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The Caretaker by Wolfgang Prometheus Wright

The Caretaker by Wolfgang Prometheus Wright

Fiction, Vol. 6.3, Sept. 2012

Sam Fogart was the fattest man Parker had ever seen, nearly as round as he was tall—and he was tall—and so it was no surprise to Parker that he, Fogart, took a moment to pause and stare at the two weather-worn planks that would, if they held, allow him to climb onto Martha Nixon’s front porch. Parker was already on the porch, waiting. He had been there all night making sure Martha Nixon did not run away, as some clients tried to do the evening prior to their appointed hour; but he could still recall the eerie creaking the planks had made when he, a young man of average height and build, had climbed them to take his post outside the front door. And it was because of this that he held his breath as Fogart, after a series of stammers and huffs, finally did take his first, and then his second, step. Beneath his bulbous feet the old wood and rusty nails did in fact creak and bend, but somehow—miraculously, Parker thought—the planks supported Fogart’s weight.

Relieved, Parker exhaled and held out his hand for his superior to shake. But Fogart would not shake his hand. Instead, he stared at it as though it were some kind of nuisance, like a fly or a mosquito or a custom from a culture long since dead; instead, he reached into the breast pocket of his oversized black uniform for a notepad and pen.

“Mrs. Nixon,” he said. “She present?”

“Present, sir,” Parker answered, lowering his hand to his side. And then, for the sake of being thorough, he added, “May even still be asleep.”

But Fogart did not appreciate the addition. He glared at him coldly, and said, “Did I ask you if she was still asleep?”

“No, sir,” Parker admitted, shrinking an inch or two. “I just thought it might be relevant.”

“It would be,” Fogart rebuked, “if you knew for certain. But knowing may or may not is as useless to our going forward as a discussion of the weather.”

Fogart had delivered this last remark as though he were expecting Parker to comment next on the clear sky or the suffocating heat and wanted to put a stop to such small talk before it began. Not a moment in and already Parker was getting a clear picture as to why his colleagues at the Last Rites Commitment Agency were always ridiculing Fogart, making him the butt of their jokes—the big butt, they would have been quick to add, for most of their jokes concentrated on Fogart’s size, though evidently the inspiration for them came as much from his demeanor. Parker himself hadn’t made any jokes, in part because it wasn’t his way to make fun of others, but also because he had only gotten his first whiff of Fogart a few days ago, and what a whiff it was. He had been relating to a colleague one of his experiences in the field shadowing Whitman when Fogart, just back from a case, waddled up to him and expelled a torrent of sounds, none of which were recognizable as words. Naturally, Parker was astonished, and as Fogart walked away he turned to the colleague and asked, “What’d I do?”

The colleague, not one of the funnier ones but still with a distaste for Fogart, shrugged the incident off. “He doesn’t like it when we discuss our interventions.”

“But the others do it. I thought it was okay.”

“It is, so long as you don’t use the client’s real name. Which you didn’t.”

Apparently, there were other subjects that Fogart did not like to discuss. Well, Parker thought to himself as his superior knocked on Martha Nixon’s door, revealing an armpit drenched in sweat, at least he doesn’t smell as bad out in the open.

But whatever relief he may have received from the fresh air quickly dissipated when Martha Nixon did not immediately answer her door. To fill the time, since the weather was off limits, Parker decided to brave a question more pertinent to their “going forward.”

“Where’s Burton?” he asked.

Fogart, turning from the door, narrowed his eyes like a man losing his sight. “Out sick. They’re sending Charlie instead. But don’t worry,” he added reassuringly, “we’ll manage.”

At this, Parker raised an eyebrow. As far as he knew, Charlie Klepps was as competent as any other hangman in the company, though perhaps a little reckless. But then again, it was well known that Fogart preferred to work with Burton and Burton only, in fact had insisted as much. This had naturally hurt Burton’s reputation around the office, such that the others never called him by his name, John or Burton or John Burton, but instead referred to him solely as Fogart’s hangman. Parker, fearing the same might happen to him, had tried to get himself reassigned, had pointed out to the chief that he had registered Martha Nixon, which according to company policy, prevented him from assisting in her intervention. But the chief just chuckled. He came out from behind his desk, put an arm around Parker’s shoulders, and said, “Pish-posh to policy. That one’s there to protect you. But I got a hunch says you can protect yourself.”

“But I liked working with Whitman, sir. He was helpful. He explained every step as we went. Fogart, I hear he doesn’t say much. And he’s…he’s slow. You know how slow he is. You give him, what, half the quota you give the others? In all honesty, sir, I don’t see how I’m going to learn a thing from him.”

“Nonsense,” the chief had responded, returning to his paperwork. “You’ll learn more on one outing with Fogart than you’d learn in a lifetime with Whitman.”

“Sir—”

“Goodbye, Parker.”

They, Fogart and Parker, waited a moment or two longer, but when Martha Nixon did not come, Parker decided it best to assert himself, lest he allow himself to be bowled over as he had been by his boss.

“She’s here, sir,” he stated with as much confidence as he could muster. “I know she’s here.”

Fogart, who hadn’t shown any doubt, sighed and gazed at the surrounding neighborhood, so quaint and unassuming, as though it had never heard of such a thing as death. “I suppose she is,” he murmured finally. “I suppose she is.” And then, carefully, very carefully, he climbed back down the creaky steps.

For a second, Parker remained where he was, first to see if the planks would hold again, and then because he wasn’t sure what it was Fogart was doing. In training, he had learned that the only way to handle an uncooperative client was quickly, which usually meant entering the house and compelling him or her with force. “Clients often forget what a wonderful thing they’re partaking in,” his instructor had said. “Sometimes you have to pin ’em on the floor and handcuff ’em to jog their memory.” And that was exactly how Whitman had handled a client on the second day Parker had shadowed him; but Fogart kept walking away from the house, out onto the dry, yellow-spotted lawn.

Timidly, he called out to his superior, “Sir, I have the key,” which he then waved about, hoping it would entice him to return.

But Fogart did not return. “Come along,” he called back, and so Parker, not knowing what else to do, came along, hearing in his mind the voices of his colleagues calling him by what would surely be his new name around the office: Fogart’s sidekick.

Together, they stood staring up at an open window on the second floor.

“She’s there all right,” Fogart said, though Parker could see no evidence of her, only darkness between the faded blue siding and the white window frame. But whatever it was his superior had seen, he was convinced by it, and he proceeded to clear his throat of what must have been an enormous ball of phlegm. After swallowing, he cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, “Mrs. Nixon.” He then waited for a response, and when he did not get one, called again. “Mrs. Nixon, it’s Sam Fogart. It’s time, Mrs. Nixon.”

Just then they heard a noise, but it was not Martha Nixon. It was Charlie Klepps, shuffling through the picket fence surrounding Martha Nixon’s yard. Smiling, he approached his two colleagues with an easy-going stride, as though he had no concern in or about the world, dressed in a slim black suit with a matching short-brimmed fedora hat and a black tie hanging tightly from his slender neck. The suit and the tie were standard for hangmen, but the hat was Klepps’s addition. At his side he twirled round and round a readied noose.

“Hello, boys,” he said, still twirling the noose. Like a man admiring his own land, he surveyed the yard, chuckling when again he laid eyes on Fogart. “Looks like it’s gonna be a hot one today, huh? Well, least it’s a dry heat.”

Parker watched as a drop or two of sweat fell from Fogart’s chin and splashed on his expanding chest. He waited for his superior to scold the hangman, if not for bringing up the weather, then for using it to take a jab at him, but Fogart did no such thing. To the contrary, he thrust a hand towards Klepps, and with great vigor, greeted the hangman like an old friend.

“Howdy, Charlie.”

Klepps, taken aback by this gesture of goodwill, allowed his noose to fall limp. He glanced at Parker, as if for a clue, and when he did not receive one (for Parker had none to give), he took his noose and looped it around his shoulder. Then, guardedly, he shook Fogart’s hand.

“Nice to see you, too, Sam.”

For the next moment, all three of them just stood there like dead wood. Parker continued to stare at the noose, which appeared less grotesque now that it wasn’t being swung around willy-nilly like a plaything. When the realization of what had just happened set in, he turned a keen eye on Fogart, who showed no sign of getting exactly what he had wanted.

“So where is she?” Klepps asked finally, slowly returning to his usual self. “And why are we standing on the lawn? You having troubles?”

Fogart sighed emptily and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “I’m trying, Charlie. I’m trying.”

Klepps stared at him a second, then chuckled. He rolled his eyes at Parker, expecting a like reaction, but Parker refused to take the bait. It was one thing to laugh at jokes back at the office, he had decided, but another to play a fool in the field.

Meanwhile, Fogart called again for Mrs. Nixon, and this time something happened. Though she did not appear at the window, her voice crept through it, old and weak and faint, like a failing wind winding through an open tomb. It said to them, “Will you come back around sundown? I can be ready by then.”

“I sure wish I could, Mrs. Nixon,” Fogart responded immediately, “I sure wish I could. But it’s your time, Mrs. Nixon. It’s your time. We came here now because of you. Because you asked us to.”

“I changed my mind,” the voice returned. “Now go away.”

“Oh, brother,” Klepps mumbled. Again he rolled his eyes, then took the noose from his shoulder, looped it around his own neck, and pretended to strangle himself. Parker frowned, trying to discourage him, but a harsh look from Fogart, who apparently did not want his help in this way, brought him back to task.

“Are you sure that’s what you want us to do, Mrs. Nixon?” Fogart went on, “‘Cause I don’t think it is. I think you signed up when you did for a reason. You knew, Mrs. Nixon, you knew it was time. You gave all you had to this community. You taught the children how to read and write. You volunteered your weekends to help feed the less fortunate. And any time a cat or dog couldn’t find a home they brought it to you, Mrs. Nixon, and you cared for it till one day someone came along who was willing to love it the way you did. You gave all you had but one thing, Mrs. Nixon, and you know as well as I when you came in and registered, you knew it was time to give up that one last thing.”

For a moment there was silence, but then Martha Nixon replied, “All right, Sam. I’ll come down.”

Sam Fogart smiled brightly. “Thank you, Mrs. Nixon. Thank you.”

“About time,” Klepps said looking at his watch. “We might still keep to schedule.”

Fogart said nothing, nor did Parker, who was more than a little surprised his superior’s words had worked. As they walked to the porch he glanced more intently at the yellow spots in the lawn—urine stains from dogs.

Again, the planks creaked and bent under Fogart’s feet. Klepps snickered and elbowed Parker, but once again Parker ignored him. The hangman, however, didn’t seem to care. He went on snickering and even imitated, very quietly, the sound of the planks. But when Martha Nixon, after another lengthy wait, did not answer her door, he put his mockery aside and turned severe.

“Gimme the key,” he ordered Parker, placing his hand out, palm up.

Immediately, Fogart stepped between them, saying, “He forgot it,” but Parker, having not expected his superior to lie, had already reached into his pocket.

When the hangman had the key he held it up in front of Fogart’s nose.

“Forgot it, huh?”

Fogart’s chin shrank into his neck. In an instant he seemed to have put on ten more pounds, and whatever authority he may have once held now appeared to have been crushed by the extra load, like the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

“No wonder you’re so slow,” Klepps kept going, placing the key into the lock, “spending all day talking up the client.”

But before he could turn the handle, Fogart grabbed his hand with his own giant one and squeezed just hard enough to obtain the hangman’s attention.

“Much obliged for another chance,” Fogart requested. “One should do it.”

Klepps stared at him grumpily, listening to the great bell as it rang out in the distance.

“You hear that?” he said. “First hang of the day. At least someone’s efficient.” He looked down at Fogart’s hand, which wholly covered his own. “All right, but I’m holding on to the key.”

Fogart smiled graciously. “Much obliged, Charlie. Much obliged.” Again, he wiped the beaded sweat from his brow, then turned back to the steps. But this time, they did not hold. The first plank snapped as soon as Fogart had transferred his full weight upon it, and when his other foot crashed onto the next plank, it, too, gave way, propelling Fogart face first onto the concrete walk. Klepps laughed, loud and scratchily, but Parker, who did not think it funny at all, rushed to Fogart’s aid: he jumped off the porch and knelt down beside his superior, placing a hand upon his shoulder.

“You okay?” he asked, helping Fogart roll onto his side and then into a seated position. He looked and saw that Fogart’s cheek was scraped up and his nose was dripping blood. Klepps was still laughing, so he turned to him glaringly and snapped, “Shut up! Shut up now, Klepps, or I’ll—” but Parker stopped there, for around his ankle he felt Fogart’s hand. First, he glanced at it, and then at Fogart, who was biting his bloody bottom lip and shaking his head no in a manner which suggested it wasn’t worth it. Parker took in a deep breath and let it out.

His rage, however, had already had an effect on its recipient. Klepps had stopped laughing and had taken off his hat and was pressing it with both hands against his chest, like a sinner begging for absolution.

“I’m sorry,” he declared. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Charlie,” Fogart called. “Charlie, help me up, will you?”

Immediately, Klepps leapt off the porch and came to Fogart’s side.

“I’m sorry, Sam. I—”

“Shh. It’s okay. Help me up.”

Klepps and Parker each took an arm. Straining their every muscle, they placed Fogart back on his feet.

“Here,” Klepps said, going under the noose and undoing his tie. “Soak it up with this.”

“Much obliged,” Fogart repeated, and he placed the tie against his nose and blew. After a moment the trickle of blood stopped, and Fogart was ready to proceed.

“Are you sure you want to?” Parker asked, but before his words were out Fogart was walking away.

“This is my job,” he said.

All three of them returned to the lawn, to the place where they had stood before, and again looked up at the darkness framed by the open window. Fogart, his voice nasally now but still steady, called out once more: “Mrs. Nixon.”

“I couldn’t do it, Sam,” Martha Nixon called back. “I couldn’t make it down the stairs.”

“That’s okay, Mrs.—”

“I’m scared!”

Her scream was so piercing that Klepps grabbed Parker’s sleeve and squeezed. It took a moment, but when he let go, his face red from embarrassment, he brushed out the imprint left behind. Parker, who had jerked a little himself, sympathized with a look. But Fogart kept on, as though he had been through this exact situation a thousand times before.

“So am I, Mrs. Nixon,” he said. “So am I. But I have an idea. Why don’t we forget about the stairs for a moment, just put a pin in them for the time being. Instead, what I’d like is to have you come to the window. Do you think you could do that, Mrs. Nixon? Do you think you could come to the window?”

There was no reply. Instead, Martha Nixon appeared from the dark, looking not dead, but un-alive, ephemeral, ghostly, a white semblance of a woman that once was. In theory, Parker’s training had prepared him for this. He had been told that many clients aged remarkably once they registered with the agency, as if their bodies were preparing for what their minds had already. But to see her, to see how Martha Nixon had changed…it was inexplicable. Her hair was whiter now, her skin paler, even her posture was different: weak and bent now, not sturdy and firm, as it had been when she’d come to see him only a few months prior, confident and resolved in her decision. “It’s the right thing to do,” she had said to him as she handed over the spare key to her house. “To go on your own terms, and to remind people death is not something to be ashamed of.” And yet now, she did not want to go at all.

Fogart cleared his throat again, only this time it might have been of blood. “Very good, Mrs. Nixon. Very good. Now, I wonder, do you remember when I came for your husband?”

Martha Nixon nodded, closing her eyes, perhaps recalling that day in her mind.

“Do you remember how Jack handled himself? Bravely, that’s how I’d describe it. Yes, sir. Bravely. Now, I didn’t know the man, so I’m just supposin’ here, but I’m supposin’ if he’s like most, he was probably just as scared as you are now. He was scared, Mrs. Nixon, but he didn’t let that get in the way of doing what he had to do. Now that’s admirable.”

“It is,” Martha Nixon whispered, barely audible. She seemed to be leaning forward now, intent on hearing more.

“Helluva man who can do that, I’d say,” Fogart went on, and he looked to his colleagues for support. Parker nodded in full agreement, and then Klepps followed suit. With a sedate smile, Fogart returned to Martha Nixon. “Now, I’m just supposin’ again, Mrs. Nixon, but I’m supposin’ a man like that, when he marries, he marries a woman who would do the same. Am I supposin’ rightly, Mrs. Nixon?”

Martha Nixon sniffled. Slowly, she nodded.

“I’d like to hear you say it, Mrs. Nixon. I’d like to hear you say you’re the kind of woman would put her fears aside when she’s got something needs to be done.”

Martha Nixon shifted a bit. She was struggling, but she managed a yes.

“Louder, Mrs. Nixon.”

“Yes. Yes. Yes, I am. I’m that woman.”

Fogart put out his hand, as if to catch her words and keep them safe. “Thank you, Mrs. Nixon. Thank you. It means a lot to me to hear you say it.”

Martha Nixon wiped away a tear. “I’m coming down, Sam.” And before Fogart could thank her again she had dissolved back into the darkness.

Fogart turned to his colleagues. “Help me onto the porch, will you?”

Parker nodded. “Yes.”

But they were not finished yet, for as soon as they were back on the porch, once again waiting for Martha Nixon, they heard a gunshot, loud and deafening, and there was no doubt that it had come from inside the house.

Without delay, Fogart said, “Gimme the key.”

Klepps, nervous, fumbled around in his pocket for it, but could not seem to get a grip.

“C’mon, Klepps.”

“I’m trying.”

At last, the hangman pulled out the key, but then dropped it when he tried to hand it over. The key bounced once on the porch and then slid through a space between the boards. Fogart did not wait for him to crawl under and retrieve it. Instead, he lowered his shoulder and rammed the door down, falling inward upon it as it split away from the frame.

“Go, Parker!” Fogart yelled from the floor. “Get up there!”

Sucking in his fears, Parker stepped around his superior and ran up the stairs. He ran down the hallway and opened the bedroom door. Looking around, he found Martha Nixon lying on the floor at the foot of her bed, still as a corpse. Resting an inch or two from her hand was the gun.

Parker knelt down beside her. “Mrs. Nixon, are you all right?” He put his hand on her chest and found that her heart was still beating. He looked her over, rolled her head from side to side, but could not find a wound. Behind him, he heard Fogart and Klepps climbing the stairs. He turned to them just as they were reaching the room.

“I think she just fainted.”

Fogart entered the room, breathing heavily. Yet again, he wiped sweat from his brow, then nodded. Parker backed away. Like an old god, Fogart knelt down and waved a healing hand over Martha Nixon’s pallid face. When he’d caught his breath and she regained hers, he spoke softly, “I’m gonna set you up now, ma’am.”

But before he did he reached down and grabbed the gun and held it out for Parker. Parker came forward and took it. He emptied the chamber and pocketed the bullets. The gun he set on a dresser near the window, and there he remained, watching and learning.

“There,” Fogart said, combing the frail woman’s hair out of her eyes. “That’s better.”

Martha Nixon blinked several times and then looked to her left, vaguely examining the figure who stood frozen in the doorframe, a noose still dangling from his neck.

“Charlie,” Fogart called.

Klepps jostled and looked upon the scene before him as if for the first time. In a low, uncertain voice, he said, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.”

“Charlie, would you mind waiting outside?”

Klepps nodded. A moment or two passed, then, slowly, he turned and walked back down the hall. As soon as he was out of sight, Fogart refocused his attention to the woman he cradled in his arms.

“Now, ma’am, you take your time regaining your strength. We ain’t in any hurry.”

Martha Nixon whimpered, fighting off tears. “I’m sorry about the mess I made this into, Sam.”

“That’s all right, ma’am. These things never run smooth. Wouldn’t know how to handle myself if they did.”

“I got awfully scared.”

“Of course you did, ma’am. It’s common.”

For a time, Martha Nixon was silent. Her gaze drifted upward toward a portrait of a bride and groom hanging on the wall. Light entering from a small hole in the ceiling alighted the newlyweds’ steady smiles. Her gaze lingered there a moment, and then she said, “I should’ve went when Jack did.”

Fogart patted her wrist. “No, ma’am, you were much younger than him, had so much life left in you.”

“I squandered these past years.”

At this, Fogart had to laugh. “Well, heck, ma’am, no offense, but I sure hope I squander my last years as well as you.”

This seemed to comfort Martha Nixon immensely. She turned away from the portrait and fixed her gaze upon the large, simple man talking her through.

“I wanted you, Sam. You did such a good job with Jack, I wanted you.”

Fogart nodded. “And I came, ma’am. I came.”

“Sam?”

“Yes?”

“Would you help me up? I want to go now.”

Fogart was silent.

“It’s what I need to do.”

“Of course, ma’am. Of course.”

Parker moved closer, in case his help was needed, but his superior shrugged him off. With the greatest of ease Fogart helped Martha Nixon up, then took a moment to tidy her dress. Martha Nixon thanked him for his patience, repeating how glad she was that he had been the one to come for her, but after a moment it appeared there were still some lingering doubts. Softly, she whispered to him, “Sam, I…” but was unable to complete her thought. Fogart, recognizing her concern, steadied her with his gaze.

“Go ahead, ma’am,” he said. “I’m all ears.”

Martha Nixon glanced at Parker, then returned her stare to Fogart. “If it’s possible, Sam, I’d…I’d rather no one knew about…I’d rather people didn’t think, in my last hour, that I—”

Fogart sensitively placed his finger over her lips. “No one here’s gonna say a thing, ma’am,” he assured her. “Not a word to anyone. You can count on that.”

Fogart looked over at Parker, who, without hesitation, nodded his agreement. Resolved, Parker wasn’t going to say a word of what he had heard or seen to anyone. Not a word.

“Say!” Martha Nixon exclaimed as they began to move toward the door. “What happened to your face?”

“A small accident, ma’am,” Fogart groaned, downplaying his own injuries. “But don’t you worry about me none. I’m fine. I’m just fine.”

Parker followed them out of the room, observing as they went down the hall and down the stairs. Like two old friends they took each step together, each supporting the other, each gaining strength. To Parker, they seemed not to step downward but up, not descending but ascending toward some noble purpose only they could understand; but Parker, he understood, too. He could see far ahead, far out into the yard and down the street, he could see the town square and the passers-by, pausing to pay homage to those who hung there, shimmering, like holy chimes on a bright, breezeless day; and he could see himself there as well, standing alongside his superior, who would look on with a tear in his eye, unabashed and unashamed, as a bell rang out in recognition of Martha Nixon’s final breath.

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