Saturday, September 17, 2011

Short story #14... from a story teller

Canada Writes, formerly known as the CBC Literary Awards, is now open to receiving submissions, a fact of which I am reminded every morning as I wake up to a Canada Writes announcement on the radio. Hearing it makes me smile -- wryly.

By the fact that I write, I am a writer, but I'll admit that my dreams of being a known and celebrated member of the literati got a bit out of hand two years ago, when I decided to submit to the CBC Literary Awards. I picked a short story from my little writing club of two members, polished it until I thought it couldn't shine any more brightly, and sent it and a $20 submission fee to the competition. Then I waited for four long months, hoping and dreaming that my story would at least make the short list, if not first place.

Of course, it made neither, and when I went to read the winning stories, I quickly realized why. The fact is that I'm not cut out for literary awards because I don't make enough use of all those wonderful, poetic and literary devices like allusion and alliteration, metaphor, oxymoron and simile. I'm a plain Jane story teller, simply because I'm a plain Jane kind of person (though I do love it when I find well-used literary devices in other peoples' writing). I've tried writing like a prize-winning poet/writer, and it feels too phony, somehow. I could blame it on the fact that I come from a long line of practical people, but as I'm proud of all those people and their practicality, that would be wrong, too.

So I write as I write, and I'll never be published in a CBC/Canada Writes competition because I don't fit their mold. If I did fit their mold, I think the people most important to me would object, saying, "Stop being so hoity-toity!" So, sorry, Canada Writes, but I'm not writing for you again.

In case you're curious about my submission to the contest, here it is. A simple story, told by a story teller who happens to write.

Death Comes to George Bishop -- Short Story #14

When the buzzer went, he didn’t startle as he had expected he would. “Come on up,” he told the intercom. Making certain the coffeemaker was on, he left the kitchen and shambled around the corner to greet his guest, pausing a moment at the full-length mirror to fix his comb-over and smooth the white bushy brows above his blue eyes. He picked a few pieces of lint off the sleeve of his new Arnie Palmer cardigan and nodded at the casual but presentable gentleman gazing back at him. No point in rushing things.
When he looked through the peephole in his apartment door, he was surprised. He had always thought that Death would be black-cowled and faceless like the grim reaper, with a long robe and bony fingers. But this? Death was not supposed to look like this.
He opened the door and the young red-head extended her hand. “Mr. Bishop? My name is Deidre O’Neill. I hope I’m not late. Parking was tricky.”
George nodded and shook her hand firmly, noting that her fingers were warm and strong. He stepped back and gestured that she should come in. At least she was all clothed in black, he thought. When he took her overcoat, however, she was wearing a deep green, leafy, lively-looking dress. Not like Death at all.
He led her into the living room. Ms. O’Neill set down her briefcase, pulled her long curly hair over one shoulder, and looked at the sofa. “Alright if I sit there?” she asked.
“Certainly. Would you care for coffee?”
“Please, just black,” she replied, opening her slim briefcase and rifling through a pile of folders without looking up.
“Black coffee, coming right up,” George said, smiling. Of course Death would take her coffee bitter black.
He was amazed at how steady his hands were as he filled the mugs. Should he have his last cup of coffee with cream and sugar? No, he always took just cream. Why change so late in the game?
Setting the mugs on the coffee table, George returned to the kitchen for plates, forks and a sliced coffee cake he had purchased at the German bakery on the way home from the Senior’s Centre. He figured he could allow for streusel decadence on his last night on earth.
Ms. O’Neill declined the cake. “If I ate all the desserts I’m offered in my profession, I would be twice my size,” she smiled, “though it does look delicious.”
George settled into his armchair with a piece of streusel. He ought to be trembling when facing Death, but then he hadn’t expected her to be so pretty. He began to wonder exactly how she would take his life. Wave her hand and bring on a massive heart attack? Lethal needles? A hidden handgun in her briefcase? He hoped it wouldn’t be messy.
Ms. O’Neill peered through a pair of ebony horn-rimmed glasses that accented her green eyes, opening a file folder on the coffee table in front of her. “Mr. Bishop—”
“George, please call me George.” He was surprised that she had spoken so formally.
She smiled, and he realized that he liked her smile. “Alright, George, if you will call me Deidre,” she said.
“Certainly, it’s close enough.” Perhaps Deidre is Death in another language, he thought.
            “Close enough to what?” Deidre seemed confused, and George realized he had spoken rather cryptically, unless Death Incarnate could read his mind. Thus far, there was no reason to believe that to be the case.
            “Never mind, I’m sorry. Please, go ahead, Deidre,” he said.
            “Mr. Bishop—George, let’s begin at the beginning. How did you hear about our services?”
            It was George’s turn to be confused. “You called me,” he said, “didn’t you?”
            A week had passed since the 3 a.m. call. There was nothing wrong with his hearing, and the ringing phone jangled George awake. Heart pounding, he stumbled from his bed to the kitchen in two rings, lifted the receiver to his ear and heard a raspy voice say, “George Bishop?”
            “Yes?” George gasped, slightly out of breath.
“This is Death calling. George, do you hear me?”
            “My hearing is too good,” George replied, feeling suddenly pale.
            “George, you’ve lived how long now?”
            “Eighty-six years.”
            “That’s a long time, George. Aren’t you tired of life yet?”
            “Not tired of life, just tired,” George replied, immediately wishing that he had chosen his words differently; had said, No, No, I’m not tired at all!
            “Well, George, it’s time for a rest. George?”
            “Don’t you think it’s time for a rest?”
            George didn’t know what to say. The nails-on-a-blackboard voice completely unnerved him. It was exactly as George would have expected Death to sound. But why would Death phone at three in the morning, for crying out loud? Why wouldn’t Death just happen? Suddenly angry, George was about to accuse his caller of playing a stupid prank, but the voice spoke first.
            “George, listen to me. I’m coming to you, one week from tonight, seven-thirty. Be ready.”
            The tone was so malevolent that George took an involuntary step backward and smashed his ankle bone hard against the corner of the stove. Dropping the phone, he grabbed his ankle, hopping on one foot with surprising vigor and cursing with even more. He reached for the light switch and sat down on a kitchen chair to check the already purple bruise. Spotting the phone receiver dangling on the end of its cord, he swore again and grabbed for it.
“That’s enough! Who the hell is this?!” he shouted, but the line was dead.
The caller had not only disconnected; the phone simply would not work. For the next two days, George had to limp next door to Mrs. Yamitski’s place to make calls. He tried not to do it too often, as Mrs. Yamitski was a widow who asked a fix-it favour every time she saw George, and she kept her television turned up so that it was nearly impossible for him to hear the person he was trying to call.
It was the dead phone line that somehow convinced George that Death could be coming for him. And who could he tell? Who would believe him? He was a bachelor with few connections. His sister’s family thought him rather eccentric, and he didn’t want to add to that impression. Pete, Adam and Mike at the cribbage tables in the Senior’s Centre would make jokes about dementia. His doctor would make George repeat odd words and do that silly clock drawing test for the third time in the last six months.
In the end, George could have replaced the spiral phone cord himself and saved the repairman a visit. Why hadn’t he thought of it? The fact that his 3 a.m. phone fumble had shorted the line should have set his mind at ease, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps the whole occurrence was one of those supernatural experiences like on Ripley’s Believe It or Not, one of his favourite TV programs.
George wasn’t home much during the week following the call from Death. If Death was coming, there was just too much to do in preparation. George visited his lawyer to update his will. He invited himself over to his sister’s house for supper. He cleared out closets and cupboards and took things to the Salvation Army bin. If he walked past a church that happened to be open, he went and sat in the back pew for a few minutes. He’d never been a church-goer, but he figured he might as well spend some time in God’s presence just to get used to it. And he played a few extra card games with his buddies, finding little ways to say goodbye without being too obvious.
            Now his visitor had shown up at 7:30 on the dot, but George was finding it hard to believe that she was Death. Sitting in his armchair eating delicious streusel cake—and wishing he had tried it much sooner in life—he was somewhat befuddled by the attractive young woman, puzzling over why she didn’t sound like the voice on the telephone. Ahh, but perhaps Death was a corporation these days, like any other business, with more associates than a fellow could shake a stick at.
            “We called you?” Deidre was saying. “Yes, it’s possible that you were contacted by one of our representatives. Did you receive any follow-up information by mail?”
            Follow up information? What would that be? Would he be allowed to choose how he was going to die? George had always wanted to die in his sleep, with a smile on his face. That was how his father went, and it seemed like the best way to go.
            “Is this not a good time to be discussing your options, Mr. Bishop? You appear to be a little distracted.”
            George suddenly realized that he had missed much of what Deidre had been saying. “No, no, now is fine, Ms. O’Neill. Please continue.” Perhaps it was better not to be on a first-name basis with Death.
            Ms. O’Neill had laid out some restful-looking brochures about funeral homes, cremation services and burial plots. George leaned forward to look, amazed that she would be so considerate as to help him make his final arrangements. How had he forgotten something so important?
            “We can take care of every detail, George,” Ms. O’Neill was saying. “All your loved ones will have to do is let us know that you have passed on, and your last wishes will be fulfilled.” She led George through the details of funeral service planning, the selection of his casket, the purchase of a burial plot, and the calculation of fees, all in the space of a pot of coffee and three pieces of heavenly streusel cake—which George ate.
            “I didn’t realize Death was such a big business,” he said, as he shuffled toward his desk to find his cheque book. “May I post-date the cheque?”
            “Certainly, if that’s easier,” Ms. O’Neill replied with a smile, sipping the last of her coffee.
            “And how am I to die?” George asked. “Do I get to choose?”
            “Well, now, George, not many of us would want to do that,” Ms. O’Neill said, her smile vanishing. “If you are feeling depressed or having suicidal thoughts, I can recommend some wonderful doctors and therapists, or have homecare pay you a call.”
            “No, no, of course not,” George said, chuckling to reassure her. “I’d really like to live as long as I can. I was hoping we could negotiate when you came.”
            Ms. O’Neill laughed uncertainly. “Well, George, I may be a good funeral consultant, but when it comes to the moment of death’s actual arrival, I’m afraid I don’t have much say. I’m guessing you’re pretty healthy and I’m hoping you have your will in order. So, now that we’ve taken care of these other details, you’re finished with me.” She handed George a slim folder and slipped his file into her briefcase, snapping it shut.
            “I’m finished with you,” George repeated, blinking. “Finished?”
            “Finished,” Ms. O’Neill replied. “Did you think it would take longer than an evening?”
            “Well, I was hoping that we could come to an agreement to extend my life a few more years.”
“Not in my power, Mr. Bishop,” Ms. O’Neill laughed, seemingly having decided that George was teasing her. She got up from the sofa and he followed her to the hallway, where he helped her into her coat, marveling that he could have imagined that this fine young woman might do him in.
            “Thank you, George, for your confidence in Golden Shores Funeral Consulting. If you know of anyone else who might be interested in meeting with me, please feel free to pass on my business card. And you’ll want to give one to your family so they’ll know who to call when the time comes.” Ms. O’Neill handed him several cards, shook his hand once more, and went out, flashing one more smile and closing the door behind her.
            George stood there, looking at Ms. O’Neill’s business cards. What a coincidence that she should come this evening. He couldn’t remember having engaged her services, but perhaps the lawyer had put her on his case. George laughed aloud. It would have been child’s play for a crank caller to pick his name out of the phone book, but whoever it was, he had unwittingly done George a lot of good. His apartment was emptied of excess things, he had spent a little more time with friends and family, his will was up to date, and his funeral planned.
            Slipping the business cards into his wallet, George decided he would take them to his next card game with the boys and tell them all about his meeting with Death. They’d get a charge out of his overactive imagination, and perhaps they’d call the charming Ms. O’Neill to plan their own funerals. Suddenly, the foolish wisdom of his behavior over the past week made George guffaw. The echo of the sound brought on a belly laugh that went on and on, until tears were rolling down his cheeks and he could barely breathe. He hadn’t laughed so hard in years. 
Wiping his eyes, George put away the coffee cake and washed the dishes, emitting a chuckle now and then. He sat in his armchair to watch a rerun of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, followed by the national news, and went to bed at his usual time.

During the funeral eulogy four days later, his nephew told how George Bishop had followed in his father’s footsteps, dying in his sleep—with a smile on his face.

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