Reports of My Death
First, let me quote Twain: the report of my death was an exaggeration. I knew that. I was not confused on the subject. I was sipping a mimosa when I opened the newspaper that fateful morning. Okay, to be honest, I opened my internet browser—but “opening the paper” sounds grander, more stylish, less … new-fangled. So that’s what’s going into the official retelling of the incident. And since this is a tale of misrepresentation of truth, of misunderreporting of fact, I trust you’ll bear with me. Besides, you have a computer in your pocket, or purse, or messenger bag—or whatever you use to tote your life around in public—that masquerades under the misnomer “phone” in common parlance, so I’m sure you’ll cut me some slack on what is and what is not “opening the paper” these days.
I was opening my internet browser to access the online content of an important national newspaper. A ‘paper of record,’ I believe they like to be called. And record they did, for splashed across the homepage these words appeared: Noah Beatty Has Died. My god, I have? There must be some mistake, I thought—or perhaps said aloud (I can’t remember now). Perhaps someone with my name, some other Noah Beatty. Or even someone who shares my surname, another Beatty entirely. Another fairly-well-known-but-still-just-obscure-enough-to-be-not-only-confused-with-me-but-also-whose-death-would-come-as-some-kind-of-overreaching-shock-to-a-public-looking-always-the-other-way-(or-at-least-in-a-different-shinier-direction) Beatty. So I clicked over to a rival (but no less venerable) publication’s online presence to check the publicly questionable status of my own mortality.
Noah Beatty Dead at 71. Well, that’s even worse than the last one! Damn-near libelous as concerns the advancement of years I’ve attained. Seventy-one?! Posh! But no matter: the slightly more important error—of my demise—had been laid out in even starker relief than the last uncorraborable headline! “Has Died” somehow rings softer than a pure and unadulterated “Dead,” doesn’t it? Suddenly, very much alive and well, I found myself preferring to “have died” than to be unvarnishedly “dead.” Another click, and I found myself to have “Passed Away.” I bristled at that one. If I’d merely “passed away” then why was there so much “news” about it? Why hadn’t I simply faded into oblivion, as the euphemism suggests? Clearly, if I’d gone quiet into that good night, there should be no recording of the event, no public mourning transubstantiated into headlinese. Passed away, my foot! I’d died dammit! Not quite “dead”—but there should, at least, be some finality to the event that “passing away” just doesn’t capture!
Then there was orange juice and champagne on the crotch of my shorts. Maybe I’d gotten a little too feisty with my indignation at having merely “passed away” when, after all, I could still very much feel the sticky wetness spreading across my lap. And, yes, for the record, I was enjoying my pre-noon adult beverage alone in my skivvies, thank you very much. Dead man’s prerogative, I’ll claim ’til I die—until I actually die, mind you.
And then I went down the rabbit hole. Now, as evidenced by the underresearched headlines thus-far quoted, I’m of an age that predates the internet. I’m no Luddite, curmudgeon, or other form of holier-than-thou naysayer, but I do remember a time before “phones” were everywhere, televisions blared in almost every public space, and people taking pictures usually could not also be in the photograph they were framing. But such is the march of progress, and I got out of the rat race long before any breathless technological reconfiguring of the world could really gnaw at or otherwise restructure my old-fashioned 401(k). God help the youngsters on that front! But back to my tactical mistake: or, how I let feline curiosity and online-misinformation velocity get the better of me.
Let me quote Swift (though Twain is often misattributed on the topic with a misquotation to boot): Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.
“Hello? I’d like to report a … I don’t know exactly what to call it, but it’s the opposite of a death,” I told the neophyte staffing the “leads” desk at the first newspaper I’d found reporting my evident demise.
“The opposite of a death, sir?” she chirped.
“I’m very much alive is all I mean to let your paper know,” I said.
“Who … who is this?” she demanded. And only then, a saccharine, “if I may ask.”
“Noah Beatty’s dead, sir,” the child challenged.
“I’d be very interested to know precisely how your paper corroborated that fact,” I said in the sweetest condescension I knew how to imitate.
“Fact checkers,” she deadpanned.
“Well, put me through to them, and I’ll turn the whole story on its ear.”
“Thank you, sir, but we don’t need any more prank calls today.”
“What do you mean?”
“You think you’re the first ‘Noah Beatty’ to be bereft enough at the loss of Noah Beatty,” her tone shifted, “ to claim to be him in the flesh this morning?”
“Hadn’t thought of that,” I admitted rather more out loud than was probably advisable.
“Are we through?” she asked curtly.
“If I say ‘no,’ do you have to stay on the line?”
Her breathing stopped, so I assumed she’d hung up—or died herself. I didn’t particularly care which one.
Suddenly hankering for some company in my peculiar state of undeadness—or, rather, misdeadness?—I got myself dressed and headed out on the town. Perhaps a jolt of caffeine would convince the world how truly alive I still was. Or at least it’d wake me up enough to think straight about how to go about correcting the mistake.
At my favorite nonchain coffeehouse, I dutifully stood on line with all the other poor half-alive souls waiting for their almost-noontime pick-me-up. After ordering my usual, the tattooed specimen behind the counter didn’t even look up when he asked, “Name?”
His surly, half-lidded gaze slowly rose to meet my unspeakably expensive “youthful” eyes. “Hey, man, you’ve got the same name as that guy who died today.”
“Oh?” I pretended not to understand.
“Yeah, yeah,” he enthused, “some has-been actor or something. Didn’t you hear about it?”
“You kinda look like him, actually.” The boy couldn’t take a social cue.
“A lot like him. But older.”
I withdrew the bill I’d put in the tip jar and made my way to the pick-up area at the far end of the long, noisy counter, leaving the barista to shrug at my departure and return, effortlessly, to his natural habitat of affected indifference.
With beverage in hand, I tucked myself away in one of the shadowy nooks offered by the irregular interior angles of the unlikely coffeehouse—safely ensconced in a cushy winged-back chair wedged between rough, exposed support beams. I sipped and stewed, trying to recover my usual worldview of studied wryness mixed with just a dash of well-earned fatalism.
“Definitely his early work,” I overheard someone saying from a table nearby.
“Really?” another, deeper voice asked with more a tone of disbelief than mystification—or genuine curiosity.
“Oh, absolutely. Everything after that one movie where he played the politician is basically crap.”
“But his wife’s still amazing,” a third, languid voice interjected.
“Well, obviously,” the authoritative tastemaker opined as irrefutable fact.
“What about his sister? She must be devastated,” the third voice veered off into new territory again.
“The crazy one?”
“Crazy’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” the tastemaker schoolmarmed his out-of-line companion.
“Zany, then.” The self-correction, I noted, had no hint of defeat or submission in it.
“Either way,” the third voice intervened, “she must be really broken up at the news of her younger brother’s sudden and unexpected passing.”
“No more so than his wife,” sneered the tastemaker.
“True,” the third voice agreed—with a touch of naïve (or oblivious) compliance.
“Either way,” the deeper voice intoned with an affected sigh, “R-I-P Noah Beatty.”
“So underappreciated in his lifetime,” added the tastemaker.
“Like all true artists,” chirped the third voice with its own affected sigh, almost of nostalgia or romance. Both of which, I assumed, were entirely unearned.
“Underappreciated and misunderstood,” the deeper voice seemed to be pronouncing the final word on the matter.
Not to be outdone on who should be afforded the last word, the tastemaker immediately followed with, “So true.”
Now, this all might’ve sounded rather sweet had the trio of nattering peabrains not been so ignorantly confusing me with someone else. Someone married—and with an eccentric older sister. I may’ve been wrong about my own status of vitality, but I sure as hell know I’m an only-child, never-a-groomsman-let-alone-a-bridegroom still-vaguely-closeted homosexual.
I took my coffee to go, but not before overhearing—as I passed by their table—one of the numbskulls whispering, “Hey, doesn’t that guy kinda look like Noah Beatty?”
“Maybe he’s not dead after all,” the third voice offered with a spooky, wide-eyed undertone.
“Too early for Elvis sightings,” the tastemaker snapped. “Give the man a chance to go cold in his grave before we start resurrecting him with pop-culture conspiracy theories.”
In search of a park bench or some other suitable public seating arrangement where I could lick my wounds and gather my thoughts, I walked past the newsstand I’d frequented for years while on my way to or from my modest home—back before my unscripted “exit from the stage.”
“Hiya, Charlie.” I raised my eyebrows in greeting and turned the corners of my mouth slightly upwards to match.
“Hmph.” The man in the overstuffed kiosk didn’t even look up.
“It’s me: Mr. Beatty.”
“You wanna newspaper, or a bear hug?”
I was so happy to see the little man hadn’t changed that I nearly forgot to answer him. “My usual,” I finally said.
“Which would be?” He took his time looking up—but not in narrowing his eyes. I was so sure he’d recognize me and that my long personal nightmare would be swiftly at its anticlimactic end that I didn’t even care if he had to squint (or scowl) to know his old—that is, former—repeat customer.
“Charlie, I’m hurt.”
“What do I care?”
“You really don’t recognize me?”
“Who the hell are you? The King of Siam?”
“You do remember!” I almost yelped with relief.
“You on a day pass from the asylum, buddy? ’Cause I can have a beat cop here in under half a minute—”
“No, no; utterly unnecessary. I used to come here every day—sometimes twice—to buy a pack of gum and the industry trades.”
“Which industry? Lunatics who shook their chaperones?”
I snatched up a copy of one of the newspapers piled neatly on his shelves and held it up next to my face. “I got several good notices for my work in a revival of The King and I.”
“Oh, yeah?” his voice brightened, “and which one were you? the ‘king’ or the ‘eye’?
“The photograph doesn’t jog your memory?” I waggled the paper next to my cheek.
“You his older brother or something?”
“Said your name’s ‘Beatty,’ right?”
“Sorry for your loss. You gonna buy that paper? or just rumple it up ’til it’s good for nothing ’sides wiping up pigeon shit after I close tonight?”
I stalked off.
I turned on my heel. “What?!”
“You owe me—”
“Nothing,” I seethed. “I owe you nothing.”
“For the paper.”
“Let’s see if that beat cop can track down a ghost, shall we?”
I wheeled around and didn’t look back. After turning a corner half a block away, I tossed the paper in a trashcan and suddenly realized I hadn’t actually read anything beyond the erroneous headlines on my computer screen. Delicately retracting my gestural statement of disgust with modern journalism, I flicked the front-page clean of debris and left the rest of the digest to remain undigested, except perhaps by sewer bacteria—a fitting end for the trash they deem fit to print, I thought triumphantly, as I walked away in search of a perch and a place in the sun.
Occupying one end of a park bench a while later, I wasn’t surprised to discover who’d planted the story. An old hack publicist I’d parted ways with a few years before my untimely retirement from stage and screen was quoted liberally on the subject of my final throes and personal distaste for the glare of constant limelight.
I was just about fuming when I realized I was overhearing a whispering giggle somewhere beyond the broadsheet I was holding in front of my face. Lowering the paper, I made inadvertent eye-contact with obvious tourists to the city.
“See!” exclaimed one of them.
“Maybe,” said another.
“May I help you?” I insisted.
But, like so many spirits, I seemed to go completely unacknowledged.
“He’s a dead-ringer.”
Obviously, I wasn’t entirely invisible. Perhaps just inaudible from beyond the phantom grave.
One of the impertinent oglers held up a phone and proceeded to snap my picture.
“Hey!” I protested.
“Maybe this’ll go viral,” the photographer said to the others.
“With the newspaper in front of his face like that! What a coincidence!”
I wanted to yell at them, but what good would it have done? They were all wearing headphones, even though they were also carrying on a conversation loudly enough that I could hear it across the wide pathway that separated us. An abyss of generational proportions, I thought to myself as I raised the paper back in front of my face .
Suddenly, I had company. Two of the bratty youths scooted their way onto the bench next to me, and I felt the pestilent presence of more of them just over my shoulder. Before I could say boo, I’d lowered the paper to see to what extent I was about to be accosted, and click! the assault was over.
Thanks were shouted at me, accompanied by smiles all around—except mine, of course—and without further ado, the pack of wild paparazzini carried itself off to other exploitative exploits of urban marauding.
I decided to return home before the madding of the crowd drove me further to distraction. Once there, safely ensconced, I placed a call to my former, rogue publicist.
“Tether Agency. How may I direct you call?”
“I’d like to speak to the boss, please.”
“Whom may I say is calling?”
“I’m returning Ms. Tether’s call, actually—”
“Whom may I say is calling?” the underling cut me off.
“Noah Beatty for Ms. Tether.”
“Sir,” the tone on the other end of the line got markedly sterner, “if you don’t give me a valid name—”
“Then you can’t let Louise decide if she’s in the office or not; I know the drill.” My turn to do the cutting off, and I must say, it gave me quite a thrill to give the smart little upstart her due turnabout. “I expect she’s expecting my call. Just march yourself into her office, give my name so that I can hear you do it, and I promise I’ll bugger off if she says she doesn’t want to talk to me.”
“What?” I snarled, despite myself. “She’s already given you instructions to head me off at the pass? Can’t stand the thought of conversing for five minutes with the poor has-been she decided to kill off to get her flagging name back in the papers?”
I heard the squeak of fabric sliding out of an office-chair and a moment later a string of simple words uttered with such restrained contempt that I knew I’d hooked my audience.
“Someone claiming to be Noah Beatty, the actor who died yesterday, is insisting on speaking with you, Ms. Tether.”
“Put the call through.”
Click, click, and Louise’s familiar voice abraded my eardrums.
“Duckling, what took you so long? I thought you’d make contact this morning, but then, you always were one to leave a girl waiting by the phone.”
“You sound happy to hear from me,” I said.
“Why wouldn’t I be? Back from the grave and sounding the picture of health.”
“So you’re not going to pretend I’m an impostor, poseur, or something worse?”
“What’s worse than those, dear?” she asked with a laugh.
“A nobody trying to glom onto distressing events like the utterly tragic loss of somebody forgotten, but who must now be mourned as if a head-of-state died in office.”
“Honestly,” she said, “I thought you’d start off by trying to sue me.”
“Crossed my mind,” I admitted—taken aback by how quickly she’d charmed me into letting my guard down. “What exactly’s your game?”
“Publicity, darling!” She positively cackled with delight at having been set up so beautifully to deliver her favorite one-liner. “But seriously,” she continued without waiting to see if I’d laugh, “publicity. Good old-fashioned getting your name in the paper, my dear.”
“You don’t work for me anymore.”
“Yes, well, think of this as a pro-bono experiment in an innovation I thought up and decided you were the perfect guinea pig for hashing out I-R-L.”
“Even I know nobody ‘I-R-L’ uses that stale bit of slang anymore, and especially not someone of your—or, rather, our…experience.”
“Hell, Noah, just call me old! That’s what we are, my friend: O-L-D. But who cares?”
I cut her off mid-snort. “Not seventy-one old.”
“Couldn’t remember, to be honest. Minor detail. Nobody’s going to notice a discrepancy like that once they’ve swallowed the whole kit and caboodle of your death, right? I mean, which fact’s truly worth checking? Sexy deceasement, or boring decrepitude? And they didn’t! Not really. Just ate it up, right outta my hand like candy to a baby.”
“I think you’re—”
“Metaphors, like cocktails, are sometimes better mixed to liven up the spice of life, Noah. You of all people should know that by now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? ‘Me of all people?’”
“The talking dead!” She cackled even more uproariously this time.
“Other than publicity, Louise, what’s your real game here?” I wasn’t in the mood to laugh at my own manufactured-if-mythological misfortune.
“Sign with us again—with me personally—and I’ll revive your career.”
“I’m dead. Or had you forgotten?”
“You’ll be your own best impersonator.”
“It’s already working, duckling!” she cawed. “The internet’s rife with you sightings. I even think some of the photos are actually you. In. The. Flesh. Did you go out for coffee earlier?”
“Don’t go all weak-kneed on me. It’s a simple question: did you get coffee this morning?”
“Eureka!” she bellowed into the phone. “We have touchdown. They’re already snapping your photo and declaring the news a hoax.”
“It is a hoax!”
“No,” she got firm, “it’s good PR.”
“Because people are confused as to whether I’m dead or not?!”
“Because they’re talking about you again, dear. There’s no such thing as—”
“Bad publicity. Yes, yes, I’ve heard you hold forth on that subject more times than I care to count. As Oscar Wilde once said,” I mimicked her voice, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
“The student becomes the master.”
“Then let me school you a little bit more. Do you know what the drinker with a writing problem Brendan Behan—not unlike yourself, dear, come to think of it, but I digress—what Brendan Behan had to say on the subject? There’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”
“That’s good,” she purred. “I’ll have to remember it for my memoir about how I saved your career from the sewer system way downstream of the toilet.” Her tone had hardened. “Look; instead of lollygagging in your trailer on location somewhere exotic this morning, or waking up late to recall last night’s triumphant performance onstage—met with a thunderous standing ovation, of course—you were reading the morning paper like everybody else not famous enough to be in it. Except you were; you were in it. Because of me. Either you liked seeing your name in print or you didn’t, but I suspect you did because we’re in the middle of this conversation right now. So, either lecture me until you’re blue in the face and then leave me the hell alone or shut up and listen to what I have to say. This little proposition is one that’ll benefit both of us, to be sure, but mostly you. Capisce?”
I allowed my silence to be read as reluctant consent.
“Now,” she cooed, “is it better to be an out-of-work, down-on-your-luck real McCoy? Or a thriving, bringing-home-the-bacon-with-a-side-of-popular-acclaim McCoy impersonator?”
“I suspect you hope I’ll say the latter.”
“Up to you, duckling. But I could have you booked as the impossible-to-tell-the-difference version of yourself by tomorrow if this internet buzz keeps up. Which I expect it will, given the amount of face-time you so generously showered on a primed and eager public this afternoon.”
“I’ll have to go back to my therapist just to keep myself straight from myself.”
“Anything confidential won’t threaten to threaten our little secret, my dear; so I say: shrinky-dinky yourself to death if you like!” she cackled.
An hour later—and after “inadvertently” photo-bombing several awkward selfies of other people along the way—I was standing in front of a very perplexed assistant.
“Didn’t she tell you I’d be here to see her posthaste?” I asked with a sly, irrepressible grin.
“Sorry,” the young woman said—trying not to stare but being completely unable to unrivet her gaze from my face. “It’s just…”
“Yep,” I confirmed.
“You look…exactly…I mean, I couldn’t…I couldn’t tell the difference except for the wrinkles and greying hair.”
“Well,” I tried to bite back my vanity, “he would’ve looked much older than the photos that used to circulate when he was far more famous than he was when he…passed away.”
“Mind letting me in to see her?” I smiled.
“Yes, sure, of course,” the poor girl stammered. “Right this way.”
And so, I signed a contract, witnessed by a still-gaping young assistant, and started the first chapter of the second chapter of my storied career—with a new lease on life, which is legally binding. A one-time victim of our society’s most malignant affliction, its case of acute celebrititis, now revived by an innovative medicinal application of that particular disease’s endemic virality.
In short, I’ve been reborn.