The Business of Doing Good ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Mirror Dance Magazine.)
Mr. Pfaff stepped off the train and set his bag down and looked in both directions. He had been in that particular town before but he couldn’t remember exactly when. While he was thinking about which direction he must take to get to the hotel, he caught the eye of a young woman standing not five feet away. She had about her the look of disappointment, as if the person she had come to meet hadn’t arrived as planned. Mr. Pfaff smiled and tipped his hat, thinking he might be of some assistance, but the young woman looked suspiciously at him and turned away, so he picked up his bag and set off.
The hotel was on a little rise within sight of the courthouse, more scenic than Mr. Pfaff remembered it. He asked for a room on the top floor and was accommodated with a delightful end room with plenty of light and a wonderful view of the street when he chose to have the curtains opened. Smiling with satisfaction, he washed his hands and smoothed down his hair and went downstairs to the hotel restaurant to have an early dinner.
The food was exceptional, as he knew it would be. Big-city hotels had nothing over small-town hotels when it came to preparing food. He had roast pork with stewed apples and boiled potatoes and carrots and for dessert a devil’s food cake that was like a poem. He took his time eating, enjoying himself, and when he was finished he went back up to his room and carefully removed his shoes and lay on his back on the big bed and took a nap that was more than an hour and less than two.
When he awoke it was just after dark. He got up, smoothed out the bed, closed the curtains and turned on the lamp on the desk. He glanced at his watch and just at that moment, as if on cue, there came a knock at the door.
He opened the door and with a smile and a nod motioned the woman into the room and seated her in the chair beside the desk. She was youngish but not young. Her hair was an unnatural red color; she had about her thin-lipped mouth and eyes a hard look. Her hands shook as she opened her pocketbook and took out a cigarette.
“How can I be of assistance?” Mr. Pfaff asked her.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked.
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
He could see that the cigarette was just a stalling tactic and that she was having trouble saying what she wanted to say.
“Well,” she began, “I was told by a friend that you might be able to help me.”
“That’s all right,” Mr. Pfaff said. “Just take your time.”
“Well, to put it plainly, I want out of my marriage. But, more than that, I want my husband dead.”
“Why is that?” Mr. Pfaff asked.
“He’s a terrible person. He ignores me and he complains about every penny I spend. He won’t let me buy any new clothes or nice things for the house. He sleeps in a separate room at night and won’t touch me and barely looks at me anymore.”
“Why don’t you just leave him?”
“I’ve thought about doing that, but it’s not the best thing.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, you see I’ve fallen in love with another man and we want to get married. I know my husband would never give me a divorce. He—my husband, that is—has got a large life insurance policy and I, being his wife, am the beneficiary. If he would die in an accident or something—or from a sudden heart attack or a stroke—it would leave the way clear for me to marry the man I love, and we would have plenty of money and could start all over again as if nothing had ever happened.”
“I see,” Mr. Pfaff said, rubbing his chin and looking at the woman.
“Do you think you can help me?”
“Well, I need to ask you a couple of questions first. Is this the thing that you most desire in the world? For your husband to die and leave the way clear for you to marry this other man?”
“And the insurance money—“
“Yes, the insurance money.”
“Oh, yes, it’s what I want more than anything in all the world.”
“And you would pay any price?”
The woman’s face fell. “I don’t have any money,” she said.
“I’m not talking about money,” Mr. Pfaff said. “No money will ever pass from your hands to mine. I’m talking about something other than money.”
“I would give anything,” the woman said.
“Think about what you’re saying,” Mr. Pfaff said.
“I mean it with all my heart.”
“Very well, then. I’m going to give you a contract and I’m going to ask you to read over it carefully and if you agree to its terms to sign it and put today’s date under your signature.”
He opened a leather case and took out a contract and gave it to the woman, along with a fountain pen. She skimmed her eyes over it, taking no longer than a minute, and signed her name at the bottom with a flourish.
“Now, what do I do?” she asked, handing the contract back to Mr. Pfaff.
“That’s all,” Mr. Pfaff said. “You don’t need to do another blessed thing. Just go home and don’t worry. In a very short time, you will have what you want.”
“It’s that simple?”
“Yes, it’s really very simple. Many people still refuse to believe how simple it is.”
The woman stood up, smiling for the first time. She shook Mr. Pfaff’s hand, an uncharacteristic gesture of warmth for her. “I can’t thank you enough,” she said.
“Oh, you don’t need to thank me,” Mr. Pfaff said. “I’m just doing my job.”
A few minutes after the woman left, Mr. Pfaff received a man of about thirty-five. He was tall and slightly stooped, with a moustache and very small, deep-set eyes.
“How can I help you?” Mr. Pfaff asked the man when they were both seated at the desk.
“I’m an attorney,” the man began, “and not a very good one.”
Mr. Pfaff smiled sympathetically. “You want to be a better attorney?”
“Not exactly,” the man said. “I want to go into politics. I want to be a U. S. Senator or governor of the state. Someday I think I could even be president if things break my way.”
“Oh?” Mr. Pfaff said with a little laugh. “You want things to break your way in politics? Is that it?”
“And you want that above all else?”
“And you will pay any price?”
“I can give you fifteen thousand dollars if you promise to make things happen for me the way I want them to.”
Mr. Pfaff laughed and let out his breath. “I’m not talking about money,” he said. “I’m talking about much more than money.”
“What do I need to do?” the man asked.
“For now,” Mr. Pfaff said. “All you need to do is sign a contract. After that, you can go about your business and I guarantee you that things will ‘break your way’.”
“There has to be more to it than that,” the man said.
“You can read the contract. It’s all there in black and white. After you’ve read the contract, you don’t have to sign it if you don’t want to.”
“Let me see the contract.”
Mr. Pfaff opened his leather case and took out the contract and gave it to the man, along with a fountain pen. “Take as much time to read it as you want,” he said, “because once you sign it there’s no turning back.”
The man read the contract—or seemed to—very quickly and when he was finished he signed it and handed it back to Mr. Pfaff.
“Any questions?” Mr. Pfaff asked.
“No,” the man said.
“Then that will be all. We’ve completed the transaction.”
“Wait a minute,” the man said. “You’re not going to tell me what to do next?”
“You do nothing,” Mr. Pfaff said. “Live your life, enter politics, run for office, and the rest will be taken care of. You’ll have everything you want and more.”
“Well, I’m a little skeptical,” the man said, “but if it doesn’t work I guess I’ll have nothing to complain about since this isn’t costing me anything.”
“It’s costing you plenty,” Mr. Pfaff said, “but you won’t have to worry about it for a very long time.”
The next visitor to Mr. Pfaff’s room was a woman dressed all in black, wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a veil. When she was seated beside the desk, she removed the hat. Her nose was bent to the side and her mouth turned sharply down on one side. Her eyebrows were thick and bushy and met in the middle, while the hair on her head was thin and lank and colorless.
It was with an effort that Mr. Pfaff kept from staring at the woman. “How might I be of assistance?” he asked.
“I’ve missed out on all the good things in life,” she said, “because I’m so ugly.”
“Not everybody can be beautiful,” he said. “Think how dull it would be if everybody in the world was beautiful.”
“No,” the woman said. “I’m more than just ugly. A couple of months before I was born, my mother fell afoul of a witch. The witch put a curse on her and on me. She said I would never be happy and would never know beauty and she was right.”
“Surely you don’t believe in curses,” Mr. Pfaff said, “in this modern age.”
“It’s true. Believe it or don’t.”
“Well, supposing it is true, can’t you accept what you have and be thankful it isn’t worse?”
“That’s not good enough anymore,” the woman said. “I’m twenty-seven years old. I want the curse removed and I want my chance at happiness, the same as other people. I want a husband, a home and children. If I wait any longer, it’s going to be too late for me. I want to be beautiful so someone will want to marry me.”
Mr. Pfaff sighed and shook his head. “Don’t you think you’re being rather superficial?”
“I don’t know what you mean. All I know is what I want.”
“And you want to be beautiful more than anything in the world?”
“Oh, yes!” the woman said.
“And you will do anything to get what you want?”
“Very well. I’m going to give you a contract. I want you to read the contract and if you agree to its terms, I want you to sign your name to the bottom.”
He gave the contract to the woman and tactfully stepped away to allow her time to read it. When he returned to the desk, she had signed the contract and her eyes were brimming with tears.
“I want blond hair,” she said. “Do you think that’s possible?”
“I believe you will have everything you want,” Mr. Pfaff said.
“What do I do now?” she asked as Mr. Pfaff held the contract up to the light to look closely at her signature.
“I would advise you to leave your home and take up residence in the city. In a very short time, you will be completely transformed. If your family sees you change in that way, it’s bound to be disconcerting for them. After a while, you can go back home and tell them you found a doctor in the city who was able to help you—something of that nature.”
“That’s a small price to pay,” she said.
Mr. Pfaff laughed to himself at the irony of the remark but said nothing.
The final visitor of the night was a man of about forty dressed in work clothes. He had watery blue eyes and sandy hair with a moustache. His overalls were caked with mud and his fingernails clotted with dirt. He apologized for his appearance but Mr. Pfaff waved it away.
“Tell me why you have come to see me,” Mr. Pfaff said.
“I was told you might be able to help me. I don’t have much money but I’ll give you all I have.”
To Mr. Pfaff’s surprise, the man began to cry.
“There, now,” Mr. Pfaff said. “There’ll be no talk of money. I don’t want your money.”
“I have an eight-year-old son,” the man said, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. “Something terrible has happened to him. He was fine and one night he said he didn’t feel well. He went to bed and never got up again. Now he barely moves or speaks. He’s drying up like a little sponge.”
“Surely you’ve had a doctor to see him,” Mr. Pfaff said.
“The doctor doesn’t know anything. All the doctor knows now is that my son is sure to die. It might be a matter of days or even hours. He might be dead this very minute.”
“Of course you would save his life if you could,” Mr. Pfaff said.
“I would take the sickness onto myself,” the man said, “and let him live. I’ll gladly die to save his life.”
Mr. Pfaff picked up the fountain pen and began drawing circles and stars on a piece of paper to help him think. “I’ve never had a request like this before,” he said.
“I’ll do anything,” the man said.
“Write down your name and the place on this paper where you can be reached and write the boy’s name underneath your name. I’ll see what can be done. I’m not making any promises, though.”
The man did as he was asked and stood up to leave. Mr. Pfaff walked him to the door and let him out quietly. After he was gone, Mr. Pfaff sat down at the desk and looked at the man’s name where he had written it, and then he picked up the phone and called Mr. Billings.
“At your service,” Mr. Billings said cheerily on the other end; in all places at all times.
“I’m just wrapping things up for the evening,” Mr. Pfaff said. “I’ve got three signed contracts for you.”
When Mr. Billings came into Mr. Pfaff’s room a few minutes later, he said, “Why three instead of four?” He glared at Mr. Pfaff over the top of his little round glasses and made himself comfortable in the chair. “I believe you had four visitors tonight.”
“Well,” Mr. Pfaff began, “I couldn’t ask that fellow with the sick child to sign.”
“Why not?” Mr. Billings asked. “He would have signed. You know he would have.”
“Yes, I’m almost sure he would have,” Mr. Pfaff said. “I can always spot sincerity.”
“Well, then? What’s the stall? Get him back here and get him to sign this time.”
“Having him sign isn’t fair.”
“Fair!” Mr. Billings said. “You make me sick! Since when do we care about fair? We’re not in the business of being fair.”
“That’s true, of course, but how can it hurt to do something good for a change? We hardly ever have the chance. Even we are capable of doing good now and then.”
“Humph!” Mr. Billings said, as though he needed to be convinced.
“Look at it this way,” Mr. Pfaff said. “Most people want something only for themselves. They’re selfish. They say they will make any sacrifice to have somebody die they believe is standing in the way of what they want, or to be rich or powerful, beautiful or famous, or to be with the person they believe they love. It’s always about S-E-L-F. It’s rare to find a person who wants something for somebody else.”
“He still would have signed,” Mr. Billings said. “We’re in the business of getting people to sign.”
“I’m aware of that,” Mr. Pfaff said with a sigh.
“I don’t know how I’m going to explain this to management. They’re not going to like it.”
“I’d like for you to take this man’s name with you and see if we can help him with his son.”
“Are you saying you want us to make the boy well again without having the father sign the contract?”
“It’s possible and you know it.”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Billings said. “It’s a pretty tall order. We’re not in the business of doing good.”
“As a personal favor to me, I want you to intervene personally with management and see if you can convince them to pull some strings to help the sick child.”
“And what about my reputation?” Mr. Billings asked.
“It will survive intact,” Mr. Pfaff said.
“What you’re asking me to do will be taken for a sign of weakness.”
“We’re all allowed a lapse every now and then,” Mr. Pfaff said.
Mr. Billings gave his word that he would try to make the child well again without the usual payment. Mr. Pfaff—from his long, long association with Mr. Billings—believed him.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp