Obitby Daniel Paisner
"A classic murder mystery." (The Boston Globe)
Author Bio: Daniel
Axel Pimletz writes obituaries for a Boston newspaper. He's been going nowhere for the past 15 years and his failure has almost consumed his self-esteem. Axel needs action and excitement, like a front-page story. He never guesses he's about to get bothalong with murder!
"A classic murder mystery." (The Boston Globe)
Author Bio: Daniel Paisner is the author of 20 books, including The New York Times best-sellers Mountain, Get Out of My Way (with Montel Williams) and Exposing Myself (with Geraldo Rivera). Obit is his first novel.
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By Daniel Paisner
Penguin GroupCopyright © 2000 Daniel Paisner
All rights reserved.
This about Pimletz
This is not the first time Axel Pimletz walks into the Old Granary Burying Ground after dark and kneels before Jacobus Halkerston's tombstone, not the first time he's roamed the streets of after-hours Boston and come upon the burying places of New England's first settlers. This is not the first time the remains of Pimletz's day have brought him to this place.
Not the second time either.
What brings him here are two things, really. The first: couple hours earlier, around nine, nine-thirty, he logs on the last of his copy at the Boston Record-Transcript, another in a trio of obits to run in the morning — a plumber from Nahant, a tax collector from Scituate, and a little girl, five, left to smolder in a Back Bay fire. This last one gets him — always there is one that gets him, grabs onto him, clutches at the better part of his heart and doesn't let go — and Pimletz fills himself with his own peculiar mix of rage and frustration, puffing up his cheeks to where he's got some of each inflating his face with what he does for a living.
Once, behind a tin tray of unfrozen food, he saw some holistic-doctor type on late-night television talk about how holding your breath can be a drug-free and effective way to deal with anxiety, to cope, to keep things in control, and always Pimletz puffs up his cheeks to simulate holding his breath, to simulate keeping things in control. It's the best he can do.
So he's staring into his terminal, cheeks puffed, nostrils flaring, and he pulls from his wallet an inscription copied from an earlier cemetery visit, this from the Burying Place, two hundred yards or so down from the Granary graves, toward the mouth of Tremont Street. Another of his haunts. This from the shared tombstone of Hannah Gordon, four days old, and her brother William, three years, nine months, dead both of them nearly two-hundred years: "Through airy roads they wing their infant flight/From dark abodes to fair ethereal light/The inraptur'd inocents has winged their way/To purer regions of celestial day/The angels view them with delight unknown/Preft their soft hands and seat them on their throne/Thrice welcome them the inraptur'd babe replies/Thanks to our God who snatched us to the skies."
He's sitting there, in the Record-Transcript newsroom, his face by now deflated, his feet kicked casually atop his metal desk, the surface of the thing inhaling against his weight, the light from the video display tube bathing his chiseled features in a green, otherworldly light. He's Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, backlit by the glow of other beings, other doings, other ways of seeing; he's got on glasses, these wire-rimmed jobs he wears when he's sitting at the terminal, and he gets this double dose of himself off the screen, his image twice reflected in the space between his wire frames, and then the reflection is reflected, and then again. And again.
He's a plain-looking man, Axel Pimletz, even in this light. Nothing special. Except for his eyes. One blue, one brown, the kind he's told women always go for, even though they never seem to notice it on him. So, even with the blue-brown eyes, he's nothing special. Wouldn't even make a dent in a crowded room, that's the way he looks. Poorly but neatly dressed — his clothes never quite match — he is a man who evidently cares about his appearance but who doesn't quite know how to present himself for the sake of it. Clean. He's good-looking in only the most casual of ways, he's thinking, only in the sense that there's nothing particularly wrong with the way he looks, and he's drawn again into what he sees of himself in his glasses, in the terminal screen.
He's all angles — his face, the rest of him — all juts and bone. What he sees is not too bad, not really — nothing he's not used to, anyway — and here he is, getting fading, shrinking pictures of himself, all angles and juts and bone, over and over and over. The whole thing is like some lime-green hall of mirrors, a high-tech funhouse designed to draw Pimletz's attention away from the rest of the world, from what he looks like, from what he's doing. Or from what he's not doing.
He sits there, Pimletz does, the rage and frustration all but disappeared, from his cheeks and from his gut, also from his disappearing image, and he thinks about getting back to what he was thinking about, about working the tombstone inscription somewhere into the little girl's obit — he's all the time thinking he can make it work, that he'll be able to find the right time and place to play off the nice colonial feel of the thing to melt away an intervening two centuries, to mix the dust that remains of the snatched-to-the-skies Hannah and William Gordon with the tragedy of today's losses — and he's called it up again on the tube, can't make it make any sense, decides against it, sends his copy back to who-knows-where (could be directly to the newsstand and, even), and logs off, tidying up his things for the night.
He folds the inscription into his wallet, carefully, the paper worn and thinning to where he thinks the thing will crumble with each reference, to where it might vanish between his own fingers.
This is the first thing brings him here.
The second: earlier still, afternoon, he has his breath taken away in the Government Center T, waiting for the Red Line to take him out to Cambridge. Ten minutes, he's waiting, he's reading to fill the time, leaning against a red concrete pillar; he's absorbed in what a collection of best-selling essays by George Will has to tell him, and he looks up suddenly into the vacant and cold red eyes of a homeless young woman. She's a bum, he thinks, as he first sets eyes on her and she does away with his breath. Like something out of Oliver Twist, she looks, a dirty, tired, otherworldly waif — a girl, really, she couldn't be more than fifteen, sixteen tops — and she's slithered up against him where his elbow room used to be. She's staring at the cover of Pimletz's book, mimicking the contemplative look on George Will's face; her wide, staring eyes are more than bloodshot, Pimletz notices on second look, much more, they're a deep, all-over red, as if they were dipped and smeared with raspberry jelly and returned to their sockets. Pimletz fixes his eyes on her eyes and thinks: This is what life does to you. This is what happens. Either you're left to smolder in a Back Bay fire, or you're swallowed up by the back streets, by the T.
Nothing in between.
He looks at the girl and wonders what she looked like as a small child, where she lived then, and with whom, what her life was like. She looks back at him with something like the same intensity, but her eyes are blank. A deep all-over red, and blank. She's staring back at him, long and hard, but there's nothing going on there, nothing registers.
Also, nothing in between.
The girl is so close she invades every one of Pimletz's senses, at least every one he knows any old thing about. Her breath smells to him like nothing he's ever smelled before, like nothing he ever wishes to smell again. He's got a noseful of her — rotten eggs, sour milk, turned cheese, assorted dairy products gone bad — he feels dirty and smelly for standing so close, and his clothes are no protection.
He's panicked, Pimletz is, frozen by this small girl appeared out of nowhere to haunt him. He's twice her size, probably he's got nothing to be afraid of — practically speaking, physically speaking — but there he is, thoroughly spooked, petrified, not having a clue what his next move should be. She's fixed on him, wide-eyed, and on the somber-looking picture of George Will, and Pimletz is nailed there. He doesn't let himself do a thing except wish her away, away, away.
He loses her, finally, and she moves on to haunt and toy with another leaning commuter, but he still can't shake her face, her eyes, the way she makes him feel.
It's not until much later it occurs to Pimletz maybe she was in some kind of acting class or something, maybe it was her assignment to violate someone's personal space, to mock convention, to unsettle the expected order of things. It makes sense to Pimletz, that this was what she was doing — so many goddamn schools around here, all kinds of schools, students, you never know what to expect — makes as much sense to him as any other explanation he can think of, but he draws no comfort from his reasoning. Still, hours later in the sleeping newsroom, the girl's blank stare sends him all the way to a haunting, gripping fear. Again. He's thinking: That's a face will turn up in my dreams, I'll wake up sweating and shaking, and I'll see that face.
The overnight jock on the radio has got this thing for Led Zeppelin. Major thing. It's to the point where Andy Vaughan worries it looks like he's got the same thing by association. He just turned the radio on, is all, and here he gets all of side two of Houses of the Holy. The whole thing. Songs he's never heard, and they all sound the same. He's too lazy to switch the dial, plus he doesn't want it to look like he cares. Just music, he's thinking, no big deal. And like that's not bad enough, the walls in Andy Vaughan's college dormitory are so ridiculously thin he can hear the bleat of something else from the rooms on both sides, and upstairs and down. He finally gets a girl up in his room — this hot and lanky thing, she's been after his ass for weeks, and tonight she practically invited herself in — and there's this all-over-the-place music to worry about. He's got the Bangles, mixing with Springsteen, mixing with something sounds like a rap remake of the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar," mixing with something else sounds like nothing he's ever heard before.
"Can't decide whether to dance or puke," he says to the girl.
"Those your only options?" she breathes back, almost directly into his ear. Hot. Wet.
"Guess not," he says, reaching for the clumps of hair which have sprung from her loose ponytail. He tugs at her hair playfully.
"Ooooh," she says, also playfully, "beat me, whip me. Tie me to the bed."
She's been after his ass, what? four, five weeks now, pretty much since the semester began. She's been hanging down at the pool, watching his dives, checking him out on the trampoline, sitting through tryouts, whatever. It's like she's been stalking him. Took about a week, two, before she even introduced herself, and the way she did it was she said, "Trade places?" to the guy who was spotting him on this new dive he was working on. She just stepped in and started spotting him. Since then she's been showing up with concert tickets, movie passes, whatever she could come up with, and they've gone to a couple parties together — or, more accurately, they've been at a couple parties at the same time — and all along she's been trying pretty openly to get into his pants, and finally she just said, "EOTS" — which he's learned since means "enough of this shit" — "are you gay or what?"
She's up here in his room now, and she's going about her own business. It's like she's got this whole thing plotted out, choreographed, that's the way it seems to Andy Vaughan, it's like she rehearsed it. All he's got to do is go along for the ride.
Letterman is on in the background, sound off, and when the girl reaches up to unhook her bra, her body is silhouetted in this weird way by the black and white of the screen behind her. It's the only light in the room, what's coming off the TV. Letterman is placing a lava lamp in the vise of a Black & Decker Workmate, he's tightening it to see what happens, and as the girl slides the soft of her underwear down her long legs, she is backed by the silent smash of glass and the slow ooze of what's left in the lava lamp.
"Fuckin' Zeppelin," Andy Vaughan says, watching.
Slipslipslip to the Granary Burying Ground, a brisk ten-minute walk from the paper, where Pimletz shimmies up the pipes on the abutting Park Street Church with accustomed ease, and where he drops himself onto the resting places of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, the victims of the Boston Massacre, and other storied remains of this country's past. Also, Jacobus Halkerston, nobody special, who has borne the seeds of Pimletz's rage and frustration many times before.
No, this is not the first time Axel Pimletz, on his knees, his zipper — cold — chafingscraping the base of his swollen cock, loses himself into the earth in the name of the dead. This is not the first time the earth surrounding Jacobus Halkerston's grave is marked with Pimletz's frustration.
"Jesus Motherfucking Christ Almighty," he says into the night, coming, all of it too much for him. He hears it back after he's said it, the hollow echo of dead night in Boston in full production, and right away he's reminded of what he's just done, of what he always does.
To his left, a tree, a squirrel picking its way through a bag of chips. The rustling sound seems to Pimletz extra loud in the dead night air of the cemetery, amplified, as though the squirrel's got the damn bag of chips hooked up to some kind of loudspeaker system, the crunching magnified to twenty times beyond ordinary, the reverb on the thing giving Pimletz the same earful again and again and again.
He's losing his focus, Pimletz is, he hears the rustling and nothing else, he hears it again; he's distracted himself from why he came. He's kneeling now, himself in hand, and he can't for the life of him bring himself to leave, can't send the right signals to the parts of his body would help him out of this place. He hates himself for what he's done, for what he's always doing. He can't stand it, and yet, again, he's rooted himself here, planted himself with more than just his seed. He thinks this to himself, Pimletz does, thinks that in spilling himself into the earth he has somehow reached closer to something resembling immortality, that he has drawn a line between here and there, a bridge, a tie, that he has left behind a thing or two to outlast the rest of him. He believes this deeply, deep enough anyway so that he's not going any old place, not now. He rocks himself back and over, knees to rump to flank, and he lies there hugging thighs to chest, his cock hanging from his zipper, limp and slick with what's left of his frustration.
He lies this way for several minutes, a long time to be lying in such a private way in such a public place, before he is startled, suddenly, by a bottle-crashing sound from across the cemetery. He turns quickly, and makes out two dark figures against what looks to him like Paul Revere's tomb. He hears voices, Pimletz does, kids' voices, and he strains to make them out:
"Like this, you want like this kind of moving," says the first voice.
"Shit no, you be looking like a scarecrow," says the other. "Like a scarecrow in a hurricane, just like."
Pimletz inches closer to make out what's going on, he can't figure from the voices. He crouches in the shadows of a tree, about fifty feet away.
Two black kids dancing, least it looks to Pimletz like two black kids dancing. Here he is, getting all kinds of what-the-hell-is-going-on? thoughts, and out of nowhere he gets a sight of two kids, good kids probably, dancing and playing. And the bottle-breaking noise not even from a liquor bottle, he sees now, not even wine, not beer. They're drinking Cokes, the kids are, and Pimletz can see from the way they're placing down their empties, and the way they've cleaned up the mess, that the first bottle-breaking was not by intention. He watches the scene play itself out and Pimletz can't help but think: damn, if this don't make the best damn Coke commercial.
Pimletz sits and watches the commercial, the two black kids standing side by side, fingers of adjacent hands locked in what at best seems an uncomfortable embrace. One moves his arms like a snake, slithering and looking to Pimletz like one of those conversation-piece perpetual-wave machines, this way and that way, and he passes the movement on to his less graceful, less rhythmic, and less willing partner — they do look like scarecrows, Pimletz thinks — and back and forth they go, with little twists and shakes built into their routine. Without music, the routine suggests the endless passing of energy from one object to another, bodies colliding and acknowledging other bodies, transmitting. Tag-team energy.
Have a Coke and a smile, Pimletz thinks. The real thing. Coca-Cola is Coke.
Pimletz walks the fifty feet or so to the dancers and they stop, suddenly, noticing.
"Here," Pimletz says, and he gives each of them a buck, a tip for the dress rehearsal.
"Nice dick," one of them says, pointing, and Pimletz looks down and sees — Shit! — his cock dangling like who-knows-what from the stunned mouth of his zipper. He's frozen with the thought of what he must look like.
Excerpted from Obit by Daniel Paisner. Copyright © 2000 Daniel Paisner. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Daniel Paisner is the author of twenty books, including The New York Times bestsellers Mountain Get Out of My Way (with Montel Williams) and Exposing Myself (with Geraldo Rivera).
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