By Appointment or By Chance ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in The Literary Hatchet Issue 21.)
The year 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 Main Street in the town of Echo Bend.
I had worked as a teacher, editor at a small newspaper and clerk in a department store, 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, I was certain portrait photography 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 Echo Bend, I rented commercial space in the heart of the business district. I engaged 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 underneath my name these words: Portrait Photographer, By Appointment or By Chance.
Photography had been around for a long time but to most people it was still a novelty. If you had the money to spend, it was all the rage to put on your glad rags and go and sit for your portrait. 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 you of what you once looked like, when you were at your best. Your descendants would still have your photographic image 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 sitting in a chair, oftentimes posed with the living members of the family or with the family dog. 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 town, I was willing, more often than not, to go out of town to take portraits of the deceased, since the deceased were by necessity bound to one spot. I could usually charge any amount for this service and people would pay it willingly 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 this time I was still traveling 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 most days at certain times of the year. Often 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 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 toy animal 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 while cleaning a gun; 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 basement with rats to punish her. Most parents were good parents, though, and brokenhearted at the loss of a child. I provided them with the photographic remembrance that helped to ease their pain and made the child seem forever close and not so far away after all.
I was on my way back to town after one of these missions to photograph a ten-year-old boy who had fallen on a pitchfork when I saw a woman standing beside the road waving a handkerchief at me. I pulled up with impatience and stopped, ready to growl at her like an old bear.
“You’re the photography man?” she asked.
“I am,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m Mrs. Trenton Fairman. I live in that house over there.” She pointed and I looked at 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 in the morning, if you’re agreeable.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “Just what is it you need?”
She sighed and wiped tears from her cheeks. “Death has paid a call at my house.”
“You want a photograph of the deceased?”
“Yes, but it’s more than that.”
“What, may I ask?”
“You look like a strong man,” she said, “and quite young.”
“My husband, Trenton Fairman 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 goes at last into the ground on his birthday, I will make it worth your while.”
“I couldn’t do it for less than fifty dollars,” I said, believing she would balk at the price and that would end the matter.
“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 something suitable in the house for you to eat, sir.”
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.
She instructed the housemaid, a large, ungainly girl named Myrtle, to fix me a sandwich but I said, “Never mind. A drink of water will do. Just show me where the deceased is 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. Fairman said. “I just couldn’t see blocking out the light with heavy curtains. It’ll be the last earthly light that will ever shine on him.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll bring my equipment in from the wagon and we’ll have this over in no time at all.”
While I got the camera set up and everything ready to take the picture, Mrs. Fairman and the housemaid, Myrtle, hovered in the background, watching my every move. I would have preferred that they go about their business, but they had never seen picture-taking before and were interested in how it worked.
I took two photographs of the deceased from different angles and then Mrs. Fairman wanted one with her 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 believe I mentioned there was something else,” Mrs. Fairman said.
“My son, Trenton Fairman 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?”
“Myrtle 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.”
“How old is the boy?”
“He’s fifteen years old, sir, and not very big. I think he could not weigh more than a hundred pounds. I’ll pay you an extra twenty dollars to carry him downstairs and place him in the coffin beside his father and close the lid.”
“Are you sure they’ll both fit in the same coffin?”
“Oh, yes, sir! Comfortably, I think.”
“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. Fairman took me up a broad carpeted staircase, up one flight and then up another. We went down a hallway to a closed door, Mrs. Fairman first, then me, and then silent Myrtle. Mrs. Fairman turned to look at me before she opened the door.
“Why does God punish us so?” she said.
She opened the door and I saw the boy, Trenton Fairman Junior, lying on his back on the bed. He was a fine-looking boy, nothing like his hatchet-faced father, dressed in a 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, with a diamond stickpin.
“He looks to be asleep,” I said.
Mrs. Fairman and Myrtle sobbed behind me.
“Maybe it would best if you leave me to my work,” I said.
They went out of the room and I went back downstairs to the parlor where the father lay and got my photographic equipment and carried it back up. I set up to take the picture and, as usual, I photographed the deceased from three different angles.
When I was finished, I carried my equipment back down, out the door, and loaded it into my wagon so I would be ready to leave as soon as Mrs. Fairman paid me the money she owed me.
Mrs. Fairman and Myrtle were waiting for me when I went back inside. Now it was time to carry the boy downstairs. The three of us went silently back up the stairs.
With Mrs. Fairman and Myrtle standing in the doorway, I approached the bed. Cautiously, I slipped my right arm under the boy’s back and my left arm under his knees. As I hefted him off the bed, I got the surprise of my life. His body went rigid, he opened his eyes and looked at me and gasped for air as if he had been under water.
“He’s not dead!” I said, laying him back down.
“Oh, oh, oh!” Mrs. Fairman said and Myrtle screamed.
“What made you think he was dead?” I said.
He continued to revive, moving his arms and legs, pulling at his clothes, as if he had suddenly become animated by the throwing of a switch. When I looked away from him over to Mrs. Fairman, I saw that she had collapsed on the floor. She convulsed violently and then stopped moving.
“Has she also been sick?” I asked Myrtle.
I approached the recumbent woman and took her hand in mine and began patting it because I didn’t know what else to do. I administered these little slaps to her hands and face and after a while I could see she wasn’t breathing. I put my ear to her chest and heard nothing.
“I’m afraid she’s dead,” I said. “The shock was too much for her.”
Myrtle gasped and ran from the room. I heard her shoes clomping all the way down the stairs.
I turned to the boy, Trenton Fairman Junior, sitting on the bed, feet on the floor. “Are you all right?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I photograph the dead. Your mother asked me to come up here and take your picture.”
“Why would she do that?”
“She believed you to be dead for the last day and half.”
“Oh, yes. That’s right.”
“You know your father is dead, lying downstairs in the parlor?”
“Yes, we were going to have a funeral.”
“I’m afraid your mother is dead, too.”
He looked over at her lying on the floor and shook his head.
“Where is the nearest doctor?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure there is one.”
“What about that girl? Myrtle? Does she live in the house with the family?”
“I don’t know where she lives.”
“She’s the only one left.”
“She’s ignorant,” he said.
“Would she be able find a doctor?”
“She wouldn’t be able to find her bunghole with both hands.”
“I’m going back to town now,” I said. “I’ll go to the sheriff and tell him what happened. Do you want to stay here do you want to go with me?”
“You don’t want to stay here with your mother?”
“She wasn’t my mother. She was only play-acting.”
He asked me to wait while he changed his clothes and got a drink of water. I went outside and leaned against a tree in the front yard. In five minutes he came out of the house wearing a dress suit, carrying a small valise. He locked the door and we departed in my carriage.
It was late afternoon and the sky was threatening rain. I didn’t like the way the day had turned out. On top of everything else, I hadn’t collected the hundred dollars that was owed me and there would be no way to get it now.
For the first couple of miles, Trenton Fairman Junior said nothing, so after a while I turned to him to see how he was faring. With both of his parents dead, I expected him at least to need a reassuring adult to speak to.
“Do you have any family in town?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“You’ll have to have somebody to stay with,” I said.
“After the dead bodies are removed from my house, I can stay there. The house belongs to me now.”
“I don’t think they’ll let you stay in that big house all by yourself without an adult present.”
“You’re a minor.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re underage. Still a child.”
“I’ll bet I’m more grown up than you.”
“It’s not a subject for argument. I’m just telling you the law won’t let you live in the house alone until you’re old enough.”
“I’d like to see them try and stop me.”
“Didn’t your father have a lawyer who handled his estate?”
“Yes, I think so. A lawyer in town. I think him name was Henry something.”
“Well, that’s a start. There can’t be that many lawyers in Echo Bend with Henry for a first name.”
He was silent then. He looked straight ahead as if I wasn’t even there.
“Your mother thought you were dead,” I said. “How’s that for irony?”
“She wasn’t my mother, I told you. She was my stepmother.”
“Well, whatever she was, she thought you were dead.”
“I was dead.”
“As you stated earlier. You were dead and then what happened? You just came back to life?”
“I don’t have any explanation for it, but that’s what happened. Not everything is explainable.”
“What happened while you were dead? Do you remember anything?”
“I saw God. He spoke to me.”
“What did he say?”
“I would expect you to ask a silly question like that.”
“Don’t you think anybody would want to know what God says when he speaks.”
“God is a compact man with thin lips and a small mustache, almost as if it had been drawn on. People think of him as being big and old and having a long white beard, but he isn’t any of those things.”
“I don’t think I would have known him,” I said.
“He wears a black dress suit with a gray cravat and a ruby stickpin. And a monocle in his right eye.”
“Don’t tell me God has an eye deficiency! Or is the monocle just more of an affectation?”
“Go ahead and make fun of me. I don’t care.”
“All right. What did God say to you?”
“He said the Saints are with him in heaven.”
“Is that all?”
“He told me to await further instructions.”
“What did He mean by that?”
“You tell me.”
I sighed. I was starting to get bored with the conversation. “You must be hungry,” I said for a change of subject.
“Why must I be hungry?” he asked.
“You were dead for a day and a half. Dead people don’t eat.”
“Yes, I suppose I’m hungry,” he said. “I could eat.”
“When we get to town, we’ll get you a good dinner.”
“In the morning I’ll go see Henry what’s-his-name and tell him my stepmother decided to die along with my father. He’ll advise me what to do.”
“You’ll need a place to stay tonight,” I said.
“I can manage.”
“We’ll get you a room in the hotel for tonight.”
“I don’t have any money. I know that she had money in the safe, my father’s money, but she never told me the combination.”
“I’ll advance you the money.”
“Forget it. I’ll just walk around until morning. I’ve done it before.”
“That doesn’t seem the right thing to do,” I said.
When we got back to town, I went straight to the sheriff’s office, went inside and told him what had happened at the Fairman place, that there were two dead bodies there and nobody to tend to them. He asked me a dozen questions, where I might be reached for further questioning, and then he told me I could go. I went back out to my carriage and drove to the hotel. I stabled my horse and locked my wagon so nobody would become curious about what might be inside worth stealing. These trivial matters tended to, Trenton Fairman Junior and I went into the crowded hotel dining room and sat at a round table in the middle of the room. After we placed our order, I noticed the people in the restaurant looking at us and then 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 a dress suit. Not in this town. You look like you just got here from someplace else.”
“It isn’t what I’m wearing.”
“What is it then?”
“They know I’ve seen God and will see Him again.”
“They don’t know any such thing.”
The food came, huge amounts of beefsteak, fried potatoes, carrots and green beans. After we ate, the boy 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 for our meal, we went into the hotel, where I engaged a room for him for the night. I asked him if he was afraid to stay by himself in a strange hotel room and he laughed. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “I’ve always been by myself. Since the day I was born.”
He had such a grownup way about him that I sometimes forgot I was dealing with a child.
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. He nodded 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 Trenton Fairman 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 my foolish 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, Trenton Fairman 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 Trenton Fairman Junior was indeed not there.
So much for Trenton Fairman Junior. I had no explanation for why his name wasn’t in the hotel register, but I figured he didn’t need or want my help any more and had gone to find his father’s lawyer on his own.
I thanked the clerk and went back out into the rain. I went to my photography studio and opened for business. It was a slow morning, so I had a chance to process my plates from the day before: two shots from different angles of the boy who died of the pitchfork wound through the stomach, two of Trenton Fairman Senior lying in his coffin, one of Mrs. Fairman standing next to her husband’s coffin. They all turned out beautifully.
When I processed the plates I had taken of Trenton Fairman Junior lying dead on his bed, I saw only a dim outline of a bed and that’s all. No Trenton Fairman Junior. Why would I have taken photographs of just a bed? I tried to recall the events of the day before to make some sense of it. I began to think I had experienced a kind of lapse while I was in the Fairman house. Had Trenton Fairman Junior even existed outside of my own mind? Was he a ghost? I couldn’t be sure. Not all things, as had recently been pointed out to me, are explainable.
After that I didn’t do any more work. I was beginning to feel tired and lightheaded so I closed the shop for the rest of the day and went home.
That night I was sick and was sure I was dying. I ached in every joint and was having trouble swallowing. I couldn’t keep anything on my stomach, not even a sip of water. I knew I had a fever.
When I was trying to think what might be the matter with me, the truth came to me as if spoken by a voice inside my head. I had failed to ask the reason for Trenton Fairman Senior’s death. He had obviously died of something catching and I had caught it. I had spent two hours at least inside a house breathing in disease germs and death.
I didn’t want to die alone and have my bloated body found only after the neighbors noticed the smell, so I checked myself into the nearest hospital. The doctor examined me briefly 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 passed in and out of consciousness. I was barely aware of anything but I knew there were other people moving at all hours around the bed on which I lay. I didn’t know who they were, or care: I only wanted them to go away and let me die in peace.
Hours passed, maybe days, but I had no real sense of time. The light at my window went from light to dark and back to light. I was aware of the sounds of rain and thunder, the perfect accompaniment, I thought, to dying.
Once when I woke up from one of my naps, Trenton Fairman 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 beside Trenton Fairman Junior. He was a compact man with thin lips and a small mustache, almost as if it had been drawn on. He had a Continental air about him, rather than an American one.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “It’s time for me to ask you a question.”
“What is it?”
“Do you want to go or do you want to stay?”
“What? Go where?”
“I asked you if you want to go or if you want to stay?”
“I think I’d like to stay if it’s all the same to you,” I said.
I must have drifted off to sleep after that because when I came to myself again, Trenton Fairman Junior and the man with the monocle were gone.
I was several more days in the hospital and then they said I was well enough to go home. As I was getting dressed to leave, one of the nurses told me how lucky I was to be alive because I had come so close to dying.
“I saw God,” I said. “He spoke to me.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay.”
“What did you say?”
I thought it an unnecessary question, but I answered all the same.
“I said I wanted to stay.”
“You’re not usually given a choice, I believe,” she said.
After a few days at home by myself I felt almost well again. On Sunday morning I rode out to the Fairman place, for what reason I don’t know. It looked abandoned. Grass and weeds had grown up in the yard. The windows were shuttered. A large for-sale sign was placed so that people would see it coming from either direction on the road. Just being near the house made me start to feel ill again, so I left.
In a month or so I moved to the city. I borrowed some money from a bank and set up a photography studio in a fashionable location (fashionable meaning people with money). I did well and moved into expensive lodgings with maid service. I bought myself a motor car, something every man of means was doing. I paid back the money I borrowed and was as happy as I ever expected to be.
My photographic subjects now were all living. I wanted nothing more to do with death. My own would be coming for me soon enough.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp