I thought aloud, "If this is a joke it isn't funny." I had just opened the big envelope with the official State Seal of Iowa expecting to find the photocopy of my birth certificate I'd requested. What I found instead was a copy of my own death certificate--and the damn thing appeared to be authentic.
It was the old fashioned style of document with ornately engraved images bordering the text and at first glance all the facts appeared correct, at least the ones I could confirm; my full name, my mother's maiden name, my birth date and social security number. Everything was there in black and white, including the date of my death, July 18th, 2008. It even listed the cause of my death--plague.
I felt queasy when I first read it. It's not the sort of thing one's accustomed to reading with the morning mail. But after a few moments, after I had some time to think about it, I started getting angry. It was obvious that some bored bureaucrat in Iowa was trying his hand at being a comedian.
"Someone's going to pay for this," I muttered. "We'll see who's laughing after I'm finished."
I got on the phone to Des Moines, and after about ten minutes of being jacked around by voice-mail was finally routed to a living human being.
"With whom am I speaking and what is your precise job title?" I angrily demanded. I had my pencil in hand. I was taking notes.
There was a moment's pause at the other end.
"My name is Claude Pederson sir, and I am Deputy Clerk of Vital Records for Polk County Iowa. How may I assist you?"
He sounded courteous enough, but I was having none of it. As far as I was concerned every bureaucrat in Iowa was the suspect prankster.
"Tell me, Pederson, is your department responsible for issuing death certificates?"
"Yes we are sir."
"And how about birth certificates?"
"Yes sir, birth and death certificates as well as all marriage and divorce records."
His helpfulness only aggravated me more.
"So Mr. Pederson, is it your department's policy to hire morons who mail out death certificates to living people who have specifically requested a copy of their birth certificate?"
Again, a slight pause at his end.
"No sir, that is not the policy here--and if such a thing has happened, I assure you it was improper and most probably done so by accident."
"Accident?" I exclaimed. "Just how exactly would you explain someone fabricating a document with a specific date and cause of death, by accident?"
Suddenly, I got the impression that Mr. Pederson wasn't listening. His voice sounded muffled as if he were holding his hand over the telephone mouthpiece and speaking with someone else in his office. I envisioned a group of them snickering, trying to suppress howls of laughter--they probably had me on the speaker phone.
"Listen, you sonofabitch," I blurted--but Pederson cut me off before I could finish.
"Sir, does your certificate have cause of death listed as plague, and as having occurred between the months of June and September during the year 2008?"
Pederson sounded extremely professional, not the typical sort one would suspect of playing practical jokes--but I was still braced for a punch line.
"As a matter of fact it does," I answered guardedly "and I don't find it one damn bit amusing!"
"Then I must apologize to you sir. All I can officially tell you is that yours was not an isolated event and that we have dealt with the source of the mix-up. I can also assure you with absolute certainty, that no similar event will ever originate from this office again."
"Look Pederson, a simple apology isn't going to cut it. This is one sick, sorry-ass waste of taxpayer's money. It's this sort of bullshit that gives government workers a bad name and unless you want a major lawsuit on your hands I suggest you explain to me what's going on--surely I needn't remind you that I have my own death certificate here in my hand--on your official letterhead!"
"I appreciate the situation sir," Pederson replied calmly, "but I am not authorized to comment any further on the subject. I will, though, see to it that you are sent a photocopy of your birth certificate and will transfer you to my supervisor who can perhaps answer your questions in greater depth. His name is Russell Higgenbottom."
"Fine, fine," I grumbled.
Pederson was good. If this was a prank he was a master at the game.
Several minutes passed while I waited. They had a religious radio station piped-in on their hold line. Depressing organ music droned as a preacher spoke in a manner that sounded marginally insane.
"Frie-e-nds" he said in long drawn-out syllables, "did yew know that Ga-awd has a plan for yew?"
A raspy voice interrupted.
"Yeah, Russ Higgenbottom here."
The abrupt cessation of music and religiosity was jolting. Higgenbottom sounded wheezy and impatient.
I began explaining my situation to him and tried to express my outrage, but it was difficult not to be distracted by the labored breathing at his end of the line. He waited for me to finish before he finally spoke.
"Yeah, that was Deloya's doing," he said. "She stirred up quite a mess while she was here. But she's gone now--finito--problem solved."
This bit of information caught me off guard. I hadn't considered a woman as being the prankster and for some reason it made the whole thing seem even sicker.
"What was she" I asked, "some sort of weirdo-practical joker?"
"Naw," Higgenbottom answered, coughing with what sounded like lungs damaged by years of heavy smoking, "Affirmative Action," he said between hacks.
"Activists got control of things around here for awhile and it finally just got out of hand." He resumed coughing.
I was beginning to get angry again. Was this redneck idiot trying to blame a woman--a minority woman at that, for this ugly little stunt? And worse yet, had he fired her as a scapegoat? So this is how it is, I thought, The Big Lie alive and well in the heartland.
I gave Higgenbottom a piece of my mind. I delivered a mini-lecture on civil rights, equal rights and the like. But throughout my tirade I could hear him chuckling and wheezing.
I reminded him that he was dealing with a Californian --someone from the twentieth century, not some rube from his neck of the woods.
"You got it all wrong Hoss," Higgenbottom protested. He assured me that Iowa was at the forefront of implementing measures to ensure equality in hiring.
"Damn man," he said, starting to sound exasperated, "over sixty percent of Iowa's State employees are female, and they come in every size and color. One thing we got here in beau coup abundance is diversity--and as a matter of fact, your particular problem can be directly traced to that fact. You see, Sharon Deloya was hired to fill our one percent psychic quota.
"Psychic quota?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes, psychic--you heard me right. I know it sounds ridiculous, but no more so than the two percent color-blind quota or the twenty percent agnostic quota. It's like I told you, the thing got totally out of hand."
There was more more coughing before he continued.
"She scared the hell out of a lot of folks around here, and not to worry you, but she was damn accurate on some of her shorter term predictions--at least the ones we could check out."
"Now you listen Higgenbottom," I said angrily, "that woman predicted my death to its exact date and now I hear you suggesting that she's somehow legitimate? I cannot fathom how someone in your position would participate in such a cruel malicious prank; under the auspices of a governmental department no less!"
Higgenbottom was chuckling again.
"Look Hoss, I'm with you," he said. "She sent out an inter-office memo around here informing everyone that I was going to die in a lung cancer ward next year!"
I couldn't tell if he was laughing or coughing, or maybe both.
Suddenly, I didn't want to be in this conversation with Russ Higgenbottom anymore. I was starting to feel extremely uncomfortable.
"Okay then--so's she's fired, right? Isn't that what you said?"
"Well not exactly fired, Hoss. That's not how it is with Affirmative Action hires-- we can't really fire them." He sounded earnest and frustrated. "Sharon Deloya is over in the Income Tax Division now. She was transferred in November and from what I hear she's stirred it up pretty good over there--word has it she's generating record amounts of revenue."
It was all too weird. My feelings of anger had dissipated and were now replaced by something unpleasant which I have no name for. I decided to drop the issue then and there.
I thanked Higgenbottom for the information. He was coughing violently again. In a staccato sentence of words separated by deep, barking coughs, he told me to have a nice day.
©1998 Richard Benbrook