Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Methuselah Man by Will Dresser

[caption id="attachment_94" align="alignright" width="213" caption="The Methuselah Man"]Book Cover image for The Methuselah Man by Will Dreser[/caption]"GOD, I NEVER KNEW A MAN WHO WANTED SO MUCH TO BE DEAD…or deserved it more.”

Joe Rosenfeld gazed down into the shallow hole at the plain, unmarked, lead container, slightly larger than a cigar box. A thick marine layer hung tight to the ground, swirling a puff of foggy cloud as Rosenfeld tossed a shovelful of wet dirt into the hole and handed the shovel back to the groundskeeper. The funeral service — if one could call it that — was small, only three people: Dr. Joe Rosenfeld, his secretary Liz Charles, and Jefferson the groundskeeper.

"That’s it?” said Liz Charles. “An entire lifetime comes down to a dozen words or so, one sentence?”

"What am I going to tell God He doesn’t already know?” said Rosenfeld.

"I don’t know, but damn, that’s it?”

"Look around, Liz. Do you see throngs of people wailing? Have the masses gathered for a tearful farewell? Is there a wife overcome with grief at the loss of her dear husband? Children, grandchildren, their eyes reddened by the loss of the family patriarch? A business friend, a best buddy? No. There’s you, me, and the groundskeeper. And Jefferson there is on the clock.”

The groundskeeper remained silent.

"God, that’s sad,” she said.

"You know, for the first time since we met Jared Kennan Cain, I’m starting to think maybe he was right. Maybe God can abandon some people. I always used to think no one was beyond His reach; that even the smallest sparrow couldn’t pass without His taking notice. Now I don’t know. Is it all just a fairytale, self-delusion, a nice bedtime story to scare away the dark?” Rosenfeld looked down at the grave and asked the groundskeeper, “Do you believe in God, Jefferson?”

"Jus’ Jeff, sir. Do I believe in God? In this business? Yes, sir!” chuckled the groundskeeper quietly. “If I didn’t, I guess I’d be little more than a garbage man,” he said, hesitating a moment before giving a more considered answer. “Yes, sir, I believe there’s a good and righteous God.”
"Well, tonight when you get home,” said Rosenfeld, watching the fog swirl around the hole, “light a candle, or a novena, or whatever you do, and thank Him for making you imperfect.”

The groundskeeper didn’t really understand the suggestion, but acknowledged it.

"Yes, sir. Imperfect. We sure are that! Only made one perfect one.”

Rosenfeld lifted his eyes from the hole in the ground with an ironic smile but let the statement pass. “Jeff, you can wait till we’re gone to finish this.”
"Yes, sir. But what about a headstone, sir? I don’t have any instructions about a headstone or ground plate.”

"There won’t be one. Also,” Rosenfeld looked around the grounds, “are there other places available where this could be buried? Some remote out of the way spot?”

"Yes, sir,” said the groundskeeper beginning to point. “There’s a couple plots over….”

"No, that’s okay. I don’t want to know,” said Rosenfeld, pushing the groundskeeper’s hand down. “After we’re gone I want you to put this someplace else. You can put it anywhere you want. I just want to be able to say honestly that I don’t know where these remains are buried. Understand?”

Jefferson nodded.

"And if anyone should come around asking about this, you don’t know anything about it, right? You don’t know where the exact site is, you don’t know who’s buried here, you don’t know anything. Okay?”

"Well, on that one, sir, I’d have kind of a tough time. We keep good track of where we lay folks; got to, it’s the law.” Jefferson fidgeted where he stood, uneasy that he was being drawn into something that could only get him in trouble.

"Okay, okay, I understand,” said Rosenfeld. “I’m not asking you to break the law, Jeff. I just want to make sure those remains never see the light of day again, wherever you decide to put them.”

Jefferson wore a worried expression as he looked down at the hole.

"Look, Jeff, most likely no one will come nosing around anyway,” said Rosenfeld, taking a different tack, trying to find some compromise language that would put Jefferson at ease and still get him to comply with the request. “But if they do, try to take your own sweet time about finding the place, all right?”

"Yes, sir, I ‘spose I could do that,” said Jefferson, sticking his hands in his pockets, nervously stretching the coveralls. “Memory’s not all it once was,” he seemed to be rehearsing what he’d say if asked. “And with an unmarked grave this small, it could take a little time to get the exact spot.”

"Good,” said Rosenfeld. “I have every confidence in you, Jeff. And here’s a little something for your trouble.” Rosenfeld extended two folded fifty-dollar bills.

Jefferson looked at the money. A hundred bucks! he thought. They really don’t want this guy found! He smiled and stuck the money in his coveralls. “Yes, sir, don’t worry about a thing, sir. I’ll take care of everything as soon as you and the lady are gone.”

[caption id="attachment_95" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Will Dresser"]Image of Author Will Dresser[/caption]Rosenfeld and Liz Charles took one last look at the grave, gave the groundskeeper a smile and a good-natured pat on the arm, then turned and walked back to their car.

Rosenfeld said “I’m glad that’s over” then went quiet. After a moment he said, “Liz, when we get to the office, we need to do a little cleaning up. I want you to take Cain’s file home with you tonight.”

"Then what?” she asked, shifting in her seat to look at him, curious at the instruction.

"Get rid of it.”

Rosenfeld’s eyes stayed glued to the road ahead in an effort to avoid eye contact with her.

"Get rid of it?” Liz was surprised by her boss’s order. In fifteen years she had never been asked to do anything like this.

Rosenfeld was adamant. “Yes, get rid of it. Don’t hide it. Don’t throw it away. Don’t shred it,” he said. “Just take it home and burn it!”

"Joe, are you sure you really want me to do that?”

She asked this half-heartedly. She already knew he was serious. And the truth was if he hadn’t come up with the idea himself, she might have given him a suggestion along those same lines.

"Yes, absolutely!” said Joe, who then added a softer explanation. “I already started a dummy file; before we left for Vegas. I pulled the intake form and a couple of pages from the real file. That will now be the official version.”
Liz gave him a quizzical look.

Rosenfeld became somewhat defensive and annoyed — as much at himself and the circumstances as anything Liz might have said or done — so he feigned irritation at having to explain what to him was obvious.
"The Feds already know he was a client,” he argued out the car window to no one in particular, “so I have to have some record of treating him or they’ll pile all kinds of legal BS on me for tampering with — or worst case destroying — evidence.”
That thought made Liz bristle.

"I can’t believe they can just come in and demand to see your records. What happened to Doctor-Patient Privilege?”

"Damn PATRIOT Act!” thought Rosenfeld, his irritation churning inside over the misguided clarion call for heightened security, especially when it came at the expense of certain liberties and expectations of privacy. “National Security,” he fairly spat the words under his breath as they reached the car, “…trumps everything these days.” Rosenfeld opened the door for her, babbling as Liz climbed in, “In a post-nine-eleven-world, blah, blah, blah,” he said.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Liz, doing less than Rosenfeld to hide her anger. “It’s just a lot of trial-by-fear if you ask me! No patriot came up with that act!”

Rosenfeld had to smile at her passion. “I know, but for now it’s the environment we live in,” he said, as if surrendering, “so let’s at least keep up appearances. Besides, as far as the dummy file is concerned, if I ever did go to court, I’d have a much easier time discussing the dummy notes than the real ones.”

"You sure got that right! No one in their right mind would believe the truth.”

Rosenfeld said, “On the other hand, I think we’ve already established that the people who’d want that file aren’t necessarily in their right minds. Anyway, let’s just hope it never gets that far, that the Feds just drop the whole thing. I mean, the guy’s dead! Isn’t that enough for them?” He shook his head and tried to refocus on trying to go about their business as usual. “Who’s on my schedule for today?”

"I cleared your morning appointments. I thought you might like to ease back into it.” Liz studied Joe’s face and watched it tense up at each name. “You’ve got Betty Murphy at one, Jill Edwards at two, and Jo Haggerty at three. I left four o’clock open in case you’re exhausted by then.” Liz could see him struggling with it. “If you want I can call and cancel them all.”

Rosenfeld took a deep breath as if to brace himself against an onslaught of reality.

"No, let’s keep things at least looking normal.”

Liz laughed. “Normal! Nice word for a shrink!”

Rosenfeld gave her a cynical smile. “Yeah, well, don’t worry,” he teased, “it’s no term I’d ever apply to you!” Rosenfeld had to laugh. She could see right through him.

Their fifteen-year relationship was, to say the least, atypical. It was strictly platonic; there was never anything physical between them. Their feelings were familial, not sexual, and had been like this since day one. In front of the clients, they were consummate professionals, always on their best behavior, tended to communicate in full sentences. But when it was just the two of them, they seemed to slip easily into characters out of the screwball-comedies of the 1930s and ‘40s; if Joe threw out a line from a Spencer Tracy movie, Liz would be right on top of it with her best Hepburn; if Joe gave her Bogey and asked if she knew how to whistle, Liz was right there with a pretty good Bacall and the perfect response, “Just put your lips together and blow.”

She was priceless! And almost always right!

Liz fluttered back a coquettish smile. “Hey, sweetie, I keep your life interesting, so don’t knock it!”

Liz Charles was, by all standards, a very attractive and engaging young woman. Blonde hair, blue eyes, a thin nose set against soft lush lips, and a thirty-six year-old body that wouldn’t quit — generally draped in a wardrobe of dubious business acumen that tended to advance that notion. She routinely wore thick black mascara that ovaled her eyes then flared to a point where someday she would have — from a lifetime of smiling — shallow crows’ feet — but not yet! Her eyelids were always painted blue, a soft blue. But the combination of that soft blue and heavy black outline, which would have screamed whore on the average woman, appeared on Liz Charles more like the understated elegance of an ancient Egyptian queen, the royal consort to a pharaoh. She was, all things considered, probably the perfect synthesis of both.
And where competent secretaries were concerned, Rosenfeld didn’t know what he’d do without her!

Joe Rosenfeld turned left out of the Hills of Eternity Jewish Cemetery, aiming the Prius south on El Camino Real for the thirty-minute drive from Colma to their Menlo Park office. It would have been faster to take 280 or 101, even at this time of day, but he wasn’t in any particular hurry just now. In fact, after the last five days, he just wanted the whole world to slow down again. And a quiet drive back would go a long way toward meeting that objective.

"Can you believe it’s been less than four weeks since this all started?” He glanced over at her and half whispered, “How’s your shoulder?”

Liz Charles stretched and twisted her right shoulder, testing it. “It’s fine,” she said, massaging it with her left hand. “Unbelievably fine, actually.” And after giving it some due consideration, she gave her final judgment. “Better than new, I think.”
Rosenfeld took in the answer absently, his thoughts already drifting back to early November and the first time he set eyes on Jared Kennan Cain.

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