Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Supply and Demand

Copyright 2017 by Gary L. Pullman

Supply and Demand

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Mr. Shatter shook Abner Carson’s resume. The sheaf of papers rustled in the air, like so many dead leaves. Staring at the job applicant across his mahogany desk, the mortician said, “Your background has been in technical writing.” His voice sounded accusatory, as if technical writing were a crime. “Why do you want to sell cemetery plots?”
If the truth were to be told, Abner didn’t want to sell cemetery plots. What idiot would? he asked himself. But he had a wife and two daughters to support, and he’d been unemployed for more than a year. He gave the mortician what he hoped was a disarming smile. The truth was that Abner needed this job—desperately. The economy was worse than it had been in decades.
It didn’t help that Abner had reached the age of fifty-two and had now begun to face the age discrimination he’d heard of from older men and women but had previously supposed a myth. It didn’t help that he’d gained quite a few pounds and faced the weight discrimination that he’d heard of from heavyset men and women but had previously supposed a myth. It didn’t help that he’d married at a late age and had two kids to support—one six, the other ten. It didn’t help that corrupt politicians allowed greedy corporate executives to export American jobs to the citizens of foreign countries where huge workforces slaved away twelve hours a day, without health or other fringe benefits, for less than a day’s wages in the United States.
Lately, Abner’s bills had been more than his meager, rapidly dwindling savings could cover. He was already four months overdue on his car payment, and he expected it to be repossessed at any time. Creditors plagued him. They claimed to be willing to work with him, but all they did was attempt to bully, intimidate, and harass him. One company even took a tag-team approach, with different representatives calling two or three times a week—or, sometimes, three of four times a day. To them, they’d made it clear, Abner Carson was nothing but a deadbeat, his previously spotless credit history notwithstanding.
In answer to Mr. Shatter’s question, Abner, said, “I want to make more money than I could as a technical writer—and I want work that’s long term.”
What did you make as a technical writer?”
None of your business, Abner wanted to tell the pompous jerk. Instead, he said, “Fifty thousand.” That would be the cost of about five funerals, Abner guessed. Hell, the mortician probably stole more in gold crowns from the bodies he buried during one year than Abner had made as a technical writer for the same period of time.
What makes you think you can make more money than that by selling cemetery plots?” Mr. Shatter demanded.
The pay is based on commissions, not a salary, right?” Abner asked.
Mr. Shatter nodded. His face remained impassive.
I need the money. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to earn as much as I can.”
Are you willing to work weekends and evenings?”
Abner nodded. “Yes, sir. Holidays, too, for that matter.”
You’ve never done sales?”
No, sir, but I can—”
I’m looking for someone with sales experience.”
Why the hell had the mortician called him for an interview, then? Abner wanted to ask. “What I may lack in sales experience would be more than balanced by ambition and drive, Mr. Shatter. If you’ll just give me a chance—”
The mortician set the resume aside. Abner had the sinking feeling that the interview was over. He felt certain that, for the hundredth time, he’d lost another job opportunity—if he’d ever had one with Shatter Cemeteries. He felt bitter. He couldn’t even get a job selling burial plots!
I’ll be in touch,” Mr. Shatter declared.
Right, Abner thought. He’d just bet he would. “Thanks,” he said.

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On the way home, Abner stopped at a Here’s the Beef! fast-food place. He decided to eat in his car, so he drove through the drive-through, ordering a hamburger, fries, and a soft drink.
You want to double up on the drink and fries for another forty-five cents?” the window clerk asked, over the tinny microphone.
Abner almost laughed out loud. He couldn’t afford to double up on his order if he’d wanted. “No, thanks.”
How about a Crispy Pie for dessert today?”
Just the regular order, please,” Abner said, a trace of annoyance in his voice. Then, it occurred to him that the kid was just doing his job. No doubt, he’d been instructed to promote the restaurant’s menu items—to be, in effect, a salesman. He was doing the same thing that Abner had sought, only a few minutes ago, to do—except the kid was selling burgers, fries, and shakes instead of the burial plots Abner had sought to hawk.
At the pickup window, the teenage boy handed him a bag wet with grease. After checking the contents, Abner offered the clerk the money for the food.
You pay at the next window,” the kid said.
The fast-food industry’s greedy business executives and their toadying bean counters had determined that the receipt of food at one window and the payment for it at a separate window expedited the serving and collection processes, making it possible to rush twice the number of customers past the windows. It was another example of the fast-food business’ application of the assembly-line process to the world of not-so-fine dining.
As he paid for his lunch at the next window, Abner noticed that Here’s the Beef! was hiring. A Help Wanted sign touted the company’s “benefits” as “good pay,” “flexible hours,” and a “friendly work environment.” “No experience necessary,” the sign also proclaimed.
What the hell, Abner decided. It wouldn’t hurt to apply. He sure as hell wasn’t going to land the cemetery sales position.
As he sat in his car, eating his lunch, Abner sighed, shaking his head. The hamburger was soggy. It had been assembled with obvious haste. The mustard and ketchup were not only on the inside of the bun, but they were also on the outside of the bread. The hamburger was cockeyed inside the half-wrapped wrapper, and the pickle that was supposed to be in the hamburger was loose inside the wrapper. The fries were cold and mushy. The soda tasted flat. The employees apparently lavished as much care in performing their duties as Here’s the Beef!’s corporate executives lavished on them as employees. Abner was glad he hadn’t doubled up on his order.
Finishing his meal, he swallowed the last of his pride, along with the hamburger and fries, washing it down with the flat soft drink, and made himself walk the fifty feet across the littered parking lot to the restaurant.
Can I help you, sir?” the clerk, a girl about sixteen years old, with freckles and huge glasses, asked as Abner stepped up to the counter. Her name badge identified her as Kimberly.
I saw your Help Wanted sign. May I speak to the manager, please?”
Realizing that Abner was a potential coworker, rather than a customer, Kimberly looked again at the heavyset, middle-aged man in front of her. This time, she made no effort to disguise her contempt and revulsion. “Just a sec,” she said curtly.
A moment later, a tall, gangly kid with greasy black hair, acne, and braces approached the counter, wiping his hands on a cloth towel. His name badge identified him as Brian. Under his name was the title, Shift Manager. He extended his hand across the stainless steel countertop. “Can I help you?”
Abner shook hands with the teenager. Brian’s hand was slightly oily, perhaps from cooking oil, perhaps from his adolescent’s overactive oil glands. “I saw your Help Wanted sign, and—”
I’m only the shift manager,” Brain informed Abner. “You’ll have to come back and talk to the manager, Mr. Martin.”
How old is “Mr. Martin”? Abner wondered. Twenty-one? “Oh. All right. Thanks.”
No problem.”
Abner turned to leave.
Wait. I can get you an application.”
Abner waited.
The kid handed him an eight-page form that wanted to know Abner’s life history from high school on.
Returning to his car, Abner flipped through the application form. Was he willing to work overtime, evenings, weekends, and holidays? Would he be willing to rotate his shifts among several of the company’s locations? The company also wanted to know about any misdemeanors or felonies Abner may have committed and announced that he would be subject to drug testing via urinalysis and/or hair samples. There was also a question pertaining to whether he was an American citizen. “Mark that in the affirmative, and they’ll toss your application,” someone had once told him. At the time, Abner had assumed that the person was joking. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
There was the standard disclaimer about allowing human resources personnel to inquire into his background and the warning that the company would have grounds to terminate Abner should he list anything less than the absolute truth in regard to any and all of the application form’s myriad of probing questions. The last line on the last page of the form, just above the section with the title that read, “Office Space Only,” instructed Abner, to sign and date the form. The exact words accompanying this instruction were, “Under penalty of perjury, I confirm that the information that I have supplied on this application is complete and accurate to the best of my knowledge.”
Abner resisted the temptation to crumple the application form into a tight ball and toss it into one of the huge trashcans that bore the smiling countenance of a huge, personified hamburger. With onion rings for its eyes, a pickle slice for its nose, and a curved, “smiling” French fry for its mouth, the Happy Hamburger proclaimed, via a caption below the bizarre mascot, “We Care About You!”
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At home, Abner’s wife, Sandy, met him at the front door, a look of hope on her wide-eyed, smiling face. “How’d the interview go?”
I wouldn’t get my hopes up, if I were you,” he told her, despite the fact that she’d already done so. “All I accomplished today, besides wasting more gasoline running back and forth to a pointless interview for which I never should have been called, is adding another meaningless contact to my list.”
Honey, don’t be discouraged.”
Abner sighed deeply. “The idea of keeping a list of all the people who’ve interviewed me is stupid, anyway,” he said. “I don’t know why all those books on interviewing techniques suggest such a thing to begin with.”
Didn’t they say to send a note or a card, thanking them for the interview and—”
Abner laughed. It was a harsh, nasty sound, Sandy thought. “Yeah, that’s what they say, all right,” Abner replied. He imagined the note that he would write to Mr. Shatter, the mortician, and to Mr. Martin, the acne-faced, post-pubescent manager of Here’s the Beef! “Thanks for hiring someone who’s not fat, who’s not middle aged, and who’s not me.”
At one time, before today’s most recent humiliations at the cemetery and the fast-food restaurant, Abner had actually thought that the idea was a good one. He’d even ferreted out the home addresses of his potential bosses. Instead of sending a note or a card to them at their business offices, he’d intended to mail one to them at their homes. Now, the thought that he’d compiled a list of all the residential addresses of the creeps who’d turned him down for a job made him feel somewhere between angry and sick. Why had he ever thought the idea to be a good one? It was just toadying to people who regarded him as an inferior—and had probably had no intention of hiring him to begin with.
Sandy patted his arm. “I have a treat for dinner. It may make you feel better.”
What’s that?” Abner asked. It was clear that he didn’t believe that anything was likely to make him feel better—except a job offer.
I stopped by Here’s the Beef! and picked up a bag of burgers.”
Abner thought he was going to be sick, but he appreciated his wife’s gesture. He forced a smile. Pecking her cheek, he said, “That’s great, honey.”
Sandy’s lower lip turned down, and her eyes became teary.
What is it?” Abner asked, concern evident in his voice. “What’s the matter?”
She looked hesitant.
What is it?” he repeated. “Come on; you can tell me.”
This came today.” She picked an envelope off the stand near the front door and handed it to him.
What’s this?” he asked.
Read it,” she told him.
It was a letter from a lawyer who represented their mortgage company. Abner and Sandy were being sued. “The bastards!” he cried, pitching the letter onto the floor.
Sandy wrapped him in her arms. “We’ll be all right.”
Are you nuts? We’re being evicted from our home! Our house is being repossessed!”
We’ll survive,” she said, hugging him closer.
Sandy was a wonderful person, Abner told himself. She’d always been loving and fiercely loyal. “I’m sorry,” he told her, kissing her neck. “You deserve better.”
We have each other,” she reminded him.
You and the kids deserve more. You deserve a lot more.”

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At dinner, Abner picked at his food.
Honey, you have to eat something,” Sandy said.
He made a half-hearted attempt to smile.
What’s wrong, Daddy?” his six-year-old asked.
Nothing, baby,” he said.
The girl frowned, looking at her mother.
Mommy, what’s wrong with Daddy?” she asked.
Daddy’s just a little tired, Penny, that’s all,” Sandy assured her.
Penny looked at her father. “Why are you tired, Daddy?”
I’ve been looking for work, honey,” he told her.
Penny cocked her head to one side, looking puzzled. “Does looking for work make you tired, Daddy?”
He smiled. “When you’re a fat, middle-aged, over-qualified man like me, it does.”
Penny laughed. “You’re funny, Daddy!”
Eat your hamburger, Penny,” Sandy told her daughter.
I don’t want it,” she said. “It’s all yucky.”
The burgers had been greasy, even when Sandy had bought them. It hadn’t helped to heat them in the microwave. But there was nothing else, and they couldn’t afford to throw away food. “Eat it, anyway,” Sandy said.
Penny made a sour face. “Mommy!” she protested.
Eat your hamburger,” Abner ordered.
Sulking, Penny took a tiny bite.
Mom? Dad?” their other daughter said.
What is it, dear?” Sandy asked.
Jennifer Hanes invited me to her birthday party this Saturday. Can I go?”
We don’t have the money to buy Jennifer a present right now,” Sandy replied.
Does that mean I can’t go?”
We just can’t afford to spend money on birthday presents for your friends right now, Susan,” Abner declared.
We never have any money anymore!” Susan cried. “We can never afford anything!”
Susan!” Sandy rebuked her older daughter. “Watch what you say!”
Susan folded her arms across her chest and stared defiantly across the table at her mother. “It’s the truth!” she challenged. “We’re poor!”
We’re not poor. It’s just that your father—”
I know,” Susan interrupted. She’d heard her parents’ explanation over and over for the past several months. “He’s unemployed, and money’s tight.”
That’s right, dear,” Sandy said.
Susan turned on her father. “Why can’t you get a job like other dads?” she demanded.
Susan!” Sandy cried. “Go to your room!”
For telling the truth?” Susan demanded.
Now, young lady!” Sandy ordered.
Susan flung her half-eaten hamburger onto her plate, shoved her chair back, and sprinted from the room. Abner, Sandy, and Penny heard her footsteps pounding the stairs as she ran to her room. Before long, Abner thought, the poor kid might not even have a room to run to.
What’s wrong with Susie?” Penny asked, bewildered by her sister’s behavior.
Eat your hamburger,” Sandy told her.
Penny made a face. “It’s nasty,” she said.
Penny—” Sandy started.
It really is sort of nasty,” Abner told his wife.
Sandy relented. “Okay, Penny, you don’t have to eat it, but there’s nothing else.”
Penny beamed. “Can I be excused?”
May I be excused,” her mother corrected her.
May I?”
Sandy nodded. “You may.”
She pushed her chair away from the table and hopped down. “Can I watch TV? Friends of the Family is on.”
Since canceling their cable television service, their TV antenna could pick up only the three networks’ programs—and they were full of static at times. Fortunately for Penny, the children’s show, Friends of the Family, aired on one of the networks’ local affiliates.
Yes, go ahead,” Abner said. He added to himself, While you still can. If the house was being repossessed, could the furniture be far behind?
Abner and Sandy ate in silence for a moment before Sandy said, “Something will turn up.”
You know, with a $100,000 life insurance policy on me, I’m worth more dead than alive.”
Don’t be ridiculous,” Sandy returned. “No one’s worth anything dead.”
Abner chuckled. It was a mirthless sound. “That’s what Charley told Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Remember?” They’d just watched the latest movie version of the play, with Dustin Hoffman in the title role.
Charley was right.”
Abner considered her words. “I don’t know,” he contended thoughtfully. “Maybe Willy was right, after all. Maybe a man really is worth more dead than alive.”
Abner! I won’t have you talking like this, even if you’re just joking. It’s morbid.”
Abner smiled at her as she took a bite out of her soggy hamburger. “Who’s joking?”
She set the hamburger on her plate. Her eyes widened with fear.
He winked at her. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill myself. Even if I am worth more dead than alive, you’re stuck with me.”
She picked up her hamburger again. “I wish you wouldn’t make such jokes. They’re not funny.”
I’m sorry, Sandy.”
She swallowed the bite of hamburger and set the sandwich back on her plate. “Penny’s right about these burgers,” she said, smiling. “They are nasty.”
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After dinner, they washed and dried the dishes. Then, they put Penny to bed and watched television. The news was depressing. Economists predicted a continued recession, with higher, long-term unemployment. Repossessions and bankruptcies were at an all-time high, the somber-faced reporter said, and they were likely to increase still more. “Stay with us while we take a short break,” the anchor suggested. Before the commercial messages began, an announcer invited viewers to watch a documentary called Jobless America: The Cost of Corporate Greed, to be televised later in the evening.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough TV for one night,” Sandy said.
Abner pressed the Off button on the remote control, and the picture of a svelte model with a perfect complexion collapsed upon itself as the screen went black, in the middle of her spiel about the wonders of a skin care product that she didn’t need and probably didn’t use.
You’d think that creditors would be willing to work with a person who became unemployed through no fault of his or her own,” Sandy said. “If nothing else, interest payments could be suspended until the person was employed again.”
Unfortunately, the politicians and corporate executives are heartless, greedy bastards,” Abner replied. “They’re all multi-millionaires. They don’t live in the same world we do, and they don’t have the sort of problems we face. Besides, they don’t care about us. The politicians care only about getting reelected, and the executives care only about making their next million.”
Sandy wanted to argue with her husband, but she couldn’t. The na├»ve faith that she’d once had in the basic decency of her fellow human beings had bottomed out, along with the economy, as far as politicians and business executives were concerned, at any rate.
Let’s go to bed,” Abner suggested. “I am tired. I never knew it, but looking for work is exhausting.”
Okay,” Sandy agreed. “I’ll make sure the doors are locked while you turn out the lights.”
These final chores of the day accomplished, Abner and Sandy were on their way upstairs when the telephone rang.
Sandy started downstairs, but Abner said, “I’ll get it It’s probably another bill collector.”
He jogged down the stairs and into the kitchen. He picked up the wall phone’s receiver. “Hello?”
Is this Abner Carson?”
Who’s calling?” Abner demanded.
There was a moment’s silence. “This is Frank Shatter, of Shatter Cemeteries. If you still want the sales job, it’s yours. Be in the office at 8:00 a. m.”
Abner couldn’t believe his ears! After searching for a job for over a year, he’d finally landed one! He was about to thank his new boss when he heard a click, and the line went dead. The mortician had hung up.
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After he’d worked for Frank Shatter for a few months, Abner decided that the mortician wasn’t as nearly bad as Abner had thought. He was far worse!
No matter how many sales Abner made, it was never enough for the mortician. Abner wanted to make more money, too, of course. He wanted to make as much as he could. Nevertheless, by working twelve-hour days, six days a week, Abner was able to make up the mortgage payments in which he was in arrears. By making double payments on his car for four months, he’d also been able to get current on his automobile payments. Slowly but surely, the harassing phone calls from the bill collectors stopped. The wolves, in the form of his creditors, were still at the door, but they’d stopped threatening to huff and puff and blow his house down. Last week, Abner had even been able to surprise Sandy and the girls with a few gifts in addition to the necessities of life. Things were looking up, at last!
So Abner had supposed, anyway, until the evening that Frank stopped by his office before heading home. “Abner, we have to talk,” he said.
What was this? Abner thought hopefully. Was the black-hearted mortician going to offer him a bigger piece of the pie? Maybe his boss was going to make him a partner in the business! That would be fantastic. Abner grinned. With part of the business to call his own, he’d redouble his efforts. Given a year or two, his financial problems could be over forever! Abner could make both Frank and himself wealthy men.
I’m going to have to let you go,” Frank said.
The grin died on Abner’s lips. He blinked. “What?”
I’m going to have to let you go.”
Abner felt as if the world were closing in on him. He was having trouble breathing. “Let me go?” he repeated, trying to understand what his employer was telling him.
That’s right. Today was your last day.”
I don’t understand. Sales are terrific—better than they’ve ever been.”
The mortician nodded. “That’s true, but Shatter Cemeteries was deep in the red way before I hired you. You’ve done a superb job, but it’s just too late. It’s nothing personal. It’s just a matter of supply and demand.”
Can’t you borrow enough money to hold on for another year? I know I can sell enough plots in a year to pay off whatever debts you owe.”
Frank sighed. He’d hoped to avoid bringing up the matter of what he referred to, in his own thoughts, as his “addiction,” but it was obvious that Abner wasn’t going to give up his job without a fight. “I’m a chronic gambler. I go to Vegas four or five times a year—or I used to, until this year. Together with my regular business and legitimate personal expenses, the money I borrowed to cover my gambling debts adds up to more than I can pay back. The only recourse left to me is bankruptcy.”
How much do you owe?”
Frank bristled. “That’s none of your business!”
A while back, the mortician had thought nothing of asking how much Abner had earned as a technical writer. Now that the shoe was on the other foot, the mortician didn’t seem to like somebody else nosing into his personal finances. “I think I can save your business,” Abner said. “How much do you owe?”
Frank considered whether he should confide in Abner. After a long moment, he mumbled, “All told, about $250,000.”
Grave plots sold for $500 each. Abner did some quick calculations in his head. “How long can you stall?”
The mortician shrugged. “I don’t know. A year, maybe.”
Give me a year, then.”
For what?”
To sell five hundred.”
Frank laughed. “You haven’t sold more than eight plots during your best week ”
If I save your ass, I want fifty percent of Shatter Cemeteries.”
It’s impossible.”
I can do it. Give me the chance. What have you to lose?”
The mortician shook his head. “You’re a hotshot salesman. There’s no doubt about that, but not even you can sell five hundred cemetery plots in fifty-two weeks.”
In the end, Frank had agreed to stall his creditors for as long as he could. Like the mortician, Abner had serious doubts that he could sell anywhere near five hundred burial plots in fifty-two weeks, even if Shatter Cemeteries owned the only graveyards in town, which, as a matter of fact, it did, in several of the localities within the cemetery chain’s area of operations. It was altogether likely that there would be no Shatter Cemeteries at the end of the year, no matter how hard Abner worked. Nevertheless, he intended to try. If he succeeded, he’d become a partner in the funeral business. If he failed, at least he’d keep his job for another year.
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Abner decided to say nothing to Sandy and the kids. They’d been through hell the last year or so, before Abner had landed the sales position with Shatter Cemeteries. He didn’t plan to put them through such torment again. He had twelve months. If there were any way possible, he’d sell those five hundred plots.
On the way home, he stopped at the mall and bought a miniature tea set, complete with dolls, for Penny. He purchased a Clothes Line gift certificate for his more-difficult-to-please older daughter, Susie. For Sandy, he selected a set of pearl earrings. He’d called his wife from work and asked her to fix something special for dinner tonight. After they’d eaten, he’d surprise them with their presents.
For dinner, Sandy served a garden salad, crescent rolls, T-bone steaks, peas, corn with onions and carrots, and mashed potatoes and gravy. For dessert, she served pecan pie, one of Abner’s favorites. She’d spread the table with her best linen tablecloth, serving the meal on china plates. Her final touches were the centerpiece of fresh roses and the candles that flickered at either end of the table, their flames dancing in the crystal glasses and the pitcher of iced tea. “How do you like it?” she asked after Abner had sampled the fare.
He grinned. “It’s delightful,” he complimented her “and a far cry, indeed, from the soggy burgers we were eating a few months ago.”
You deserve it. You’ve worked hard—harder than any one man should have to work. That Frank Shatter is a monster!”
Abner smiled. “You and the girls deserve nothing less.”
Yes, Susie?”
Margaret’s having a birthday party this Saturday, and she invited me.”
Well, we’ll just have to take you to the mall tomorrow so you can buy her a birthday present, won’t we?”
Can we?”
Of course we can, sweetie.”
Yes, Penny?”
Since Susie gets to go to a birthday party, can you and Mommy take me to the zoo this Saturday?”
Mommy can take you, but I have to work.”
Penny looked disappointed. “You always have to work, Daddy.”
I work so that you and Susie can buy birthday presents for your friends and go to the zoo and buy nice things.”
Penny frowned. “I miss you, Daddy.”
I miss you, Susie, and Mommy, too, and I want to spend more time with you, but I can’t right now. Times are hard, Penny, and Daddy has to work harder than ever.”
Penny continued to sulk.
I’ll tell you what we’ll do, sweetie,”
What, Daddy?”
At the end of the year, I should be able to take some time off. We’ll go on a trip—maybe to the lake for a whole week, just you, Susie, Mommy, and me. How would that be?”
Penny’s eyes lit up. “Really, Daddy?”
Really. Now, after we finish the delicious dinner your mommy made, I have a present for all of you.”
A present?” Susie cried. “What did you get us, Daddy?”
You’ll find out after dinner.”
The girls began to eat their food with gusto.
“‘After dinner’ means after your father and I have finished our meal,” Sandy informed the children.
Aw, Mommy!” the girls cried in unison.
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After dinner, the family retired to the living room, and Abner handed out the presents he’d bought. Susie and Penny were delighted with their gifts, as was Sandy, but she said, “Abner, the girls and I do miss you. It seems that you’re never home anymore.”
Like I told the girls, times are tough, and money’s tight. You know that.”
Promise me that you’ll take some time off at the end of the year.”
I said I would, didn’t I?”
Yes,” she admitted. “You said you would.”
Have I ever lied to you?”
Promise me.”
Abner laughed. “All right, dear, I promise.”
Sandy picked up the tiny, velvet-covered box she’d set on the coffee table. Opening it, she admired the pearl earrings. “You shouldn’t have bought me these,” she chided him. “We can’t afford things like this.”
We don’t have to eat soggy hamburgers anymore,” he replied, “and, once in a while, I can, and will, pamper you and the girls.” He took her hand. “By the way, I increased the amount of my life insurance to one million dollars.”
Frank, I don’t like to talk about—”
I know. You think I’m going to live forever, but you need to know, for your sake and the girls’, if something should happen to me.”
She kissed his cheek. “I love you,” he said.
I love you, too,” he answered. Again, Abner reminded himself of what a wonderful person his wife was. She’d always been a loving and faithful companion who believed in him with all her heart. She’d been there when times were hard, and he’d do his damnedest to make sure those days were gone forever. Never again would he put his older daughter through the humiliation of not being able to go to a friend’s birthday party because she couldn’t afford to buy a ten-dollar present. Never again would he serve his family soggy hamburgers for dinner. Never again would he have his beautiful, devoted wife cry all night because she wasn’t sure whether she’d have a car in her driveway in the morning or a roof over her head at night. Those dark days were over forever. Abner would see to that if he had to work twenty hours a day, every day.
After they’d tucked the girls into bed, Abner told his wife, “I got something else on my way home from work, too, besides the presents. Death of a Salesman, starring Dustin Hoffman.”
I thought maybe we’d watch it tonight.”
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Abner didn’t merely redouble his efforts to sell cemetery plots; he tripled and quadrupled them. At the end of the three months, he’d sold a hundred and twenty, a feat that no other salesman who’d worked for Frank in the thirty-five years the mortician had owned and operated the chain of cemeteries he’d named in his honor had ever equaled. At the end of six months, looking haggard, Abner had sold a hundred and forty additional plots, breaking his own record. Frank allowed himself to share Abner’s hope that he really would be able to sell five hundred plots by the end of the year. After nine months, looking like a zombie, Abner had sold a hundred and thirty eight more plots.
The final three months went by quickly, despite the long hours that Abner labored. He’d sold a grand total of four-hundred-and-ninety-three plots. With only a week left, he had to sell seven additional plots. Otherwise, it would be too late, and all his toil would have been in vain. Shatter Cemeteries would be history, and he could bury his hope of being named Frank’s partner.
By Friday night, despite his having worked around the clock three nights of the week, it was apparent that he wouldn’t make it. He’d needed to sell seven more plots, and he’d sold only five.
Abner lingered at the office. Although he was physically and emotionally exhausted, he couldn’t bear the thought of going home and telling Sandy that he’d failed her and the girls again. He hadn’t saved their cars or their home. He hadn’t spared his family the humiliation of poverty. He hadn’t prevented his family’s financial ruin. All his hard work had only postponed the inevitable. The wolves would be at his door again and, this time, they would huff and puff and blow his house down.
He sighed. He’d have to break the news to them sooner or later. He may as well get it over with. He turned out the lights and locked the door. Outside, the night was full of stars, but it seemed darker than ever to Abner, and there was a chill in the air. A low fog clung to the headstones, and a dog howled somewhere in the distance.
On his way home, half-asleep and contemplating the financial disaster that his life had become, Abner managed to get lost. He shook his head, when he discovered he’d made a series of wrong turns. He didn’t recognize any of the storefronts along the street he was on.
He parked at the curb, in front of a store that was open for business, despite the late—or, rather, the early—hour. According to his watch, it was after midnight. He’d left work at eight. Where had all the time gone? he wondered. Had he been driving around in a daze for four hours, half-asleep behind the wheel and contemplating his failure as a salesman, a husband, and a father?
He got out of the car, turning the collar of his jacket up. It wasn’t just cool out now; it was downright cold. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he started toward the store—and stopped as he saw the sign in the window that read “Guns For Sale.” He didn’t need to buy a gun. He owned his own pistol, a Colt .45, and a rifle, complete with a telescopic lens. He’d been so busy working lately that he hadn’t remembered the weapons.
He smiled as a plan began to form in his mind. All he needed was some ammo.
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On Monday, Frank paid off every penny of his loans, and Shatter Cemeteries was his—well, his and his new partner’s. “I’ve seen the inside of my last casino, you can bet on that,” Frank said, grinning. He couldn’t stop grinning. “I don’t know how they hell you did it, but you did it.”
The fact that Shatter Cemeteries is the only burial ground in half a dozen towns where you—correction, where we—do business helped,” Abner confided, “but so, unfortunately, did the killer who struck in one of those towns this weekend.”
Those words made the grin on Frank’s face disappear. Over the weekend, the killer of whom Abner spoke had killed two business executives who resided in the affluent little town of Singing Hills, where there was no cemetery except the one that Frank—or Frank and Abner—owned. “Have you heard anything more about that? Have they caught the bastard?”
No,” Abner said, “not yet. I don’t mind telling you that I felt like a vulture, selling those plots, but I kept telling myself I was providing the widows a needed service. Besides, we needed the money.”
Like it or not, graveyards are our business and, like any business, Shatter Cemeteries is all about supply and demand.”
You’re right, I know. Still, I could do without a demand that results from the senseless slaughter of innocent people by some sociopath.”
Abner nodded. “That’s what the media people are calling the killer—the Singing Hills Sociopath.” As an ironic gesture, Abner had thought about following the guidance in the how-to books concerning what to say and do before, during, and after an interview. The consensus of opinion was that the interviewee should follow up the interview by sending the interviewer a post-interview thank you card or note. He’d thought about signing the thank you cards with the name with which the media had dubbed the killer—“Thanks for nothing—The Singing Hills Sociopath”—but he was afraid that sending a card might tip off the police to the fact that the killer had selected his victims with some sort of personal vendetta in mind. The cops might tie him in with the unsuccessful interviews he’d had with the victims a few months before their deaths.
Frank snorted. “I guess it has a certain ring to it,” he said sarcastically.
I thought I’d take a week or so off. I promised Sandy and the girls we’d go to the lake, maybe do a little boating, a little swimming, a little fishing, a little hunting. You know, just take our minds off things for a while.”
Take all the time you want, partner.”
Thanks, Frank.”
Abner started for the door.
And, Abner?”
He turned. “Yeah?”
Don’t kill yourself about selling cemetery plots to the families of the shooting victims. You’re not a vulture.”
Abner smiled. “Thanks.”
He crossed the office, opened the door, and stepped outside. Walking through the cemetery to his car, he reminded himself to buy another box of ammunition for his rifle.
There was a lake in Elmwood City, where another of the business owners lived who’d turned him down for a job a few months ago—and Shatter Cemeteries was the only burial ground anywhere near that town. He might as well mix a little business with pleasure.