The Man Who Sold Time
by Arthur Davis
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The next day Henry fixed his sight on that bright new sign in Gibson’s boasting the flavor revolution of the year and thought about painting the store. It needed some brightening, but with five years into the Depression, he knew what people might say, although they tended to be more lenient with his eccentricities. Helen thought it was a wonderful idea.
But that’s where it ended. Henry could not make up his mind. He looked at paint chips and patterns at Harley’s General Store, but it was hopeless. He dragged Helen along, but she was also overcome with the selection.
“Maybe a fresh coat of what you already have might do as well for now,” she suggested.
Fred Kinney appeared one day when the decision of whether or not to paint needed deciding. Fred wanted to work during the week, and Henry could not disturb the tranquility necessary for his store to be the oasis it was.
“How the heck do you think it’s going to get painted then, Henry Serling?”
“I guess I’ll just have to get me a painter who isn’t so ornery about working on the weekend.”
“I got other things to do on weekends, you know.”
“You’re a painter, Fred. You work for a living. You don’t pass up work in these hard times.” Henry liked Fred Kinney from the beginning, as only a stranger with uncanny instincts about human nature can.
“I do what I please with my life, and no one tells me otherwise, hard times or not.”
“Then I’ll get me another painter.”
“Not as good as I am, you wouldn’t.”
“I can live with second best. I just can’t live with distractions while I’m working.”
Longly Falls, population one thousand, four hundred and thirty-five, was a smallish, rural way station situated between two modest Ohio cities. So these men had heard of each other, but had never actually met.
“The man’s impossible,” Henry complained to Helen that night.
“Impossible to deal with, is he?”
“Does he fish?”
“He’s supposed to be one of the best around.”
“Then maybe you can see your way clear to forgive his irascibility.”
Fred came around to the store after the agitation of their last encounter died down. Henry had just given two old brothers two weeks in order to get their lives in order before they took advantage of a trip to see their dying grandmother.
“Why don’t I paint your sign? And if I do a good job, you’ll let me paint your store during the week.”
The sign was in serious disrepair. Henry had been thinking of having it painted since he could remember. “That’s a fine idea.”
“How does Tuesday sound?”
“Come whenever you want.”
“I’ll do that,” Fred said, and was gone.
Weeks passed. The sign remained blistered and withered with age. Finally, Helen asked about the sign. Henry made a mental note to call Fred.
The next day it was painted. The surface had been scraped smooth, the joints tightened and the brass hooks that set it to the overhang in front of his store, replaced. The green and white sign was beautifully detailed. Henry didn’t make any sales that day and was exhausted by the time he reached home that night.
“Are you all right?” Helen asked brushing aside his hair to feel his forehead for a fever.
“You look terrible.”
“I feel worn to heck,” he said, knowing how she felt about curse words. “Nothing more.”
The transformation was startling. He had left in the morning, a robust man and returned depleted, as though he had spent a week with the flu. She decided not to make a point of it in the hope that the next day was Friday, and he could rest over the weekend.
Henry sat at the kitchen table, his face swollen and reddened after a distressed, sleepless night. Thoughts scattered and leapt from his grasp. Focus was impossible.
“You want me go with you?”
“I’ve been at the store every day of my adult life, and a touch of the grippe isn’t going to keep me down now.”
But Helen had seen the symptoms of such an indisposition and wasn’t convinced that her Henry had been overcome by something so obvious. She waited until noon before she walked the two miles to the crossing between Sheridan and Brantley Streets, a block away from the store. It didn’t take long before Henry would come out and stretch his long legs across the street for his cold soda from Harley’s, which he would bring back to the store and drink with the turkey and cheese sandwich Helen had prepared for him.
She watched him go through the ritual of flipping over the “Back in 5 Minutes” sign, then locking the door and making his way through the scant mid-day traffic. Helen had come to this corner when she thought she needed to be close to her husband, without trespassing on his privacy.
Some women would dismiss such apprehension; after all, every man can have a hard day at work. Agnes Miller’s husband, Calvin, routinely came home despondent and wrenchingly tired. Though, if Helen had to come home to Agnes every evening, she might be more than simply tired—she might be suicidal.
This was something quite different. Age beyond his seventy-three years was in her Henry’s eyes. It was as if they had been drained of life and purpose.
Either he had come down with something that might require a visit to Emmet Bishop’s medical office or it was entirely more distressing. Then she spotted the new sign. From a block away she could tell it was faded, a lackluster remnant and more an artifact than it had been before it was painted.
The small white and green sign Fred Kinney painted was hardly a beacon for new business. She crossed herself, whispered a prayer, got up and walked home, her pace sickened with concern.
That night she greeted Henry with chilled lemonade. He was surprised as they usually both waited to have his favorite drink with dinner. He sat on the back porch like a wilted flower. She described her visit to Hartley’s that afternoon and spotted the sign. She confessed it wasn’t what she’d expected. Henry reluctantly agreed that it seemed to have lost its original vitality.
“How could it be the sign?”
Helen had prepared his favorite—chicken salad with an ample supply of garlic bread. But he only poked at it with his fork. “Maybe it isn’t,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the only thing that’s changed in the store, in how long?”
They both tried to recall the last improvement or alteration. It was around the turn of the century. The floor had creaked so badly they’d had to put in some additional floor boards to stabilize the center of the store.
“I think I’ll go inside and listen to the radio. Maybe read the comics. They’re having such a good time with President Roosevelt.”
“He’s well-meaning enough.”
He managed to bend down and kiss her forehead. “In these difficult times, well-meaning isn’t enough.”
Helen watched him shuffle into the living room and collapse into his favorite leather chair, a gift from his grandfather to his father. Just like the store. When she first met him in Cleveland—it was a half-century now—she was in love before he’d spoken. His eyes echoed strength and character, and he had the most endearing, boyish grin. When they had finished their first walk together, the openness of his heart was added to the list. She cleared the table and brought his lemonade to the stool next to the leather chair.
“What would we replace it with?”
“I’ll bet you could put something together in a flash, Henry Serling. You’re that good with your hands.”
“In a flash?”
“And if I magically and, all of a sudden, feel better with the new sign?”
“Well then, we would have to believe that was the source of it all.”
“Then you think something’s going on with Fred?”
“Let’s finish our lemonade before the ice melts, and we’ll go down to the basement and pick out a piece of wood and put together a goodly enough sign.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“And the ‘we’?”
“Well, you don’t think I am going to let you go do down there in the dark, alone, do you? Lord knows what might happen to those hands, and to me, with the plans I have for them later.”
“You’re a terrible woman, Helen Taggart,” he said with a wink. “Simply awful.”
Before they went to sleep that night, they had constructed a modestly charming new sign to hang in front of the store. The next day, Henry secured it under the overhang. Several people came by and thought it was nice. They had liked the newer green one, too, but this one, “seemed to fit better,” Abe Hartley said. By nightfall, Henry’s affliction was much relieved. In two days, he was a recovered man. On the third day, Fred Kinney came calling.
“Henry Serling, you look like you’ve been on vacation. Surely, as fit as a fiddle.”
“Hadn’t noticed,” Henry answered, somewhat surprised by Fred’s appearance. He had asked Helen what she would suggest he say if Fred came by.
“You look him in the eye and tell him the truth. Tell him the sign fell and broke. The wood was old and not worth restoring.”
“That’s the truth?”
“As I see it, it is.”
Henry was in the back of the store checking his ledger when Fred stopped by. He was organizing what had been paid that month against the value of each transaction. Customers who had been granted their request brought him trinkets, oddities of time and talent, something that reflected their deepest appreciation. There were hand carved wooden animals, paintings, wire fabrications, knitted goods, endless ornamentations, dolls in every size and shape, pots, pans, and every kind of home and farm utensil imaginable. Over the generations the store had become a repository of rare artifacts. Residents and travelers came in to see what new revelation he had collected. Henry made a comfortable living selling off the most soulfully beautiful crafted Americana, some dating back decades under his grandfather’s careful watch.
Henry removed a two-pound sack of Lionel Best flour he had been asked to hold for Rosalind Linley. She was preparing a birthday cake and a big party for her father. He was going to be ninety. She was the best cook in town. Henry was working himself up into asking for a slice.
“What happened to my handiwork?” Fred asked.
“Damnable thing. Fell down the other day and splintered apart. I tried to stitch it together but the wood was too tired. I was thinking how hard you worked for it to turn out so well. I was sorry for that.”
“No matter. No one hurt.”
“No. We were lucky there.”
“What else did he say?” Helen asked that night.
Henry searched for the right words but they were hard to come by. It wasn’t so much what he said, as they talked about the weather, the crop blight over in Helmdale Plains, the new tractor plant, but how he said it. “He kept turning back to look at the new sign as if it was bothering him. Never said another word about it but he made no attempt to deny himself a look or two.”
“Now that’s a strange story.”
“And not another word about painting the store.”
That night in bed they held hands. They always did. A courting habit. But tonight was different. Neither could sleep. There had been no further discussion during the evening, but neither could let the day pass.
“Then it was the sign.”
“Where did you put it?” she asked.
“In the basement.”
“It’s here?” she said startled, and nearly kicked him out of bed.
He fixed his robe and went downstairs into the kitchen, grabbed a flashlight just in case, and flipped on the light in the basement. He opened the door and moved cautiously down the steps. The workbench was off to the left and the assorted accumulation of a lifetime was stored haphazardly against the wall to his right. At the far end of the basement, Henry Serling could see the sign. He could also see something was very wrong, just before the lights shorted out.
“Are you all right?” Helen asked from the top of the stairs.
Henry switched on the flashlight and trained it at the dirt floor at the base of the sign he had propped up against the stone foundation. He let the dim yellow light move up from the base of the sign. The higher it got, the fainter the color. By the time he reached the top, all the color that Fred Kinney had so carefully applied had all but drained away. At the foot of the sign was a small puddle of green ooze.
“I’m fine, Helen,” Henry said. But he wasn’t. The top half of the sign was faint, pale, as if it had been scorched of texture and life. A tiny bubble popped up through the puddle at its base. Then another.
“Stay up there,” he yelled, but it didn’t stop her.
“My God, Henry! What is that?”
He didn’t know and didn’t want to alarm her. “Seems Fred didn’t use the best paint.”
Helen drew closer to the circle of light that played on the dirt floor and the bottom of the sign. “It’s getting into the dirt.”
Henry got to his knees for a closer look. Another bubble popped through the surface, as though the thick green ooze was alive. He flipped over the sign so the faint side was on the bottom and pushed it away from the puddle. “Hold this,” he said handing her the flashlight and grabbed a shovel from the corner.
“What are you going to do with that?”
He jammed the lip of the shovel into the earth. “We’ve got to stop it from getting into the soil and ground water.”
Helen set the flashlight down so the beam remained on the floor at Henry’s feet and moved the wheelbarrow into place. Henry dumped a mound of earth into the wheelbarrow then another, until no green remained. “You think we got it all?”
Henry took one last scoop of earth so great that it nearly spilled over the edge of the shovel. The dirt pit that remained was every inch of three feet wide and almost as deep. “Any deeper and we’d come out in China.”
He gently lifted the sign and set the faded edge directly into the center of the pile of soil in the wheelbarrow. “Now we go to bed.”
“Not with that thing in the house we don’t.”
“We’re all right now. We’re—” he began.
Henry unlocked the basement door that led to their back yard and pushed the wheelbarrow out into the night.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Arthur Davis