A journal of narrative writing.
Flint Hills, Kansas

Knuckles on metal struck two clear tolls in the still, mid-morning air; the sounds entered Jerry's dream like glossy intruders overturning furniture, dropping dishes, and opening shutters. He sat up. A contemplative silence followed, and the notes disappeared completely. Perhaps it had been nothing- a bird. The old man's eyelids fluttered. Moments later, the dry grass in his front yard crunched with approaching footsteps, and the boards leading up to his front porch creaked. A comforter the color of fog slid from him as he rolled onto his side and heaved himself upright. Hands on his knees, he exhaled, lungs rumbling. Naked feet slid eel-like into waiting leather slippers as the doorbell, long deprived of a healthy tone ever since the copper had worn through, sounded. He shuffled from the bright, peeling room.

Behind the square window in the door, Jerry could make out a shape rocking slightly. Possibly it was the top of a hat, but the person underneath must have been mighty short, or so he reckoned, to come up only so high. Suddenly, it tilted toward the bell side of the doorway, and the mechanism bleated once more.

"Hm," he muttered and pulled the door wide.

Standing behind the screen was the silhouette of a man mopping his face with a handkerchief. He was indeed short, perhaps an inch or two below Jerry's own, dramatically stooped height. This made Jerry feel slightly more at ease.

"Mr. Cornfield?" the man asked.

Jerry said nothing then took a deep breath. His chest shuddered and he coughed several times.

The man on the porch waited patiently for him to recover then said, once again, "Mr. Cornfield?"

Jerry nodded.

"May I?" asked the man, gesturing to the door.

"I'm Mr. Cornfield, what do you want?"

The man smiled and dropped his arm. Behind him, the bright, Kansas clouds churned. To Jerry's struggling vision, the man was a shape with teeth; he could have been almost anyone- but short.

"Mr. Cornfield, I'm here on behalf of Ashford Projects, Limited. I believe you called us recently regarding our services?"

Jerry blinked. "Ashmont? No, I don't recall..."

"'Ashford,' Mr. Cornfield, sir. I have it here." The man consulted a small, brown notebook, which he flipped open then touched with a finger. "Yes. 'Jerome J. Cornfield. Two Thirty-One Ashford Street.'" He replaced the book in his breast pocket, pinched the tip of his hat and pushed it up. "Well. That's funny, isn't it? 'Ashford' and 'Ashford'. I didn't even think of it." He smiled again then, responding to the look on Jerry's face, said, "Perhaps you'd like to see my card?" From the opposing breast pocket, the man produced a sterling case and flicked it open. A white rectangle was held to the screen, about half a foot from the old man's nose.

"Can't see too good," said Jerry, reaching forward.

The screen door opened a few inches. The man on the porch hesitated, unsure at first whether this was an invitation to pull the door wider or merely a space through which to pass his card. He decided on the latter and maneuvered his wrist around the edge.

Jerry leaned forward but kept the door where it was. "Eh?" he said, exhaling through his nose.

"You can take it, Mr. Cornfield," the man said. "I've got plenty."

Jerry rubbed his hand against his slacks. "Hands're dirty," he said.

"That's ok," assured the man. "That's fine. This one is for you- it's yours."

As Jerry pinched the card, he noticed that the man's fingers were dark against the paper's surface.

"You're black," Jerry said.

The man's hand released the card.

"You're a black man."

The smile reappeared. "Yes," the man said. "Yes, I am. Is that a problem, Mr. Cornfield?"

"You don't talk like a black man. Your voice isn't black."

The man began laughing quietly, shaking his head. "You know, I could take offense at what you're suggesting, Mr. Cornfield. Really I could." His shoulders still bobbing, he wiped his face with the handkerchief. It lingered over his open mouth for a moment, then, as if depositing his amusement, he bunched the cloth and wadded it into his pocket. His voice became solemn. "But let's put questions of race aside, shall we? May I come in, sir, so we can discuss business?"

A light breeze blew across the porch, whispering through the skeleton of its incomplete roof structure. "Wait," said Jerry. He allowed the screen door to slam shut and retreated into the house.

Jerry's slippered feet skiffed into the kitchen. He pawed at the countertops and opened one of the drawers. Gnarled fingers danced over clothespins, matches, fuses, stray rifle cartridges, wire, and buttons until they found a dark leather case. This they retrieved, and the old man turned back toward the front door.

Once alone, the stranger stepped forward and peered into the house with hands cupped around his eyes. His vision adjusted slowly. An eternal dusk presided within, household items frozen and waning in a bleak light full of dust. From left to right and back again, he scanned the gray and sepia interior as if methodically vacuuming. Exposed strips of wallpaper glue, a yellowed newspaper left draped across a hall stand, various abandoned plates and bowls, and a series of framed black and white family portraits all entered the man's eyes and were secreted away. A wry curl manifested on one side of his mouth. When shuffling footsteps neared, he retreated quietly and rotated away from the door.

Jerry returned to find the silhouette upon his porch once more, swaying on its heels, hands in pockets. It was regarding the sky- or maybe looking at the two hulking pieces of scrap metal in the yard. A few notes of whistled melody came to him as he opened the leather case and stepped closer to the screen. The shape turned to regard the old man with a look of pleasure.

"'George James Eastman. Ashford Projects, Limited. Agent,'" Jerry read. Small wire spectacles, the metal corroded on the bridge and stems, now balanced on the end of his bony nose. The lenses were smudged, but rather than wiping them clean, the old man simply adjusted his gaze to an angle avoiding the smears. "'Established 1877,'" he finished. He turned the card over to look at its blank side, then flipped it back.

"So they say," acknowledged the man.


A mild wind blew, evidenced only by the vague rustling of the dehydrated grass, the hush of the solitary cottonwood in the side yard, and a slight movement of the man's clothes. "I have a suggestion, Mr. Cornfield, if you're willing. Perhaps..." He spread his arms. "That is, if it would make you more comfortable, perhaps we could discuss business out here on the porch? It's a beautiful day."

Jerry squinted. He leaned to the side, stretching his skinny neck to look past Mr. Eastman as though validating this statement. After a moment, he returned to his original posture and said, "That's fine," stepped forward, and opened the door.

For a moment, they faced each other on the porch. With his glasses on, Jerry now took in full sight of the man. Five feet tall at the most, wearing a linen outfit that reminded Jerry of a lemon meringue left out too long, George James Eastman appeared placid. His face, although wrinkled in places, expressed vitality, the brown skin shining, the eyes ageless. His shirt hung loose over the waist of wide, matching slacks that ended at a pair of copper-colored leather sandals. Looking him up and down, Jerry noted that the straw hat featured a band that matched the linen, as if it were all part of one getup. His face contorted, and he adjusted his glasses.

Mr. Eastman's broad smile made another appearance. "Ok?" he asked.

Jerry shuffled wordlessly past him to a motley selection of chairs on the far side of the porch. Two were clearly unsafe, disjointed and leaning, mortally wounded, against the house. The rest, though possibly structurally adequate, appeared ancient and brittle, just waiting for a sunbeam to ignite one of their splinters. Jerry selected a wicker rocker and lowered himself into it bit by bit, the wood protesting beneath even his sparse weight. He sighed lightly as his bones came to rest. Once deposited, he began to push the chair back and forth with his toes in a childlike manner.

The man followed Jerry, but, rather than sitting, leaned against the railing facing him. Again, the stranger became silhouetted by the brilliant white of the mid-morning clouds, but the effect was subtler this time to Jerry's adjusting eyes. Mr. Eastman stroked the back of his neck with his handkerchief, which now revealed itself to be a bright, checked orange, then rounded it to the top of his head. With his other hand, he lifted his hat so that the swabbing might continue unobstructed. "So," he said finally, replacing the lid and returning the cloth to his pocket, "Mr. Cornfield. What can I do for you?"

Jerry stopped rocking. "'What can you do for me?'"


Jerry gave the stranger a blank look. A few of his gray hairs momentarily lifted in a small breeze.

"What can Ashford Projects do for you today, Mr. Cornfield?" Mr. Eastman opened his hands towards him. "I'm here to help."

Jerry began to rock the chair once more. He shook his head. "I'm sorry if I have to tell you I don't have any idea what you're talking about, Mr. Eastman, but I don't. I wish I did. Truly I do." His chuckle was dry, his lips pursed.

A bird appeared and landed on one of the bare roof-beams that dissected the sky above the two men. Its head jerked twice before flapping and leaving view.

"Now," said Mr. Eastman, putting more weight against the banister and achieving an audible complaint from the wood, "that does surprise me, Mr. Cornfield. You say you have no idea why I'm here? None at all?"

"None," the old man said, continuing his rocking. One eyebrow was up and he looked to his right.

"Well," intoned Mr. Eastman. "Well." He kept his hands on the wooden beam beneath him and straightened. "That is unusual. Not unheard of, I don't think, but definitely out of the ordinary." He took a step forward and held out one hand, platter-like. "You do understand that agents of Ashford Projects are only sent out by request? I am no solicitor, Mr. Cornfield. You called us." The other hand joined the first and they clasped.

Jerry stopped rocking once more. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew an old, well-chewed corncob pipe. He placed it in his teeth, but did not light it. "No," he said.

"No?" asked Mr. Eastman. "Are you certain?"

The pipe shifted to the other side of his mouth. "I don't recall calling anybody."

Mr. Eastman removed his hat and held it forth. "Well, as I said, that is unusual, but not unheard of." His feet shifted, and he turned the hat as if pouring. "Be that as it may, I put it forth that someone called us at some point and requested a visit."

Jerry said nothing. A fly settled on one of his knuckles, but it was either ignored or unfelt.