By Marlene Olin
The family of Arnold M. Strauss is sad to report…
At the city limits, tourists were greeted with two signs. The words “Welcome to Sibley, Colorado” were tattooed on a rugged piece of wood. Propped on a post next to it, a small metal square read “Population 4,016.” Any local resident could tell you that the population was at least double that number. And during ski season-- when the top of the mountain was covered with cold, deep powder-- the number of inhabitants passing through or staying put hovered in the five figures. Like most small towns, Sibley guarded more than its share of secrets and proffered more than its share of lies.
Addie Lee Cooper passed away this Thursday…
Walton P. Goggins had lived in Sibley most of his life. And like most lifelong residents, he knew all the locals either personally or by reputation. He graduated in the top third of his high school class, and he ended up at the state college four hours away. And when college was over, he found himself drifting back to his old spawning grounds. He rented a house three doors down from his parents. His brother lived two blocks from the grocery store, his sister across the street from the Catholic Church.
Memorial services will be held by the fairgrounds this Sunday for our beloved friend and neighbor…
Living in a small town had both disadvantages and perks. It was Walton’s childhood dream to be a beat reporter—the first car at the accident scene, the hand shoving a microphone into the suspect’s face. Of course Sibley was too small to afford its own TV station. But a small town left ample opportunities to make your mark. And in Walton’s mind, the local newspaper provided his one best shot.
Every resident of the town thumbed through The Sibley Sentinel’s pages. Businessmen scanned the financials with their morning coffee. Housewives checked the yard sale listings. Anything of consequence was splashed on the front page and anything of inconsequence found its way tucked between the horoscope and sports. Baby births. DUIs. The farmers' almanac. The thump of the morning paper resounded on every wooden porch and every gravel driveway.
Stopping by the wayside, the angels took her home.
In the five years since he got his diploma, Walton had been working his way from the mailroom up. Advertising. Sales. Door-to-door soliciting. But it wasn’t the same as being a reporter. Walton wanted to listen to police scanners, to grab his coat and fly out the door, to keep a pad in his rear pocket and a pencil wedged behind his ear. But when he begged his bosses for a chance to write, they fudged and made excuses.
“Everyone’s got a talent,” Bob Spackman boomed. The managing editor was six feet of pear-shaped muscle. His ass rarely left the chair. “We just have to find yours.”
A longtime resident of Sibley, Bernard “Buzz” Slotkin, died suddenly in his sleep...
Walton was a patient man. He knew the competition was thick. And he realized that to get ahead someone in the newsroom would either have to quit or have to die. Then one day someone did.
Walton, as usual, was working in the building basement. Outside it was a gray October afternoon, the sun low in the sky, the trees leafless. The fluorescent lighting cast a sickly shade of blue over the room. Bob Spackman looked downright sepulchral as he waddled past the file cabinets.
“We're assigning you to obits, Walton.” He slapped him on the back. “Obits are the heart and soul of a newspaper. This is your big chance, Walton. Don’t screw it up.”
At least it was a step in the right direction. Walton bought a pencil and a pad and was consigned a computer and a cubicle. To ease his transition, a fact-checker and grammarian would show him the ropes. Audrey Lammer had been dating the high school football coach for the last five years. She wore a clingy sweater no matter the season. Her nipples pointed north. Her high heels rounded her rump.
“The obits are easy," said Audrey. Cracking her gum, she inched close enough for Walton to smell her flowery perfume. "First you call the family. They’ll give you the Hallmark Hall of Fame version. Then you call their friends and get the truth.”
“A story is like an archeological dig," boomed Bob Spackman. "You dig through layers and layers of horseshit until you find the fossil."
Walton's eyebrows nearly jumped off his head. "Then you print the fossil?"
Spackman leaned back in his seat. "Of course you don't print the fossil. Whatdya think all those file cabinets downstairs are for? You print what folks want to hear."
Like most small towns, a veneer of cleanliness and calm was presented to the outside world. Only on closer inspection would the frayed edges and peeling woodwork come to light. In many respects, The Sibley Sentinel worked the same way.
Peter S. Hathaway’s remains were discovered in his living room Saturday afternoon. Everyone loved him, said Hathaway's wife. I can’t imagine who would put a pickaxe to his head.
Walton's first major assignment was to write an obituary for the previous obituary writer. Sam Westfall was eighty-years-old and had been a fixture at the office for decades. Walton remembered a man bent like a question mark, a few strands of wispy white hair, suspenders holding up a pair of too-big pants. Each staff member had an anecdote on hand, and each anecdote was more troubling than the next.
“Did you know they serve a lot of free booze at funerals?” said Audrey. “There wasn’t a wake or a shiva that he missed.”
Sam Westfall, a beloved writer at The Sibley Sentinel, passed away last Sunday. His personality lit up the room, said Audrey Lammer, a colleague and a friend.
“Never did a lick of research,” said Bob Spackman. “Sam could memorialize Hitler and make him sound like Santa Claus.”
He was the face of our publication, said managing editor Bob Spackman. His journalistic standards set the bar.
Walton spent hours preparing the obituary. He waded through piles of old columns to get a sense of Sam’s style and personality. He scanned yellowed microfiche files for buried scraps of information. He approached the assignment like a jigsaw puzzle, putting together the disparate pieces that comprised the whole. But the most important piece, he was told, would be provided by family members. He saved that task for last.
Walton was not a hand holder by nature. He never cried no matter how sad the movie. A screw in his stomach tightened at the very thought of interviewing Sam's widow. And to his shock, the obituarist’s wife insisted on meeting him at her home.
A devoted family man, Sam Westfall was married to the former Martha Raskowicz.
He walked outside the newspaper building and stood on the sidewalk. The sun was a mere suggestion, the clouds stacked like plates. The house was on the other side of town, a walkable distance on a nice day. Instead Walton decided to take his car. His car was comforting, he felt cocooned in his car. Sitting in his car, he was sheltered from low opinions and high expectations. Sitting in his car, the winds that tossed and turned him ceased to exist.
He was looking over his shoulders, first right, then left, trying to expand time and delay the inevitable when a man approached him. Scruffy beard. Tattered army jacket. A shaky hand reached out.
“Got any spare change today, Walton. Mighty thirsty.”
Arthur Wilby was Sibley’s one and only homeless person. Of course the small town had its share of wayward transients. But most moved on as soon as the summer season ended. Arthur was more of a town mascot than a nuisance. A good-natured alcoholic. A man who helped old ladies cross the street. He lived in a back room at the Catholic Church and survived on day-old food he found in dumpsters. His story was more interesting than half the stories in Sibley. A tour in Viet Nam. An unfaithful wife. Now it was Walton’s turn to slap someone on the back.
“I think I may have a dollar or two, today, Arthur.” He was about to reach into his billfold when inspiration took hold. “You feel like going for breakfast? I could use the company, Arthur. How about some eggs?”
Three doors down was a coffee shop. They shuffled in tandem and sat down in a corner booth. Arthur's hand shook as he held the menu. It waved from side to side as he picked at the scrambled eggs lumped upon his plate. Though he thanked Walton over and over again for the meal, they both knew he was merely being polite.
Walton rearranged his food. Looked out the window and commented on the weather. Just thinking about the widow made him too anxious to eat. And he realized what a kindness the homeless man was offering him. The last thing Arthur probably wanted was a greasy breakfast in a noisy diner. The only thing Arthur ever wanted and needed was a filled flask.
Walton breathed in and out, watching the shirt on his chest balloon and contract. Each minute sitting at that booth felt like a death sentence reprieve. An hour later he watched Arthur amble down the sidewalk, the wayward hand slicing the air like a scythe.
Finally, it was time for Walton to head to Martha Westfall’s. The neighborhood was long past its prime. Weeds sprouted from cracks in the sidewalk. A rusted car chassis sat on cement blocks. Though the house was a neat clapboard, a long abandoned vegetable garden lay withering in front. Behind it loomed a jungle of transformers and electrical towers. Walton could feel his teeth tingle and his ears buzz.
He had to knock three times before anyone answered the door. Martha Westfall was long past her prime, too. Her face was a topographical map of horrors. Deep crevices traversed her cheeks. Instead of a part, a wide swath of bald scalp divided her hairline like a rippling river. Walton stuck out his hand and unloaded a pre-rehearsed speech.
“The Sibley Sentinel sends its condolences, Mrs. Westfall.”
The woman said nothing. Nodding her head, she plodded over to the couch. Walton followed behind.
“I got a tuna casserole from Mavis Whitley. And a platter of brownies from Annette O'Toole. I sure hope the newspaper is sending more than fare-thee-wells and I’m-so-sorrys. A bunch of empty words is not going to keep my Frigidaire full, I can tell you that.”
Walton reached behind his ear for his pencil. Then he dug into his pocket for his pad. “Can you tell me how long you were married, Mrs. Westfall?”
“It seemed like an eternity, Mr. Goggins.”
They had celebrated their fortieth anniversary in May.
Walton scratched his chin with the nub. “And did you have any children?”
“You see anyone scrambling to fetch me tea? Ingrates. Every last one of them.”
Sam is survived by his sons Lincoln and Hoyle as well as his daughter Betsy Lou (Schwartzbaum). He has one brother who prefers to remain nameless.
Against a wall, an ancient grandfather clock swung its pendulum back and forth. A moon with a face was painted in the background, its grin a cruel tease.
"Did I tell you my husband liked to gamble, Mr. Goggins? Lost every last penny we had. That Internet poker is a curse, I tell you. A goddamned curse."
A half hour later Walton walked back to his car. He concentrated on his feet, putting one shoe ahead of the other, positive that any onlookers would think he was drunk. His mind was as cluttered as a forsaken attic. Which Sam Westfall would be the lede of his newspaper column? The derelict husband who skirted his responsibilities and coasted through his career? Or the photoshopped and edited version, the Chamber of Commerce commercial who pulled his weight and paid his taxes?
Westfall was a long-standing member of the Elks Lodge #452. "Never missed a night of bowling," said Exalted Ruler Wilford Chaffey. "You could always count on Sam to swing a spare."
Truth, Walton was learning, was not an absolute. It was more of a spectrum, a sliding scale of values dependent on multiple factors. He went back to his desk and cupped his head in his hands. Minutes passed. Once again he felt the imprint of a large hand smacking him on the back.
"The truth? You're asking me about the truth?" said Bob Spackman. "If you ask a Rabbi, a eulogy should never lie. If you ask a priest, the road to salvation is paved with homilies and prayer. Just remember. A memorial is not a James Bond martini. Things are better off stirred instead of shaken."
Months went by. Soon Walton developed a code, a kind of binary language that hinted at the truth while skirting it at the same time.
Gary Fitzwilliams was an adventurer who pursued his dreams.
"He waited tables, hauled trash, and repossessed cars," said his brother Bud. "Couldn't stand in one place longer than a three-legged dog."
The body of Patsy Reese was found in her apartment on Sunday. The cause of death was unknown.
"She emptied five bottles of Tylenol PM followed by a whiskey chaser," said Police Officer Tom O'Malley. "Even a Taser couldn't faze her."
Morty Marmelstein left a handsome line of descendants.
"He schtupped every waitress in Pitkin Country," said his ex-wife. "If you see a buggy-eyed kid with floppy ears, you can damn well bet it's his."
Sure, he wasn't covering breaking news. Political scandals. Zoning fights. But a death in a small town took a bite from each and every life. The citizens of Sibley, he was told, turned to his column with their first sips of steaming coffee. People nodded his way while he walked down the street. Death was their commonality, the unspoken bond that tied everyone together.
"Sooner or later," said Bob Spackman, "we're all heading out the same door!"
Still Walton felt like a failure. Somewhere a large celestial clock ticked the date and time of each man's demise. And each night when he went to bed that clock tormented him. No matter how often Spackman slapped him on the back, his work left him feeling incomplete. Life was too short to be tied to down to a dead-end job.
"Sooner or later, Walton," said Audrey, "some cocky young writer will be spinning your life's story, too."
If life were a race against the inevitable, Walton felt three paces behind. And before long he realized that to get ahead in the newsroom something sensational would have to happen. Someone would either have to commit murder or be condemned to die. Then one day someone did.
It was a dark and dreary afternoon. Dirty snow was melting in the street gutters. Half-dead Christmas trees were waiting to be picked up with the trash. Only half of the holiday lights stringing the downtown buildings were working and the other half were taking their last breaths.
Walton stepped outside the newspaper office, looked to his right and his left. Arthur had just turned a corner and was heading his way. There was a chill in the air and Walton shivered at the sight of him. Arthur's tattered coat wasn't nearly warm enough. The vagrant stuck out five naked fingers and grabbed Walton's wrist. His ungloved hand, Walton noticed, was as cold as metal and shook like a tuning fork.
"Here's hoping for a Happy New Year," said Arthur.
They both heard the children round the other corner at the same time. The mayor's wife had five kids in five years. During the summer, they ran through open fire hydrants. In the spring, they tore through people's gardens and stomped on their petunias. In the fall, they wore their Halloween costumes three months straight. And in the winter, they soared through the town on their sleds and their skates, oblivious to vehicles and passersby.
Walton and Arthur stepped back and watched. The twins must have been around nine, Leroy was eight, Henry was six, and little Louisa four. Of course, they weren't totally unsupervised. The mayor's wife was usually five minutes behind, chatting with her girlfriends or checking out the storefronts. Meanwhile the boys zoomed like rockets, hiding between parked cars and darting in and out the street. Little Louisa toddled behind, her head wrapped in a fuchsia ski cap with a red pom-pom on top.
"That little girl looks like a sundae, don't she Walton? A sundae with a cherry on top."
It all happened in slow motion. The sound of boys laughing, the red pom-pom bobbing up down up down, people heading home for dinner. But it was the time of day when the sun and the moon are about even and the street lights barely glow in the haze. Looking back, maybe that was why it was so hard to see. Even though that red pom-pom was bobbing up down up down, the air was so thick and the sky was so dull Walton was practically blind.
But Arthur saw everything. There's always a moment between then and now, a space that separates time, a pause between disaster and hope. And in that moment, Arthur stepped between the two fenders and with two shaky fingertips grabbed the giggling girl by her sleeve and tried to stop her.
They both heard the car. The brakes squealed like a slaughtered pig. Walton will never forget the sound of those brakes and the quiet thud that followed. Then he put his hand over his chest and pushed in. But the thud wasn't inside--it was outside--and they both ran over to see. The red pom-pom was under the hood, the puddle of blood expanding, the pom-pom blooming bigger and bigger as he and Arthur watched.
The mayor's wife showed up seconds later, her face red and hot even though it was freezing. Her arms were filled with shopping bags, and when she saw the child the contents were jettisoned like shrapnel all over pavement. A can of soda shot down the sidewalk. A comic book flew up in the air and sailed.
She turned to Arthur. "What did you do?" she screamed.
Walton's first instinct was to reach behind his ear. Then he looked for his pad.
The woman was crazy with grief and guilt so she lashed out at any target. Arthur just stood there. Little cumulus clouds billowed from his opened mouth. But instead of speaking, he just held up that shaky hand.
"You're always following my kids. Taunting them. Teasing them. Chasing them. You pushed her, didn't you? I saw you push her!"
Arthur looked at Walton. He'll never forget that look. In the distance they heard sirens. An ambulance would show up in minutes, the police a few moments later. Somewhere a neon sign winked and blinked. Somewhere a clock ticked.
"Sooner or later, some cocky young writer will by spinning your life's story, too."
"The truth? You're asking me about the truth?"
But all Walton could think about as they waited were the words he'd type on the computer that night. The obituary, as usual, would take no time at all.
Louisa, their youngest child, had just entered pre-kindergarten at St. Matthews. She is survived by her parents and four older siblings. "She was the light of my life," said her mother...
Writing the front page headline, however, would take him most of the night.