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Headstone Epitaph

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
—Sigmund Freud

Etta has written thirty brochures and ten product catalogs, and no one has noticed her misquotes. She’s sure of it. No one in the company—not the Creative Director, not the Graphic Designer—has batted an eye. Online, she follows popular hashtags on Twitter—“#wrongquotes” and “#printgoofs”—to keep abreast of her field. Offenders posted on these threads have been snapped on T-shirts, epigraphs, magnets—even a headstone. Etta’s work is nowhere among them, and she’s disappointed.

Yet her quotes, formatted into the margins of the product installation guides Plateo prints on demand, remain essential to the Great Cause of Moving Product, motivational reflexes that distract the reader from the smart plates they’ve bought, redundant excess in the Imagination Age. Her guidelines are clear: selected quotes must be from famous people. Smart household names for smart household products. Management thought it foolproof. Why pay an influencer well above her mileage to flog a product in million-dollar ads when you can have a technical writer willing to grave-rob lexical tibia from Homer and Averroes?

“Smart” is a chewy term. “Think,” writes Plateo’s Head of Marketing in his email when Etta selects a biting remark from Hannah Arendt, “charming, dinner-party-fodder. Not ‘thesis from disgruntled undergraduate.’ We need our voice to be warm and reassuring and just-on-the-right-side-of-clever and extremely, extremely” (and the message cannot italicize this enough) “wise. And preferably a ‘she.’”

Some speeches are crafted from the fires of change. Others come from Head Office.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
—Jeremy Bentham

Quotable sentences, Etta has learned, have transformational powers when they enter the mouths of people who never said them. Today, she is injecting a writer’s metaphor with a reformer’s utilitarian significance. Etta has her sights on getting her misquotes in front of either @drjaynerussel, a Reader in French Literature who daily tweets her indelicate outrage at some corporate fudge taking our language to le crapperie, or @hellobolloxbox82, who “goes after copy numpties” and seems a more likely candidate to buy a Plateo.

Etta reports to Regent, the Copy Director. The man’s anonymous Twitter profile says he knows he knows nothing, which could be true, because Regent, first, doesn’t know that Etta knows about his social media account (it’s @socioperson228), and second, he might know that Etta wants to “make her mark” (she told him), but he definitely doesn’t know that she’s trying to go about it through misquotes (she’d rather he find out on his own). He tells Etta through the cubicle wall that, when it comes to making a mark, having a baby is the way to go.

Etta tells Regent doing that would leave no mark other than one on her body.

“Well,” he says, “there’s the fact that they’ll remember you.”

Why pay an influencer well above her mileage to flog a product in million-dollar ads when you can have a technical writer willing to grave-rob lexical tibia from Homer and Averroes?

“Yes, and then,” she says because Etta has practiced this, “one day you die, then they die. And then,” she continues, hearing the countering intake of breath, “if they have children, those children will die. It takes three generations for a family to forget who you are. If you’ve never left your mark in any other way in your life, or if you were too normal, too willing to follow, chances are even higher that all memory of you will disappear earlier than that. So,” Etta sums it all up, “in 120 years. Gene pool providing.”

After a while, Regent says: “Sounds like you’ve been thinking about it, though.”

It occurs to Etta that Regent might be appraising her for being a poor culture fit. Etta’s job application had already demanded that she emphasize her minor in Comp Lit and downplay her major in Mort Sci, and yet, in this role, she finds herself most often among the dead. The dearly departed abound in quotable quotables.

Her phone blinks with a text from her sister Gil, second of the day, demanding she visit their family on Saturday. It’s her niece’s birthday party, she is nudged. Elise will be twelve this year, her sister had said in the first reminder, twelve, as if twelve years were something auspicious, though Gil reminded her sister of Elise’s age every year.

Twelve! Don’t they grow up fast, Etta texted back because she knew Gil expected her to say insipid things like that.

Etta stands to look over the wall between her and Regent. She takes in his little dominion: an ironic mug on a USB hot plate, plastic toys that apply the physics of perpetual motion arranged on either side of his computer. Regent wants his colleagues to know that he trained as an engineer before he was demoted to editing. The drinking bird nods, the gymnast spins.

Etta submerges herself in her cubicle to think. She rolls her wrists on the gel rest pad, enjoying the sensation as her veins squeeze and her fingers go numb. She opens a tab and googles the plots of pulpy, “cultural-interest” movies.

“Making a mark in films,” she discerns through the obstructing wall, “means finding a dead body—or making a dead body. Or,” Etta scrolls the mouse’s gummy middle button, “coming into the possession of money—or making a whole bunch of money.”

Now he’s listening. No one has more to say about franchises than Regent. Etta knows he retweets McGuffins and had an article about the “lesser-known” mistakes in cinema (all to do with poor engineering) published in NME two years ago. She still remembers the enigmatic looks he gave everyone that week, as if that was going to be his ticket out of this office, and he had to take all the gray in now because this would be his last chance to see it with his own two lettered eyes. Regent puts a hand on either side of her cubicle’s walls.

“100 Greatest Film Quotes of All Time.” The link to the website is purple because Etta already looked at it months back, when she first started her wilful mark-making. She had quickly scrapped the idea of using anything from the movies. Film misquotes, Etta learned, are always hard to pull off if you’re using them to ventriloquize the eminent and the unliving. No one would believe “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” could have been spoken by Mary Wollstonecraft, or “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” might be a Confucian axiom. No, when she is finally taken down, unmasked on Twitter like a cartoon villain, Etta wants her ousters to have worked just a little for their prize.

She bats one-liners to Regent anyway. He is an intergalactic princess, and she is a swashbuckling space cowboy!

“I love you!”

“I know.”

Regent finds a quote that settles Etta’s argument about making marks in film: “Your money or your life!” He’s delighted, and in Etta’s eyes, Regent becomes the Scarlet Pimpernel. She’s aware that he’d look sexerific in a pair of tights and with all that eighteenth-century gear.

“Protagonists are the ones that make marks. And to be a protagonist,” Etta says to Regent, pausing the scroll at a superhero’s underwear band, “or an antagonist, you have to be prepared to drive the action yourself.” She tap-taps a fingernail on the mouse and imagines what it’d be like to be slung over a hero’s shoulder—girl or gun, what’s the difference—when a higher-up croaks a threat about getting back to work. Regent retreats to his desk.

It takes two swivels in her ergonomic chair for Etta to poke her head over the partition again. Regent doesn’t turn his head. The reflection in his glasses shifts in color and his chin crinkles.

“We still haven’t solved my problem,” she whines.

Regent reproaches her, “Not really particular to you, that problem, is it?”

He reaches for his mug, downs the lingering juice, and swears about his faulty hot plate. Etta sits back down.

“Death and money,” she mutters, so Regent can hear her, “death and money.” Etta scrolls to the next section. Horror. Serial killers, monsters, vengeful wives, spirits. Spirits. She tells the cubicle wall.

“Well. There you go,” comes his voice, the Ghost of Corporate Histories. “You could always haunt something?”

Etta likes it. Haunting something. It isn’t a giant leap to make from misquoting. The fright of bringing people back from the dead, the distortion of words, the groans of a woman divorced from context—

“How would I do that?

But from the way he’s typing, Etta can tell Regent has gone down a rabbit hole of his own, and what else can she do but imagine a little cotton ball on the arse of his eighteenth-century tights as he disappears?

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
—Elon Musk

Etta’s boyfriend Tristan is the outdoorsy type. He goes on camping trips and treks through forested areas in Europe that have wolves in them. He goes on tantric retreats, not for the sex but the spiritualism. He sits in cabins and caves without wifi—and enjoys it. For a full week after all these excursions into insanity, he returns “a new man,” which always makes him angsty about planning for the next one.

Etta throws her house keys into the wicker plate and finds Tristan riveted to the screen. He’s eating a bowl of instant ramen—the wrapper it came in is twisted on the coffee table between Tristan and the TV, and its silver foil picks up the blaring lights of police vans onscreen. A protest march.

“We should go,” Tristan says.

“I’ve got stuff I need to do.”

He hitches his foot onto his other knee, and Etta sees it shake vigorously. There it is, he’s about to lay out to Etta her apathy, her electric blanket of listlessness. Tristan’s little tongue flicks around his skewered noodle ball, and he disappears it into his mouth. Still glued to the screen, he tells her that a protester died. Someone drove into the crowd.

“Imagine running someone over,” Tristan says, “without a care in the world.” The way he says it makes it feel to Etta like the words belong on an old advertising poster, IMAGINE IF YOU RAN SOMEONE OVER, WITHOUT A CARE IN THE WORLD, with an illustration of dad and mum and the twins enjoying their holiday somewhere attractive, aspirational, their luggage strapped to the roof of their car, and a grasping man under the bonnet.

“Just imagine it,” Tristan says, and the image is gone, “you’re at a peaceful protest, and then”—he claps his hands together, puts them to his mouth, and lets the noise he makes resound in the cavern of his palms. Boom!

“It’s horrible,” Etta says, and she means it.

Tristan nods furtively. She is his big project. She is also ready for all his open-eyed, neoliberal masochism, so long as all she has to do is sit in it and loathe herself. It’s nice to be going out with someone who is knowingly, quantifiably, trying harder than her. Etta’s idea of making a mark will remain egocentric, serving only her name, pushing only her product.  

“Do you want to come with me to a twelve-year-old’s birthday party this weekend?”

There’s the twitch, the glazed look, and Etta is dismissed from the conversation.

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Etta compiles rules for her misquotations:

  1. No film quotes. Too obvious.
  2. Quotes must be from well-known people.
  3. People must be matched with a misquote that either a) sounds as if they could have said it at one point, or b) must at least make sense in the context of their expertise.

Etta decides to stalk Regent on his cigarette break. Out in the cold, Regent has inflated to twice his size in a jacket with a lining of synthetic lamb’s wool.

“I was thinking about what you said the other day.”

Nope, Regent sucks in a puff of smoke through his teeth, he doesn’t really remember.

“Oh,” he says afterward, “about having a kid?”

“About haunting something,” Etta is surprised to find this come out in a whisper. “How would I do that?”

It takes a while for Regent to click, to realize Etta isn’t joking. “I don’t know,” he says, holding the cigarette out at an odd angle between them as if it’s the very line they’re crossing with this conversation. “Go to an antique shop and buy something?”

Regent has become an unexpected font of information.

“And what would I buy?”

Regent stamps out his cigarette, half-smoked. “You don’t want me to do all the thinking for you.

On her phone, Etta discovers only one shop will serve her needs, and it’s on the outskirts of town. An antiques store with a name like a law firm. S____, F____ and H____.

Her screen lights up again. It’s another message from Gil.

Etta swipes it up and away.

“It’s open at 11 a.m. on Saturday,” she says, half to Regent.

An 11 a.m. start would leave her plenty of time to get to Elise’s birthday. She scours the shop’s website for images of its collections. Just walls of text and a reassuring number of animated neon graphics—it’s a truly ugly display. Etta decides from this that the owners are infinitely older, wiser, better procurers of spectrally inhabited objects.

Another message from Gil. Etta types a response to her sister.


Scrubbed. Too ironic.

Sorry! I will be there.

The three dots blink at her as Gil scrubs her own pissy responses, once, twice, thrice. Etta lets the phone screen go black and watches the delivery men haul boxes of Plateos onto their van. A goose honks up a racket above her, catching up with its gaggle and hysterical about being left alone.

Etta’s phone trills:

Pleeeease don’t forget a present this time!

“My mother always used to say: The older you get, the better you get, unless you’re a banana.”
—Abraham Lincoln

It’s a converted church. Methodist. A red door. A round window above it with blood-red spokes like holy nails. A bell tower with a tiled roof the color of autumn shadows. The arched windows are dark.

Just the place for haunting a knickknack, and, despite all the church’s grisly promise, Etta is in a foul mood. She had been relaxing her own rules—still no dice. This morning, she stumbled across the quote she had mangled, the one that involved Abraham Lincoln, and all Twitter had to say about it was that it was a little-known fact that Mr. Lincoln had a sense of humor. Liked 170 times. Retweeted 29.

“Looking for anything in particular, my dear?” The man just beyond the red door is in a tweed waistcoat and green wellies, a child’s impression of landed gentry.

“Something to haunt,” she says in response.

“Aren’t we all!” He laughs conspiratorially, as if he’s in on Etta’s joke, as if he’s known all about her misquotes, before she even thought of making them. “Let me introduce you,” he says, pinning Etta’s forearm to his tweedy belly with supreme force and marching her into the damp nave.

Paintings layered five rows deep. Clapper tables on which are stacked collector’s plates, Americana, Europeana, Asiatica, memorabilia, crocodilia, militaria, figurines, bronzes, cloths, coins, crockery, capes, hats, hat boxes, hat stands, painted trunks, sacred candlesticks, iconography. Etta softens at the sight. A woman who also favors the tweed-and-wellies look stands where the church altar must once have been.

“This young lady wants something to haunt!”

The woman laughs in guttural thuds, like the onset of an exorcism.  

“And a present for a twelve-year-old,” Etta mutters, but nothing’s more interesting to them than identifying an object for haunting.

Regent slinks up beside her so stealthily that Etta can’t believe he’s there. IMAGINE GIVING SOMEONE THE FRIGHT OF THEIR LIFE! She never asked him to come. What’s his game?

“Found anything?”

The foursome nod at each other like drivers arriving all at once at a cross-section.  

“You must be Mr. Ghost!”

Interesting—Regent doesn’t deny it.

“We’ve heard all about your intentions to haunt something.”

“She told you that?” Regent is looking sincere. Oh no, Regent, that’s not the way to play it. He backtracks too far in the conversation. “We’re just colleagues.

Etta knows she has a piece of paper in her back pocket, folded into quarters, on which she has written “Haunted Object” and three rules:

  1. It has to be old.
  2. It must be portable.
  3. It should be something large enough that people will keep around the house but small enough so that it doesn’t become a nuisance.

She hesitates to air these in the church—not while they still think she’s joking. But Mr. Ghost has already blown it, so Etta hands over her note. The woman blinks at it, too quick to take in the writing, and retrieves a bronze goblet missing several gems.

“Mid-twentieth-century fruit bowl. Had a thing for doing them in funny, you know, decadent shapes.”

No one would believe “Are you feeling lucky, punk?” could have been spoken by Mary Wollstonecraft.

A haunted fruit bowl. Etta could see herself in it, squeezing her little ghost body even smaller (possible when you’re thin air) and giving her screaming witnesses the old doe eyes as she lounges about in the dish like Dita von Teese. Etta turns it over to look at the base for a price tag. Regent clears his throat, aware that this isn’t the way to be looking at antiques. Standing so near the heat of his discomfort, Etta can smell the manmade lamb’s wool from his jacket. Distinctly sheepy, even despite its synthetic threads. He has a vitality here, beyond the cubicle walls. He’s no longer trying so hard to belong.

Regent takes the goblet for himself, weighing it a little in his hands before inspecting it more closely. “Looks like it’s had a history.”

Good enough. All three rules are more than fulfilled.

“I like it.”

She’ll obsess over it later. Etta has the goblet in her hands, ready to take away.

“This one’s a real find!” Etta’s heart lurches at the prospect. A find. Her haunted object would be upgraded to a haunted find. “I’ll have to check the ledger.” Tweedy-Pie nods to Tweedy-Guy. Chuckles. “Darling?”

Right. He’s the ledger.

“It’d fetch around two at auction, but how about we cut a deal at one?”

Etta knows well enough that he’s dealing in thousands. Her visible disappointment touches Tweedy-Pie’s heart. “I can put a hold on it if you like it so much?” She’s swinging the thousand-pound novelty fruit bowl off the end of her index finger.

“To be honest, I don’t make enough for this.” She tells them where she works as if to make them aware of her plight.

“Oh, the place that does those incredible smart plates?”

“I’ll find something else,” says Etta, breaking away, aware of the time. Tweedy-Pie is dejected, and Regent runs after his direct report.

“That was rude.”

“You could have told me it was going to be that much!”

“They’ll have other stuff.” He points to a sad table with a large sign split diagonally by a red slash. “What price would you put on your soul’s final resting place, eh?”

Etta pushes Regent to the spot, reminding him that she also needs a gift for Elise and hasn’t paid it a moment’s thought. Crockery with blue trimming, all chipped. A teapot without its lid. Etta sees potential in old collections of sheet music dotted with mold. She gets distracted by porcelain lovers who would be entwined were it not for their missing arms, snapped at the elbows. She hesitates at a huge commemorative coin for Princess Di—someone had given her a Hollywood smile with white Tippex. There are so many medals of bravery, so many who have already made their mark. Etta isn’t going to share her space with another name.

And then—a walking stick with what looks like a gnome’s head as a handle. Its beard is twisted all the way down to the end in a little spiral. Etta snatches it up. Definitely not suitable for a twelve-year-old. Very probably hauntable.

She twizzles it like she’s Fred Astaire, imagining. Etta always had unorthodox tastes. This was your Great Aunt’s walking stick, it got her from A to B, and you should have heard the stories she made with it in her grasp. And then, even further in the future, once her name has gone but the spirit remains: The walking stick has been with us for generations. We can’t let it go, it’s an heirloom! Some say if you rub the silver, you’ll get good luck.

It’s going to cost her £40, down from the dreamed-up original price of £240. She’s going to take it.


Regent’s cheeks have gone soft from the church’s damp air. Her stomach lurches a little. Etta smiles. Sure.

“Now all I need to do is die.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Outside, Regent offers her a lift.

“Nah, I’ll walk.”

“Walk? We’re out of town.”

Etta waves her bounty in unbridled delight. “Got my means, now, haven’t I? Should wear it in a bit. Besides, I still need to pick up something for Elise.”

“Might end up giving away your specter-scepter to her, if you’re not careful. Nothing but pound shops from here to eternity.”

“How did you know where my sister lives?”

Regent gets into his Volvo, pulling the waistband of his ugly jacket taut around him, the white lining peeping out under the strain of it all.

“Nice to see you in a good mood. Guess I should be off before my eyes start bleeding.”

Etta didn’t fail to notice the way Regent had pulled in his stomach when he was sure she was looking, a core-tightening exercise to prove that he’s still desirable if no longer “NME-desirable.” Maybe he’s interested, maybe there’s a story in there, a mark to be made. And Etta steps out with her cane which catches the light, and she smiles into the sun, and she feels around for her phone buzzing like an angry wasp in her pocket, and a short-sighted college boy who is writing an essay on impacts both literal and figurative in twentieth-century British protests—and who has just seen a laughable error in a product catalog of an e-plate that he intends to skewer online—careens around the corner way too fast.