The Givers and The Takers

Mr. McNeil arrived for his appointment 20 minutes late, but Dr. Jones was used to that sort of thing.  The funeral receptions always ran long and most of his clients arrived late, profusely apologizing for wasting his time and cursing at their families for dilly-dallying.  Mr. McNeil was no exception.  As Marilyn led him and his family deeper and deeper into the Renewal Center, Dr. Jones could hear him repeating, “I’m normally never late.  Let the doctor know.  Never late. Never late.”  Leaning back in his chair to finish the last bite of his sandwich, he caught a glimpse of Mr. McNeil and his family as they turned the last corner and headed down the hallway toward him.  Mr. McNeil was old, at least 60 or 70.  His suit hung limply off his frame, obviously tailored for him when he was a much bigger man, standing much prouder and taller. His skin was wrinkled and leathery, likewise tailored from someone significantly larger.  His cane slapped the ground harshly and quickly as he struggled to keep up with the pace of his group.  What a shame that we let them get that bad, Dr. Jones thought. The client was followed closely by two younger figures, likely his children, each dressed in their finest clothes and still excitedly talking about the funeral reception.  Marilyn slyly handed Dr. Jones his file as they passed his office, while she continued to direct her following to the Family Room.

Dr. Jones scanned the file, seeing nothing unexpected.   Physical disability was listed as the reason for termination, although Dr. Jones could come up with at least 3 more reasons just by looking at Mr. McNeil. Fragility, mental decline, hideous disfigurement.  The reason for termination was merely a bureaucratic designation, as arbitrary and outdated as the “Cause of Death” line that he was obligated to complete after every client.

Seeing nothing to hold his interest in the file, he flipped his monitor on to watch Marilyn and the family as they settled into the Family Room.  He used to be the one to talk to the families, but now there were enough clients to allow him to focus on his job and to hire someone like Marilyn to do all the talking.  Talking exhausted him, yet he knew her script better than she did.  He wrote it for her.  The script was so good that he’d even been able to sell it to other Takers in town to use for their own clientele.  Dr. Jones had always had a way with words, which was important in a business like this.  Other Takers used to say things like, “passing on”, “those you leave behind” and “last good-bye” but Dr. Jones replaced those terms with “moving forward”, “the ones whose load you bear” and “final Thank You”.  He was the first to insist on calling his clients “Givers” instead of “patients”, as well.  Takers had always been Takers- maybe harkening back to the underTakers of distant history; but Dr. Jones created Givers.

       Marilyn left the family and joined Dr. Jones in his office.

       “They’re just finishing up the paperwork,” she told him, as she plopped her pudgy body onto his oversized loveseat.  “You can head in whenever you want.”

       “I used to have to go to Hospitals to find patients, you know,” he teased her, knowing that talking that sort of thing always made her squeamish.  “I’d have to go there, and they were filled with patients who coughed and vomited, patients who had cancers.  You wouldn’t have lasted two minutes in the Hospitals.”

       “Geez, Bill! Why do you always have to bring that up?  Some of us haven’t eaten lunch yet,” she squirmed in her chair, as if trying to shake off the whole idea of Hospitals.  “What a shame it must’ve been- to need to keep around people once they were broken.  But when there are not enough good apples, I guess it makes sense to hang onto the bad ones.  What a cluttered, filthy world it must’ve been….” her voice trailed off as she lost herself in thoughts of the past.  “I, for one, will be happy when it’s my turn to be a Giver.  Best thing I’ll ever do for my family and friends will be to lighten their load a little when they tell me its time to move forward.  It’s really an honor, you know.”

       “They used to try to fix them too,” he prodded, trying to push her over the edge of disgust.  “They’d cut them open and replace their parts then they’d sew them back up and-”

       “Bah!” Marilyn retorted, “You’re just making that up now.  You know I hate it when you tease me.”  She ruffled his hair as she left his office, a playful gesture that reminded him how much he liked her.

       Dr. Jones entered the Family Room, and Mr. McNeil rose slowly to his feet to greet him.

“Dr. Jones- so nice to meet you.  Heard an awful lot of good things about you.  My kids say you’re the best,” his raspy voice explained.

       “You’re too kind,” he replied, trying to humbly smile at each of his Mr. McNeil’s children, without becoming too distracted by his daughter’s revealing blouse. 

       “We were just admiring that inscription above the door,” the daughter replied, apparently noticing his prolonged gaze.  “It sounds so familiar, but we just can’t place it.”

       “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends,” Dr. Jones quoted from memory, without turning to see the inscription.

       “That’s from a song, right?  Or maybe it’s in a movie.  No, no… I’m pretty sure it’s a song.  Is that right, Dr. Jones?” she inquired as she leaned further forward and revealed a little more of her breast to him.

       “You’re very smart,” he replied as he coyly winked at her and ignored her blatantly wrong answer.  “Now, let’s get down to business.  Marilyn said that all of the paperwork is in order.  And based on your attire, I can assume the funeral reception was quite the extravaganza.  Was there a big turnout?”

       “Of course, Dr. Jones,” the daughter answered again, with an obvious aire of flirtation.  “You know how those things are these days, anyone who ever sold Dad a magazine showed up to say Thank You.”

       “Humph,” Mr. McNeil grumbled under his breath, “The chicken was too cold.”

       “Well, I’m sorry to hear that.  Glad there was a good turn out, though.  Nice to move forward with a big party.   Now unless you guys have any questions---”

       “I’ve got one question,” Mr. McNeil’s son jumped in. “Would it be possible for me to come by later and pick up his pocket watch?”

       The question hung in the air awkwardly.  Dr. Jones didn’t know how to respond.  Can’t he afford his own watch?  Does he want to take his father’s hair and eyes too?

       “I’m not sure I understand… there’s a watch shop across the courtyard if you’d like to buy one,” he tried to explain, thinking that maybe he had misunderstood the son’s inquiry.

       “No, I’m interested in having my father’s watch.  It’s very old and it would remind me of him,” he explained.

       “Exactly.  It’s very old,” Dr. Jones agreed as he eyed the small golden object that Mr. McNeil clung close to his chest.  “It’s rather distasteful to have something used… I would feel very uncomfortable being a part of any transaction like that.  It’s our firm policy to destroy all personal items, to avoid this situation exactly. The mere presence of used  items in society is counter-productive and poses a threat to progress. Old can’t be sold, only new is for you,”  he ended in the singsong rhyme of commercialization.

       “I understand,” the son said as he removed a thickened white envelope from his coat pocket and handed it to Dr. Jones.  “But maybe if I came back in a few hours and the pocket watch was here, then I could dispose of it for you.”

       Dr. Jones flipped through the envelope of cash that he had been handed and nodded in agreement to the son’s odd request despite the uneasy feeling in his stomach.  With no other questions from these strange people who recognized Scripture and want used things, Mr. McNeil was ready to go.

       “Time for the final Thank You,” he instructed the children.  They rose one by one and gave their father a cheerful hug, a heartfelt Thank You and then each left the room. His busty daughter handed Dr. Jones her phone number as she left the room.

       “Are you ready, Mr. McNeil?” Dr. Jones asked as he prepared to escort the aging man deeper into the Renewal Center.  Mr. McNeil nodded, as the clink clink of his cane’s rhythmic movements resonated down the hallway.  The Giving Room looked similar to the Family Room, with one large comfortable chair in the center of the room and nicely furnished walls displaying pleasing photographs of cityscapes and open fields.  Most Givers didn’t even notice the small cabinet in the corner that contained all of the Taker’s supplies.

       “Where should I put my watch?” Mr. McNeil asked, as Dr. Jones was preparing his supplies.  That damned watch, Dr. Jones thought.  He had nowhere to put it, nowhere to store it, and wasn’t particularly keen on touching it.  He had sort of hoped that Mr. McNeil was senile enough to forget about it, and then he could tell the son something about his father refusing to release it.

       “You’re really going to let your son have that- that thing?

       “Sure.  He wants it. I’m not going to tell him no.”

       “But it’s wrong.  They look for stuff like that, you know.  They search houses of Givers to be sure that they aren’t leaving used things for anyone else.  You and your son could both be severely penalized by the Enforcement.  Why does he want it anyway?”

       “He says it reminds him of me.  He fixes watches, you know. I taught him how to.”

       “He FIXES them?! Do you have any idea what the penalties are for something like that? He could lose his job, his house… everything.  I can’t believe that you would allow, and encourage, something like that…”

       “It’s just a hobby.  It’s not going to collapse the economy, I promise.  I’ve been doing it for years and-”

       Dr. Jones plunged his needle into Mr. McNeil’s neck, unable to bear hearing anymore of his blasphemy.  The picture of Mr. McNeil and his son collecting used watches and touching them, opening them, repairing them-  the image of it all made his stomach turn.  And doing it for years… the plunger of the needle depressed and the solution poured into his veins, slowing his breathing and stilling his heart.

       Dr. Jones washed his hands after it was all finished and pressed the button to alert the cleaning staff that he was done in Giving Room #4.  As he stood to leave the room, he saw the glimmering pocket watch clutched tightly in Mr. McNeil’s hand.  He put a latex glove on his hand to avoid actually touching the pocket watch, and lifted it toward his face to examine it.  There was a small inscription on the back of it that he couldn’t quite read.  Squinting and straining to make out the foreign letters, he was rudely interrupted by the cleaning staff entering the room to dispose of the body.  Unwilling to admit defeat in decoding its mystery, Dr. Jones instinctively shoved the watch into his pocket and non-chalantly left the Giving Room before the cleaning staff could offer to take it for him. 

Safely alone in his office, Dr. Jones re-examined the watch.  The inscription was written in long-hand, which resembled typical print text for some letters, but others were mysteriously shrouded in the flourish of curves and loops.  He studied the watch, unaware of the passing time but unable to make any progress with its meaning.  His concentration was abruptly interrupted by a knock on his office door from Marilyn.

       “John McNeil is here to see you- he said there was an unresolved matter? I told him that you couldn’t be bothered, but he absolutely insisted.  Want me to call the Enforcement?”

       “No, no.  Let him come back,” he responded, not bothering to look up from the watch to meet Marilyn’s eyes.   Mr. McNeil’s son entered his office causally, surprised to see the doctor handling the prize.

       “I really appreciate you taking it for me,” John started as he took the seat across from Dr. Jones.  “I know that you’re sort of putting your neck on the line here, and I’m really appreciative.”

       “I just did it for the cash,” Dr. Jones scoffed as he tossed the watch toward John.  “What does it say on the back of there, anyway?  I can’t read that longhand crap”

       “It’s just the dedication.  ‘With Love, From Julie To Mark’. I don’t know who Julie and Mark are.  Dad said that he found it on the beach by his house when he was a child, buried in the sand.  It was the first watch that he ever fixed.  It didn’t work when he first found it; it had gotten sand or water in it. Anyway, I really appreciate your help,” John gently placed the watch into his pocket and stood to leave.

       “Wait-“ the doctor gasped, surprised by the desperation in his own voice, “please.   Please sit.  Why didn’t he just give it to you before you came to the Renewal Center?”

       “He said he wanted to hold it until the end.  It comforted him.  Said it reminded him of who he was, where he was from.”

       “Do you really fix watches?  I won’t tell anyone, I promise.  That’s just what your Dad told me and I didn’t know if he was serious.”

       “Yes.  My sister too.  And more than just watches. Dad taught us both, and now we can fix just about anything.  There’s a bit of a black market for people like us who have something, like this,” he held up the watch, “that has, ya know, sentimental value.  Some people want things fixed.”  Doctor Jones leaned back in his chair, unbelieving what he was hearing.

       “One more question,” he pleaded with John, “What does that phrase mean?  Sentimental value?”

 

       Later that week, Dr. Jones lay in the bed of the beautiful Holly NcNeil who had just finished making love to him.  She had excused herself to the bathroom to freshen up, which gave him the opportunity that he had been waiting for since the beginning of dinner.  He began investigating every corner in the room, carefully lifting her still-packaged newly purchased clothes from the dresser drawers in search of something used.   Her wardrobe and nightstand contained no such treasures- they could’ve passed the Enforcement’s inspection with flying colors.  Unsatisfied, he dug deeper.  He lifted her mattress, and found it marked with an expiration date that was still months away.  Damn.  Suddenly, a piece of artwork on the far wall caught his eye- it was a building unlike anything he’d ever seen before. The building in the image was made of dulled grey stones, not of the resilient bio-materials like anything built in the last four generations.  The front of the building had tall towers that tapered to a point as they rose toward the sky, with intricate sculpting of tall figures and elaborate scenes woven into the parapets.  He instinctively reached out and touched the artwork, expecting the smooth silky texture of a photograph.  But this was different.  There was a thickness to the picture, and a rough and unpredictable texture that changed as he ran his fingers across the image.

       “You shouldn’t touch it,” Holly interrupted as she emerged from the washroom in her robe.  Yet, he continued to run his fingers across the image, ignoring her request, fascinated by the combined effect of the texture and the stirring visual image.  Holly slapped the doctor’s hand away from the artwork and repeated her request.  “You really shouldn’t touch it.  It’s bad for the oils.”

       “Is it….?” his voice trailed off.

       “Yes, it’s used,” Holly answered distractedly as she dried her hair.  “John told me that you knew about us.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let you come over.  Don’t get all weird on me now; I’m not in the mood to have to hide everything if you call the Enforcements.”

       “Why does it feel that way?  It’s rough,” he asked, with a child’s curiosity, still entranced by the image before his eyes.

       “It’s a painting, not a photograph.   It’s an original, so that is the only copy of it.  When it’s gone, it’ll be gone forever.  Poof,” she waved her hand as if wiping away an entire unnecessary universe, “No more Sagrada Familia.  It’s beautiful isn’t it?  It’s really got soul.”

       Doctor Jones felt an odd feeling of reverence toward the painting.  The way that Holly talked about it-  something moved him deeply.  Unique.  One of a kind.  Original. “Sentimental value.”  The idea that this used  thing had a story and a life that was unique to it and couldn’t be replicated… the painting had a ‘soul’.  He rolled the unfamiliar word around his tongue. Soul. The watch had soul too.

       “John told me that you guys fix things.  Can I see them?  Do you have them here?” he asked, hoping to see more souls.

       “Do you have a strong stomach?  There’s no way in hell that I’m going to let you puke all over my treasures.”

       “You forget that Takers used to go to Hospitals, Holly,” he said condescendingly. “There’s nothing that you will show me that’s worse than a septic patient with a wound infection.”  Holly nodded in agreement as she finished dressing.  She opened a door in her living room that appeared to be a linen closest, but reached toward the ceiling and pulled a ladder down which they climbed into a hidden attic space.

       “This always reminds me of Anne Frank’s Diary,” she mused as she climbed.  “Hiding away all of these forbidden souls in this concealed attic. Did you ever hear about Anne Frank?  My Dad used to tell us her story.”

       “Never heard of it,” he answered, in awe of the depth of knowledge and history that this strange women seemed to possess.  They reached the top of the ladder and sat themselves on the ground, on either side of a large trunk.  The area was dimly lit by a single bulb swinging from a cord, and Dr. Jones felt a wave a nausea rising in his throat.  The stench of dust overwhelmed him, and he suddenly felt the urge to bail on Holly, scurry back down the ladder and run to the comforts of his life.  

She opened the trunk before he could catch his breath, or protest, and began to remove objects one by one and lay them on the floor between them.  For each item, she told its story.  But they weren’t like any story he had ever heard before.  He only knew the stories of his childhood, about the tortoise and hare, or wolves and pigs.  But never stories like these… there were the stories of real people and real objects, stories that filled him with an intense feeling of life and humanity. Stories so real and true, yet somehow too fantastic.  Each item came to life with her words; she breathed life and ‘soul’ into it and made it unique and original.  The doll named Raggedy Ann.  The book named Frankenstein.  She would hold the object while she told its story, gently rolling it in her hands.  As she placed it on the ground, to signal that it’s chapter was done, it glowed with meaning from its newly minted ‘soul’.  Entranced with her mysterious power, his mind began to race.

He yearned for the objects.  Their souls called out to him to be saved, to be spared from society’s cruel rituals of destruction.  Their death hailed the annihilation of the tapestry of their humanity.  They needed his protection. 

Still intently listening to Holly’s enchanting words, he fumbled with the syringe that he kept in his coat pocket.  As Holly finished describing the last object, she began to replace them into the trunk.  With her head turned away from him, he saw his golden opportunity to plunge his syringe into her neck and watch her slowly fade. 

“Thank You,” he genuinely spoke to her.  She smiled in return, grateful to be a Giver if it was her time. “Thank you for collecting, fixing and protecting these fragile souls, Holly.” 

 

After Marilyn brought him the appropriate paperwork for the termination (reason for termination: delusional psychosis, he jotted down) and helped him move Holly’s body the appropriate disposal site, Dr. Jones was finally alone with the treasures.  He pulled the chest close to himself and whispered to the souls inside, “I am your Doctor; you are safe.”

      

      

 

      

 

 

 

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