Most folks would be surprised at some of the looks I encounter here, I know, I'm the county coroner and the local doctor in this small town. Born and raised here and when I left for school, I vowed never to return, but here I am. Some around here say they came back because it's home, but that's a cop-out in my book. Something in the gene pool, I'd say, but I can't prove it.
Around me lifeless eyes gaze up at heaven knows what, strangers for the most part, but this guy? This one's tethered to an umbilical cord of my childhood memories as well as a downtown barbershop I frequent. Odd, I never heard his last name before today. From the moment we met he was just Jerry, always Jerry.
We grew up on the opposites sides of the tracks and met there in a no man's land searching for adventure. Jerry showed me where the juiciest blackberries lay hidden, how to catch crawdaddies and tadpoles, and the perfect spot to dam up the creek for a swimming hole. We were together constantly, but for some reason that never convinced him to venture into my neighborhood nor to invite me to his.
One steamy afternoon the two of us conjured up a game of risk that required a few pennies from my pockets and the approach of a fast freight across the river bridge. When we'd hear the rumble of the train, I'd duck from under the trestle and place a coin on the track. And if Jerry could retrieve it before a wheel rolled by, the penny was his to keep. Jerry always shared in the candies he selected at the corner store nearby. And usually gave me the coins to make the purchase, since the clerk would never transact business with him if anyone else was in the place.
As best I can recall, it happened a few days before the new school term. A split second too late and Jerry's hand was severed, blood everywhere. And his screams were as loud as a body could muster, but no one was about but me. Only heaven knows, but somehow we managed to struggle back to my house.
At the time my dad was the family physician in town and had just wheeled into the drive for his midday meal. Assessing the crisis in an instant, he took Jerry in his arms and raced to his car. Me? I was dismissed back to the house. And because medical practitioners in small towns hold positions of high esteem, Dad could demand emergency treatment for Jerry in the county hospital that day. And of course Jerry survived, less one appendage.
Soon I'd returned to the new, brick consolidated county school in town and Jerry to an unpainted clapboard schoolhouse somewhere down in the river thickets and to an uncertain future. I didn't see much of him after that summer and don't recall him about until later in life in a local barbershop, his image attached to the place, just there, nowhere else.
Perched silently in a corner when I come in, he sits and waits for a signal from the man in white.
"By all means."
"Boy, you gotta customer."
He shuffles over, sits and studies the task at hand as the barber hones his edge on the strop by the chair. And it's unlikely we'll make eye contact, it's just not his way. Two fingers merge in earth-hued paste, the scent rising toward aromas of talc, tonics and smoke like kites touching in a spin.
In awe I gaze down at his glistening head, his tight-knit muscles pulsing in a steady, measured pace. And though I can't see it, I'm aware of a stogie somewhere among his accoutrements below. Back and forth glide the bristles in a neap tide of motion, his head fixed on the activity in progress. Hard buffing subsides and the nub at the end of his arm slips neatly into a ready-made knot on a rag that passes over each shoe in a smooth, click-clack rhythm. Later in the day at the drugstore folks will look down at my shoes and say, "Ah, been to see Jerry, I see."
A wheezing commences below, one I've heard before, and I'd like to ask his troubles, but it'd be impolite without an inquiry, and there's little chance of this.
A breeze from the doorway ushers in spirited banter from new arrivals who'll soon take up time-honored vigils and continue their debate over some political hijinks of the day. And they're apt to miss the stir at my feet, but no matter, each will be offered a turn in time.
His body twists in a metronomic swing, his pluck and mettle all rolled into one. What's that tune he's humming—I know I've heard it before? Perhaps one morning I'll bear witness to its name and lyrics. Days such as this remind me of the kaleidoscope of memories that tease senior minds such as mine.
In a flash eyes rise and fall and a popping sound confirms the end is near. I hate to see this happen so soon, but others are waiting. Ah, there's his nod like a regent to a crowd. He's done.
"Anything else, Doc?" the barber asks.
"No, Mike, this will be fine."
Toward the mirror I wheel to study the change and hear Jerry rummaging in his cache below. Up comes a whisk to brush shoulders and with a slight tremble, an outstretched palm. He bides his time, his eyes assessing his reward, then turns and shambles back to his corner to await a new call for his services.
"Buster." Buster works for the county part time to make college expenses.
"Hot enough to turn a crazed dog on a crowd."
"Another one for the potter's field?"
"When'd he pass?"
"Last night just after dusk, I figure."
On a clipboard I fill in the essentials for the county report and the death certificate. Buster looks on, a curious young man whose academic focus includes criminal justice and business administration.
"Say, how'd he go, Doc?"
"Old age by all indications."
"D'you know him?"
"Yes…I knew him years ago as a very smart street kid and later as a bootblack in Mike's barbershop downtown."
"Seems strange he'd end up shining shoes…I mean, if he was smart."
"He lost a hand in a childhood accident."
Buster's silent for a moment, no doubt deciding what questions might satisfy his interest, yet fall within the realm of what his generation calls politically correct.
"We play the cards dealt to us, Buster, some good, some not so good. And when the game's called, the value of the cards remaining determines the merit of the game."
I continue to make notes on the form while Buster mulls over this pithy adage of mine and scratches his head and looks around.
"Creepy huh, doc?"
"What's that, Buster?"
"This place, your job…. I mean…mm, no offense, Doc."
"None taken. You get used to it. Here the coroner's job is perfunctory at best, small matters in the scheme of things. And since you're interested in business, it's a nice revenue add-on for my practice."
"I see…mm, should I bring the truck around now, that is, if you're finished with him, Doc?"
"Yes, Buster, you do that."
I make a cursory review of the recorded data and sign the form. And notice how the diffusion of light from the fluorescents lends an air of dignity to his indifferent face. Wonder who'll claim the meager goods at your feet, my friend? 'Tis no matter, I suppose, you played a fine hand.
By the sink I wash up and gaze around the walls adrift in a sea of paint curls that embrace a host of shadowed faces, intent but unmoved. And in the mirror a mottled image I hardly recognize stares back at me.
From an open door the throbbing echoes of a radio commercial from Buster's truck fill the air, "You must be present to win!"
"Doc, you ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be, I guess." I glance down at my watch. "Damn, I'm late for the reception for the judge. Buster, would you get the lights?"
I grab the doorknob and a spasm ripples across my chest. And a gust of heat along with the cacophony of tiny tree frogs hidden deep in summer shadows greets me as I step into a world of fresh and unexpected sensations.
BIO: Fred Miller is a South Carolina writer and a retired Wall Street executive.His short stories have appeared in fifteen publications over the past two years.