by William Cass

Several years ago, during my last semester as a journalism major, I got a part-time job at my college town’s weekly newspaper. I was put in charge of the Police Blotter, obits, a community events calendar, and occasionally filled in for a reporter who covered the local high school’s sports teams. I shared a desk with that reporter in the back corner of the “newsroom” which was really the downstairs of a refurbished two-family house just off our town’s single main street.

I’d been on the job for less than two months and came into the empty newsroom one gloomy mid-February morning to find an unopened envelope on our desk. It had been postmarked a few days earlier and had “Attn: Obituaries” written in loopy script beside the newspaper’s mailing address. There was no return address at all. I sat down and opened it in a wan shaft of sun that crept through what was once a dining room window. The envelope held a single sheet of old-fashioned stationery covered in the same script and a small black-and- white photograph with scalloped edges. A plain, unsmiling woman with permed hair and pointy glasses stared up at me from the photo. I flipped it over where the words: “Me, 1961, Age 22” were written by the same hand and felt myself frown.

I lifted the stationery up higher into the light. Its underlined heading read: “Obituary for Jane Corcoran”. A short narrative followed:

“Jane Corcoran passed from this earth on February 10, 2018, at the age of 79. She was alone in her apartment at the time of her death. Jane was born and raised in the Northeast on a dairy farm. She had no siblings, never married, and had no remaining family. She worked her entire adult life as a public librarian assistant whose responsibilities primarily involved cataloguing, covering, and shelving books. She was a quiet, reserved person who enjoyed knitting, jigsaw puzzles, reading historical romances, and taking walks along the river. She once owned a cat. No services are planned nor donations requested.”

Underneath, in parentheses, was a final line: “Respectfully submitted by Jane Corcoran – February 9, 2018”.

I lowered the paper slowly to my desk. A chill had risen up my neck. I found myself studying the photograph and wondering why she’d chosen it to accompany her obituary before realizing I was about the same age as she’d been in it. I thought about her long, solitary life, the work she’d devoted herself to, the way she’d filled all her breathing hours until she’d decided that their time to end had come. Suddenly, I pictured her cat, and a tightness gripped my throat. I stared outside where a naked tree branch nodded on the cold breeze as if in silent, somber affirmation.