The romantics call it an ebb and flow, suggesting that life comes and goes rather smoothly. Peacefully is the implication. With such a phrase at hand one can imagine a beach with the tide pulling at twelve-year-old toes as sand castles dissolve beneath gentle waves. Your pocket full of rattling sand dollars and your mother spread in bronze across a sunset-colored towel; it makes a lovely picture.
They’re romantics for a reason. Put a couple decades under your belt, refuse to die at the age of 25, and that life you wanted to call a sun-bathed beach becomes the suburbs, an endless line of unobtrusive colonials in varying shades of beige. The suburbs, your life, roll onward and onward until you reach the end, a wall of rebar and cement, still unobtrusively beige yet not itself unobtrusive. Often, by the time it comes, it seems as if it has been there all along, just waiting beyond the next block to drop you in the gutter.
Then, unexpectedly or expectedly, there it is, only the flow. Never steady but punctuated with an exclamation mark every time the aortic valve spasms. Those same shutters spread crimson tides ever outward from jerking, twitching limbs. Meanwhile the eyelids flutter rapidly, a firestorm of wasted weekends passing through memory’s projector.
Trust me, I’ve seen it enough to know, nothing about this transition is pretty. There’s nothing to suggest anything similar to an ebb and flow; nothing peaceful about it in the least. Whether you’re shitting your Depends in a dilapidated nursing home or laid out on an operating table spilling everything on the emergency room floor that you’d spent the last 26 years putting inside you doesn’t matter. The nurses use the same protein-destroying disinfectant to wipe you off their furniture.
Not that I blame the poets, no one wants to see life or death as a street through a suburban development. As regret followed by a moment of anguish, then a beige wall. A tidy package tied up with an epitaph bow.
Besides knowing, caring, they don’t change a thing. Everyone ends up here, exactly where Mr. Thompson is, the wall at the end of the road.
In 3 minutes and 43 seconds Mr. Thompson’s file will be marked closed and the details of his life, the steady progression of poor choices that lead to his file coming across my desk, will be deleted and forgotten. He will no longer even be a manila envelope piled on some pencil-pusher’s desk. In the end this is all I am, a clerk with files waiting to be closed.
The way this particular file will close will make it look like an accident to the coroner. He will no doubt think it such even if gray-bearded philosophers argue about fate, choice, and other things that look deep and meaningful on paper. The spilled vegetable oil, the shoelace undone, the fractured radial bone, even the splintered left temporal process that conveniently found the unforgiving edge of imported granite counter-top. That kind of quality stonework, the coroner will undoubtedly remark, and the temporal bone never stood a chance, splintering and driving into Mr. Thompson’s frontal cortex. Loss of motor function and death within fifteen minutes; then it’s the end of the suburban motorway for Mr. Thompson.
Not easy, not an ebb and flow or anything that might draw a tidal reference, as Mr. Thompson might attest if he weren’t choking on his own aspirated vomit. Forty-five seconds is an eternity when you’re dying, even when you’re not laid out on your kitchen floor with fragments of your skull shoved into that soft, pink cauliflower between your ears.
The Tissot wrapped around my wrist says Mr. Thompson here has another minute and 12 seconds. Its Swiss manufactures have assured me, via an insert that accompanied the watch, that it’s not likely to be wrong, ever, down to the millisecond. This is a guarantee that, no doubt, my clientele would be reassured by during their final, transitional moments. Or at least they might be if they had any idea at all of the time stamped across the cover of their file.
Mr. Thompson’s eyes have faded to that glassy-not-glossy vacant stare that signifies things are drawing to a close. Mental processes have begun to close up shop and the spurt from the collapsed section of his skull has slowed, allowing some of the blood to coagulate in matted sections along his hairline. Twenty-four seconds the Tissot assures me.
I lightly nudge Mr. Thompson’s un-fractured wrist with the mahogany tip of my shoe, just to verify I’m not waiting to watch a corpse die. I never am, they always die on time, but there’s not much else to do. His eyes float around the kitchen for a moment before locking in on my general vicinity. I stand motionless as his pupils dilate and, for a moment, I’m sure he can see me.
“Mr. Thompson?” I shouldn’t talk to them; it was something Frank had told me when I’d first started. “You still there?”
His time runs up before he can answer. Or not answer, I guess it depends on what I was willing to believe. Reaching down I push Mr. Thompson’s eyelids closed over his vacant stare. Whatever clarity had momentarily been there had fled behind the wall.
* * *
Before landing this job I never took public transportation, now I don’t even own a car. The gentle swaying of the lumbering silver beast erases the day. The dull stares from the other inhabitants acts as a mantra and my mind goes blank as the streets pass beneath the bus’s black treaded feet. Sometimes I get so lost in this perpetual nothing that I miss my stop, but if I don’t have a job to do it doesn’t really matter whether I miss it or not.
Today I know that Morris is dropping off a new client file. Knowing I’ve got a new job waiting I can’t lose myself to preoccupation. I’m aware of my impending stop miles before it arrives, even standing in anticipation of its arrival. Perhaps anticipation is not the correct response when it comes to my line of work. Frank would have understood though. It’s perfectly natural, he would have said, to feel that way. It’s the down time that gets us.
Frank always found a way of putting things that made you believe there was no better way of saying it.
The bus grinds to a stop in front of my apartment. No one notices when I get off, their slack faces buried in an official Oprah book club selection or glued to the screen of their Facebook-spewing mobile devices. You would think one of them would notice a guy dressed in a pressed suit and handmade leather shoes that cost more than then a month’s rent in this part of the city. I guess people won’t see what they don’t want to.
The stairs up to the third floor come slowly. Deliberately the sole of each Cobb sole comes down followed in a smooth arc up to the tip producing a quiet purr of stretching leather.
I have no intention of catching Morris at my place. It’s not that he’s unpleasant, though even Frank thought he was unsettling. He may only be the bearer of bad news. For someone else even but, Slim, that sure doesn’t mean I want to get a cup of coffee with the guy.
The key turns and the door swings wide with a steady squeak of protest from the Bargain Barn hinges. I see that Morris has already come and, thankfully, gone. The file he left is perched on the pressed wood table.
I drop into the only chair at the table. Closing my eyes, I run my hand across the varied trenches and stains left on the table’s surface by its previous owners. My stroll across time, however, is marred by the edge of the file.
I stare at it for a moment, this rectangular stranger eating up my table space. The front of the jacket says Jessica D. Smith in bold, black, block letters. Times New Roman of course, it’s always Times New Roman. Below, just above the lower right corner and stamped in red, the words “File to be closed: February 3rd, 9:37 a.m.” give Mrs. Smith just under a day.
A photo is pinned to the inside of the file showing a woman in her early thirties. Her teeth are framed in a color I would call red but what Estee Lauder would call something like Liquid Passion. The photo has caught her in a moment of happiness. Perhaps she’s smiling because the man, whose shadow protrudes from the bottom of the photo, has just said something marginally witty. Maybe she’s thinking about why she’s worn a color anyone would call Liquid Passion. Either one seems equally probable, though I know that they’re both wrong. Really, it’s only because she doesn’t know I’m coming, doesn’t know that the end of her suburb is just around the next corner.
Across from the crinkled edges of her mouth and attached to the top of the opposite jacket is a ream of paper titled “Pertinent Information.” This generally includes home address, close relatives, phone numbers, e-mail address, etc. Really more than anyone, anywhere would ever want to know.
They give you this nearly insurmountable mound of information on the outside chance, however tiny, that you might need it to complete your task properly. What it never includes is the reason, why the higher up thought it necessary to terminate whoever’s file all these e-mail addresses and phone numbers and business associates belong to.
I flip the file back open and scan through the pages until I reach the work profile. Grande Communications, New Accounts Division. I slide the phone off its cradle; I’m probably the only guy on the block that still has a landline. For some reason cell phones don’t work for us. Don’t ask me why, Slim, but for some reason they can hear us through the old lines. Don’t make me regret telling you this, stick to the rules when you call them, you know what I mean. Briefly I wonder what we’ll do once landlines have become completely obsolete.
The automated gauntlet of the phone system requires stealthy maneuvering but eventually, after hearing about all their great offers to new subscribers numerous times, it gives up a prompt that allows me to enter my party’s extension, should I have one. I punch Mrs. Smith’s four-digit code and there is a clicking noise.
“Hello and thank you for calling Grande Communications, how can I help you this morning?”
The woman at the other end is silent for a moment then, like a question, “yes.”
“Yes? Good, I was referred to you by a friend from work.” I forced myself to breath like a normal person into the receiver. “Just wanted to make sure I had the right person.”
“Well, you’ll have to thank him for me.” The hesitation was gone but it still sounded more like a question than a statement.
“I was interested in subscribing and wanted to make sure I dealt with, how did he put it?” I fake pause, “Ah, yes, ‘the nicest operator in Bexar County’ is what he said.”
It’s not much of a risk, using this line, because if she doesn’t feel like she fits the description and calls my bluff I doubt I would have wanted to have a conversation with her anyway.
“You’ve definitely found the right Smith then.”
I ask her about offers for new subscribers, even though I have already heard them via voice-automated waiting system. She tells me about different packages, rattling them off as if they were relatives, Advanced Preferred, Advanced Premium, Advanced Platinum then explaining the various upsides and downsides of each. We arrive at what we think is the best fit for my viewing needs and I give her all the information for my alias, listing off the pertinent information as if it were my actual identity.
“Okay, this will just take a few minutes to run.”
Before the silence can stretch uncomfortably I ask, “So, how’s your day going?”
She sighs but it does not sound unhappy. “My two children, twins if you’d believe my luck, wanted laptops for their birthday. As if I could afford that.”
“Twins, no kidding,” The file says only three people live in her rental house. “Must be a handful.”
“You’ve no idea.” It could have been accusatory from a woman in her position but it wasn’t. “I found a deal at CVS, little laptops for $60 apiece. And because I called the store and told them the closest one was a 30 minute drive away the manager said he’d give me a discount on the second.” Her voice swelled as she rushed to finish her story. “They let me buy the first at full price and the second at fifty percent off.”
“That certainly should make their day.” I had no clue one way or the other.
She was quick to latch onto my words, “Oh, I think so too. I’m surprising them with their presents tonight, a whole week early but I just couldn’t wait. And I have good news for you too, Mr. Gra-cil-is it?” She stumbles on the name, “Am I saying that correctly?”
“Gracilis, you’ve got it.” Gracilis, the name was Frank’s final gift.
“Good. Everything looks to be in place and you should be able to start watching within the next few hours.” She lowered her voice, “Depending on when the boys downstairs decide to flip the switch.”
She asked if there was anything else she could help me with. I told her there wasn’t before wishing her sons a happy early birthday. Given her departure date I thought it fortuitous she’d chosen to give them their gifts before their birthday.
I slide the phone back into its cream colored cradle. I had done work in Whitlett before; it would take roughly half a day to reach by bus giving me until this afternoon to catch one down from San Antonio.
* * *
I had gone through an entire pack of Djarum cigarettes waiting for the sun to pull itself above the horizon. The sun coming up like that, slowly and greedily devouring every last bit of the night, and time passes away to nothing. Suburbia stretches out past oblivion.
For some reason I think of Frank. How, when his file came, he knew without being told. It’s okay. We all go at some point; your time will come before you know it. Believe me, stick to the rules and it’ll be the blink of an eye.
It’s 7:45 and finally the Smith family has roused itself. Lights flip on in a few of the rooms. I hear a door at the back of the house open and close, Jessica opens the side gate and, despite the low temperature, trudges through dragging a trashcan in nothing more than a thin, blue sleeping gown. Her breath blows out in thin little clouds past the stringy straw colored hair that hangs around her face. She pulls the trashcan even with the curb then turns and heads back through the gate, with each step a slipper hangs limply from an otherwise bare foot.
Four more cigarettes burn down to stubs as the Smiths get ready for the day. At 8:24 the front door bangs open and two twelve-year-old boys run to the once-silver Fiesta parked in the driveway. Jessica steps through the front door as the boys throw their Transformers backpacks in the center of the backseat and climb in after them. Jessica has a too-large wool jacket draped across her shoulders but otherwise the outfit is the same one she was wearing for trash duty.
After locking the front door she turns and stumbles on a piece of gravel one of the boys kicked up in their haste to reach the vehicle. The two boys are snickering as Jessica climbs into the car. She sits like a mannequin behind the wheel and the smiles on the boys’ faces recede as the moment stretches out. It passes and the Fiesta reluctantly kicks itself to life before lumbering out into the street.
Walking towards the empty home something in the trash catches my eye. There’s a box propping the lid open with a red CVS logo printed on the corner and the words laptop computer above a picture of what vaguely resembles a computer. Looking at the box closer I can see that the word computer has quotation marks around it.
I open the lid enough to look inside the bin. There, along with another “computer” box, are two black, plastic objects that resemble the pictures printed on the boxes, or at least they had matched at one point. Now they looked like someone had taken to them with a hammer.
Leaving the trashcan and its broken contents I enter Jessica’s house. It’s dark and feels as if it’s a place I should already be leaving rather than coming to. Nothing moves within except for dust motes caught in the wake of my movement.
Ahead of the entrance a narrow staircase leads up to the second floor. Given Jessica’s attire it feels like her bedroom is a likely place to find her when her time comes. Picture frames line the way up the staircase and ascending the stairs I am able to view the small family in photos of parks and trails. There is something strange about the frames though. Scattered throughout each are small windows of emptiness, pockets where pictures should be but where only the backing of the frame shows through. There is a photo of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Jessica is standing at the edge of the stone walkway lining the small river, an arm around each son, and beaming at the camera. At the bottom of the photo, just below Jessica’s sandaled feet, is the shadow of the man holding the camera. He is present in several pictures but only ever as a dark presence cast into the frame by the position of the sun.
I continue up to the second floor and find Jessica’s room at the end of a short hallway. A small desk is littered with a layer of paper. The tan carpet leading from the desk in the corner to the doorway has been worn thin and dark.
I can hear the Fiesta’s engine idling in the driveway, its somewhat steady rattle interrupted occasionally by a loud cough. Peering out through Jessica’s bedroom window I watch the smoky exhaust snaking up through the air. She sits motionless as the Fiesta tries not to rattle itself to pieces. Her lips move slowly, closing around words that are probably inaudible even to someone sitting in the car. Minutes tick by as this silent dialogue plays out.
A mini-van barrels around the corner and Jessica jerks in her seat. The engine shuts off, coming to a rest with a shutter, and the driver-side door swings open. Jessica frees the house key from the ring and, sliding it into the front door, doesn’t realize that she has just over twenty minutes left.
I lower the blinds as she disappears out of view and sit down on the edge of Jessica’s mattress. Heavy footfalls mark her progression up the staircase. The door to the room whines as she pushes it open, she drops her purse and kicks her shoes off. They remain in the middle of the floor as she turns and disappears into the small, yellow bathroom attached to her room.
The water runs briefly in the sink. As soon as it stops it is replaced by the sound of the bath being run. Jessica reappears in the bathroom doorway just long enough to disappear again behind the closing door. Sixteen minutes, I don’t want to intrude but it’s doubtful Jessica will be coming back out. The running water stops and I can hear the medicine cabinet opening. There’s the sound of feet stepping into the tub then a sigh as she lowers herself all the way in.
With just under fifteen minutes left, there’s the stifled sound of pain and water splashes onto the floor.
I step through the door and see that it’s all gone wrong. There’s blood everywhere and she’s crying, her body jerking with each silent sob.
A razor blade glints cruelly as Jessica’s fingers try to retrieve it from tiles slippery beneath pinkish bathwater. The lines, that’s where it has gone wrong. They start straight, descending down the artery causing thick red rivers to slither vigorously down the forearm. Then, half an inch later, they veer harshly off towards the right. The tendons were severed and the blade slipped from fingers that had lost the capabilities to hold on.
Jessica’s right hand abandons its quest to retrieve the bloody instrument and wraps around her now useless left wrist. She systematically begins to clamp down then release her wrist causing clouds of red to puncture the water as the artery is forced to eject its contents.
“Just fucking do it already you stupid bitch!” Her words come out quick and quiet while she wrestles with the slack-fingered appendage.
“Jessica, it’s okay. You’ll be gone in,” I check my watch. She still has twelve minutes left.
Twelve minutes in that dingy tub as she desperately tries to wring the life out of herself like a dish towel. Twelve minutes left to spend in a world that had long since given up its beachfront façade.
In her desperation Jessica’s hair has spilled across her face, obscuring her red-rimmed eyes. I reach out to tuck it back behind her ear, but Frank stops me short. Whatever you do, no matter the circumstances, do not miss their time. Whatever the reasoning, you must not take a soul before their time has come. It’s the only rule the boss really takes seriously. You don’t want the extra time. Their time comes when it comes.
A tide of water pushes past my shoes; Jessica has begun to rock violently, slopping water over the sides of the tub. She’s pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her blood-covered arms. Muffled sobs escape from between her entangled limbs. There’s still over ten minutes left and I see that morning’s sunrise spread out before Jessica, inching closer one miserable beige house at a time.
“It’ll be okay.” It doesn’t matter if she can hear it. There might be someone who can and I think he probably understands.
For a moment Jessica’s arm is warm beneath my fingers and a brief heartbeat swells against my hand. Then she is gone; released from the ugly suburb with its endless beige windows and doors and driveways.
Brian Foster is a recent graduate from Arizona State University. His creative interests have recently shifted to play writing and he is moving to Chicago in order to become more involved in that arena.