The Agent Reply

Melting Clocks

Fiction Friday is here.   Enjoy this original short story.  I will send this out for publication soon.

The Agent

“Good Morning Gladys,” said the sixty year old Dentist, wearing light blue dental scrubs and looking more like 45, except for the awful quaff of obviously fake red-blonde hair that flapped in a perfect wave as he walked, in part thanks to nature, but in part thanks to the gluttonous amount of aqua net hairspray he applied as part of his daily regiment.

“Good morning Hank.  You had three calls since yesterday.  Mr. Finwick would like to know if he can finally get in for a cleaning. Mrs. Waltz says she chipped her filling.  And a Mr. Davenport said he met you a few weeks ago and would like to schedule an initial consultation.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Same thing I’ve said for the last two years.  No available appointments for six months and Dr. Sparks isn’t taking new patients,” she said, a bit bored.

“Good. I’ll be in my office.”

Hank walked down the wood paneled hallway, adorned with pictures of various famous cemeteries and grave sites – Arlington National, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, JFK’s eternal flame, The Hapsburg Crypt in the Capuchin Church of Austria, the Church of the Sepulcre —  to his office as the two dental assistants murmured about Hank’s decision to retire, but not tell anyone.    He opened the door to a chorus of chimes, whistles and bells, and thirty-three clocks that filled every empty space in the Dentist’s office.  Listening for a moment, Hank peered suspiciously at one oak brown mantle clock with a glass front and miniature brass pendulum, and whispered along its back, “you seem to be out of sorts.  Let’s get you straightened out.”

Hank, retired three years ago from the tedium of dental practice.  Now his time was spent with three occupations – clocks, graves and his wife Larissa.   Larissa every morning would walk through the smallish but ample courtyard of their home and dream of life in other places, like in the gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles, Author’s Camelot, The Hapsburgs’ summer Palace Schönbrunn, or any other place that began with “old” or sounded royal.  Her house was full of antiques, some that were real and others that were just made to feel antiquarian. Larissa herself couldn’t tell the difference, but bought the antiques because the salesman selling the pieces offered up a steady supply of “yes Ma’ams” and “good gracious,” and “lawd almighties,” which were enough to tell Larissa this man’s trustworthiness was impenetrable. “He’s clearly from the old ways,” she would think.  She was particularly fond of old wives’  tales and would pass them on as conventional wisdom.  “A dream told before breakfast will come true,” she’d say when a child started telling the fantastic dreams from the night before.

Between Larissa’s obsession for old things and Hank’s obsession for clocks, nearly no space was left uncovered with some tchotchke, replica or time piece — cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, mantel clocks, atomic clocks, tidal clocks, water clocks, hairspring clocks, clocks that look like cats with big bulging eyes and tails for pendulums, and more.  Every room of their home was filled with several clocks, all inevitably set to different times, creating a chorus of chimes, whistles, cuckoos and tick tocks for at least five minutes on every quarter hour and sometimes longer depending on the hour being struck.  Precision of time never struck Hank as being important.  Most dentists carefully monitored their amalgam settings to ensure they dried properly.  But Hank, knowing their nature, prided himself on never having had a patient sit too long or leave too soon before a filling was done.  Things, particularly clocks and people, responded to their own rhythm and time.

Larissa and Hank’s uneventful lives never called attention to themselves in a bad way. But never one to lose the opportunity to point out a virtue, Larissa kept tedious track of their good deeds so as to instantly repel any rumor or insinuation that anything negative might be said of them. An awkward art, she managed to shame others into keeping conversation shallow just to save themselves from hearing Larissa say anything at all.

A few months back, Larissa showed her power of redeeming an awkward conversation by reminding those listening of her virtues.  While having tea at a local café with Hank, Larissa began commenting on her love of Gone with the Wind.   “Oh, how I would love to live in Scarlett OHara’s Old South.  Life must have been so grand for her and her Rhett Butler.  To sit on those porches and have servants bring you tea in the afternoon.  It would have been delightful.”  Hank looked slightly sheepish, not sure how to respond to such a strange sentiment. He finally said quietly, “Larissa, keep your voice down. There are other people here,” wincing towards the black couple a table over.  Larissa feeling the need to redeem herself said loudly, “Oh, I’m not racist. How dare you insinuate such a thing.  Just last year I bought winter coats for the little colored children of that lady who came by asking me for a job.” This statement reverberated through the café, making everyone in the café cringe, except for Larissa, who at that moment felt a lump in her throat thinking of the ways she helped that poor family.  It was that moment when Larissa noticed the African-American couple sitting in a both nearby. Hank noticed them too, and studied them from toe to top, noticing that both were missing their third finger from one hand.   Hank tended to notice such details, though he rarely assigned them meaning.

“Pardon me,” Larissa said to them, “do I know you?”

“No, I do not believe you do,” said the African-American lady politely.  But before she could say her name.

“Well, you just look so familiar.”

“My name is Alice and this is my husband Randall. We have tea here every week.  Maybe you have seen us here? We see you all the time…”

Larissa interrupted without hearing.  “Surely not!  Why I know everybody that has tea in this café at this time, and I have surely not seen you here.”

“Perhaps we just miss each other by a few minutes.”

“I would say not!  No, I know you from some place else.” And then Larissa said as if coming to it, “I know it.  You are the nice couple I showed a house to in the colored section of town a few weeks ago. Such an odd couple.  Both were doctors and wanted to purchase over in Station’s Landing.  But you know, they just wouldn’t have fit there…”

“No ma’am.  That was not us,” said Alice ignoring Larissa’s condescension.  “We have lived in our home for a long time now,” said Randall with a mournful look.

“Well, it’s my pleasure to meet you.  If you need anything, my name is Larissa Sparks and I am happy to help you find a house or coats or jobs or whatever I may be of assistance for you.”  Later that day, Larissa would congratulate herself to several different people for trying to help “those two unfortunates” she and Hank met earlier.

Hank himself tried to remain underwhelming in both thought and deed.  When the time came for Hank to retire from his dental practice, it just seemed unbecoming to let others know that he was getting older or had made enough money to allow him this ordinary stage of life.  So, instead, he just simply stopped taking patients at his practice or scheduling appointments for his current patients. He continued to employ dental assistants who would tell patients when they called “we just won’t be able to schedule you for six months,” or “I’m sorry Dr. Sparks is no longer accepting new patients.”  If the patient insisted on seeing Dr. Sparks even with such a long wait, he would wait until that day and then abruptly cancel the appointment due to a necessary funeral, business appointment or illness that made Dr. Spark’s unavailable. When they asked if he could see them soon after, the standard response, “Oh, I’m sorry.  Doctor Sparks is completely booked for the next six months.”  And for three years, Hank Sparks woke up every morning, put on his dental scrubs, prepared his hair to be precisely in place, and drove to his dental office where he sat in his office calibrating clocks to be exactly the right time for each clock, which was never the same and never in harmony with any other clock. “Time was just not something that one should pinpoint,” he thought, “but rather was personal to every being and object.”

While Hank attended to his clocks during the day, Larissa sold real estate to prospective buyers.  She would meet a client and instantly know what house or neighborhood she would show them.  She sold houses like a minister sang salvation songs.  She believed that the environs where one lived and the neighbors one kept indicated not only the kind of social person you were but reached down to the quality of your soul.  “Bad neighbors reflect the kind of person you are yourself,” she would say to clients as she urged them to purchase in one area or another.  “Oh, would you look at that.  I just can’t believe they would ruin a perfectly wonderful home by leaving their children’s bicycles laying about in the front yard,” she might be heard saying to clients as she showed a home.  She was also known to lecture clients on not only the tidiness of their home, but also their neighbors’ tidiness.  It was also rumored that Larissa, uninvited, was once run off from a former client’s home for trimming their row-hedges in a perfectly rectangular shape.

In his spare time, Hank had recently decided that he and Larissa needed to get serious about cemetery plots.  For Larissa, this became a moment of utmost importance.  “You don’t want to be buried next to a néer-do-well.  After all, it’s your neighborhood for eternity.”  So Larissa inspected the cemeteries and burial plots with the utmost care. She would bring lawn scissors and gardening gloves to manicure the gravesites around the potential last-home, just so she could see all the potential for where they might decide to buy. She interrogated and antagonized one poor cemetery groundskeeper on a particular weekend visit asking: “why haven’t you planted new flowers by the entrance of the Stonewall section?” And, “Dear sir, why do you insist on allowing weeds to grow up over those grave stones? Those people surely expect you to keep up their grave-homes don’t they?” And finally, “You know more living people would probably visit these poor souls if their neighborhood didn’t look so shabby.”  The poor groundskeeper finally, laid his shovel down and walked towards the historic Jewish mausoleum, causing Larissa to audibly sigh and then comment to Hank about the inability to find good help.

Sunday afternoons were consumed with inspecting potential burial spots for the two of them.  After a while, Hank and Larissa had exhausted the supply of local plots and began looking at nearby towns.  “There are burial plots in Osawatomie’s Memorial Grove,” suggested Hank, but on visiting, Larissa would find the perpetual care promised to be not so perpetual.  “Look at these weeds growing in the grass,” she would say.  “Look at these dead flowers no one has taken the time to freshen up on these grave sites.”  And, “Can you believe the tree roots that are dislodging those grave stones.  You would think they would care enough about the dead to cut down that silly thing!” she said in an exhausted voice, putting her gardening sheers away.

One weekend, Hank and Larissa drove nearly a hundred miles to see a  promising plot in the Oakhewn Cemetary in the town of Chambersbourg.  Guarded by two lovely oaks at the entrance, the cemetery’s white limestone grave markers glistened like whitecaps in the open water as the sun assaulted the green and white landscape. “Well it certainly does make an impression coming in,” said Larissa as if commenting on a grand stairway in a house.  As they walked around the cemetery and looked at various graves, they finally came to the plot that Hank was told was available.  Larissa seemed to be less impressed than Hank after a while. “Yes, Hank,” Larissa agreed, “Oakhewn cemetery is nicely maintained.  But you know the plots that we saw were near the Jewish section of the cemetery.”

Hank, sighed.  “Larissa, those plots were several hundred feet away from the Jewish section and besides, they were in the old historic section of the cemetery. We would be buried near a colonel that served with Teddy Roosevelt from the Spanish American War. These plots are golden, just golden, my dear.”

“No, no, no! These will just never do.  Yes, I like the historic section and yes, it would be nice to be buried near a colonel with presidential ties,” as if she had given this extensive thought in the past.  “But really, I just don’t like the idea of being buried so near those people. Sure I do business with them.  But I don’t live near them nor do I want to rest for eternity in such close proximity.  Your gravesite is like your neighborhood.  It should be filled with people you like.  No, I want to be with my own people.”

“You did invite the Goldbergs to your Christmas Party last year, dear,” Hank said triumphantly.

“First Hank, I invited them because Moises Goldberg works at the bank where I closed three deals last year.  Second of all they didn’t even come,” said Larissa. Then she said more quietly, “so inconsiderate.”

Hank sighed and began his usual whistle in the sound of the three quarter hour Westminster chime while walking back to the car. “Hank. What did I tell you!  If you whistle in the cemetery you’ll summon the devil.”  Hank shrugged his shoulders and walked on.

Hank continued to look for cemetery plots and for nearly a year. Hank and Larissa travelled out of town nearly every Sunday to cemeteries.  Country cemeteries, urban cemeteries, public cemeteries, family cemeteries, veterans cemeteries, municipal cemeteries, religious cemeteries (except for Jewish cemeteries of course). They even switched denominations, all within the Christian faith of course, just to see whether they would enjoy being buried next to their religious decedents to broaden their options.  But alas, nothing seemed to fit.

It so happened that Hank came across an ad in the paper one week that warranted a call.  “Marital Plot with Perpetual Care in Reading’s Olde Towne Historic Cemetery.  Call for appointment.”  Hank Called.

“Hello, Thomas Percy Walker, eternal care realtor at your service.”

“Hello.  We are looking for a plot for two people. I saw your Olde Towne listing.  It’s just that my wife is particularly…let’s just say, particular.”

“Oh yes sir, I understand.  I’ll tell you what.  I have several different options that I could show you.  If you can meet for brunch on Sunday, I can find out what you are looking for and see if I can help you.”

So Sunday came and Hank and Larissa woke up at 5:30 AM to drive two hours and meet Thomas Percy Walker at one of the finest brunch restaurants in the town of Reading.  Wearing a brown seer-sucker suit and bow-tie, Thomas walked in, carrying a brown portfolio under one arm, and a bouquet of daisy’s in the other.  “Why, here you are madam.”

“For me?” Larissa said, surprised by the kind gesture.  What she noticed more was that after his hands were free, he tipped his hat, and bowed his head.  “Well now that’s a gentleman a lady can trust.”

“Well now, you don’t even know me yet,” said Thomas. “I could be the most untrustworthy person here.”

“A lady knows good people.”

“Well, shall we sit?”

They sat at the square private booth and Thomas placed his leather bound portfolio on the table.  “Now I’m not sure what I’m going to show you will be exactly what you are looking for, but I can get an idea of what types of amenities you have in mind.”

“As someone in a similar line of work,” commented Larissa looking skeptically, “I always found it was important to understand your client before trying to show them properties.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Thomas.  “Now this one is a fine set of plots near an older church property.  The building is a historic one, but the gravesites are not all that old – early part of the last century, though a few date to the previous century.  Millhaven Lawn has become one of the more popular places to be buried in the county.”  He passed the portfolio to Larissa and Hank who flipped studiously through the pictures of the cemetery.

“The Nuevo dead,” Larissa smirked.  “It looks nice but they are all so uniform.   Are the cemetery plots all arranged so similarly?”

“Yes ma’am. That is one of the features of Millhaven Lawn. Everyone is the same in the after-life they say.”

“Well that’s just not true!  I believe in heaven and hell for a reason and I can tell you where I belong,” said Larissa with conviction.

“I can’t agree with you more,” said Thomas.  “I don’t judge what others believe, I just show the properties.  But I can certainly tell you are a lady of impeccable taste.”

“Well you shouldn’t judge what someone else may be or want, especially when they know for themselves who they are.  But I wouldn’t expect you to.  You are a professional and a gentleman at that.  Impeccably trustworthy!” Larissa said.

“Now this one is a bit different.  It’s more of an older traditional family burial plot, but you’ll have to be buried along side another family,” Thomas said cautiously. “This cemetery is the most exclusive and would be an excellent place to spend eternity.”

“Now that’s intriguing.  Who is this family we would be buried next to?” Larissa asked.

“That’s the thing that may make this plot unattractive.  The reason the plot is available is that the family remaining behind has hit hard times and found themselves unable to keep up the perpetual care agreement with the cemetery.  The cemetery has foreclosed on the plots to make up for the maintenance costs necessary to keep the Historic Chamber-Felt Grove Cemetery beautiful.”

“Absolutely not!” Larissa said.  “I refuse to be buried in a foreclosed plot next to the family of scoff-laws who do not pay their bills. I mean Hank, those people could be visiting us!” she said, sounding repulsed.

“I completely agree with you madam.  It’s the worst kind of human being, the one who doesn’t plan appropriately.  After all, one never knows if your kin will care for you in the same way that you deserve.  That’s why I guarantee to see to every grave I sell myself.  Perpetual care is a part of my service.”

“Oh my.   That is very comforting.  And I couldn’t agree with you more,” said Larissa.  “Our children, bless their souls are too burdened being successful to worry with taking care of us, isn’t that right Hank.”

Hank pulled his attention away from the midcentury Sears and Roebuck Wall Clock with its deep teak wood brown starburst pattern and elongated numerals that marked the hours, and gave a slight nod as if he agreed.

“OK!  We are agreed that there should be no nouveau-riche and no deadbeats buried near your plot.”

“I would think that would be obvious just looking at me,” said Larissa “but as a professional I know you can’t make assumptions.”

“Entirely right my fine lady.  Now, I have one more to show you and I think this one will be exactly what you’re looking for.  It’s a historic cemetery here in Reading.  Its on the national registry of historic places and has several plots that date back to before the Revolution.”

“Before the Revolution,” Larissa exclaimed, catching Hank’s attention from the Sears and Roebuck clock ticking against time on the wall.  “I must see this plot,” Larissa exclaimed.

“Well, as luck would have it, I can show you the plot today!”

The three paid the check and decided to ride together to the Reading Historic Cemetery, nearly two hours away.  Larissa fidgeted with excitement, and told Hank to be sure to bring some paper to write down the names of the persons surrounding the plot.  Hank fiddled with the car clock, trying to get the time precisely to the minute that it should be.

They arrived at the Cemetery and it was as majestic as Thomas’s photos portrayed.  Positioned just off of the historic down town district, the cemetery overlooked Reading Bend, with oak and sycamore trees shading the eternal resting spots of those surrounding them.  The family plots were decorated with a variety of tombstones – obelisks, mausoleums, statuary, and tombstones littered the landscape in a tapestry of gray and limestone that gave brilliant life to the tediously cared for grass and shrubbery surrounding the graves.  They pulled the car through to a plot just at the back of the cemetery near the old river bend where benches provided ample seating for mourners and visitors alike.

“This is just beautiful,” cried Larissa.  “I think this is it.”

“Well now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Thomas.  “You must see the plot itself.  The best is yet to come.”

“Truly a professional of the highest order,” Larissa said, admiring Thomas’s reserve.

“Here we are,” said Thomas, pulling up to an empty plot, marked by the freshly piled dirt on the ground before a rectangle outline.  “As you can see, your neighbors would be several persons from Long-River’s past, three of which are identified on the Long-River National Historic Grave Registry.”

“That means they get visitors often,” said Larissa to Hank, who’s attention was turned to the tall brick and stucco façade clock tower downtown, with its four cream and rust dripped faces that pointed east, west, north and south. “Oh I love these plots,” said Larissa.  “They are even near one of the oldest plots in the entire cemetery.  How much for these?”

“Well, you haven’t even tried it out.  Don’t you want to lay down in it to see if you’d be comfortable for all eternity?”

“You know you’re right.  I do plan to make this my final resting spot.  It sure better be comfortable,” Larissa said.  She kneeled down carefully, so to avoid her dress lifting inappropriately, and gently grabbed the side of the grave and lowered her legs down gently until she was hanging on the side.  Then with one umpf, she dropped the remaining foot and a half down to the bottom of the grave.  “Hmmm, this is roomier than I thought it would be, she said out loud.”

“You do have to remember its large enough for two of the finer, more elegant coffins,” said Thomas.

Larissa laid down folding her arms over her chest.  “Why this certainly feels right.  Hank.  Hank.  Come lay down next to me.  Come join me in our forever home.”

Hank was nowhere to be found.  He had wandered off, allured by the sounds and sights of the town square clock ringing in the distance.   “Thomas, Thomas, help me out Thomas!  I would like to talk to you and Hank about buying these plots.”

Thomas, looked down, his eyes unclear creating a look that masked the color and the comfort from a gentleman’s eyes.   “Don’t worry about coming out of there now, my dear.  Just stay comfortable for a while, we can talk from here.”

“Well, ok,” said Larissa, not seeing any other choice.  She thought as she moved from sitting, to laying down, to standing and looking up, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.  I mean this is the oldest trick in real estate.  You take the person to the home, you get them comfortable and then convince them there is no way other than for them to have this particular place to live.”  But then as she lay there, she thought, “Thomas wouldn’t do that though.  He is a gentleman and a professional!”  Thoughts continued to roll through Larissa’s head: “I cant believe I may have fallen prey to a realtor’s emotional ploylook at the beautiful sunset over the riverwhere is Hank for gracious-sake; I bet people will think we are related to that Colonel Brisby that we saw two graves over; it sure is getting dark now, and a bit cool, I should probably remember to be buried in something warm; where did Thomas go and where is Hank!” 

After a few hours of fluctuating about how grand her after-life would be in this three-by-six foot plot and vexing about how Hank could just wander off and leave her stuck in a grave, Larissa cried out: “Thomas, I think I am ready to sign off on this one.”  Thomas appeared again, as if from nowhere above her, wearing denim overalls and pulling a bottle from his hip pocket, and holding a shovel in his left hand.   “Wonderful news Larissa. This grave is yours now.  I just need a single payment of one digit.”

“Wonderful,” said Larissa. “If you help me out, I will certainly get Hank and we can pay you.”

“Oh, there is no need for that my dear.  We can take care of this transaction right now.  I just need you to cut off your ring finger.  I keep them as the promises I’ve made to my clients to tend their graves. And their promises to be good neighbors to each other.”

“My ring finger?” said Larissa. “With what am I supposed to do that with?  Not to mention, what am I supposed to do without a ring finger?”

“Oh, you don’t need a ring finger my dear.  That’s the most useless of all the fingers.  It’s only good for promises.  And what better promise is there than the one I am making now – that I will take care of you for all eternity.  Besides, all your neighbors have given up their ring fingers to me.  It’s our pledge to one another to take care of each other. Now my dear, if you would be so kind as to snip off that finger, we can finish this deal.”

“Well, this is absurd.  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  Who are you?”

“I’m just a simple agent.  A proprietor of good will for the after-life.  Some say an attender of death. And here at Reading’s Historic Cemetery, I am the keeper of promises – but I assure you, I have many promises.  In fact I have over thirty promises I keep, measured long and stubby by the fingers I hold.”

Larissa saw Thomas’s eyes clearly for the first time and realized that the plot was becoming more and more hers as every minute went by.  She dipped her head and asked up to Thomas “Can’t we bargain about this?”  But her voice, betraying her, anticipated Thomas’ reply: “What’s left to bargain for my dear.  Why, I think we have taken all of the normal preliminaries.  Did I miss something?”  Larissa, having never sold a cemetery plot couldn’t think of anything.  “No, I suppose that we did cover everything.”  What was more, Thomas’ sincerity of tone suggested that the transaction concluded exactly the way he intended. And while she wondered about his choice of payments, a feeling of admiration came over her.  “He is the utmost professional in his dealings,” she thought.  “No emotion, fear!”  

Taking the knife Thomas tossed to her deep in the grave, she began to saw off her finger, crossing between the agony of losing something she always had, the pain of the metal crossing flesh and bone, and thinking this surely was the most bizarre transaction she’d ever done.  But then she also remembered that several times she would tell her clients that good blood sometimes cost a few digits.  Of course, she was talking about houses, neighbors and dollars.  She never imagined she might be paying her own digit to reside near good blood.

Finished with her finger cutting, Larissa tossed the finger and the knife up to Thomas who said, after taking another drink, “it sure was a pleasure doing business with you.”  Then he said to her, “if you will most kindly lay down and hold these daisies,” and Thomas tossed her the daisy bouquet he had handed her hours before.

“Well that’s absurd.  Of course when I go, I won’t be holding daisies in the after-life, such a common flower its practically a weed.  I’ll be holding lilies like the Lillie of the valley. Besides” Larissa said, “we just finished the deal. Help me out of here!”

“Not just yet,” said Thomas.  “We need a final measurement to ensure the coverage is adequate. Now if you please just remain very still.” Larissa laid back down holding the daisies over her chest, thinking to herself: this is just so distasteful — pretending to be buried with a flower so unrepresentative of who I am.  Really!” And Thomas began burying Larissa. As the dirt thumpf’d upon Larissa’s chest and covered her light blue dress, Larissa caught a few glimpses of the shiny shovel spade against the white moon, until her body, stained with blood from her hand and holding the daisies over her chest was completely covered with six feet of dirt.  As she laid there, she thought about “how unprofessional to mock a burial with flowers that were so unbecoming.”

As Hank wondered back to the cemetery, having lost all track of time, he looked in vain for where he thought he left Larissa and Thomas. Instead, all he found were an elderly African-American couple, who looked familiar, as if they’d had tea with him sometime before. The couple stood a few gravesites over laying flowers on a grave of two people long passed. Grasping eight fingers interlocked together, the couple silently wept. Hank walked behind them in the distance and looked down at the gravestone marking the final resting place of Alice and Randall Stowe. In the distance, Hank saw a man in coveralls toting a silver shovel and tending the various gravesites around. As Hank wondered away, calling for Larissa and wondering why she would leave him here, he ignored a greyish head stone underfoot that read “Here lies Larissa Sparks, She Promised to be a good Neighbor.”












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