1. A Descending Carnage
It’s all gone to green now. The sky has rested in its ostentatious blue, in the verve of its banality through the day, but that’s all gone now. It is all something else now.
Sickly green has washed in to bruise the world from one end to the other. On the land below wait a crop of houses strung along a gentle curve of road running off into forever, and on a porch here and there, and at the glass of more than a few windows, the dwellers of this suburban array look wide eyed to the unwell light above.
A patch of cloud turns and a funnel extends and then dissipates and another soon forms. This waltzing coil lengthens and widens and it goes reaching for the earth, it carries its dance in mercurial roam, swelling, blooming, calling to its body the stitchings of this panorama and in its rapture flinging them to anywhere at all.
2. The After
They use dogs, these men with rigid frowns. They are pulled along by the leashes they hold tethered to the dogs at the ends opposite. These animals and their keepers move from the wreckage of one gone abode to another, dogs stopping to sniff at times, men calling for quiet to listen for the cries of the missing.
These pockets of devastation exist among untouched lawns, these few not spared by the whimsy of an indifferent violence. Neighbors pull lost treasures from rubble or they drag limbs to curbs or they weep or do nothing, staring stricken at a moment from which they know not how to move on. A woman holds a phone to her face and over and over in exhausted sigh she says how. How. How. A man walks the street calling out a name, but no one calls back, no one comes running.
Heads turn at a passerby. Lulls form in their desperate undertakings. The woman lowers the phone from her face. The calling of the name quiets. One by one they take note of the stranger who has come among them.
His black trousers are tailored but wrinkled. He wears no jacket, and perspiration colors his powder blue button down. Sleeves rolled to elbows expose pal, thin limbs. A tie running with stripes of black and white is tucked away between two shirt buttons. His right hand holds a lavender handkerchief folded into a square of cloth that he dabs at his lips. He coughs and dabs again. Eyes ringed in red look out of a damp, waxen face. The stranger speaks.
“It’s really something.”
A voice among the assembly offers a questioning yeah.
“Your mess here,” says the stranger.
Someone groans, someone begins once more to hammer. Several of their number move his way.
“If you’re not here to help you need to go.”
The stranger says I’m here to help. He says of course I am. He says this tragedy has come and gone, and the lives lost here are beyond any help. He says what I bring is comfort and relief to those moved by these events. Then they are upon him, three men, they are turning him and pushing and marching along with each lurch brought from each shove as they drive the stranger back in the direction from which he appeared.
He gives up words of humble pardon and he grunts with each impact and then a man among the bustle of repair is dropping carried debris and he is running their way. He waves his hands in wild arcs and shouts noise more than words. They watch the concerned man come.
“What are you doing to this man?”
Two of them speak at once.
“We don’t need this.”
“He’s selling some scam.”
The concerned man looks at these men.
“What scam is he selling?”
One of the men shrugs. One asks the stranger what scam this is. One stands still and silent.
The stranger coughs. He takes a step forward from these gathered three.
“I sell a soft landing. I’m an insurer of sorts. A facilitator of insuring, if it helps you to think of me that way.”
“What way?” says the concerned man.
“As an insurer.”
“What are you selling?”
A date and a name.”
The three become restless. They fidget, they look around. The course of events has drifted off from the path that made sense. One turns to the concerned man.
He shakes his head. He tells them to go back to what they were doing. He says people need them.
“He’s your problem now, Martin.”
“If he comes back here he’s going to jail.”
There is nodding from the concerned man and nothing at all from the stranger. When the three are gone the stranger speaks in a voice quieter with a hint of rasp.
“He called you Martin.”
The concerned man puts out a hand.
The stranger takes a step back. He raises the hand still holding its square of cloth.
“I can’t. I’m unwell.”
Martin nods. He says well. He says you said a date and a name, that’s what you sell, and the stranger says it is. The stranger says people died here, and those men walking away, someday they will die, Martin will, the stranger will.
“But,” he says. “But what do you know about reincarnation?”
Martin scoffs, he rolls his eyes. The stranger says reincarnation is a central tenet of a number of major religions. He says those religions are practiced by billions.
“So that’s it? You’re selling reincarnation?”
“I’m not. What I’m selling is a soft landing in the next life.”
Martin is nodding, he is saying okay, no thanks, okay, but the stranger says don’t answer now, and he holds out a card which Martin takes in hand even as he goes on with his protesting.
The stranger turns without another word and leaves Martin with his street to grieve and recover from life’s arbitrary doling of carnage. Martin holds the card up, and emblazoned on fine stock is the logo of a Bernberry Inn, and on the card’s reverse is scribbled a room number and a man’s name, one Barnard Wharton.
The monotonous thwack of hammer hitting nail begins at dawn and doesn’t let up until the last bit of sun has fallen away. Neighbors climb roofs and they set shingles or they replace beams and bring in tile or they nail down tarps and wait. They stand on lawns pointing at wounds in decks or windows or siding while claims adjusters nod or make notes or stare with stone masks. They watch as from some fallen home another body is pulled, and another, and another. They cry, or they don’t. They whisper some thought for the lost.
Seven days go by before Martin picks up the card from a table where he’d left it on the day it was handed to him.
4. What We Do
The inn is a single building running along for half a block with a lot full of fading lines and a scatter of cars. Its walls are not red and not pink but a shade in between like the belly of some exotic fish. Martin climbs a staircase made of iron under day’s failing light. Each footfall is reverberant, felt in walls, in bones. He looks at the card as he rises and he looks at it again as he steps onto the walkway running the length of the upper storey. He walks past a door and past another and when one matches the number on the card he stops. He steps close. On the other side of the door the soft mechanical whirring of some appliance goes on and on. Martin listens for some time, for minutes. When he is ready he knocks.
There is a span of seconds in which nothing changes, the whirring persists, the world remains still, and then there is the scream of metal scraping, and after this the whirring is gone.
The door opens and there stands the stranger, Barnard Wharton. Gone is the blue button down, and in its place is a gray undershirt soaked through with sweat. He steps from the room on stocking feet, socks patterned in argyle. His frame falls into a chair of flimsy plastic set alongside his door and he sits breathing hard for the span of half a minute. When his breathing becomes even he says okay, he says hello. He clears his throat and he clears it again. Then.
“Curious works. I’ll take curious. Here’s what we do. You write a check, you give me a day. That’s an actual day, twenty-four hours. Then you come back and you get your date and your name.”
“What? Then nothing. You purchase life insurance of an amount you choose with a firm you choose and you make the beneficiary the name I give you.”
Martin leans back against the iron railing. He says you’re not being serious. Barnard says I am.
“Look. Tell them it’s a gamble. Give them the name and the date and tell them it’s a bet. Insurance by its nature is a gamble. They’re the house. They’ll take the money because they assume they will win.”
Martin makes a noise like a hmm. He turns and leans on arms, bent across the railing. A car passes along the street and another soon follows. Somewhere a lawnmower churns, an idle hum, white noise. The world is still in front of the inn. At the lot’s end there sits parked a sedan; green, long, old. Behind the wheel a man is tucked, slumped and looking up at the place where Martin stands. Martin looks over his shoulder at Barnard.
He points at the green sedan.
“You know him?”
Barnard raises up without standing and he looks to where Martin is pointing. He falls back into his chair with a groan.
“Who is he?”
“The brother of a dead man.”
Again Martin turns to look at Barnard, and again he looks out to where the dead man’s brother watches and waits. He reaches into a hip pocket and takes out half a pack of cigarettes with a matchbook tucked in the front. He shakes a cigarette from the pack and lights it and breathes. He shakes out another and turns around, holding out the pack.
“You want one?”
Barnard says no. He says I can’t. Martin puts the pack away and he says I’ll think it through, but seconds go by and he is taking out a checkbook, he is writing in an amount. He tears the check from its booklet and folds it in half before placing it in Barnard’s hand.
“A date and a name. It’ll be here.”
Martin nods and he sighs and in a brisk walk he leaves behind the man with check in hand. Down stairs and across lot and stop. The sedan; green, long, old. The dead man’s brother speaks from behind the wheel.
“We should talk.”
5. The Dead Man’s Brother
“Where are we going?”
The dead man’s brother says just a minute. He turns the wheel and guides the car up to a storefront lit in the pale wash of LED. Convenience store. The dead man’s brother says it again, just a minute. He gets out of the car and slams shut the door and now Martin is alone. The engine gurgles in low rumble. A song plays on the radio, something sad with a twang. Martin turns a knob and the volume climbs and then he turns it back to its hushed croon. He opens the glove box. Greased wrappers are wadded into balls and so are napkins, so are receipts. He opens up a cubby in the center console and inside sits a lump of cloth folded into a triangle. He takes it up, he holds the weight of it. The smell of gun oil permeates this closed space. He puts back the cloth with its bundle, he shuts it away once more.
The car door opens. The dead man’s brother grunts as he falls into the driver seat and he is leaning, he is setting a sack on the floor between Martin’s feet.
Martin says yes, he says I do.
The car pulls out of the lot and it passes through the splash of streetlamp after streetlamp until there is no more light and there is no more town and the dead man’s brother is pulling off the road into an open field of wild grassland where in the distance sits the shape of a sprawling expanse of mansion, black against the light of silver moon, and beyond that a lake, waters still as glass. The dead man’s brother opens the car door. He points at the sack on the floor.
He is out and around and he’s pulling himself back onto the hood, scuffed sneakers perched on a rusting bumper. Martin takes up the sack and he follows, he drags himself onto the hood. The dead man’s brother puts out a hand and Martin passes over the sack. From within comes a bottle of German beer, comes a fifth of something golden brown. The beer is pressed into Martin’s hand, and he opens it, he sips it. Some minutes pass in silence, these two men taking pulls from the bottles they hold. In time the dead man’s brother speaks.
“You give him money?”
“Yeah. You gave him money.”
Martin puts an empty bottle in the sack and opens another. He drinks and drinks again.
“Is it even legal?” he says.
“Hell no it isn’t legal. No legitimate insurer is gonna take out a claim that pays out to someone who isn’t born.”
“And. Just. What is he doing in that twenty-four hours?”
“He doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t do anything.”
Silence comes in once more to fill the moment. The dead man’s brother puts the fifth to his lips and drinks and he swishes drink around in his mouth. He swallows in a hard gulp. Martin looks down and he looks out again at the shape of the house in the distance. In a voice solemn and regardful he asks the man what happened to his brother. The man looks at Martin for a moment. He laughs a broken laugh.
“My brother. That man gave my brother a name, and he gave him a date, and that clock wound down. When there was no time left and it didn’t just happen my brother made it happen.”
Martin doesn’t say I’m sorry. He doesn’t say anything for minutes. When he does again speak he asks about the beneficiary, he asks if the dead man’s brother looked into it, looked for the birth of a child by that name, on that date. The look the man turns Martin’s way is one of deep pity.
“I didn’t do that,” he says. “I didn’t do any of that, because it isn’t real.”
6. A Date and a Name
Martin’s hand clenches, it balls into a fist. It loosens and clenches again. He goes over a speech in his head, a slew of accusations and a demand, his money back, now. His hand loosens, clenches, knocks. From behind the door there comes a thud and then a time of that mechanical whirring and nothing. Martin leans in. His hand unclenches and presses against the door. Seconds fall away. Then a cough and a clearing of the throat. In another minute the metal screams out and the whirring ceases and there is quiet. Martin pats the door with his open palm. One more thick cough and then the door is opening and Barnard is there. His clothes are the same as the day prior and his face has somehow thinned. He inhales and clears throat again and he says to Martin here. He holds out to him a hand, and in that hand is a slip of paper folded in half. Martin takes it and unfolds it and it is a piece of stationary with BERNBERRY INN stamped across the top, and farther down penned in delicate cursive there is a date and a name. Martin looks up at Barnard, who is moving to close shut the door.
Barnard pauses, the door halfway closed.
“Are you okay?”
“I said before, I’m unwell.”
Martin looks at the paper. He looks at Barnard.
“I talked to that man.”
Barnard nods. He says the living lose themselves with the dead. Their whole being gets wrapped up in someone else, and if they’re not careful they can go down like dominoes. Then he asks Martin if he still has the cigarettes.
“I do, yeah.”
Barnard waits, and after a moment he holds out a hand. Barnard shakes one out of the pack for him. Then he holds up the piece of stationary.
“What do I do with this?”
Barnard sucks in a gurgling breath. In a voice thick with wet he says you can do whatever you want. Then he pulls shut the door.
Martin’s palms are damp. He wipes them on his shirt and he runs the back of his arm across his forehead and he takes a step. He walks between two pillars and he pushes against a glass door and steps into a room chilled with the crisp brush of air conditioning. His print slowly fades where that hand touched the door.
“Can I help you?”
She sits on a high stool behind a raised counter cut from stone run through with veins of some mineral. Her hair is tied in a tight bun at the back of her head and her night blue uniform is pressed and sharp.
Martin steps forward. He stands there a moment, eyes wide, as if he’s unsure why he has come to this place. Then.
“I think this man is running an insurance scam.”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay. What man?”
Martin starts and he looks around, he wipes his hands on his shirt and pulls items from a hip pocket; keys, folded paper, card. The card he pushes forward, the rest he puts away. She takes the card and holds it up, turns it over.
She tells him to come with her, and he does, past an open doorway where a uniformed man is eating a sandwich and another where a man in a suit is holding a phone to his ear and looking down and away to some private anguish. At a bench the woman stops and points. She says someone will be back to talk with you, and Martin nods, and then he is alone. He leans back against the bench and he sits forward again. One foot bounces off a tile floor. He looks each way down a hallway empty but for him. The rounded edges of words free of their content can be heard from some room or other. Martin wipes his hands on his knees. He takes the stationary from his pocket and unfolds it and looks at it, not reading what’s there, he knows what is there, but only looking, considering, absorbing. His foot bounces. He folds the page and puts it away. He stands, and as he makes his way down the hallway and out the station’s front door no one says a word or turns to look his way.
8. The Inn
Light bars atop each patrol car are lit blue and red but they do not turn in place. Beyond them and the ambulance at their side the lot is as empty or more empty than before. An older man gray and thin stands along the second story walkway telling a tale with words and hands to an officer who leans against the railing, listening, nodding. Martin approaches the steps and another officer steps forward with a hand held out and he says hey, hey, and Martin says oh, and he changes direction and in the lot stands looking up at Barnard’s open door.
A paramedic sits in the ambulance cab eating something out of a wrap of foil. A patrol car pulls up at the curb and talks to an officer through the car’s open window and it pulls away again. People come and go. Martin stands still among their doings, and when the officer finishes with the older man, and when the older man crosses the walkway and moves down stairs, Martin is there waiting.
“What happened up there?”
“Did you know that guy?”
Martin says I just met him, and he asks his question again.
The older man shrugs.
“I just heard the shot, came over, found him that way.”
“Did he do it to himself?”
“Man. I heard it, came over, found him.”
Martin says okay. He says was there a note.
“No note. Not exactly.”
The older man says to Martin there was a piece of stationary. He says on that stationary there was a name, and he tells Martin the name that was written there. He says next to that name there was written today’s date.
9. That Special Day
There comes a thump, a single thick sound at Martin’s front door. He crosses a foyer and pulls open the door and the neighborhood sounds of repair and rebirth are present even now, just past a new day’s start. The buzz of power saws, nails machine gunning roofs, someone somewhere calling out directions, a conductor of this orchestrated renewal.
Martin stands listening a moment, breathing in the morning. Two breaths. Three. Then he bends and takes up the day’s paper. With it he again crosses the foyer and moves down a hall and around a corner and at a kitchen table he sits. He lays out the paper in front of him and he picks up a mug, he sips at a coffee and sets it back down. He turns a page in the paper, and another, and he keeps turning pages until he comes to the birth announcements, and once there he goes looking for a name.
— Craig Rodgers has published a few books and intends to publish a few more before he fakes his own death.