sooner but he had allowed himself a late rise, with the phone left off the hook so no one would have been able to contact him anyhow. What did it all matter now? After the eventual, decisive phone call to cease his employment, Elliot allowed himself one day to do nothing. He would spend the weekend getting ready for the big move and researching the Amazon but for today, he would do nothing but dream about his future.
Elliot spent all afternoon Saturday in the local library, trying to find information on the Amazon. He felt that he already knew so much about it. A place where native people wore loincloths and were indeed above all this worldly crap. A place where you'd get a sendoff into your next life with more respect than this society offered. No matter that Elliot didn't speak their language, for they could learn his. After an initial internet search revealed that there was another 'Amazon' which was in fact a place devoted solely to ordering books and CDs, Elliot asked a librarian for assistance, humbled at the experience of needing her help. He then found the information that he sought in the more traditional context of a hardback book. Pictures, some color, some black and white, depicted the idyllic existence that Elliot imagined. He was not disappointed. The text that accompanied the pictures was of no consequence. The decision to leave it all behind had already been made.
Still with enough presence of mind to obey the directive of 'no loud noise', Elliot rose from the private desk in the library where he had been sat, checked out the book and then departed. Only a one-way ticket stood between him and his new life. As he made his way back home, he started thinking about other exotic places that he had heard about. What about a place called Amish country? He watched a TV show about them folk once, how they all pull together to work as one, and have enough food, clothes and love to go around. And they have no TVs or such to report about what they did for a living, as a final slap-in-the-face insult to a dead man. Then again, these Amish folk just didn't seem the kind to really place a man's work as the sum of his earthly worth. Then there was a place advertised called Acapulco, where it was said you could 'leave your work behind' – maybe that was a possibility. Ah, the possibilities! Elliot Pomroy was a free man. He was no longer trapped in a world which focused on work, wealth and status, even when you were in the grave. No, he was now playing by his own rules and would do so in a brand new world.
Elliot Pomroy's last memory was of a jungle somewhere, where he was sitting with the natives around a campfire, eating freshly caught supper. That was it for Elliot Pomroy, as close as he ever got to his new life. A life he was so absorbed in after he left the library that he didn't see the car coming around the corner, speeding just enough to ensure that Elliot would not live to see another day. The news of Elliot's death shocked a few staff members and especially his old friend Gordy Riley, a man who had last seen Elliot full of zest as he planned a new life. And now his life had been taken. Just like that. Elliot's death was not of quite enough importance to the town to warrant a mention on the local TV news, but Monday's newspaper captured a summary of the deceased Elliot in the obituaries, beginning with the words Elliot Pomroy, an unemployed janitor, was struck down by a car Saturday afternoon...
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