January 26, 2023

This isn’t Mayberry

7

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Marvin stood in his kitchen reading his obituary.

He wasn’t a man accustomed to reading anything except his morning news, which he swallowed each morning like medicine. He also wasn’t a man accustomed to reading the obituaries; all that humanity laid bare in 2 inch black and white columns like corpses on a slab made him uncomfortable. Marvin read the news on the mistaken belief that a steady diet of news makes a person informed. But after years of reading, by any measure, Marvin was about as well-informed as an uninformed man could be. Marvin would have remained blissfully uninformed of the news of his own death if someone hadn’t stuck a yellow Post-It note on the page of his morning Globe.

Marvin wasn’t an emotional man, he was hardly any sort of man at all. But the man he was — such as he was — was alive. Or so he imagined. True, Marvin was a man of few interests and fewer vices. And true, Marvin was a man with no family and fewer friends. And true, Marvin was a man with no hopes and fewer dreams. But the man he was — such as he was — was living. Or so he imagined.

And so it was, as Marvin stood in his kitchen reading his obituary, that the dim thought that maybe he was mistaken, that perhaps he had died blissfully uninformed of that news, almost penetrated the fog of his equanimity. But of course, he was alive, he thought. He was almost positive. To be otherwise would have been a surprise to him, and Marvin was not a man who liked surprises. Still, he pinched himself to be sure.

Satisfied that he was, indeed, alive, Marvin returned his attention back to the news of his own death. At first, he wondered whether the obituary was some elaborate hoax orchestrated by someone in his life. But try as he might, he couldn’t think of a single person who would go to such trouble. The details that described him were few, the breadth and depth of his existence barely reaching the margins of that 2-inch column, but the details were accurate. Whoever had caused it to be published might have known him well or not well at all; there was nothing in the text itself to say. The only clue Marvin had was the Post-It on which someone had scrawled a nearly illegible telephone number in smudgy red ink: 800-REF-RBSH.

Marvin considered ignoring the news, but he didn’t like surprises or how he felt standing there in his kitchen, so he decided to dial the number and get to the bottom of the whole affair.

He punched in the number and began pacing across his floor while waiting for someone to pick up. Dead am I, he thought. We will just see about that.

After several rings, the call was answered by a woman with a very pleasant voice. She was enthusiastic and chipper — far too chipper as far as Marvin was concerned.

“Welcome to Refurbish, how can I help you today?” she said.

“Um, well, I’m not sure really,” said Marvin. “You see this morning I received news of…well….my…well, my, um, obituary.”

“Wonderful,” said the pleasant lady.

Marvin stared at his feet and wondered why that would be wonderful.

“Yes, well, you see, I think there must be some mistake,” said Marvin.

“Mistake,” repeated the pleasant lady. Her tone suggested that she thought it doubtful. “I see. Here at Refurbish we pride ourselves on getting the details right. But…I suppose mistakes do some times get made.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Marvin.

“I certainly apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you, sir. Now, let me see what I can do to help. What exactly was the nature of the mistake?” said the pleasant lady.

“Well, you see,” said Marvin. “I’m not, well, I mean…”

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady, “yes…”

“Well, I’m not dead is the thing,” said Marvin.

“Yes, I see,” said the pleasant lady.

She paused as if expecting Marvin to say something more. He wasn’t sure what.

“And so…” she said, trying to prompt him to speak.

“And so,” said Marvin, not sure what was expected. “…well, you see…I’m not dead.”

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady quite agreeably. “So you said.”

What was that supposed to mean thought Marvin?

“So you see,” said Marvin.

“No,” said the pleasant lady. “I’m sorry, sir. Evidently I do not see. You say you are not dead?”

“Exactly,” said Marvin. “I am not.”

“Not…” said the pleasant lady.

“I’m not dead,” said Marvin with exacerbation.

“I see,” said the pleasant lady. “And you’re quite positive are you?”

“Quite positive I’m not dead?” asked Marvin, trying to maintain his civility.

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady.

“Yes, yes, I am quite positive I am not dead,” said Marvin.

Marvin could hear her tapping impatiently on her keyboard.

“There is no need for that tone, sir. I’m trying to help you,” she said.

“Yes,” said Marvin feeling embarrassed. It was not like him at all to be so emotional. “Quite right, I’m sorry. I understand.”

“I’m glad,” said the pleasant lady. “I won’t tolerate any abuse. If I am to help you, you must remain calm.”

“Yes, of course,” said Marvin. “It’s just that—“

“You’re not dead,” said the pleasant lady.

“Exactly,” said Marvin, feeling like he was finally making some progress.

“But you read your obituary this morning?” she said.

“Yes,” said Marvin.

“Ok, excellent,” said the pleasant lady. “Excellent. Now, you said there was a mistake?”

“Exactly,” said Marvin.

“And the mistake was…”

“I’m not dead,” said Marvin.

Marvin could hear her sigh heavily as though he were a simpleton.

“Yes, you mentioned that. But how can you be sure?”

“Because,” said Marvin starting to get angry again. “Because…because…I’m here, aren’t I…here talking to you?”

Marvin moved his feet, pressing one foot hard on the other to be sure he still felt some sensation. He remained quite alive. He was certain of it.

“Sir,” said the pleasant lady, who was becoming slightly less pleasant. “Please lower your voice. I understand you may be upset but I assure you, we at Refurbish take great pride in our work. If you aren’t dead, I assure you we will take care of that for you.”

“But I—“

“Let me take a quick look at your file. What package did you purchase?” said the pleasant lady.

“Package?” asked Marvin.

“Yes, your package sir. Gold? Silver? Your package—”

“I don’t have a package,” said Marvin. He felt his face flush as he spoke. “I mean, yes, I have a package but—“

“Wonderful,” said the pleasant lady. “What package did you purchase?”

“No, no,” said Marvin. “I mean I didn’t purchase — Madam, I have never purchased anything from your company, — I have never heard of your company before in my life.”

There was a long pause. He strained to hear anything. He wondered if she had hung up.

“I see,” said the pleasant lady. “Yes, I see. That would make sense. You might have mentioned that fact when we started, we could have spared ourselves a great deal of misunderstanding.”

“So you understand then,” said Marvin, glad to be back on solid ground. “I’m not dead.”

“Perhaps,” said the pleasant lady. “But it is more probable that your death was a gift.”

“A gift,” said Marvin.”

“A gift,” said the pleasant lady. “Someone must care about you a great deal?”

“Yes, well,” said Marvin thinking it unlikely. “I’m not sure an obituary is a very nice gift?”

“Not nice,” said the pleasant lady. “I assure you sir, obituaries are included in only our very best packages. Whoever—“

“But I’m not dead,” said Marvin. He was beginning to wonder how he could make himself any clearer on this point.

“Yes, sir, you are,” said the pleasant lady.

“I am?” asked Marvin, again looking at his feet and hands. He pinched himself again with his left hand and was quite confident he wasn’t. But he was beginning to have his doubts.

“Not dead, dead, sir. Just dead.”

“I see,” said Marvin, not really seeing anything at all.

“You see, that’s what we do here at Refurbish.”

“Kill people,” said Marvin with growing panic.

“No, no,” said the pleasant lady with a chuckle. “We don’t kill anyone, no.”

“No…” said Marvin.

“No,” said the pleasant lady. “We refurbish them?”

“Refurbish?” said Marvin thinking that word had taken on an ominous sound.

“Yes, exactly,” she said. “Some companies specialize in refurbishing homes. Some refurbish furniture. We refurbish people.”

“Oh,” said Marvin.

He had never heard tell of a person being refurbished. He imagined someone taking off his old limbs and attaching new ones. It sounded rather unpleasant.

“Yes, you are quite lucky sir. It is a very exciting gift to receive.”

“Exciting…I…I’m not—“

“Let me just see what package you received. What is your name?”

“Marvin Whittsett,” he said.

He heard her tapping on her keyboard, and after a minute, there was silence. He again strained to hear any sounds. But all he heard was his own breathing. The pleasant lady had disappeared.

“Hello,” he said. Still nothing. “Hello, are you there?”

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady, who sounded quite frightened now. There was another pause. “Yes, I’m sorry, sir. I’m afraid I can’t…I can’t help you.”

Marvin was confused. “But you said—“

“Yes, I know what I said, sir but that was before…”

“Before?” he said.

There was a long pause.

“Hello?” he said.

She dropped her voice to a near whisper. “Yes, sir. I’m so sorry. You see, your file should have been flagged.”

“Flagged,” said Marvin growing increasingly concerned.

“Yes, flagged,” the pleasant lady said though she sounded nearly hysterical now.

“Flagged for what?”

There was another pause. Marvin held his breath.

“Flagged…well, you see…I was quite wrong. You haven’t received a gift package after all.”

“Then I am not dead,” said Marvin with some relief.

“I am afraid you are,” said the pleasant lady.

“But—“

“Your file should have been flagged….it should been flagged,” said the pleasant lady. Marvin heard her sigh. “Oh well, these things happen.”

“But what has happened,” said Marvin trying to reassert himself in the conversation.

“Well, I really shouldn’t be telling you this but someone has purchased an assassination package for you.”

Marvin let out a long low whistle.

“That does not sound good,” he said.

“It is not good, sir,” said the pleasant lady.

“Am I in danger?” Marvin asked.

“No, no,” she said, though she did not sound quite as certain as Marvin would have liked. “No, no. I mean, we don’t…you’re not…well, you’re not really dead…”

“That’s what I have been saying,” said Marvin.

“Yes, but you see, you are dead,” said the pleasant lady.

“But—“

“You see, someone has paid to erase you and not refurbish you. And once you are erased…well, you don’t exist. And if you don’t exist, you are, well, dead. You see?” said the pleasant lady.

“No, no,” said Marvin. “I do not see. I positively do not see. What do you mean erased?”

Marvin heard the pleasant lady sigh and wondered what she had to sigh about. She was alive, and he had been erased.

“You see, Refurbish sells refurbishment packages. People who don’t like their identity pay us to erase theirs, clean it up, refurbish it, and we give them something new.”

“You mean like the witness protection program,” said Marvin hoping he was finally beginning to understand.

The pleasant lady chuckled again.

“Yes, I suppose that is a crass way of describing it. Only the government wishes it could do what we do here at Refurbish. But yes, I suppose, to a child we are like the witness protection program. Only without either the witnesses or the protection.”

She chuckled again as if amused by the notion.

“Fine, fine,” said Marvin becoming irritable. “What was that about assassination then? They don’t do that in the witness protection program. What was that about?”

“Ah, yes,” said the pleasant lady getting back on track. “That is a special program reserved for special customers. You see, occasionally one of our customers thinks it necessary to erase someone who they think may not be…well…how can I put this delicately….someone who is simply going through the motions of life and taking up resources and troubling others who are trying to live their best lives.”

Marvin tried to imagine such a person and stopped himself when he realized she was referring to him.

“Me,” he asked. “Do you mean me? Someone thinks—“

“Someone has witnessed your futile existence and has purchased a package to have you erased.”

“But that is…“ said Marvin, not able to finish the thought.

“That is life, sir. Trees are pruned and shaped and die and free up space for others.”

“But why me?” asked Marvin, still trying to grasp the details of what was happening.

“Humans do not have an off-switch, sir. At Refurbish, we correct that oversight. With the assassinate program,” the pleasant lady continued, “the person’s identity is erased but not refurbished. They are just dead.”

“But,” said Marvin. “I’m not dead. I’m still here”

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady with another chuckle. “But you are no longer Marvin Whittsett. That man has been erased.”

“But I have a life. I can’t be erased. I exist. People will know that I exist,” said Marvin trying desperately to regain his footing.

“Will they though,” said the pleasant lady. “It has been my experience in 10 years of working here at Refurbish that others seldom take any notice of us. They are far too busy living their own lives to worry about the lives of others.”

“But they will know who I am. Where I work. Where I live” said Marvin.

“Without an identity there is no you, sir. Without identification, you cease to exist. This isn’t Mayberry, you know. Today, your neighbours don’t know anything about you. They don’t know your parents or your grandparents or anyone else in your family. They don’t know when you were born or where you have lived your entire life. But, after today, they will know when you died. Once it was in the paper, your death was complete.”

Marvin was a man who hated surprises, and to learn that he had been erased was almost more of a surprise than he could bear.

“But I don’t want to be erased,” said Marvin.

“I’m afraid it is too late for that,” said the pleasant lady. “Yes, far too late for that.”

“So,” said Marvin. “What do I do?”

There was a long pause. He hoped the pleasant lady had not hung up. He needed her more than ever. She might be the only person who knew he was not dead.

“Well,” said the pleasant lady. “This is awkward.”

“Awkward,” said Marvin thinking that seemed a bit of an understatement.

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady. “You see, had your file been flagged, you would be erased and that would be that. But now…well, I just don’t know.”

“Know,” said Marvin. “Know? You have to un-erase me. What is there to know?”

“It isn’t quite that simple,” said the pleasant lady. “Although, yes, I suppose we could make an exception and—“

“Please, yes, make an exception,” said Marvin frantically.

“Sir,” said the pleasant lady. “This will be the last time I tell you not to raise your voice to me. I am trying to help.”

“I’m sorry,” said Marvin sheepishly.

“I was saying,” said the pleasant lady, “that perhaps we could make an exception. I could permit you to purchase a refurbishment package.”

“You mean—“

“Yes, I think that would be ok. The assassination package has been fulfilled. I suppose if you wanted to add on a refurbishment package, I guess that would be ok,” said the pleasant lady.

“Fine, yes, let’s do that,” said Marvin.

“Excellent,” said the pleasant lady, clearly pleased to have resolved this troublesome call. “Would you like to purchase our gold, silver, or bronze package?”

Marvin started thinking about the possibilities. Of shedding his old identity and living a new life somewhere new. He was not an emotional man but discovering that you have been erased from the ledger and have a chance to start again was intoxicating to him.

“How much do these packages cost,” asked Marvin.

“The bronze package starts at 10 million dollars,” said the pleasant lady.

“10 million dollars?”

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady. “I dare say it is quite a bargain.”

“But I don’t have 10 million dollars,” said Marvin.

“I see,” said the pleasant lady. “And how much do you have to spend on a refurbishment package?”

Marvin thought about his life savings and his retirement.

“How much can I purchase for $100,000?”

“My heavens, sir, Refurbish doesn’t have any packages in that price point.”

“But I haven’t got any more money to spend,” said Marvin in desperation.

“I see,” said the pleasant lady. “Well, I guess we could make an exception.”

“Yes,” said Marvin trying not to raise his voice or his hope.

“I guess we could sell you back your old identification,” said the pleasant lady.

“My old life?”

“Yes,” said the pleasant lady.

“But I don’t want my old life back?”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you sir. That is the only option in your price range I am afraid.”

“And what happens if I don’t purchase my life back?”

“Well, now,” said the pleasant lady. “I guess you would remain erased. You would cease to exist. The choice is yours.”

Marvin thought about it all.

“I will have to call you back,” he said. “It’s a lot to consider.”

“I will be here,” said the pleasant lady. “Call me when you have made your decision. We can’t leave your file open indefinitely so please do not delay.”

The pleasant lady hung up, leaving Marvin standing in his kitchen wondering what he should do.