The Last Line


By Justin Surgent

It was apparent to the young man waiting in line that the woman didn’t speak English well, not by her thick accent which could be heard quietly as she mumbled over her work, but by the way she was pouring over the form on the table, trying to translate her words from lyrical Spanish to the dull tones of English grammar. He watched as she would bring the pencil down the paper, stop, then return it to her mouth, chewing on the end of the eraser. After a few minutes of furtive scribbles, she brought it back up to the desk to a rather plump man wearing a white and blue flannel shirt. Knowing this was not his business, the young man in line returned to his text conversation on his cell phone.

It took her movements to catch the clerk’s eye and make him realize there was another waiting in line. With eyes hidden behind small square frames he made contact with the young man before flashing a contemptuous smile and asking him to wait a moment. As he grinned his small jaw filled with rows of yellow teeth came to light, and grease reflected in his gelled hair that was surely masquerading horns. He stood behind a long desk, located in a small office on the 9th floor of the most bureaucratic of buildings. Harsh fluorescent lights hid every shadow, and every open office door revealed spaces painted the same shade of dull, corporate green.

The clerk had been stamping papers with an iconic office “Passed” stamp, and continued doing so for a moment, even after the small woman brought her papers to him. He looked up slowly once he realized she had finished her task, and sneering, took the papers from her hands and place them on the front of his desk. Her heart raced as this strange man looked her over, then down at the papers and back up to her. He rubbed his fingers against them delicately, licking his lips before he spoke. The young man in line looked up once he heard the tone of the clerk’s voice.

“No, no” he said, “This is not what we want here. Here, we want a beneficiary of sorts, of your kind, of a familial balance.”

The woman looked at him strangely, patting the top of her tightly knit bun, and tried smiling. This strange man worried her and she knew the less time she spent here the better. The sharp small of his breath was making her sick. A faint coppery smell of blood was in the air.

“Social security?” she croaked out in her thick accent.

“No, no, not your social,” he replied. “A beneficiary. Someone who gets your money if something happens to you”

She looked on at him, trying to translate the words spilling from his foreign, forked tongue. They translated slowly for her, the conjugations of each verb a distant memory from the classrooms she spent learning English.

“If something were to happen to you here, such as while working.”

She looked on again. The young man wanted to try using his limited Spanish vocabulary to assist, but before he was able to formulate a viable Spanish sentence, the clerk went on.
“If you were to pass away, to die.”

“Muerte,” the clerk finally said, his one Spanish phrase gliding off his tongue like it was dipped in tequila. The woman’s eyes lit up like a doe’s and her face lost color.

“Si, muerte,” he repeated, his tail flicking with the lyrical phrase for death. His eyes shrunk into their sockets as his smile deepened, his yellow teeth returning to say hello. The young man in line couldn’t help but look up from his phone, watching as the clerk laughed lightly. He could smell his sulfur breath from across the room.

“My daughter,” the woman began as her hands searched through her purse.

“Well, does she live in this country?” he asked. She shook her head no, never letting her eyes leave his face. “Then I think we need to find someone new. A son maybe?”

The woman nodded frantically as memories of her son played through her head. He was doing better now, responsible. He would be a good fit for this job.

“Okay, just fill out his name and address here,” the clerk said. “Telephone number there, age there.” He watched her scribble out the information and saw as she stopped at one section.

“Don’t worry, there’s no need for his social security there,” he said, forcing a smile as her eyes met his. He grabbed the papers out of her hand. “Now please, follow me.”

He motioned to the single closed door, a dark red that seemed unfitting in the rest of the bland corporate suite. The paint peeled in a few places and the handle was an old latchkey.

Of all the places the woman had been, there was no place she wanted to be less than the single red-doored closed office in the suite. She looked across the room at the young man who had put his phone away, now completely ingrained in the scene before him. His eyes showed only minor curiosity, but he too was waiting in line and was tired of the hold up.

As the clerk lead the woman towards his office, he opened the door and the young man across the room could feel the heat of the dark interior. She looked back one last time, eyes wide. The clerk looked back as well, yellow teeth gleaming. He put his hand on her back as he lead her inside.

“I’ll be with you in just a moment,” he said as he closed the door.

The young man took a seat, returning to his phone, and patiently waited his turn.

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