In life she’d been editor of the world’s most prominent fashion magazine for over six decades—the majority of its lifespan, and hers. The long and thin cigarettes, the ones she got from France and claimed to only smoke at parties, finally did her in. “I will never leave this publication,” she swore. Even at the end, when the hull of her throat and jaw began to give way and sprouted its final sinking leaks. A hospital bed and ICU equipment was moved into the magazine’s office building, alongside a commercial-grade fragrance machine that spouted puffs of coconut-scented air. “The odor of death is so sour,” she’d often exclaim. The machine helped a bit. In the final days, there were co-worker whispers that the place smelled part-morgue, part-casino.
After death her skin seemed less in agreement of continuation than the rest of her. As the weeks passed it continued to shrivel fast to her bones. Occasionally small pieces would tear and hang like spent wallpaper. Remedies were elusive; Band-Aids and gauze looked too depressing. “Collage!” she screamed one afternoon. Death had added an alarming vocal shrillness. “Decoupage!” Using fabric glue, she began to patch up weary areas using petals from the orchids in the lobby. The weeks went by and her hands and forehead began to take on a masked paper-mache quality.
Before she’d died, several of her co-workers had verbally wished for her immortality. This had only been polite banter. They soon wearied of her extended governance; though at first it had seemed invigorating, adding a divine element to their cause, increasingly it was just macabre. Rumors started. “The actual end is near, right?” they’d press one another. Most held fast to this hope, treating her like a child up past her bedtime. She sensed this and panicked. Her glue-orchid exoskeleton was spreading. She tried to counteract this visually with accessories. By the time production on her first posthumous issue began, she’d taken to wearing an antiquated cavalry sabre around her waist. It dangled from a heavy chain; its blade scraped across the floor as she walked. Interns found this intimidating in a way she did not intend.
Holing up in her office, she began to build a secretive fort wall in front of her desk using cases of her favorite French cigarettes as bricks. “Maybe she’s building a tomb, or like a mausoleum-thing,” some guessed. They were hoping she’d retreat behind the wall one evening and then in the morning would not reappear.
Instead it was more like a makeshift bank teller’s window. There was a 12x12 inch slot that cigarette smoke emerged from all day and all night, perfect for passing documents back and forth. She instructed us to pass her a new carton each week, to have an intern bring a hot cup of coffee each morning, for the smell, and pick up the cold cup of coffee each evening at five o’clock. The opening is large enough that any of us who want to could look inside, but we do not. She works all day and all night except for copier breaks, which we know she takes with relative frequency in the dark hours because sometimes she forgets to take the copies with her, leaves them in the tray by accident. She makes copies of her skull, of her skeleton limbs, teeth facedown and staring straight into the light. A new intern who didn’t know better once found them and took them to her, handing them through the slot. “I like the warmth,” she explained to the intern; “it does my bones good.”
“How does she see to read?” the intern asked us. “How can she edit without eyes?”
“Well she smokes,” we explained. “She does smoke.” We thought that particular intern might not come back the next day, seemed not to have the disposition to last, but he was back bright and early, in fact all of the staff seems to have risen to an unspoken occasion and increased performance.
Alissa Nutting is the author of the award-winning collection of stories Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone Books, 2010) and the novel Tampa (HarperCollins, 2013). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Fence, and Bomb, among other venues. She lives in Ohio.