Margins and Inches, by Mallory Russell

Frank was a man of details and consequently he often missed the bigger picture.

To be fair, few mere mortals grasp the larger meaning of things but Frank, Frank was different because he had never bothered to look. He was not concerned with bigger questions: the whats, whys, and hows of the world. Frank only dealt in questions that could be answered in twenty inches or less. You see, Frank was once an obituary writer and he had been the best.

When Frank was in the prime of his career he had sincerely believed that everything in his life had led up to his illustrious vocation as an obituary writer. His parents’ separation when he was twelve. The accident soon after that cost his mother her life. The developing obsession with secrets that soon followed that. Other people’s lives felt so much more bearable than his own.

Frank’s older brother, Rich, was a junior in high school when their mother died. Frank had just turned thirteen. Frank would remember his thirteenth birthday party as a dark foreshadowing of events to come. His mother’s face was pinched, she had cried throughout decorating the house and baking Frank’s birthday cake. She put on a different face, one with a smile, shortly before father had arrived but it didn’t fit quite right. Everyone in the family tried their best to pretend that Frank’s birthday was a cause for celebration but the pain and discord that had taken place the months before had already saturated into the kitchen walls.

What Frank remembered the most was his birthday cake; it was a beautifully iced homemade black forest cake. Frank was overjoyed that something on his birthday would be good but when he bit into his slice there was an off-putting bitter flavor. His mother had made a joke on how she must have forgot the sugar. His father made a quip about the quality of a mother who can’t even bake a cake for her son’s birthday. They all made laughing sounds.

Father left halfway through opening presents; before he left and had looked deep into Frank’s eyes, shook his hand, and told him that he was now thirteen and a man. Frank was startled. No one had told him that thirteen was when he would become a man. His chin was bare of any hairs. He had never put a hand up a girl’s skirt as he had seen his brother Rich do when Frank was forced to tagalong to a drive-in. Besides he still had a mom who cut the crusts off his sandwich. How could he be a man?

But a month later she would be gone and Frank would eat sandwiches with crusts (how men ate sandwiches) and think about his birthday cake: the last thing she had ever baked.

Their father was an attorney for a big firm in the city and had hired an elderly German woman who lived in the neighborhood to do the housework. He had failed to hire anyone to be a mother to Frank. Frank did not speak German, he did not have a law degree, nor did he have a girlfriend. It was painfully obvious to Frank that had nothing in common with any of the people in his house, so he went to find new ones.

Frank would think about it now and realize that he had spent his whole life looking, merely skimming the surface of human interactions. He would stay in relationships long enough to collect a defining noun or two, a couple choice adjectives and then move on to his next entry.

When Frank was in high school he would peer through people’s windows. He loved catching a glimpse of the intimacies of strangers. Frank was not a pervert. He was not interested in Mrs. Taylor getting into her nightly bath or Mr. Benson consummating his newest marriage. On the contrary, Frank was enthralled by the mundane details of life. Frank would watch the monotonous daily routines of wives, brothers, daughters, fathers; he would treasure habits that they themselves would find annoying or not even notice at all.

Frank would be detained as a peeping tom when he was sixteen (he was let off with a warning), become the high school newspaper editor when he was seventeen, and would receive acceptance into NYU when he was eighteen.

When in school a journalism professor would state that Journalism is “the first rough draft of history.” But with obituaries there was only ever one draft. Where most journalists would have weeks or months to report a story, Frank would just have days or, more often than not, hours.

How does one sum up a person’s life? In Frank’s profession lives were measured in margins and inches rather than feelings or inheritances. As an obituary writer, it was a necessary part of his job to sleuth through public records. It was perfectly reasonable for Frank to ask family members of the deceased how their dearly departed took their eggs, what temperature they set their thermostat at, whether they read the paper before or after work. He treasured little jewels of information.

When he was a boy he would pretend that he had a vault hidden away somewhere to store all these little secrets. Secrets that would be lovingly sorted (perhaps alphabetically or maybe reverse chronologically?) and preserved: to be dusted off and marveled at some years in the future. As an adult, Frank had his obituaries to chronicle his tenacity for the research and a basement file cabinet to house all of the secrets he collected.

Frank became an expert on someone in a matter of days without ever having met the person. He would inhale a stranger’s life through intensive study and exhale it out again. Rapidly, accurately, and elegantly Frank would sink deep into people’s lives and produce a comprehensive narrative that could be read over a morning cup of coffee. He would repeat this processes day after day for twenty years.

In Frank’s opinion, he had one of the greatest privileges in the world. Who was Frank to be a last authority on a stranger’s life, on hundreds of lives? He was not God, but few others besides Frank and God could claim that they had the power to write how someone’s story began and also how it would end.
Mallory Russell is one of the biggest toast enthusiasts you’ll ever find, especially when avocado, nutritional yeast, and pepper flakes are involved. She is also in the midst of researching the perfect combination of cereal and alcohol.

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