Unfinished Business

by Martin Green


Paul Lerner was sitting on a bench a few minutes’ walk from his home in the Northern California retirement community in which he and his wife Sally had lived in for the past ten years. Death sat down beside him. As the retirement community had aged Death had become a more and more frequent visitor. In the last six months, Paul and Sally had gone to three memorial services.

“Whew! It’s a hot one,” said Death, who was in the guise of a typical retiree, bald with a large red nose, wearing shorts and a t-shirt that said, “The End is Near.” He took out a handkerchief and wiped his florid face.

“Yes,” said Paul. “I thought I’d take a stroll but this is as far as I got.”

“I wish you old folk didn’t pick such hot places to live. It’s bad enough I have to accompany so many people to that place below that’s hot as ... well, you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” said Paul. “Well, I assume you’re here on business.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Who is it this time?”

Death said nothing, but he looked steadily into Paul’s eyes.

“Me?”

Death nodded. “I’m afraid so.’

“But there must be some mistake. I feel fine. I’m still active. I walk every day. Well, I would have walked today but you yourself complained about the heat. I have a loving wife. I have loving children and grandchildren. I have my writing. I have to write a column for our senior paper this afternoon. I’m not ready to go.”

“You’re right,” said Death. “You have a loving wife and children. You had a good career and now you have your writing. All in all, you’ve had a long and satisfactory life. What better time to end it?”

“But wait a minute. You forget the book I self-published earlier this year. I vowed to sell fifty copies to recoup my costs. So far I’ve sold only forty-five. You can’t take me away until I’ve at least reached my goal of fifty.”

Death considered. “That’s only five more copies. Alright, I’ll give you until you’ve sold fifty. But when you do that’s it. Not one day more.”

“Thank you,” said Paul.

Death stood up and walked away, wiping his face with his handkerchief and muttering about the heat.

Paul took a deep breath. He was a little shaken, but he considered he’d made a good bargain. Sales of his book, a collection of stories he’d written during his retirement years, had been disappointing. Although many residents of his community knew him through his newspaper column and told him how much they liked his writing, not very many had been willing to actually part with money when his book had come out.

He’d always thought that old people were frugal, to put it nicely, and he’d been right. Through talking up the book among friends and family members, he and Sally had managed to sell forty-five copies, but they’d sold none in the past two months and Paul didn’t see any likelihood that they’d sell any more in the future. He felt he was pretty safe.

The air-conditioning in his house felt good when Paul entered his home. Sally was in the living room. “Oh, Paul, I have wonderful news,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I had a call from Serena, you know, my old college roommate, out of the blue. I told her about your book and, guess what, she’s ordering five for her and her four children.”

“She’s what?

“I told you. She’d ordering five books. That makes fifty.”

Paul sat down. He’d reached his goal, but in his heart of hearts, his real goal had been a hundred. He wondered how Death would react when he told him that.


Copyright © 2006 by Martin Green

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