House Call

The above photograph served as inspiration for the following story. It was taken by W. Eugene Smith for the series “Country Doctor” in 1948.

Things really hadn’t changed much since they’d arrived.  Everyone had thought the world would be so different, so new.  But people still had to make a living, and he still had to send that check to his ex-wife every month.  “Another day.  Another door,” he thought to himself.  That was the company’s mantra.  Indeed, he had no pretensions about being a bottom-feeder, a door-to-door personal ad salesman, profiting from the mostly tragic announcements people had to make.  But after the invasion, when all the nut jobs and fanatics had gone to work for the new government, and the dissenters had been, well, assimilated, all that were left were people like him, and he didn’t much mind that.  It made the job easier, talking to people who knew this kind of life.  They would give him a few bucks to write a couple of sentences for the local paper, announcing the menial events of their daily lives to the world with the hope that long-lost family or friends would read the ad and maybe reconnect with them.  It was a desperate gesture that no one took very seriously anymore.  After all, without phones or the internet, or even plain old mail, what chance was there?  And yet they kept paying him in tokens of two or three dollars. Then the next day he would give those couple of dollars right back to them to pick up a newspaper, to buy milk or a beer, or to mend his shoes.  Besides what he could save to send to his faraway wife, none of it mattered, and he didn’t much mind that anymore, either.

Today, his route had been particularly tiring: two wedding announcements, one newborn, and five deaths.  There were always more dead people to deal with and those appointments took the longest: no one could summarize an entire life in two sentences, a couple of hundred characters in a centimeters-wide box on a disposable newspaper page.  He would sit with the family for hours, working through countless edits, thumbing through a red pocket thesaurus he’d carried since he was ten (when he had decided he’d become a famous writer).  The corners of nearly every page had been worn down to a smooth translucence; he was careful to only handle the book by its edges, so as not to smudge the ink, preserving the words for at least as long as he could.  Often the words he chose didn’t make much sense, syntactically speaking.  But after omitting the articles and pronouns, and shortening names to initials, there was no other option but to substitute words that could covey the sentiment of the announcement, if not his clients’ precise dictation.  For example, it had taken him many years to figure out that the sentence, “We shall miss John, loving husband and father,” could be shortened to simply, “John: loved, missed.”

“The penalty for exceeding the communications quota is one month of prohibition,” he reminded his clients, multiple times a day. The new government had enacted this rule shortly after they had torn down the cell towers and turned on the anti-EM-wave pylons; too many rebel groups had started to use the daily communications page to send coded messages, calling flash mobs to protest or worse, to fight heavily armed occupying forces with their puny, improvised weapons.  He continued, “If you get cut off, it’ll be just like solitary confinement.  You will be isolated.  So please, be cautious.”

Not all the ad salesmen were willing to advise their clients like he was, or actually take a moment to think about the implications of the words on a page.  Too many of his clients dropped off the grid for months because other salesmen had convinced them to buy unnecessary communiques, tipping them over the limit.  (The worst time had been when the milkman had exceeded his limit: the entire town went without milk for a month, including the kiddies.  When their milkman was returned to them, they found him collapsed in his driveway, weeping over a month’s worth of rotting milk.  The crates were stacked neatly by his truck, their contents alive with putrefaction.)  No, maybe he wasn’t a real bottom-feeder after all.  He at least had some compassion for these people who climbed the same silent hills every day, who had quietly and nobly accepted their lives as small cogs in a pragmatic machine.



  1. Priya I really enjoyed reading this. You write beautifully!

    Comment by Brett — May 28, 2010 @ 9:56 am
  2. <3 it.

    Comment by Ania Beata Owczarczyk — May 28, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

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