MY LAST PROTAGONIST

It was quite the coincidence that Julia Laughlin was reading the obituaries that morning; otherwise, she may have never known. Some would say that it was destiny, but Julia Laughlin would laugh at those people and call it coincidence. Of course, it hadn t really been Julia Laughlin who read the obituaries, not J.S. Laughlin, celebrated novelist and scholar. She simply wouldn t do such things, not with sincerity, not without scathingly considering what kind of lowlife would actually condescend to writing obituaries. Lowlifes without mysterious initials, no doubt. Journalists dour women and cigar-smoking men who recorded the truth, identified themselves in bylines, and had nothing to hide behind-- it must be their job.

It hadn't been Julia Laughlin who had chosen to read the obituaries that morning; it was Stanley Mallard, the protagonist of her latest book. Julia had chosen the name because she liked its morbid, dragging assonance. Stanley Mallard was a baleful type himself, wise in the way people hated-- inappropriately casual about death. Julia sat in her bathrobe, drinking black coffee and reading the obituaries, because that was the sort of thing he would do; he just would.

When the fateful name presented itself, Stanley Mallard fled like a death-fearing man, overturning the coffee cup in his wake, leaving Julia Laughlin alone to clean up the mess. She sighed, glanced at the paper, the brown shadow growing on the wood floor, prioritized. The article didn't mention a cause of death. At least not a satisfactory one, in Julia's mind, which was now the one scanning the obituary. It said simply, He died unexpectedly, a statement that would have been allowed to be comical in any other context, as in:

Well, how did he die?

Unexpectedly.

It was a comedy sketch. Omission was the joke. It was oddly appropriate, in a way. So much of his life had been defined in absences, omissions. He was also a joke, was the second thought that Julia suppressed. She remembered him saying, I live alone. I don t live with anyone else, unaware that his extra effort for clarity had the paradoxical effect of confirming the opposite.

His constant refrain was, I never said that, the variation by way of countermelody, I never did that.

And of course, there was that memorable moment when he had cried, Don't pin this on me, whirling his long arms like a pinwheel, as if hoping to make purchase with another body, someone else in the room whose fault it could be: the person who did it but it had only been the two of them there. He had improvised quickly, accused her of hurting herself, but he spoke with great care from that point on, as if trying to avoid getting tangled in his own words.

That absent abuser hung in the air between them like a noose.

Of course, Julia knew the missing cause of death meant suicide, but she couldn't help thinking that it was just the way he would have said it. The way he wanted it. She had always expected him to take his life at some point or another; what she hadn't expected was for it to be something this overt. Eating red meat until his heart stopped, sure. Smoking himself into a grave silence, certainly. Pissing someone off, yes. But suicide? Actual unnamable suicide? He just hadn't been the type.

And that left homicide-- homicide with a pending police investigation. Julia got up and began to clean the spilled coffee, marveling, not for the first time, at the impressive trajectory of broken things. She balled up the newspaper and used it to wipe at a spot on the wallpaper. A piece of newspaper tore and stuck. "That's my last protagonist on the wall," Julia explained to the room in a mock-Italian accent.

She had learned that self-condemnation was a valuable tactic for a writer who found herself on shaky ethical ground. She could describe her own flaws better than anyone else, which usually stopped everyone else from trying. But it was true, in essentials at least. He was her last protagonist, yes, but only a protagonist in the sense that the loser you allowed to tag-along for purposes of ridicule was a friend. He was the main character of her last novel--her first novel-- yes, but only a shoddy antihero at best. Julia didn't identify him by name; the litigation committee would have been on her ass. Instead, she had called him Susan Lucci Man, which was a way of dressing him in drag with a name. It was also a self-reference that he would recognize, from the day he had lamented to Julia about the crushing failures of his many near-successes. He thought it would comfort her while he crushed her, apparently. He had been wrong.

Susan Lucci Man didn't live alone. He lived with somebody else. A man. His partner. She had never bothered to name him. Julia, J.S. Laughlin, as the omniscient, omnipotent narrator, could always say with authority exactly what Susan Lucci Man said and what Susan Lucci Man did. And like an insect on corkboard, J.S. Laughlin had Susan Lucci Man pinned to a piece of paper filled with his own words. She ventriloquized him saying bitterly, And then that bitch had to go and win an Emmy, leaving Susan Lucci Man all alone, of course. That was the end of the book.

Misery without company, without anyone to blame. The only option then, Julia supposed, was suicide. Not everything is about you, said a voice in her head, not J.S. Laughlin's, not Julia Laughlin's, but her mother's, stern and knowing and long-dead.

Death is a natural part of life, said Stanley Mallard sagely, drearily.

Julia brewed a fresh pot of coffee, salvaged the saturated newspaper, and continued reading. Her eyes flew to her own name. "...was a respected professor of the Fiction Arts, a mentor of prize-winning novelist J.S. Laughlin." Julia laughed. It was true, but not in the sense they had intended it.

"..., known as Susan Lucci Man among friends, Julia composed into the unreceptive air, was a respected professor of the Fiction Arts at a conservative university, who did not live alone. Man would, on occasion, have affairs with female students. Whether it was self-preservation or simple misogyny, the world would never know. Man propositioned prize-winning novelist J.S. Laughlin while she was a student in his fiction class. When she rejected his advances, he failed her and promised her that her name would never grace the literary world, a promise that turned out to be prophetic. Service will be held at St. Anthony's Church tomorrow at noon. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Society for the Preservation of Fiction."

Rewriting his obituary was redundant in more ways than one, Julia was aware, but she felt that she owed it to him in a way. After all, he had taught her everything she knew.