Wednesday, September 12, 2007

But the Benefits Are Good

Today tastes like cotton candy--right put of the vat. It's still hot and sticky and very much one note here. No matter where you are, there's one season that is less enjoyable than the others.

I don't mind the haboob that sandblasts your car, your glasses, and your skin--the lovely drenching monsoon follows. I don't mind the hazy days--I get really good photos during the magic hours (and I'm even at home for them both!!)

I really HATE the humidity that blends with the heat to make taking a walk like a slog through a swamp of spoiled milk. It gets so bad I can't even remember the titles of my short stories--which REALLY is bad.

Here's the one I threatened you with a few weeks back. I called it "A Thankless Task." Close, but no ceegar. Here goes.1

His was one of those thankless tasks that is simultaneously vital to good function, utterly invisible, and loathsome to contemplate. Like the guy whose job it is to clean the vats in a sewage treatment plant. Or the cleanup crew after Mardi Gras, cleaning up the spilled booze, blood and vomit from the streets. The job gets done somehow, by someone, and nobody ever thinks about who does it and when.

He'd worked his beat for years, in all kinds of weather. He'd traveled rainy roads, through blowing snowstorms where the flakes fell in curtains, watching funnel clouds touch down from green black summer skies. He'd tapped on canvas tent flaps, knocked on doors of clapboard and brick houses, walked in through the front gates of palaces. Getting the word out.

Some people, old people, lonely people, were glad to see him. Others were angry at being interrupted, and clearly wanted to get back to their lives. A few were resigned, patiently listening to the tidings he brought. He'd been at this job a long, long time.

Right now, the sun was hot on his bald head as he walked the dusty road into Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. October 31, All Hallows' Eve, and tomorrow would be the Day of the Dead. He grinned. Marigolds on the graves, and paper money, and sugar skulls to eat. His parchment skin wrinkled back exposing his gums, and burying his already small and deep set eyes back further in their sockets. Every day, so far as he was concerned, was the day of the dead. All flesh was grass, ashes, and dust.

He carried a battered leather case, wore a straw cowboy hat on his head, stained with sweat, the edges patiently rolled and re-rolled into permanent curls like pork rinds. His shirt was white, and although wrinkled, bone dry. He had small silver pesatas for cufflinks, sparking shards of sunlight. His pants were black, starting to go rusty on the knees and in the seat. The heels on his boots were worn at the backs, so he leaned backward a little when he stood still, but he seldom stopped and stood. Always and forever on the go, world without end, amen.

He stopped in at a burger joint, ordered only a glass of water. When the waitress looked him over slowly, taking in the cufflinks, his bolo tie with a silver mouse skull, and the white linen shirt, then contrasting it with the fact that he had walked in, walked on a road where anyone with a lick of sense would have driven, hitched a ride, or rode the bus; he smiled gently, keeping his teeth covered by his thin lips. He knew he'd see her again, thirty years from now, in the hospital with ovarian cancer. She 'd finally have lost those twenty-five pounds she blamed her loveless days on; those twenty-five pounds and more to keep them company. Oh, she'd be just as thin as the fashion models she pictured her face on in those magazines she read, easily a size 0, maybe even 00. Not that she'd enjoy it. Not that she'd be in a big city, seeing and being seen, dancing all night. So why give her a rough day now?

"Add on a patty melt, hon," he said, in his voice like rustling leaves. "But don't make it up just yet. Give it to . . . what's his name, the man who knocks on the door just about closing. The one you give the lunchmeat and bread that's just expired that day or the day before. Ask him in, let him sit down, and give him a hot fresh meal." Because I'll be seeing him tonight, out on the train tracks, just after the 11:05 from Santa Fe comes rolling by, he thought, but didn't say. Albert, Albert Manolo, that was the man's name. Albert who would find a five dollar bill, no, would be given a five dollar bill by a family of three on the way to Tucson, who would then purchase a bottle of sweet fortified wine, and go to sleep it off in his lean-to just outside town. But he'd fall, and lie there looking at the stars, finishing the last sticky dregs in the bottle, too rubber-limbed and swoony to get back up. And he'd pillow his head on the rail, and close his eyes, lulled by the thrumming heartbeat under his cheek, the faraway song of steel growing slowly closer.

The waitress, Gaye, if her name tag was to be believed, turned pale, paler at his casual mention of the man who'd come begging every few nights for the last two-three months. Acne stood out like paint flecks on her cheeks gone white. She'd feared having to throw this guy out, this bum with the good jewelry, maybe just starting on his way down, ordering only a glass of water, but how did he know about Albert? Albert with his liquid brown eyes, his heartbroken smile, the closest thing she'd had to a long-term relationship. How could he know? Her boss didn't know.

He finished his water, tipped her a dollar for her trouble, put his hat back on his head. He'd removed it when sitting down, placing it on the empty stool next to him. As he stood to leave, the background chatter of the kid in the booth with his parents stopped as he took a big bite of his burger, mumbled something through a mouthful of bun and beef, started to cough--and then stopped.

The kid spit out most of the bite, fumbled at his mouth and throat. His father patted him on the back, gently at first then harder as the kid's face purpled and his tongue thrust out. The woman with them stood up, looking for--what exactly? A god in a flowered chair to drop from the sky? A poster with the Heimlich Maneuver with easy to follow directions? Someone to read her mind?

It seems someone did, because the man with the hat dropped his case on the floor by his seat, and hurried over, sweeping the kid up in his arms in a bear hug, with his fist in the pit of the kid's stomach. Two hard squeezes, and the remains of the too big bite came out. The kid coughed scratchily, then began to bawl as he was handed back over to his relieved parents.

They thanked him effusively, and he shucked and grinned it all off. Just doing what anyone would, ma'am. Paying it forward, you could say. Acts of charity are what make the world go 'round, we're all in it here together until the great and final end. He ruffled the kid's hair, praised him for being a tough little soldier. Told the kid to take care, and turned to pick up his case, thinking that he'd be a little sorry to see this one in ten years, on prom night, behind the wheel with breath you could light on fire from the spiked punch. But he had a job to do.

Through the Rockwellian downtown, then back into the suburbs. The sub-sub-suburbs, he thought, and grinned again. Out to a tiny two room cabin with an outhouse and a clapboard porch to sit on when the summer heat was too great for sleeping.

The little house sat on much too much land, the way it had when the one who lived there had raised cattle on his ranch, driving them to Santa Fe to be loaded onto trains and driven to the slaughterhouses of Chicago to feed the nation on flesh. Slowly, as he'd grown older, the rancher had trimmed back his operations, stopped renting lands for grazing first, then sold the ranch an acre at a time as the city unfolded. "Why let them have it all at once," he'd said, without bitterness. He knew that the world turned, and that his way was ending. "Why let them have it in a great big gulp, when I can sell it to them a bit at a time, and ranch coin from the land?"

No fences from the road, just the end of the road itself, and the nearest neighbor still a quarter-mile off. The travelling man squinted in the setting sun, listened carefully. Smiled as he heard the creak of the boards, and the joints of the rocking chair. Smelled the oil on the rancher's knife and the sap of the cottonwood limb he was whittling on. "I'm an excellent sculptor," the rancher would say in his rusted baritone, cracked from dust and yelling orders over lowing cattle and the perpetual wind on the plains. "I can see a toothpick in any hunk of wood. All that it takes is carving away the excess."

He pulled up even with the house, watched for a moment as the old man's palsied hands picked away at the cottonwood branch, the knife so deft even as he trembled. "Hello, the house," he called. Waited as the man in the rocking chair looked up, turtle-like behind his trifocals that still weren't enough to bring back the unclouded sight that had once been his.

"Well, hello," the rancher replied, using the momentum of the rocking chair to lever himself up, with care for his arthritic back and knees. He folded the pocketknife's blade back deliberately, slipped the knife into his pocket, peered at the stranger in the straw hat. "Take a wrong turn, mister? Don't get much company out this way."

The other smiled. "Not a wrong turn at all, unless you aren't Jean-Paul Verley." He walked slowly forward, hand extended.

The rancher smiled, though his brows drew together in puzzlement. "I'm him," he said, meeting the stranger at the top of the stairs to the porch. He shook hands with the man, then said "But you still took a wrong turn if you're the Fuller Brush man." He indicated the outhouse around the side. They both had a laugh at that.

Verley settled back in his rocking chair, offered his guest the cane-seat chair next to it. Remarks were exchanged about the weather (too damn hot for this time of year), the current state of the world's affairs (going to hell in a handbasket) and the past baseball season (the wrong team won). Verley opined that it was good to talk to a man who saw things the same way he did. It was getting lonely for a lifelong batchelor, whose remaining family was scattered to the four winds. "But here I've gone and jawed your ear off, and kept you from your rightful business. Which is?"

"Well, it isn't Fuller Brushes, nor is it inquiring about your personal relationship with Jesus. I'm not in the business of selling at all, really." Here came the moment, the moment all this had lead up to. "I'm more in the business of taking." He looked at Verley, long and slow in the growing darkness. Verley looked back, measuring the skull beneath the skin, and his eyes dropped first.

"Oh," he said softly, sadly, and sighed.

"I'm sorry," the other said, and for a wonder, he was. It happened occasionally, when he had the time to sit down for a moment with someone who wasn't surprised to see him, with someone who didn't whine and plead for just a few more months, weeks, days. Gotta have one last Christmas, see the kid graduate, see the baby born. Just one more hour to say goodbye to everyone and everything. A pure pleasure to just stop for a minute and have a civilized conversation before rolling on down the road to the next appointment.

"Well. Much obliged." said Verley, as he opened the door to the house and went in for his jacket. The other followed him in.

"Obliged?" he asked Verley. "Obliged to die?"

"Yessir," replied Verley as he wound his watch and tucked it into his pocket. "It's been a good life--though of course, not near long enough." He lay down on the bed. "Bet you hear that all the time, though."

"Not quite like that," replied Death.

"And, well, I'd like to say 'thankee too much' for holding off so I could have the days I did. For not taking me when that bull spooked my horse and he crushed my leg up against the boards of the chute. For waiting out that case of pneumonia when I was sixty-five. For making the rattlesnake that crawled into my boot that night on the last drive rattle before I stuck my foot in, so I could shake him out without getting bit. Thankee, sir, and muchly obliged." He looked around. "Going to miss this, though. Anything particular I need to do?"

Death trembled. "Yes," he whispered. "Yes. You need to take the battered leather case you'll find on the porch, and you'll need to meet a man named Albert Manolo out by the train tracks at 11:08 this evening."

"Beg pardon?"

"Get up. Get up. There's work to be done. It's a hard and thankless task, but the benefits are good." Death took off his hat and placed it on the dresser, lay down on Verley's bed.

Verley smiled, and his eyes sank deeper into his head, the edges of his teeth glittering. "So that's how it goes, is it? A thankless task, yes sir. Thankless indeed."

"Yes," said Death. "But the benefits are good." And he closed his eyes for the first time ever.

1. You can find the other short in the August archives, under "I Stole This From Artella." The two stories link because the above story was written in response to a challenge where you had to include the phrase "obliged to die."


Ludmilla said...

Wow. I was completely surprised by the ending. I gulped the story down without taking time to enjoy the details, so I'm going back now for a slower read. Thanks!

Cherizac said...

Wonderful story! Full of atmosphere and feeling; made my eyes tear up. Thank you for sharing it.

FaerieLady said...

I love this story!