Writing An Obituary Over Lunch

The Rib Room, an essay by Anne Gisleson

Writing An Obituary Over Lunch

The Rib Room

Usually we know nothing of the ultimate orientation or of the outlet towards which we travel, and the stream sweeps us to a formula of life from which there is no returning. Every decision is like a murder, and our march forward is over the stillborn bodies of all of our possible selves that will never be.
— Rene Dubos

We were at the Rib Room, table five, drinking with my father’s fresh ghost, when a reporter from the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune called my older brother, who’d made it from Pittsburgh to the deathbed just in time. The paper was doing one of those article-length obituaries they publish for people of some civic prominence and wanted to ask a few questions about our father’s life. The two oldest siblings passed the phone back and forth, answering the reporter’s questions with a fuzzy magnification brought on by lunch-time martinis, the rest of us holding in our laughter. I sat across from them in the padded booth, the mortified middle child, mouthing “stop it” over my Beefeaters.

Dad had held court at table five for over twenty-five years, since we were teenagers. The place had hardly changed. Waiters in maroon jackets eternally placed hot French bread in paper wrappers onto white tablecloths. Church-high ceilings with faux Tudor rafters, walls veneered with veiny green and black marble meeting a polished flagstone floor. The usual architectural suggestion — affluence as some sort of ancient privilege, anchored by the prizes of geology. The balcony-sheltered windows kept the noon sunlight indirect and golden, the bare bulbs of sconces and chandeliers merely embellishing the light.

I never quite understood Dad’s attachment to the place. I could only figure his weekly ritual of Friday lunch at the Rib Room was his reward as a self-made man, a rust-belt refugee from a working poor family who got his first job, at a grocery, at ten, worked as a grinder in a foundry at nineteen, and was the youngest strike force chief against organized crime for the Department of Justice by twenty-seven. Not just a reward, but also a perverse “fuck you” to the establishment, as he rebelled against any and all establishments, especially ones he was associated with. His white-shoe law firm, the government, the Catholic Church.

Also: Dad nurtured a grudge like a bonsai tree, tending and shaping, maintaining its diminutive, eternal perfection. Back in the 70’s as a young federal prosecutor, he’d wanted to pick up the check at the Rib Room to celebrate a department victory. But, he was a struggling government employee with eight children and his credit card was declined. The humiliation lodged and stuck. Eventually, he gave up a job he loved and turned to the private sector — corporate defense. Maybe it was a consolation prize, becoming a regular at the Rib Room. Pouring his Beefeater’s from a martini pitcher with Gisleson etched in the glass, picking up checks at table five for the next couple decades.

The Times-Picayune article that came out a few days before the funeral was fine. Biographical details, highlights of the more prominent cases he tried, even ones he would’ve considered disappointments. Padded here and there with a little bullshit from our luncheon. It listed the children who survived him but not those who did not, a sad sort of erasure for his youngest daughters, twins who’d committed suicide several years before. Especially sad since it’s likely the twins were the last ones on his mind as he slipped away from us, dying a patriarch’s death with all of his remaining children crowding his bedside, attending the running down of his animal machine, anticlimactic, exhausting.

Running exactly parallel on the newspaper page a mere centimeter to the left of Dad’s obituary was a story that kept distracting me. “Injuries cited in death at old hotel.” A decomposing body had been found at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned Howard Johnson’s hotel out in the Katrina-ravaged-but-slowly-recovering New Orleans East. The coroner’s office said that he’d been dead about four to seven days and that he’d died from internal bleeding from pelvic fractures. They had released a description to help ID him. “The man is white, between 20 and 30 years old, 5 feet 7 inches, 148 pounds, and has light brown hair, a full beard and a mustache… The man also has a twisted right incisor in the right side of his mouth. He had several tattoos on his body, including ‘Sublime’ on his right inner forearm, a Cancer zodiac symbol on his left inner forearm and a cross on his right lower thigh with the letters ‘AT’ on one side and ‘RM’ on the other…He wore a white shell necklace, a brown shirt and a brown pants and brown boots.” They were awaiting toxicology reports.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter who speaks for you after you’re gone, your tattoos or your tipsy children, nor whether you died alone at the bottom of an elevator shaft, anonymous in tunneling darkness, or surrounded by your family Uptown at Touro Infirmary under excellent care, you both end up side by side on page B-4 of the Metro section of the Times-Picayune on January 19, 2012.

But something about the man in the elevator shaft resonated with my dad. He often dressed monochromatically, too — in all black, part of his general rebelliousness, a shadow thrown from a tough youth marked by police trouble and car crashes. The intensity of “Sublime” and the quirky ornament of the shell necklace. Dad was loner who loved cheesy holiday decorations and throwing big parties. Self-isolating, drawn to the dark margins. A few times he’d arrive home late in his three-piece suit with a black eye or bloody lip and improbable excuses. Dad’s last act in this world, after week of chemo treatments, was to visit his death row client in Angola Prison, to whom he was deeply attached.

In the last real conversation I had with him, at the Rib Room a couple weeks before he died, he said no one really knew him, not even my mom. Burying an enigma seemed even more crushing. Dad’s ambitions and weaknesses could have led him anywhere. That man in brown at the bottom of the elevator shaft could’ve been one of Dad’s possible selves, murdered and abandoned long ago, finally catching up to him in the stream.

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