I expected more, frankly. As a person of faith, I expected at least a similar level of service to that provided by the Department of Essential Records within City Hall. As an administrator, it raised every hackle on my back.
I know it can be a shock – I’m shocked, myself – but if we in Unpleasantville Records could ensure each customer registering the death of a loved one knew their place in line, understood what was expected of them, the constraints under which we worked, why – what possible excuse could they have here!
Take this ticketing system, for example. Positively antediluvian. Nowadays customers come in, knocking snow from their boots, wind from the lake drying it round their feet, and instead of pulling on a stubborn chevron-ticket with numb fingers (as though contending for the last Thanksgiving turkey), the computer connects to their cellular phone with a charming little ping.
But when I got here, there was no reception or staff member to direct my path. Just a plain wooden door in the wall of a blank room, an arrow on a stick. (The angle was off. When I tried to correct it, the thing shrieked like the torments of the damned.) I entered a long uninspiring waiting room with a sliding window, took a ticket. I’ve been here ever since.
Now and again, I check the window.
Nothing. Even at my knock, the glass remains blank, the room beyond – if anything like Unpleasantville Records, I expect it is regimented in rows of desks for maximum efficiency – so dark I can make nothing out. Really, this is quite the shabbiest treatment I’ve ever received.
I worked my way up from high school: apprentice registrar; assistant; associate; registrar, then, around the time Miss Lewinsky began batting her lashes, Chief Registrar of Unpleasantville. I was young for the post, yes. Old Mildred Hunsicker had been Chief since they burnt witches in the square. But I was ideally suited, as I said to hizzoner in my slightly curtailed Friday-afternoon interview.
"Yes, sir. Most assuredly. I’ll uphold Miss Hunsicker’s principles.”
"Good, good. Now help me into my overcoat, Heathcote. It’s howling out there …"
"Heatherington, sir. Peter Heatherington."
But the skirling blast whisked my words away over the parking lot. I saw myself out, walked past the boiler-room, the line of frozen dumpsters, to Mildred’s office.
Where to begin?
For one, the old bat operated the shoogliest queueing system in the world. Every day she’d knock down my carefully-stacked appointments like ninepins, bumping up a pregnant lady here, old buffer there – always out of compassion – till the front office looked like the junkyard of clashing machinery behind a bowling-alley. It had to go. When you had your place in the queue, you had your place, and the place had you.
And another thing… her antiquated notion of customer service.
"I do understand, Mildred," I’d say, bringing coffee (she was the boss), "we shouldn't always stand on ceremony. Sometimes things might need a little adjustment. But rules are rules, aren’t they? It’s disrespectful to the town founders just to mangle them whenever we feel like it."
She looked at me through the steam. That’s one thing I won’t miss – the winters. Or the folksiness; whimsy, stopping just shy of syrup. Or the bosses.
"Rules are rules till they get in the way, Pete. As I always say – "
I stifled a growl. It ground my gears when she called me Pete.
"Yes, yes – the customer is always right," I said.
"In matters of taste," I added, into my cup. It had grown lukewarm and bitter as we chin-wagged. Harry Gordon Selfridge hadn’t created the grandest department stores by bending rules.
I’ve turned this chevron-ticket over so many times, it’s turned as slippery as an icicle. I can’t read the number, and the underside’s all fuzzy with age. Surely the last person has been processed? I thought I’d give the window another try.
Nothing, again. My knock echoed round the waiting room. As if in sympathy, one strip-light flickered, began to buzz. Then quiet. It reminded me of something. As I sat back down, it came to me: one awful winter’s day. Where the lake curved inland, around a stand of trees into an ox-bow, it was frozen solid. I’d finished my homework. Despite the weather, Rory, my mom’s old mutt, shivered with his legs crossed.
She didn’t ask. Dinner-smells came from the kitchen; bourbon-stink from the den. I sighed, put on a parka.
To my surprise, I found myself enjoying it. Rory woofed, bounding away across the ice, but I made an interesting study of the shoreline rocks: chased with cracks and lines of frozen mud, they framed the water’s edge like geometric marks, or tiles in a giant’s kitchen. I tried to pry one loose. A few minutes later, stumped, I laughed into the quiet. It was too quiet.
"Rory! Here, boy!"
Like the white emptiness of this room, the lake resounded with nothing.
I ran to the ox-bow. From under the ice – a rectangular hole, boxcutter sharp – came a muffled crack, a bubbling string of yelps.
I ran onto the ice but stopped short. He was down there! But the ice creaked; cracked; creaked again. Mom told me to stay off the lake – she told me. But I could see him blundering around, dim as a sea-cow, skull bashing the underside. I felt my insides pull apart like taffy. Suddenly the ice whined, high as a rusty gate. I threw myself out longways and groped around till I found him, flopping the great soggy beast out by the collar, rolling onto the rocks with my shoulder on fire.
Even when he died years later, I never forgot: that bump, the fuzzy warbling of his cries, the ice screaming.
This memory, though; so painful, almost unbearable… and useless, after all.
Really, this delay was intolerable!
I checked my ticket for the hundredth time, I sensed the distant unlatching of a window. The strip-light buzzed again and I heard a voice, far away, tiny, like a slip of crinkling paper – break the perpetual silence.
James Roderick Burns’ is the author of four collections of poetry and a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives. His work has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including The Guardian, Modern Haiku, The North and The Scotsman, and his novella and story collection, Beastly Transparencies, is due from Eyewear Publishing in spring 2023. He can be found on Twitter @JamesRoderickB and his newsletter offers one free, published story a fortnight at abunchoffives.substack.com.