By George D. Morgan
The phones, all ten lines of them, are unstoppable. No sooner do I answer line one than line three begins blinking, then line seven. My office staff do their best to help keep up, but we’re falling behind—too many people needing too many things.
Amidst this chaos, Samantha tries to get my attention about some computer problem, the postman shows up requiring my signature for a certified letter, a mobile car wash guy pops in and wants to know if I need his services, and my cell phone starts blaring “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
I wave off the car wash guy, signal Samantha to wait, grab the certified letter receipt, then open my cell phone and say, “Hi, Dear.” I begin to sign the receipt. “Can I call you right back?”
“No,” she says, which causes my hand to stop mid-signature. Lisa knows how busy we sometimes get and she knows if I ask to call her right back it means we’re fighting hurricanes. Her standard reply to “Can I call you right back” is always, “Sure— call me when you got a minute.”
But today is different, and not just because she has said ‘no’ to my request. I sense something in her voice and it causes me to hand the receipt back to the postman with only my first name on the signature line. For some reason he considers this sufficient, and leaves.
I look at the red light blinking on line four. I’ve had them on hold for two minutes and they’re probably stewing. “What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Jennifer Shane died last night.”
“Say again?” Of course, I’ve understood her perfectly. It’s an odd trait of human culture that when we’re brought bad news we want it repeated, even though we heard it fine the first time.
“Jennifer Shane is dead.”
“That’s not possible. She’s only sixteen years old.”
“Seventeen,” she corrects me. “She died in her sleep.”
The youthful face of Jennifer appears in my mind like a movie poster—happy, athletic, befreckled, perfect. Jennifer Shane expiring in her sleep like some ninety year- old emphysema patient? This is not possible.
“That’s crazy. Somebody’s playing with us. Where did you hear this?”
“Darlene just called me.”
Now my mind is racing, chaotic—like the phone-ringing office that surrounds me.
I know Darlene very well. She’s got a head on her shoulders and she’s not prone to gossip, exaggeration, or hyperbole. She’s smart, dependable. If Darlene brings you information it’s usually accurate.
“What exactly did she say?”
“Jennifer’s mother just called her and said she found Jennifer in her bed this morning. She passed away during the night.”
“I’ll call you back.”
I close my phone and my brain splits into two halves. One half goes about the routine of the office, while the second ponders how a perfectly healthy teenager could simply not wake up one morning.
Mike and Kathy Shane had lived near us in Santa Paula for fifteen years. We knew them well. Their five daughters were close friends with our kids. School, soccer, church, community activities; we did them together. Then eighteen months ago Mike decided to move his business to Denver, and the entire family picked up and left.
The Shane girls were extraordinary. They could have been on a postcard, a family magazine cover, a Norman Rockwell painting. You could look up the word ‘wholesome’ in the dictionary and expect to see their picture there. These were America’s girls—the kind you put on a tourist billboard in Europe to entice people to come to Disneyland. They didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. When you were in their presence they had a spirituality that flowed around you like a fluffy winter coat.
And now the purist of all of them is dead. I’m angry. I’m not going to put up with this. Something has to be done.
I need more information, so I call Darlene. Her line is busy, so I dial again. It takes about twenty minutes but I finally get through.
“Tell me what happened.”
Darlene relates to me everything Lisa has told me, but adds one detail. “Jennifer was in the hospital yesterday for minor surgery. The doctor said everything had gone well and Jennifer went home. She was lucid and fine all day and evening. Her death may in some way be related to the surgery, or maybe not. We don’t know yet.”
I tell her to keep me in the information loop, then hang up. I handle a dozen more phone calls, then my wife rings my cell again.
“We need to remind the Shanes how much we love them. On your way home can you pick up a sympathy card?”
I tell her I will.
The rest of my work day passes in a fog, and suddenly I find myself behind the wheel of my car in traffic. How did I get here? The car in front of me displays a license plate from the State of Vermont—something you almost never see in Ventura County. I’m lost in thought and suddenly I have to slam the brakes to keep from knocking the poor guy back to New England. I remind myself that if I don’t want people sending sympathy cards to my wife I had better pay attention.
I make it to Santa Paula and park in the shopping center where the Hallmark store is located. I’m not sure what time they close. As I get out of the car I see two customers coming out and I realize I’m not too late.
I go in the door and the young Hispanic girl behind the counter greets me with a smile. I’ve been in this store many times so I know pretty much where everything is. I walk down the center aisle and in a moment I’m standing in front of the rack that holds the sympathy cards.
I pick one at random.
Across the front in large cursive script are the words “Our Deepest Sympathy.” It seems uninspired, so I put it back. The next one reads, “Our Sincerest Sympathy.” It makes me feel empty, so I put it back. A third card reads, “Our Sympathy at This Time of Sorrow.” I return it to the rack.
I take a step back and look at the sympathy card section as a whole, like a single organism. For the first time I realize the cards are basically all alike. The words and script are similar, if not identical, and each and every card has the same basic color scheme: a combination of lavender, powder blue, and a sort of creamy beige. It’s as if some Madison Avenue wonk with a Harvard MBA had written a manual on sympathy cards, a manual which spells out how all sympathy cards are to be designed and marketed.
In my mind I picture page twelve of the manual: “Numerous marketing studies have shown that consumers prefer sympathy cards with a lavender/powder blue/creamy- beige color scheme. Any deviance from this paradigm will result in unsold inventory.”
I should be thinking of Jennifer and her parents—of how to honor Jennifer’s memory and show our devotion and support to her family. Instead my life-long liability of instinctive curiosity gets in the way and I can’t help myself; I begin to analyze these cards more closely. I quickly find other bizarre similarities.
Whereas the birthday cards and anniversary cards on either side of me are printed with sharp colors using a bright offset printing technique, the sympathy cards have a soft dappled look, as if their pastel graphics were almost misted onto the paper. I imagine page fifteen of the manual: “Research has shown that Americans expect all greeting cards involving death to have misted graphics.”
I open a number of the cards and start counting vocabulary words. The prose inside each of them is analogous, and I manage to count a total of thirty-one words that are simply arranged and re-arranged in different ways. Next to ‘sympathy’ the most commonly used word is ‘sincere’. There’s a word I want to add to the lexicon of these Poets of the Cubicle: convenience.
I start thinking about Jennifer again—how she’ll never wear a wedding dress, never make love to her prince, never suffer the pain of childbirth, never experience the vocal enthusiasm of a soccer mom, never have to lie to her daughter that despite those braces she’s still the most beautiful girl in the world. The prose in these cards conveys none of that.
As I put the last card back I realize this is how we have come to handle death in America: a mass-produced $4.75 powder blue Hallmark card with misted graphics and generic verse.
A clerk arrives and asks, “What are you looking for?”
“Sincerity,” I reply, then walk out of the store.
When I get home my wife asks if I’ve gotten the sympathy card. I tell her the truth: I didn’t see any I liked. I ask her if she’s heard anything more from Darlene or anyone else, and she says no.
My desktop computer is already powered up and I sit down at the keyboard. I remember Jennifer had a Facebook page at one time. I decide to search for it and see what’s there.
It only takes me a couple of minutes, then suddenly Jennifer’s portrait photo appears before me. There are details I had already forgotten: The shiny steel dental work that stretches across her smile, eyes that twinkle like galaxies, enough freckles to fill Dodger Stadium. Already dozens of people have pasted messages on her page. As I read them I realize I have stumbled onto sincerity, and wonder why those MFA-owning writers at Hallmark can’t get it right.
“We need to send that card, dear,” my wife reminds me.
“Why don’t you pick one out,” I suggest. “You’re better at that sort of thing.” She agrees, and a minute later I hear her car drive away.
As I read the comments on Jennifer’s page I come across one from her sister
Becky, who talks about how she already misses her sister. She describes Jennifer as the “most perfect person on the planet.” As I read this declaration I wonder how many people understand that this is only a slight exaggeration.
I get lost in reading the comments of her many friends, then Lisa returns. She takes the card she has purchased and hands it to me, asking what I think.
The card has a border of creamy-beige with a lavender and powder blue graphic. It reads, ‘Our Sincerest Sympathy.’
“Perfect,” I say, signing it quickly and handing it back.
I post a comment on Jennifer’s Facebook page, telling how much everyone will miss her.
A few weeks go by, then a few months. Occasionally I give Darlene a call and ask if she’s heard anything more on how Jennifer died. If Darlene knows something, she’s not telling.
Eventually I stop thinking much about Jennifer—her smile, her eyes, those freckles. The office phones keep ringing and like the automaton that I am I keep answering them. The envelope with the sympathy card sits on a shelf nearby, collecting a fine layer of dust. My wife thinks I mailed it on the way to work one morning, and I let her think it. The envelope matches the graphic inside—a soft powder blue. The envelope is addressed, and it has a forty-four cent first class stamp. The cost of first class has since gone up. I tell myself I can’t mail the card because I don’t have any penny stamps.
It’s a lousy excuse, but I’m sticking with it.
One day I’m at the grocery store buying two gallons of milk. I’m buying two because the price is cheaper. I turn a corner and there’s Darlene loading her cart with frozen orange juice.
We meet and greet and talk about stuff. We laugh at some klutzy thing her son did the past week, we agree that strawberries are in season, and we complain about the price of gas.
The subject of Jennifer never comes up.
George D. Morgan has a BA in Creative Writing from CSUCI and an MFA in Writing for the Performing Arts through the University of California, Riverside. George has written more than a dozen stage plays and musicals including Second to Die, Nevada Belle, Thunder in the Valley, Pasadena Babalon, and Capture the Sun. He also wrote the music and lyrics for the children’s musical The Trial of Goldi Locks. George is the author of Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist, a memoir about his mother. George is the Playwright in Residence at Caltech. He is a member of both the Dramatists Guild and the Writers Guild of America. His personal web site can be found at www.georgedmorgan.com. George and his wife Lisa are foster-adopt parents of three young children.
Sami Holden earned an MFA in Screenwriting from UC-Riverside at Palm Desert and is the founder of The Tiny Tim Literary Review. Previously she was a dating advice columnist for The Good Men Project’s column - Dating in the Digital Age with Sami Holden as well as the press and social media editor for The Coachella Review. She wrote a blog for a number of years called Chronicles of Cheerful Clotter for HemAware Magazine, where she detailed her life with chronic health conditions. Sami is also an associate producer and press manager for the documentary Invisible: The Film, which focuses on individuals living with chronic pain and invisible illness. She has served on the Board of Directors for the National Hemophilia Foundation, spent time as a Senatorial intern, and was Miss Wisconsin for the ANTSO program. In addition, she has had articles published in Chronicality, Elephant Journal, The Glow (Australia), I.G. Living Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Mighty, National Pain Report, Ravishly, and YourTango. Her interests include ukuleles and sloths. Find her @SamiDan19.