When the doorbell rang, I at first had no inkling of who was there or what his or her business might be. I was sitting at the dining table in a room that had never been used for entertaining. Books and notepads, two weeks’ worth of newspapers, and a few stacks of dirty dishes were piled here and there around the dark-stained hickory plank. I had been writing a letter to my sister about the death of our brother in the fall.
It was spring now, and I had missed the funeral. Our brother had been buried in Cincinnati by Dearby, his fourth wife. She, Dearby, told me that if she was going to pay for the burial, then he’d be interred in the same cemetery as her and the rest of her family.
I was having a hard time, financially, when Seth passed. I’d just lost my job as a regional manager for Lampley Car Insurance, and unemployment benefits hadn’t been enough to pay the rent. I couldn’t take time off from my temp position at Lenny’s Auto Parts, and the funeral was on a Wednesday, a workday. My boss, Alan Renee Bertrand, didn’t particularly like me, and so I couldn’t even take the chance of asking him for the time off. Lenny’s paid $22.50 an hour, the best temp rate in town, and so I sent a dozen white lilies and a note thanking Dearby for honoring my brother.
You see, I knew that Dearby and Seth were on the outs when he died. My sister had told me that Seth had been seeing his second wife, Althea, again, and Dearby had been threatening to kick him out of the house.
She, Dearby, called to tell me about Seth.
“He had a heart attack,” she said. “I warned him about the high blood pressure and fatty foods. He wouldn’t listen. He never listened.”
I was thinking that Dearby was pretty big herself.
As if she could read my thoughts across the 2,000-plus miles that separated us, she said, “I know that I’m big, but my heft is fruit fat, weight from fresh fruit with fiber and natural sugars. My doctors tell me that I’m okay the way I am.”
“I know you are,” I said, to fill the empty space in our conversation that loomed like the blank line at the bottom of a boilerplate contract.
“What do you want me to do with him?” she asked.
“The body, Roger. What do you want me to do with the body?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I said. “He’s dead.”
“I know that,” Dearby said. “He’s gone, and somebody has to bury him.”
“Oh … oh, yeah. Right. Um …”
I got up from the table, remembering that awkward moment half a year earlier when I had to tell Dearby that I didn’t have the money to help pay for a funeral.
The walk from my worktable to the front door wasn’t long. No distance in the 634-square-foot half-home was that great. The other side of the subdivided Wilshire District house was inhabited by a woman named Rose Henley. I had seen Rose only once, a few days after I’d moved in seven years and ten months before. She’d rung my bell and introduced herself as my neighbor.
Rose Henley was old, maybe sixty, and she had one gold tooth. She was fairly short, even for a woman, and her black hair was sliding into white. She was a white woman, broad-faced and stout.
“Mr. Vaness?” she had said, all those years ago.
“I’m Rose Henley, your neighbor.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt, just wanted you to see my face. And I wanted to see yours.”
“Would you like to come in?,” I asked, not putting much heart into it.
“No, no, no,” she said. “I just wanted to greet you. I don’t get out very much.”
This was no exaggeration. I never saw or heard my neighbor again.
But that day, when I was writing to my sister, Angeline, about our brother’s death, I was sure that Rose was at my door. I hadn’t got much company since losing my job. My friends liked to party, and I couldn’t afford the gas money, much less my part of the bill at our favorite bars and restaurants.
After I was fired, I had asked my girlfriend, Terri, if she would move in, so we could share the rent.
Terri broke it off with me three days later.
No one ever knocked at my door, and Rose was the only person I was acquainted with in the neighborhood. It had to be her, I thought; that was just cold hard logic.
So I opened the door looking down, expecting to see my diminutive neighbor’s wide face under a thatch of black hair turned gray.
Instead I was looking at the red-and-blue vest of a white man even taller than me. He had a bald head and not much facial hair. His skin was the color of yellowing ivory and his eyes were a luminous gray—like a mist-filled valley at dawn.
“Mr. Vaness?” the stranger asked, in a magnificent tenor voice.
“My name is Harding, Lance Harding. I am here representing the last wish of Seth Vaness.”
“I work for a small firm called Final Request Co. We execute the last wishes of clients who have passed on.”
“You’re a lawyer?”
I looked the slender tenor up and down. He had on a nice suit, but it was reddish-brown, not a lawyer’s color, in my estimation.
“No, Mr. Vaness. We at FRC don’t execute wills. Our job is to deliver messages from the dead.” He smiled after the last word, giving me a slight chill.
“Uh-huh. You use a Ouija board or somethin’?”
“We are engaged by the deceased before their demise.”
“My brother hired you to give me a message after he was dead?”
Harding smiled and nodded.
“He died six and a half months ago,” I said. “What took you so long?”
“His wish was for us to execute his instructions not less than half a year after his demise.”
“Is this some kinda legal thing?”
“It is a simple agreement between FRC and your brother,” Lance Harding said, maintaining an aura of imperturbable patience. “Often individuals wish to pass on knowledge outside of the rubric of wills and other legal formats. Some leave a spoken message, others might wish to pass along a note or a small package.”
“Seth didn’t have much,” I said. “He couldn’t have anything to hide.”
“We all have something to hide, Mr. Vaness. Either that or something is hidden from us.”
“May I come in?,” Harding asked, cutting off my question.
“Oh,” I said.
“Is this a bad time?”
“No, no, it’s okay, I just … ”
“I came by on Wednesday, but you weren’t here,” Harding said. “Your neighbor, Mrs. Henley, told me that you were at work.”
“You talked to Rose?”
“May I come in?”
My house was untidy, to say the least. When I have a girlfriend, I usually pick up and air out my little place at least once a week, but I lose the drive when I’m unattached. As a rule, the mess doesn’t bother me unless I have unexpected guests.
Harding didn’t seem put off by the clutter. I moved a small stack of old comic books from a chair next to the one I had been sitting in and gestured for him to take a seat.
“Fantastic Four,” he said, looking at the topmost magazine as I set the stack on the table next to him.
“They were my father’s,” I said. “I have one through twelve. Know anybody who might want to buy them?”
“Your blood father?” he asked. “Patrick Hand?”
I nodded, wondering how he knew my real father’s name.
He flipped through the issues, smiling slightly. Harding was maybe ten years older than me. That would have made him about fifty.
“Not in mint or near-mint condition,” he said. “That makes them nearly worthless. At any rate, these books call up your father from across the pale. That’s a connection that money can’t buy.”
“How do you know my father’s dead?”
“Both of your fathers,” he said. “Patrick, who sired you, and Norland, who married your mother and adopted her three children.”
“How do you know all that?”
“They were Seth’s fathers too.”
“Oh … yeah. That’s why you’re here.”
“Shall we begin?”
“It’s funny that you came here just now,” I said. “I mean, not funny, but … I was just writing to my sister—”
“Angeline Vaness-Brownley,” Lance Harding of the FRC interjected. “She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Ivan Brownley, the union organizer.”
“Wha—? Oh, right, Seth’s sister too. How much do you know about us?”
“About you, particularly, we know that you have never been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime, and that most of your working life you were either employed or at college. You have three years’ matriculation at Cal State. Your concentration was in history, but you dropped out and began to work for various businesses. You’ve never been married, but you were once engaged to a woman named Irene Littleton.”
“Seth told you all that?”
“Then where’d you hear about it?”
Harding’s face was oblong, a little larger than even his tall frame might predict. For the most part his expression was tranquil, but my question teased out a mild frown.
“I am here at your brother’s request,” he said.
“But you know all this shit about me, and he didn’t tell you. So I’d like to know how you know it.”
“Nora Dunbar,” he replied, his face once again at peace.
“She is the statistical and research analyst at our firm. When a client engages our services, Miss Dunbar does a background check on the client and the recipient of the message or package.”
Harding sighed and then said, “Suppose the message that someone wished to pass on was a name and an address. If the recipient was a known killer, or maybe someone who had a grudge against a person with the name we were being asked to deliver, we would refuse the job. We are not bound by fealty to the state, but we are a moral corporation.”
“So you wanted to make sure that I wasn’t a hit man or a stalker or somethin’?”
“But you figured that I was a good bet and that you could deliver your message without messin’ anything up.”
The great sculpted face smiled and bobbed.
“You got a sliding scale you charge?,” I asked. I realized that I wasn’t eager to obtain information passed on to me across the border of death.
“We charge $5,000, plus expenses, for every message a client wishes to entrust to us.”
Lance Harding smiled and seemed to relax a bit. He seemed to have surrendered to my fear of his task.
“Once,” he said, “we were engaged by a woman to deliver an apple pie she’d baked to the man she’d loved but never married. In order to keep the pie in fair condition, we had to freeze it. The accommodations were made, and she was charged accordingly.”
“So Seth paid $5,000 for you to deliver this message to me?”
“That is the fee all clients are charged,” he said, “plus expenses.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Three reasons. First, I can’t see Seth payin’ that kinda money when he coulda sent a letter to my sister or our mother to give me after he died. Second, I can’t see Seth spendin’ that kinda money on me—period. And third, travelin’ all over the country and the world, makin’ these kinda visits, would cost a lot more than $5,000.”
I would have talked all day long to keep this man, the most official man I had ever met, from discharging his message.
“As to your first two arguments—we question our clients, but never their money, once they’ve passed our qualification test. Your third dispute would make sense if the FRC didn’t have regions of responsibility divided among its various agents. My area is California. You asked why I’m late delivering this message. That is because I was in Central and Northern California for the past two weeks. We would like to have delivered this communication exactly at the six-month mark, but the wording of Seth Vaness’s last request allowed me some leeway: ‘Not less than six months after my demise.’ ”
I had nothing left to ask, but I still was not ready for any information from the dead.
“Are all the people who work for the FCR white?” The question was one my stepfather would have had me ask.
“FRC,” Lance Harding corrected. “Most of the employees of the company are Caucasian, but not all. Now, may I deliver my message?”
I took in a deep breath, exhaled, and then nodded.
Lance Harding reached into the left side of his reddish-brown jacket with his right hand.
I leaped up from my chair, sure that he was going to take out a gun or a knife; my fear was that great.
But the FRC agent merely brought out an ivory envelope, almost exactly the same color as his skin.
“This is the letter that your brother charged us to deliver,” he said. “As I hand it to you, our duty in this matter is fulfilled.”
He extended his hand, offering me the rectangle of paper. I hesitated before taking it.
The mood was so ceremonial that I expected some kind of devastation or revelation to follow. But nothing happened.
The FRC agent stood abruptly.
“I will leave you to do with the letter as you will,” he said.
“Don’t you want me to sign something,” I asked, “to prove that you actually gave me this?”
“The client didn’t ask for corroboration,” he said, smiling. “That usually means that the delivery contains nothing of material value. I can see myself out.”