Chronicler of the Dead: An Excerpt from ‘The Atlas of Reds and Blues’

Fiction by Devi S. Laskar

She’s a chronicler of the dead. Obituaries. A lowly job, usually given to interns first, those who are new to the newspaper world; or those old-timers who could not stomach the deadlines or the politics of daily journalism; those who could not stand the constant criticism from the public. For the first time in ten years, since the year 2000, Mother arrives last to her section of the newsroom, far from the windows that look out to the skyscrapers crowding the urban landscape, the street way below, downtown Atlanta.

Image: Counterpoint Press. (Purchase)

Editor Dennis on the phone. His face is red and crumpled like used gift wrap. Dennis does not wave. He swivels his chair back to his computer screen as though he doesn’t see her. Her other two colleagues are absent, rather their things, lunch bags, jackets, notebooks, are dumped over their desk calendars, but their bodies are not present. She looks around and there are reporters in the thick of the newsroom where the City Desk journalists cluster, crowding around the watercooler, watching live TV on multiple screens. She grips the jangle of keys in her left hand. Where is the car parked? What route had she taken this morning after a breakfast of toaster strudel and black tea?

She is achy, content to sit. Desk is tidy. Facing the narrow corridor that leads to the restrooms. Desk is tidy because there is no work to carry over, day to day. At workday’s end, she files the notes and the notebook into the cavernous drawers, touches the four-by-six color photo of her family tacked onto the bulletin board, and rushes home. Today no lunch and no jacket, not even a purse. Why? No one looks at her, no one gives her anything to do.

She used to be a crime reporter, used to have to keep watch over everything that had to do with her assigned police municipalities, the courthouses in the counties she covered. She practices still; who goes in and out of the corridor and the bathrooms, how many times each day. Who goes in, who doesn’t come out. Who goes in pensive and comes out giddy. Who goes in all nervous energy and comes out sated, slow. She gleans George the metro police reporter’s coke habit this way, and the fact that the assistant food editor, Julie, has been having an affair with Charles, the morning editor at the City Desk, for three months. How do they have the time? They are each married, and have kids on the same Little League team. Carpool must have become a hotbed of innuendo and long looks.

She turns back to Dennis, but he is occupied by the urgent call on the telephone. His sweat and the anger rolling off his back build an ill wind.

Now she is neither an intern nor a shadow. She is a seasoned reporter with a husband who knows which kiosk sells the best croissants at Charles de Gaulle Airport better than he knows where the cough medicine is stored at home. She is a mother of three small children. A woman who does not want to let go of her former life, a woman who cannot stand the mind-numbing repetition of her present. Once the children came in quick succession, she accepted this job, writing about the accomplishments and attributes of a person who will never read the work and tell her that she got it wrong.

DEVI S. LASKAR is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Tin House and Rattle, among other publications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and is an alumna of The OpEd Project and VONA. The Atlas of Reds and Blues is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Copyright © 2019 by Devi S. Laskar, from The Atlas of Reds and Blues. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.