By Appointment or By Chance ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
It was 1899. The old century was in its death spiral and a new century was about to be born. At this auspicious time of new beginning, I opened a business on the main street of the town of Bended Knee.
I had worked as a teacher, a journalist and a clerk in a department store in the city, but I dreamed of a profession where I was in sole command. I hated having to be accountable to anybody for anything. I wanted to be accountable only to myself.
I went to a demonstration of photography in a college lecture hall and, after sitting through a lecture and a practical demonstration of portrait photography, I was certain it was something at which I could make a living. I bought a couple of books and studied them, front to back, with interest. I took my savings and bought a camera and all the necessary equipment. In Bended Knee, I rented a commercial space in the heart of the business district. I employed a carpenter to construct a wall, so that the front part of the space would be public and the back part private. A professional sign painter painted my name across the window and the words Portrait Photographer underneath and, underneath that, By Appointment or By Chance.
Photography had been around since the days of Andrew Jackson or before, but to most people it was still a novelty. If you lived in a small town, it was all the rage to put on your glad rags and go and sit for your portrait, especially if you were beautiful. Then, no matter how poorly time treated you, no matter how ugly and corpulent you became, you would always have the photographic image of yourself to remind the world of your former glory. Your descendants would still have it in a quaint little frame decades after your death and one day they would sit around and say to each other, “Now, just who was he?” or, “Didn’t she die of diphtheria when she was only about twenty-three?”
Families wanted their portraits taken as a group and then separately. Some families had as many as eight or ten children. Mothers wanted their children to sit for a portrait every year, traditionally on their birthdays. Mantelpieces and chairside tables abounded with portraits in frames. People gave them to relatives as gifts at Christmas. Photography as a business was a modest gold mine for the right sort of fellow.
And then, of course, there was death photography. People wanted portraits of their deceased family members, in a coffin or on a bed, sometimes posed with the living members of the family or with the family dog, sometimes sitting propped up as though still alive. Some photographers painted eyes or rosy cheeks on the finished portraits, but I never employed that vulgar technique. I figured that once a person was dead, it was pointless to try to make him or her seem alive again.
While business was booming in my studio in town, I was willing, more often than not, to go out of town to take portraits of the deceased, since the deceased were not able to come into the studio and sit for their portraits. I could usually charge any amount for this service and people would pay it because the resultant photo was a blessed remembrance of the departed loved one and money was, where the death sentiment was concerned, no object. This is not to say I cheated people; I charged them what I thought they could pay. If someone lived in a fine house with many rooms and beautiful furnishings, I had no qualms about charging top prices. If, however, they dressed in rags and lived in a falling-down shack, I did the work for practically nothing.
At the time of which I speak, I was still about twelve years away from owning my first automobile, so I traveled by horse-drawn wagon. I had a specially-made enclosed wagon to keep my equipment dry if it should happen to rain, and it rained more than it didn’t, at any season of the year. So, I found myself slogging over unfamiliar country roads, looking for a place I wasn’t sure existed. Sometimes it took me all day to get to where I needed to go and I would end up staying the night. I wasn’t above bedding down inside my wagon if there was no other choice. I kept telling myself that next year, or maybe the year after, I’d hire an assistant to do the driving, carry the equipment and perform other trivial tasks. I might even train him to go on the out-of-town forays on his own.
Children died more often than adults. There was always a fever or an infection or pneumonia or something to carry them off. If you thought about it at all, you knew that a competent doctor might have fixed them up with a pill, a bottle of medicine, or just a word of advice, if only a doctor had been around when needed. I photographed dead babies in sateen-covered boxes in the family parlor, surrounded by sprays of forget-me-nots; babies in their mother’s arms, with a brood of older children looking on; babies just ready to go into their graves with smiles on their faces and a stuffed toy in their arms; twin babies in one tiny coffin with their arms entwined. Once I photographed a baby and a little brown-and-white dog side by side in a wooden box, ready to embark together on their journey through eternity.
Then there were the older children: the tiny six-year-old girl whose father accidentally shot her through the heart; the boy, eight years old, who didn’t get out of the way of the train fast enough; the girl, age ten, who died of heart failure when her mother locked her in a mausoleum at the cemetery to teach her a lesson. Most parents were good parents, though, and wanted a photographic remembrance of their child. I gave them what they wanted and needed. For a price.
I was on my way back to town after one of these missions to photograph a dead boy (he fell on a pitchfork in the barn, punctured his stomach, and bled to death before the doctor arrived; his mother pretended he wouldn’t be quite so dead as long as she had a photograph of him laid out in a little flower-bedecked coffin in the family dining room), when I saw a woman dressed in black standing beside the road underneath a big tree waving a white handkerchief to attract my attention. I stopped the wagon and looked at the woman with a distinct lack of friendliness.
“Are you the man what takes photographs of the dead?” she asked.
“That’s what it says on the side of the wagon,” I said.
“I’m Mrs. Wallace Worth,” she said. “I live in that house over there.” She pointed and I looked. It was a large brick house set back about two hundred feet from the road.
“I’m just coming off a case,” I said. “I’m headed back to town.”
“Well, you might come back tomorrow if you’re agreeable.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “Just what is it you need?”
She looked at the ground and put her hand to her forehead and said, “Death has paid a call at my house.”
“You want a photograph of the deceased?”
“Yes, but it’s more than that.”
“You look like a strong man,” she said, “and quite young.”
I thought for a moment that she was making advances at me. I gave her a sour look to let her know I was not at home for that kind of nonsense.
“My husband, Wallace Worth Senior, is lying in his coffin in the bay window between the parlor and the dining room. The sun shines on him most of the day. He hasn’t been embalmed and it’s been three days now.”
“Why don’t you go ahead and bury him?”
“Tomorrow, April twenty-third, would have been his fifty-seventh birthday. When he knew he was dying, he made me promise that I wouldn’t have him buried until that day. He was very superstitious. He studied numerology and he believed that nothing would ever go right for him in the afterlife or for his kinfolk still living on the earth if he did not go into the ground on the day he was born.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that superstition,” I said.
“So, if you could consent to take my dear husband’s photograph before he at last goes into the ground on his birthday, I will make it worth your while.”
“I won’t do it for less than fifty dollars,” I said, believing she would balk at the price and I could be on my way.
“All right, but we’ll negotiate terms later on. You see, there’s more to my request than I’ve stated.”
“I haven’t eaten since early this morning,” I said.
“I believe we might deign to find you a crust of bread somewhere in the house for you, sir,” she said.
She instructed me to pull my wagon around to the side of the house where she was waiting for me. When she took me inside, there was the unmistakable stench of death.
“I know,” she said. “He’s starting to smell. Nature takes its course.”
I took my handkerchief out of my pocket and held it over my mouth and nose. It was probably a good thing I hadn’t eaten.
“Just show me where the deceased is,” I said, “and we’ll get this thing over with.”
He was lying in a mahogany casket, very expensive looking, suffused with milky light from a bay window. Enormous potted ferns lay at the head and foot of the casket. Smaller containers of flowers were ranged on the floor along the front.
“He loved the sunlight,” Mrs. Worth said. “I just couldn’t see blocking out the light with heavy curtains. It’ll be the last earthly light he’ll ever see.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll bring in my equipment from the wagon and we’ll have this done in no time at all.”
While I got the camera set up and everything ready to take the picture, Mrs. Worth and the housemaid, Nola, hovered in the background. I got the feeling that Mrs. Worth thought I needed to be watched lest I steal something valuable.
I took two photographs of the deceased from different angles and then Mrs. Worth wanted one where she was standing next to the casket looking down into her husband’s face. When I was finished, I said, “That’ll be fifty dollars, ma’am, if you please. When your photographs are ready, I’ll send you a postcard and you can pick them up in town at your convenience.”
I made ready to leave and Mrs. Worth just stood there looking at me with Nola hovering behind her shoulder.
“I believe I mentioned there was something else,” Mrs. Worth said.
“My son, Wallace Worth Junior, died a day and a half after his father. He is upstairs in his room, lying on his bed. He has been bathed and dressed for burial.”
“You want a photograph of him, too?” I asked.
“Yes, I do and then…”
“Then what, ma’am?”
“Nola and I are here alone. Neither one of us are very strong. After you take Junior’s picture, I would like to prevail upon you to pick him up and carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin with his father and then close the lid. The boys will be here early in the morning—on my husband’s fifty-seventh birthday, I believe I mentioned—to perform the burial.”
“Did your son die of anything contagious? Anything I need to know about?”
“Oh, no, sir! He had heart trouble. Nothing catching, I can assure you.”
“How old is the boy?”
“He’s fifteen years old, sir, and not very big. I don’t think he would weigh more than about ninety pounds. I’ll pay you twenty extra dollars to carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin with his father and close the lid.”
“So, that’ll be fifty to photograph your husband, thirty to photograph your son, and twenty to carry the boy downstairs. That’s a hundred all together.”
“That seems fair, sir. I have the cash in the wall safe in my bedroom.”
“All right, let’s photograph the boy, then.”
Mrs. Worth took me up a broad carpeted staircase, up one flight and then up another. We went down a hallway to a closed door, first Mrs. Worth, then me, and then silent Nola. Mrs. Worth turned to look at me before she opened the door.
“In the midst of life we are in death,” she said.
She opened the door and I saw the boy, Wallace Worth Junior, lying on his back on the bed. I walked over to the bed and studied the photographic subject for a minute or two, trying to decide the best angle from which to photograph him.
He was dressed in a fine-looking dark suit with knickers, gray stockings and expensive-looking, high-top leather shoes. He wore a high collar with a cravat, just as a grown man would, and in the cravat a diamond stickpin.
“He looks very natural,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
I heard Mrs. Worth sob behind me and Nola followed suit. “Maybe it would best if you just leave me to my work,” I said.
Mrs. Worth and Nola went out of the room and I carried my camera up the many steps to the little bedroom on the top floor where the boy lay. I got set up to take the picture and, as usual, I photographed the deceased from a couple different angles. When I was finished, I carried my camera back down and loaded them into my wagon, so I would be ready to leave as soon as I did the rest of what I had promised to do.
When I went back inside, Mrs. Worth and Nola were waiting at the foot of the stairs for me. Without a word, the three of us went up silently up the stairs again to the boy’s bedroom.
I could have picked him up and thrown him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, but I didn’t think that was appropriate under the circumstances. Looking at his face, I bent over him and slipped my right arm underneath the upper part of his back and my left hand underneath the crook in his knees. I hefted him off the bed and when I did I had the surprise of my life.
The boy sputtered and let out an exhalation of air. I continued to hold him, not knowing what else to do, and his entire body bucked as if he had just sat on hot ashes. I eased him back down on the bed and took a step back.
“This boy’s not dead!” I said.
He gasped for air and continued sputtering and making guttural sounds. When I could take my eyes off him, I looked to Mrs. Worth and I saw that she had collapsed on the floor. Thinking she had just fainted from the shock of seeing her boy come alive when she thought he was dead, I leaned over and hefted her onto the bed. While I was doing this, the boy swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned forward so that his face was parallel to the floor.
“Get a wet cloth!” I said to Nola.
Nola was standing in the doorway sobbing, but she went out of the room at my command and when she returned with the wet cloth I could see that Mrs. Worth wasn’t breathing. Not being a doctor, I didn’t know what to do for her, so I began rubbing and patting the backs of her hands while Nola dabbed at her head with the wet cloth.
After about five minutes of these ministrations, I leaned over to Mrs. Worth and put my ear against her chest. I heard nothing.
“I’m afraid she’s dead,” I said. “The shock was too much for her.”
At this news, Nola shrieked and ran from the room. I heard her shoes clomping all the way down the stairs. What she did then I had no way of knowing.
I turned to the boy, Wallace Worth Junior, sitting propped up against the headboard of his bed, feet on the floor. “Are you all right?” I asked him.
“Um, no,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I’m a photographer. Your mother asked me to come up here and take your picture.”
“Why would she do that? Have I been asleep?”
“I’m afraid your mother and your father are both dead.”
“He looked at the still form of his mother and all he said was, “Oh.”
“Where is the nearest doctor?” I asked him.
“Um, I’m not sure there is one out here. My father wanted to live in the country. He hated the town.”
“You know, don’t you, that your father is laid out in his coffin in the parlor downstairs?”
“Yes, I know that,” he said. “We were going to have a funeral.”
“Do you know where that girl lives? That Nola? It seems that she’s the only person here now to do anything for you.”
“She’s ignorant,” he said. “She can’t do anything without mother telling her what to do.”
“Would she be able to go and find a doctor?”
“She wouldn’t be able to find her own bunghole with both hands.”
“Well, I’m going back to town now,” I said. “When I get there, I’ll go to the sheriff and tell him what happened out here. He’ll send somebody out to see to things. Do you want to stay here with your mother, or do you want to come with me?”
“No, I’ll go,” he said. “She wasn’t really my mother, anyway.”
“If you want to take some things, pack a bag or anything, I’ll wait,” I said.
“You can wait here for me,” he said. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”
To keep from being in the small bedroom where I would have to look at a dead woman, I went out of the room, back along the hallway, and sat on the top step and leaned my head against the wall. In fifteen minutes, Wallace Worth Junior appeared, carrying a small valise. He went to the kitchen and got himself a drink of water and then he was ready to go.
It was late afternoon with a sky that threatened rain. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to make it back to town before the rain started. After a couple of miles, I turned and looked at Wallace Worth Junior, expecting him to show signs of mortal illness. I wasn’t sure what to say to him. His parents were dead but he was alive. It was a dilemma any way you looked at it.
“Do you have any family in town?” I asked
“No, I don’t think so,” he said.
“You’ll have to have somebody to stay with,” I said.
“If they’ll get the dead bodies out of my house, I can stay there.”
“No, I don’t think they’ll let you stay way out here by yourself in that big house.”
“Who’s going to stop me?”
“Well, you’re a minor.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means you won’t be legally recognized as an adult until you’re at least eighteen years of age.”
“The house is mine now. I know father would have wanted me to have it, now that she’s dead.”
“Your mother thought you were dead.”
“She wasn’t my mother, I told you. She was my stepmother.”
“Well, whatever she was, she thought you were dead.”
“I was dead.”
“And you came back to life?”
“It’s happened before. I don’t know why.”
“You’re a miracle of medical science, then,” I said.
“I saw God,” he said. “I spoke to Him.”
“What did he say?”
“I would expect you to ask a question like that.”
Silly as it was, my feelings were hurt. “You don’t know anything about me,” I said. “I’m doing you a favor by giving you a ride to town.”
“Don’t you think I could find my own way to town if I needed to?” he said.
“You can get out and walk to town for all I care!”
“God is a slight man with thin lips. People think of him as having a long white beard, but he’s clean-shaven.”
“That’s a fascinating piece of useless information,” I said.
“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. He wears a monocle in his right eye.”
“Don’t tell me God has an eye deficiency!” I said.
“Go ahead and make fun of me. I don’t care.”
“Did God have any special message for you?”
“He told me to await further instructions.”
I laughed and had a little coughing spell. That was enough God talk. When I was through coughing and could speak again, I said, “You must be hungry.”
“Why must I be hungry?” he asked.
“Your step-momma said you had been dead for a day and a half.”
“I was dead.”
“All right. I believe you.”
“Yes, I’m hungry,” he said. “I could eat.”
“When we get to town, then, we’ll get you a good meal.”
“In the morning I’ll see my father’s lawyer and tell him they’re dead. He’ll advise me what to do.”
“You’ll need a place to stay tonight,” I said.
“I can manage,” he said.
“We’ll get you a room in the hotel for tonight. I’ll pay for it, but you’ll need to pay me back as soon as you can.”
“Most people are evil,” he said. “I see the evil, the vileness, hanging over them like a cloud. I don’t see it in you, though.”
“Is that your way of thanking me?” I asked.
“Not at all.”
“You do flatter me.”
When we got back to town, I headed straight for the hotel. I had my horse stabled there and locked my wagon so nobody would become curious about what might be inside worth stealing. These trivial matters tended to, Wallace Worth Junior and I went into the hotel restaurant and sat at a round table. After we placed our order, I noticed the other people in the restaurant looking at us, before I realized they were looking at him.
“You see the way they’re looking at me?” he said.
“They’re not used to seeing a young fellow all dressed up in formal attire. There aren’t any opera houses or ballrooms in this town.”
“You really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He had a pointed way about him, old beyond his years. I could almost believe I was conversing with a grown man rather than a boy in his teens.
“They know I’ve seen God and will see Him again.”
“They don’t know any such thing,” I said.
The food came, huge amounts of beefsteak, boiled potatoes, carrots and green beans. The boy ate as much food as I’ve ever seen any one person eat at one time, and then he said he was tired and wanted to go to bed. I figured he must be upset at the strange turn of events his life had taken that day, but he seemed perfectly calm and unemotional.
After I paid the tab for our meal, we went into the hotel, where I engaged a room for him to stay for the night. I asked him if he was afraid to stay by himself in a strange hotel room and he laughed at me. “I’ve been by myself since the day I was born,” he said.
“You are an odd one,” I said.
He signed his name in the hotel register and the clerk handed him the key. Before he went upstairs to his room, I put my hand on his shoulder and told him I’d come by in the morning at eight-thirty to take him to his father’s lawyer and for him to meet me in the lobby at that time. He nodded his head and turned and went up the stairs.
When I got home, I took a hot bath and fell into bed and slept soundly until thunder woke me up at seven in the morning. I dressed and consumed a light breakfast and then I set out for the hotel. I was sitting in the lobby reading a newspaper at twenty minutes after eight. I expected Wallace Worth Junior to come down the stairs at any moment.
At eight forty-five he still hadn’t made an appearance and at nine o’clock I was still sitting there holding the newspaper in both hands. At ten minutes after nine, I went over to the desk and asked the clerk if he could check on the boy in room three-twelve for me. He had been supposed to meet me and he never appeared.
The clerk checked his book and looked up at me and said, “A boy, you say?”
“Yes, a boy,” I said.
“A small boy?”
“No, a big boy. Almost an adult.”
The clerk looked down and then looked back at me and sighed. “Room three-twelve has not been occupied for several days,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“I was with the boy last night. I engaged the room for him to spend the night in and he was supposed to meet me here, in the lobby, this morning at eight-thirty.”
“Are you sure it was this hotel?” the clerk asked.
“Will you let me take the key and go up to room three-twelve and check for myself?”
“That would be against regulations, sir.”
“Then open the door yourself to make sure the boy is all right.”
The clerk went with me up to the third floor. We walked to the door of room three-twelve and he inserted the key into the lock and pushed the door open for me to enter. The bed was neatly made up. The window shades were drawn. It was clear the room had not been occupied the night before.
“He signed the register last night,” I said to the clerk. “I was with him. His name, Wallace Worth Junior, will be there if you only bother yourself to look.”
We went back down to the lobby and the clerk checked the register from the night before. “No such name here,” he said.
“Can I look?”
He turned the register around and I read over the four or five names from the night before. The name Wallace Worth Junior was not there.
I thanked the clerk and went back out into the rain. I went to my photography studio and opened for business. Because of the rain, it was a slow morning. I had a chance to develop the plates from the day before. First I did the boy who died from the pitchfork wound through the stomach and then Wallace Worth Senior. Those photographs turned out beautifully.
The two plates I had taken of Wallace Worth Junior baffled me. There was no boy there, no Wallace Worth Junior—only a neatly made-up bed with an attractive embroidered coverlet. Why would I have taken photographs of an empty bed? I had no explanation.
By afternoon I was starting to feel sick. I ached in every joint and was having trouble swallowing. I couldn’t keep anything on my stomach, even a sip of water. I knew I had a fever.
That night I was so sick I was sure I was dying. My mind was still clear enough for me to know I had failed to ask one very important question when I was in the Worth house: exactly what did Wallace Worth Senior die of? I had spent more than two hours inside a pest house filled with disease germs. I was so disgusted with myself for not being more careful that I thought I deserved to die.
I didn’t want to die alone and have my disgusted, bloated body found only after the neighbors noticed a terrible odor, so I checked myself into the nearest hospital. The doctor took one look at me and put me in the isolation ward. I was sure I was going to die, if not that night then very soon.
For two days and nights I was in and out of consciousness. I was barely aware of anything but I knew that nurses and doctors fussed around my bed at all hours of the day and night.
On the third day I woke up and was surprised to find I was still alive. A nurse with a big mole on her cheek was standing beside my bed looking down at me.
“I saw God,” I said to the nurse. “I spoke to Him.”
“What did he say?” she asked.
“I would expect you to ask a silly question like that.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“God is a slight man with thin lips. People think of him as having a long white beard, but he’s clean-shaven.”
“I don’t think I would have recognized him,” the nurse said.
“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. He wears a monocle in his right eye. He spoke to me.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me to stand by for further instructions.”
The nurse was gone and there was somebody else standing beside my bed. The hours passed. The window in my room went from light to dark. I heard it raining outside and thundering and those were sounds I had always liked.
Once when I woke up from one of my naps, Wallace Worth Junior was standing at the foot of my bed, smiling at me.
“I wondered what happened to you!” I said. “I’m happy to know you made it all right.”
Then I realized that somebody else was standing there to the side of Wallace Worth Junior. He was a slight man with thin lips, only a little taller than Wallace Worth Junior. He wore a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. In his right eye was a monocle.
“Who are you?” I asked.
The slight man with thin lips smiled at Wallace Worth Junior and then they both smiled at me. They were there to convey to me, I knew, with no words being spoken, that I was going to live.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp