Enjoy an excerpt from Jason M. Light’s “Borrowed Time, Inc.” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
It’s been several years since Marianne died, and we were only married two when it happened. I moved on, that’s it. Sold the house and got a studio apartment, replaced the furniture. I don’t have much room. That’s what I tell myself. It’s a matter of practicality.
There’s a park nearby, where I go for walks to clear my head. Someone drove by playing the old Fixx song “One Thing Leads to Another,” and it made me think of my bachelor party. Not the one thrown by my fraternity brothers, who’d made the tips rain, but the one Dad gave me before I got remarried, to Marianne. That’s the song that played when they brought me up on stage and all the dancers took turns sitting in my lap. One thing did not lead to another that night, I told Marianne when she asked if we’d had a good time.
I told him we’d go back to the club for his birthday, that he’d be the one up on that stage. But we never went back. I thought it might give him a heart attack, but so what? There are worse ways to go out than half a dozen strippers grinding glitter into your crotch. An elevator could crush you, for example.
We talked about having kids, Marianne and I. I was fifty when we married; she was forty-three. No longer in the meaty part of that high-risk curve, but closer to the end of it. That’s what the doc said, anyway. And Marianne was a stewardess—flight attendant, I guess they’re called now. It’s not the ideal job for a mother to have, and I didn’t make enough that she couldn’t work. I regret that. We thought about adopting. Stephanie—my daughter from my first marriage—was adopted, but we loved her like our own.
Stephanie and my biological son, Zach, were both grown by then, off living their own lives. Steph was busy climbing the corporate ladder in California; Zach was in New York, writing for magazines. They never saw each other. Once they had a layover in the same airport and didn’t even know it until it was too late. They probably walked right past one another looking at those connecting flight monitors. It makes me sad to think about it. If they’d been biological siblings, they might have sensed one another’s presence. I don’t know.
Zach always liked making up stories. Kid never wanted toys. For Christmas and birthdays, all he asked for were stacks of legal pads. College-ruled. You’d better not get that part wrong. We bought them in bulk. He’d rip the wrapping paper off and the cellophane, and he’d spend a year filling them up. Both sides of the page.
I told him once he ought to go outside. Later, I told him he ought to learn a trade. Told him he’d never make a living as a writer.
Shows you what I know.
He sold seven books, can you imagine that? They even made a TV series out of one of them. We got him a typewriter for his fifteenth birthday, and by the time he got his learner’s permit six months later, he had a bad case of carpal tunnel.
Around the time Marianne and I were contemplating adding to the family, I lost my biggest client. Seventy-five percent of my cashflow. They decided to bring their prepress operation in house. Bought a thermal film machine and hired a pimple-faced college kid to run it for peanuts. The stress from that cooled off the bedroom for a while. I’d seen the machines at a trade show and should have been proactive about it, but I told myself and later Marianne that they would never be feasible.
The day Myra fired me was beautiful. Ironic, isn’t it? The day your life goes to hell should be awful. Skies full of black storm clouds dumping soaking rain. But not that day. It was the middle of autumn, the fallen leaves were alight with color, the air crisp. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, black or otherwise. No way Myra would drop the guillotine on a brilliant day like that.
Shows you what I know.
I should have left earlier. Easy to say now. My relationship with Myra was already precarious at best, and I should have given myself plenty of time. Someone told me I should have brought her staff donuts, I should have brought Myra flowers. I should have made it hard on her, at least. They didn’t know Myra. Nothing like that was hard for her. She was ruthless. Still is, I presume. She’ll never quit. She’ll chain-smoke herself into the grave somewhere around a hundred and three. She loves it too much. I guess you’d have to.
I left my shop early enough but ran into traffic downtown. Visitors going to meetings or appointments or court appearances, searching for parking in a crawl. Garbage trucks and street cleaners. Sheriff’s cruisers. Delivery vans. Foot traffic, too. They never use the crosswalks, and they’re never in a hurry. And when I finally arrived, I couldn’t find a place to park. No metered spots on either side of the street. I circled the block three times.
I finally found something by the courthouse, but I didn’t have a dime to plug the meter. Nowadays, you can use a debit or credit card. Not back then. You had to have cash. And more specifically, coins.
I walked through the lobby and took the spiral staircase to the third floor. The building was old, the elevator slow. It had a gate on it, like in the old black and white movies.
By the time I made it to the conference room, I was fifteen minutes late. Myra sat at the head of the table surrounded by seven frightened subordinates. They had the same looks I imagined people had when they were about to see someone hanged in the public square. No one had a drink. No one had a notebook. The whiteboard in the corner stood empty. There was nothing to discuss. This wouldn’t take long.
She said it had nothing to do with my being late. It was a long time coming. They didn’t need my services anymore; it was as simple as that.
I expected to find a ticket on my windshield when I returned to my car, but I didn’t, because some Good Samaritan plugged the meter. I plucked the business card they left wedged between the window and the frame and tossed it without looking onto the passenger’s seat as I pulled away. It was probably a church group or something. They’d plugged the meter, and all they wanted in return was my mortal soul. Just show up Sunday and 9:00 AM, and we’ll call it even-steven.
When I reached the nearest intersection, I only looked to the left because it was a one-way street. Nothing was coming, so I pulled out. A panel van narrowly missed me coming the wrong direction. It left a rooster tail of dirt and grime in its wake and barreled down the road, turning the wrong way again at the next cross street.
I returned to the office and had a few drinks. Hours passed. The phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. Figured it was a bill collector. It rang again. I picked it up and replaced the receiver in the cradle immediately. When it rang a third time, I answered with a drunken and angry, “Hello.”
“Mr. Lambert?” The voice was high and chirpy.
“This is Tom Lambert.”
“Did you find a business card on your car this afternoon, Mr. Lambert? Downtown. Near the Hightower building.”
I’d forgotten all about it. I presumed the card was still on the passenger’s seat.
“I represent the company who left the card. Who plugged your meter. You’re welcome.”
“May I ask why haven’t you called already, Mr. Lambert?”
“Who is this?”
“We are Borrowed Time, Incorporated, Mr. Lambert, and I believe we can help you. We here at BTI do not believe in beating around the bush. Time is quite literally our business, and in that spirit, I’d like to get down to it.”
“Get down to what?”
“Business, Mr. Lambert.”
“Don’t you sometimes wish you had more time? To finish that troublesome job, for instance? More time to meet that unforgiving deadline?”
More time is exactly what I needed to finish Myra’s job.
“Sure,” I slurred. “The only problem is I needed it yesterday. A week ago.”
I was sobering up fast. “I don’t understand. You’re some kind of a deadline broker?”
I’d heard of them. Intermediates who stepped in on behalf of large advertising firms with huge corporate clients. But I always believed they were cousins of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. And if they were real, I knew I couldn’t afford them.
“Something like that.” I could hear him smiling behind that machine-like voice. Metallic around the edges. Unnatural. Like a recording, almost.
“I appreciate your concern, Mr…”
“If you’ll allow me to come see you in person, Mr. Lambert, I can show you a personal demonstration of our services. What do you have to lose?”
“All right.” I hoped if I was agreeable to his sales pitch he’d leave me alone when it was over. “What the hell. Why don’t you come by the office tomorrow morning. I’m at two-oh-six—”
“We know where you are, Mr. Lambert, but time, as they say, is of the essence. A stitch in time saves nine? Time and tide wait for no man? That last one is a bit old-fashioned, don’t you think? Shouldn’t it be time and tide wait for no person? I will come tonight. Right now, in fact.”
“We are always punctual. I will see you in three minutes, eighteen seconds. Goodbye.”
The phone clicked. I was sure it was a prank, but minutes later, there was a knock upon my door. I opened it to find a sharp-dressed man beaming on the stoop. He removed his creased fedora and bowed.
“Good evening, Mr. Lambert. We spoke on the phone? It is nice to meet you. May I please come in?”
“Suit yourself.” I stepped aside and closed the door behind him. He took a large whiff of air polluted with developer and fixer and smiled as though the shop were a flower garden.
“I do love the smell of a prepress shop.”
“Have a seat Mr….uh… Were you in the prepress business yourself?”
“Alas, I was not. Several of our clients are, though.”
“Are, or were? It’s a bit of a dying art, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, are, Mr. Lambert, are. They are thriving.”
“But more importantly, are they hiring?”
The man’s smile dropped like a stone in a stream. Now that he’d checked off formalities, he was strictly business.
“I understand you are about eighty percent finished with a job for your biggest client.” He consulted a small notebook he seemed to procure out of nowhere. “A Mrs. Myra Ledbetter of Ledbetter and Associates. Is this correct?”
I lit a cigarette and squinted through the haze. “Where did you get that information?”
“Our practices are unconventional, Mr. Lambert, but I assure you, they are honest and true. Like clockwork, one might say.”
“What if I told you I could get you more time to finish the job? What would you say to that?”
I blew smoke across the desk, and he waved it away.
“It’s too late. I’ve been fired. The deadline has come and gone.” I leaned forward to flick my ash. I stood. “More than once, actually. So, it was nice to meet you—”
“Oh! I’m not suggesting we change the deadline, Mr. Lambert.” He moved forward in his chair, too excited to sit still. “I’m not suggesting that, at all. Quite the contrary. I’m talking about giving you more time. Literally.”
I threw up my hands. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“New customers never do. Let me explain.” He stood and paced back and forth, making large animated gestures as he spoke. If I wasn’t looking at him, I’d have thought his voice was a recording, like I did when I’d heard him speak over the phone. “What if you could go back, say, a week? If you had all that time, all those long days, to do the job, could you finish it? Could you meet the original deadline? The original, Mr. Lambert. Not some hypothetical new one, but the deadline you and your Mrs. Ledbetter agreed upon. Not an extension.”
I shook my head. “I’m a one-man operation these days. And this was a larger job than I’ve ever done before. The deadline was tighter than usual. I don’t know what I was thinking. I bit off more than I could chew because it felt safer than saying no. So, no, I don’t believe that would help, unless I hired a couple of assistants, bought another press…”
He balled his fists. The cords in his neck stood out. His face went beet red.
“No, no, no. What if you could go back to the first of last week while keeping the work you’ve already completed? What if you had all that time to finish the balance? The balance, Mr. Lambert. Do you understand?” In his sudden rage, he finally sounded somewhat human.
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. He reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin.
Jason M. Light is the author of the acclaimed short story “The Bear Who Swallowed the Sky” in the anthology MIDNIGHT WALK, edited by Lisa Morton. He also writes novels. He currently has short stories in print in several anthologies. He lives in Oklahoma City.