Shirley sat at her kitchen table reading the paper. It was particularly fascinating today: murders, rapes, earthquakes in Pakistan, wild swings in the stock market, fistfights in the Russian parliament, a mother selling her children to buy drugs, Mexicans dying in the Arizona desert, sports scandals, and, of course, her favorite columnists and comic strips.
It was a fat issue with extra sections on food and gardening. Shirley fixed herself a quick lunch to eat over the food section, dropping blobs of canned soup on a review of a new French restaurant downtown. When the cat’s yowling became unbearable, she opened a can of cat food and set it absent-mindedly on a pile of old newspapers nearby. The cat hurled herself at it.
Shirley had made good time today. Starting the San Francisco Chronicle at 8, she’d read just about every word by noon. Her doorbell had rung once or twice, but she’d ignored it. Now she could settle down to The New York Times, which would keep her busy until bedtime.
Roy, her husband, had died two years before while reading a particularly enormous issue of the Sunday Chronicle. Sitting in his recliner, with newsprint piling up between them, he had grabbed his chest, gasped, turned red, then white, and died. Shirley had thought it was a wonderful way to go. God willing, that’s how she would go.
That night, while Roy was being prepared at the funeral home, Shirley wrote his obituary and mailed it to the Chronicle. Obits was one of her favorite sections. Two days later, she was infuriated to see a much shorter version of it buried under funeral home ads. She wrote a letter of complaint to the editor (they’d subscribed for 35 years!), but did not receive an answer. In protest, she threw two whole issues away unread, but curiosity got the better of her and she fished them out of the garbage, covered in eggshells and coffee grounds.
After Roy died, Shirley started subscribing to The New York Times, which he had thought was snobbish. She had more time on her hands, and it had stuff she didn’t see in the Chronicle: reviews of Broadway shows, interviews with global glitterati she’d never heard of, exposés of complicated East Coast politics.
The phone rang, but Shirley figured it was just another marketing call and ignored it. She’d never gotten an answering machine because she was home all the time. Occasionally one of her kids called and got annoyed when there was no answer. If they cared about her so much, why didn’t they visit? To tell the truth, sometimes the phone was buried under so much paper Shirley couldn’t find it before it stopped ringing.
Shirley had clipped a pile of articles that day: one for her daughter about a day care teacher under investigation for child molesting, one for her son about a recall of Jeep Cherokees, some for her sister about osteoporosis and menopause in men, and a bunch for herself – recipes, gardening tips (even though she hadn’t been in her garden for over a year), travel stories – and several for her mother, who lived in a nearby nursing home. Actually, she hadn’t had time to visit her mother since Christmas, but she had a boxful of clippings for her.
After losing her scissors one too many times, Shirley now wore a professional newspaper-clipping tool around her neck on a red ribbon. She often forgot to take it off at night, and sometimes it almost strangled her. Her bed was covered in clippings that needed organizing, so more often than not she slept in Roy’s recliner in the living room. It saved on sheets and bed making, and it was perfectly comfortable.
Once Shirley had been a sixth-grade teacher, but her husband wanted her at home, and she was mostly happy to oblige. She got into the habit of reading the paper after Roy left for work and the kids went to school. It was interesting, it kept her company, and it was cheap. Some of her clippings went back 30 years. Maybe a museum or library would want them one day.
Now Shirley was completely alone, but she didn’t feel particularly lonely. She had all those characters in the paper to keep her company. Some of the stories went on for weeks, even months.
Take the one about the pit bull that killed the lesbian hockey coach. The case was so entertaining that she forgot to turn on her TV for a while, and now her TV didn’t work because she hadn’t paid the cable bill. She couldn’t find the bill, and she couldn’t deal with the cable company’s voicemail system. So she would save some money. The newspapers kept her busy full-time anyway.
The same thing had happened with her garbage service, so she just dropped her trash into one of the neighbors’ cans when no one was looking. She didn’t recycle her newspapers anymore because you never knew what you might need to refer to in the future. And they came in handy for lots of things, like blocking leaks. The repairman had said he couldn’t start work on the leaks until she moved various piles of newspapers, but she’d never gotten around to it. In any case, the piles were too big for her to move and she had nowhere else to put the papers.
Her car had been plastered with tickets and then towed, and that was just fine – one less thing to worry about. She could walk to the bank and corner store, and call a taxi if she had to go somewhere. Her Social Security and pension checks were deposited directly to her account, so she didn’t have to pay much attention to her mail. Piles of it blocked her front door, so she just went out the back.
Shirley settled into her recliner with the Times sports section. She wasn’t really interested in sports, but the doping scandals were fascinating, and she enjoyed the photos of young, handsome men in action. Sometimes they even made her start thinking about sex again. She clipped a few photos to put on her refrigerator.
Then it was on to the Style section. Style had never been Shirley’s strong suit, and you couldn’t really call her life a style, but she liked to know how the other half lived, especially the half in New York, which she had always wanted to visit. Theoretically, she could visit New York, but the thought of arranging and actually going on such a trip triggered such panic attacks that she quickly dropped the idea.
The phone rang again, but who cared. She’d look for it tomorrow. The cat jumped on her lap. Shirley noticed it was looking rather bedraggled, and the empty cat food cans were beginning to stink. She suspected they were attracting mice and maybe even rats. She’d heard scratching and seen droppings. Maybe the cat wasn’t worth having anymore. Too much trouble, and cat food was getting more and more expensive. She let the cat out and decided not to let it back in. It was raining hard.
The furnace wasn’t working, so Shirley put on another sweatshirt, tucked a blanket around her legs, and turned on her little space heater. She’d have to go out tomorrow and get some food. On the other hand, she’d heard that cat food was quite edible, and she had several cans left. All the more reason to get rid of the cat.
She turned to the A section, which rehashed some of the news she’d already read in the Chronicle: a fire in Chicago that killed a woman and four of her children (her utilities had been cut off and they were using candles), another lawsuit against Microsoft, the Axis of Evil up to more shenanigans, yet more problems with Boston’s Big Dig. She clipped several articles to send to friends she no longer heard from. Not that they heard from her.
Shirley’s eyes were tired. She was tired. The A Section slipped from her hands and landed on the space heater. When the paper caught fire, the smoke alarms failed to go off because Shirley had disconnected them when they started to beep. Coughing herself awake, she tried to get to the door, but several tall piles of newspapers got in her way, and they were beginning to catch fire, too. She was trapped.
Shirley’s house burned to the ground amazingly quickly. Unable to enter it, the Fire Department concentrated on saving the surrounding houses; the rain helped.
Because there were so many big news stories in San Francisco that day (the mayor’s divorce, the Barry Bonds steroids case, another homeless person found dead on the street, sex slaves in the Tenderloin), and because it happened so close to deadline, Shirley’s fire received only a few inches of copy in the Chronicle’s back pages.
Two days later, when the smoldering ruins could be entered, fire inspectors found the remains of a human skeleton. According to the Chronicle, “Neighbors gave conflicting accounts of who lived there and no family members have come forward. Authorities hope to make an identification soon.”