He shifted on the soft, padded seat. It was very comfortable but he still felt … uncomfortable. He didn’t know why though.
“S-see, it’s j-j-just that m-my w-wife is the w-w-one who usually–”
“We understand, Joe.”
The tall man looked like a magazine ad. One for clothes maybe; those fine, fancy clothes from one of those shops where soft violin or piano music drips from the ceiling and walls. He wore crisp, dark, neat clothes. His tie had no flawed edges, no stray wrinkles. His hair was gray around the ears and jet black on top, and every strand, every piece, sat in its place, perfect, a plastic statue, movie star hair. The rugged lines in his face drew Joe’s eyes.
Joe swallowed hard. It was just spit but it went down like he’d swallowed a tire. He almost gagged. “Y-you … You do?”
The Crisp Man nodded. “Of course we do. We know all about you, Joe.”
Joe listened whenever the Crisp Man talked. He couldn’t help it. His smooth, rich voice was hot maple syrup on a cold winter morning. Joe felt better when he heard that voice. He wanted a voice like that.
Joe shifted again. He didn’t like the idea of someone he’d never seen before knowing all about him. He didn’t care for the thought of someone who knew all about him. It felt like someone went through his underwear drawer, or found his dad’s dirty magazines under his mattress.
“B-but I d-don’t know who y-you–”
“It’s all right, Joe. Really. We understand you can’t read the agreement.”
Joe’s blood chilled. They knew him all right. Knew that much, at least. He never told anyone, but they knew. He couldn’t go anyplace where he’d have to write his name, or his address. He couldn’t visit libraries and no one ever saw him with a newspaper in his hand. It’s a small town. People talk. Everyone probably knew. Still, an icy hand gripped his heart when the Crisp Man spoke his secret shame.
Joe shuddered and stared at the paper. The jumble of letters and words seemed alien and threatening. He glanced at the Crisp Man with narrowed eyes, and tried to muster all the fight he had into his words.
“And all I have t-to d-do is m-make my m-mark on this paper? And y-you’ll g-g-give m-me m-money?”
The Crisp Man smiled again and his perfect, TV-star teeth shined at Joe. “That’s all. And take the medicine, of course.”
“Right. The m-medicine. W-what’s it f-for again?”
“It’s for many things, Joe. It will make you everything you want to be. Strong. Smart. And it will take away your stutter.”
“J-just for t-taking the m-medicine?”
“And making a mark in your own hand on the paper, yes.”
Joe looked down again. The letters seemed to shift and crawl over the paper. He stared at the gold pen gleaming on the table, reflecting from the glossy varnish, and the paper next to it. Then he focused on his own reflection in the table. His wild hair, his ragged clothes, his scruffy beard, his hollow eyes, all stared back and urged him to pick up the pen, make the mark.
“We know you don’t have a wife, Joe. You lost her years ago in the fire.”
Joe shuddered again when a chill twisted up his spine. He wiped the sweat from his palms onto his dirty overall legs and put them back on the table. How could the Crisp Man know he was about to lie again, say his wife usually does all the reading and signing for him? But he knew. Somehow, the Crisp Man knew. He could read Joe’s mind, maybe. Like some folks read books and magazines, the Crisp Man saw into Joe’s skull and picked his thoughts out. He couldn’t hide anything from the Crisp Man.
Joe licked his lips. His heart pounded. The Crisp Man reached out and nudged the pen toward him with trimmed, clean nails which glinted under the recessed lights above. The room felt hidden to Joe, dark and mysterious beyond the circles of light from above. The warm carpet and rich table didn’t make the room cozy or friendly. Joe felt very alone, very defenseless, and very watched.
“N-nothin’ bad’ll happen to me from the m-medicine you said, right?”
“That’s right, Joe. Nothing bad.”
“And this p-paper s-says y-you gotta p-pay me t-t-to t-take the m-medicine, right?”
“That’s right. More money than you’ve ever made before. Just for making your mark on the agreement and taking the medicine.”
Joe drew a deep breath and seized the pen, found the line at the bottom of the paper and made a large, clear X on it. He dropped the pen and sat back in the embrace of the soft chair and folded his arms over his chest.
“Very good, Joe. You won’t regret this. Now I’ll have someone drive you home and your first pills will arrive later. We’ll call you and let you know when you need to come back for tests. We’ll send a car when it’s time. Do you understand, Joe?”
Joe nodded. He couldn’t speak. He felt bad, like he’d done something wrong.
“Don’t worry, Joe,” the Crisp Man soothed. “We know all about you, and we’re going to take care of you.”
He watched the Crisp Man get up from his seat and vanish through a door he couldn’t see somewhere beyond the ring of lights. Joe thought, no matter what the Crisp Man said, he might’ve made a big mistake.
A big one.
All original content © J. Dane Tyler 2010
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