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art by Melissa Mead

For Sale by Owner

Kate Heartfield is a newspaper journalist in Ottawa, Canada. Her short fiction has appeared recently in Waylines and Black Treacle and in the science fiction anthology Blood and Water, from Bundoran Press. She blogs at heartfieldfiction.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter at @kateheartfield.

Ron allowed himself one shallow breath before gripping his cane and creaking to his feet. There was no need to rush. More than a century before, he had counted the steps that would take him from his watching-chair, across his living room, through his front door, off the porch, and across the expanse of rock to the cliff. Ron knew, likewise, the number of steps a jumper needed to hike to the top of the rock face they called The Ridge.
Ron had time.
This jumper, like most, looked young enough and hale, as far as Ron could tell from a silhouette against a watery sunset. But the jumper was walking slowly, like a man going to his execution. That, too, was more common than not, and a good sign. The ones who tripped up the rock quickly, dancing to their deaths, were beyond his aid, even should he reach them in time. They wanted to die. They weren't talking themselves into it.
For the dancers and the runners, Ron could do nothing, although he had tried, he had tried. The trudgers, though. They were his long life's work.
In his younger years, Ron had grabbed them, held them, yanked them back from the edge. One woman very nearly pulled him over the edge with her, clutching at him as though she were drowning. Once he watched a young man drop, silently, as he stretched out his hand to him. Sometimes they cried out and sometimes they didn't. Sometimes he could see their lips moving but heard no sound. The wind played tricks in that place; the wind made its own judgments. Ron had learned that years ago. He had learned, too, that not every life was his to save. He still tried every time. The runners, the dancers, the lost causes, the trudgers, the cries for help. He never stayed in his chair to watch through his window a death framed in gingham. He walked out to the cliff edge for every one of them. He wept after every failure, even those he had seen coming.
Ron did send most of them home alive. It was enough.
Enough to keep him alive, too. It had been a long time since that felt like a blessing. No good deed goes unpunished, Ron thought. How many punishments had he earned, by now? He smiled without teeth.
Every angle and dip in the rock felt familiar; every crunch of stubborn lichen. The wind smelled, as it always did, of juniper. A man could smell worse things with his dying breaths, Ron thought, as he always did.
The jumper was making for the obvious place. The smooth plateau thrust up into the sky, where the cliff face was sheer beneath. No struggling pines or tufts of brush or jags of rock to break one's fall, to inflict unnecessary pain on the way down. Decades ago, the county had put up a low fence, with the number of a hotline painted on the rail. It was in disrepair, now, and collapsed in places. But it had never mattered anyway. The jumpers could clamber over easily enough. The fence merely marked the ideal spot for the jumpers, and spoiled Ron's view.
Besides, nobody had really wanted to stop would-be suicides from going to The Ridge, because if the jumpers knew they couldn't get off the cliff easily, they'd go somewhere else, somewhere where Ron wasn't.
Even Ron's own successes threatened at times to render him ineffective. A few years before, a newspaper had printed a profile story about him under the headline, "The Angel of the Ridge."
Ron, who didn't hold with churches or angels, cut out the article and put it on his fridge.
"For longer than anyone can remember, he's been sitting in his threadbare recliner, looking out the window, on alert. He's prevented hundreds of suicides, simply by asking troubled souls in for a cup of tea and a chat. He says he's a good listener, but his hearing is not what it was. Asked his age, he merely shrugs and says he stopped counting at eighty."
For months after the article appeared, the only visitors were people who wanted the Angel of the Ridge to tell them they had every reason to live--people who had never really doubted it, anyway. Ron didn't mind; he invited them in; they needed his help just the same. But he worried about all the people the article drove away, to other cliffs or to pills or guns, the lives he could have saved.
After a few years, people forgot the article, and Ron got his anonymity back. They started trudging up his hill again: dark figures on the stony ground. They seemed surprised, as they neared the top, to see a house in such a high and desolate place. White wood, roof sagging a little in the middle, low against the sky. The battered red-and-white sign out front: For Sale by Owner. They seemed even more surprised to see Ron walking toward them, leaning on his cane, smiling as though they were expected.
Ajay stopped walking. His heart pounded. He rehearsed ordinary phrases in his mind. I was hiking, and I lost my way. I wanted to see the view; I didn't realize it was private property. May I use your phone? Your bathroom? A glass of water? A car? I'm injured.
The old man didn't seem to want an explanation. He said, as if continuing a conversation: "There's no harm in putting it off a little longer and coming in for a cup of tea."
Ajay's backbone sagged. If he let this old man put him off, he'd be back where he'd been for days, dithering, hating himself. But could he refuse? Could he insist on his autonomy, take those last few steps to the edge, make his final preparations and farewells under the gaze of this old man? Would he force a struggle, if it came to that? He didn't want his last act to be beating up someone's grandpa.
Ajay nodded. They walked together in awkward silence. Several times he thought of something he might say, some excuse he might make, but kept silent. He noticed the peeling paint, the battered red and white sign in front of the house. For Sale by Owner.
Inside, the little house was fusty, doilied on every surface. Ecru doilies, the kind made by hand, with needles. Brown carpet, worn in patches near the door. Cross-stitch in a frame on the wall: children in clogs, in x's of blues, dark and pale and white, a windmill behind them.
The old man boiled water in a pot on an ancient gas stove. Neither of them said anything until he rattled in a tray and set it on a folding table: china teapot, landscape scene, chipped. Two matching cups on matching saucers. Sugar cubes in the cardboard box they came in, milk in a small carton.
"Thank you, sir."
"Ron's the name. You haven't, er, heard of me, have you?"
What an odd thing to say. "No," Ajay said.
"My wife would have had something more to offer you," Ron said. "She was very good at cakes."
"She's gone now?"
Ron nodded. "A long time ago. You? You have no ring, I see. Not that that means anything, these days."
Ajay shook his head.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Ron asked. "The reason you came."
He shook his head again. "There is no reason."
I've lost my self. I'm not who I thought I was. I don't see a way forward. What to do. What I'm for. I'm sorry. Ajay thought of the piece of paper in his pocket, the blank piece of paper he had intended for a note. He'd stuffed a golf pencil in the pocket too, in case inspiration came at the end. Every phrase that occurred to him had been trite, insufficient. How could he sum up everything that was wrong with him in a few indelible words? No one could be expected to do that. Not well, anyway. Kurt Cobain's note was a train wreck. Did Schumann leave a note for Clara before he jumped into the Rhine?
Wait. Stop. Forget musicians. Forget music.
He should have studied famous suicide notes by great writers. Woolf. Plath. Hemingway. Had Hemingway left a note? Ajay couldn't remember. Maybe even the great writers took refuge in banal instructions, clichés. What could anyone say but I'm sorry?
Ajay's grandmother used to tell him the story of Sati, Shiva's wife, who before she set herself alight, prayed to be born again to a better father. Talk about passive aggressive. Talk about twisting the knife. He could see, now, why his grandmother had liked the story.
"So you're just here for the view, then," Ron said.
Ajay shrugged. "My life is no good to me. Or anyone else."
The old man didn't answer. His eyes darted to the window every now and again.
"You're not going to argue with me?" Ajay asked.
"Would you like me to argue with you? Would that help?"
Ajay smirked. "No, I don't think it would."
The tea burned his tongue.
Ron watched him. It was all about timing. There were no rules for his vocation, other than kindness. He had come to understand, a long time ago, that he would do whatever it took for any one of them. He couldn't save them all but for the ones he could, he would do whatever it took.
"You have no reason to live," Ron said. "Fair enough. Would you like one?"
Ajay frowned. "I'm sorry?"
"I'm willing to make you an offer. Did you notice the sign? The house is for sale. It's been for sale a long time. But the right buyer hasn't come along."
The old man settled into his worn brown armchair, infuriatingly placid.
Dementia, probably.
Ajay wanted to peel himself off this vinyl chair and out of this strange little house and run, just run.
But there was nowhere to run, unless it was off the cliff. He was incompatible with himself. He was stuck in a gap between desire and despair. A musician just barely good enough to recognize that he would never be good enough.
He said, "I'm sorry. I'm not interested in the house."
"Ah, of course. I suppose you have your own problems on your mind."
Ajay bristled at Ron's calm, dismissive tone. He'd feel like he was being peevish if he walked out now.
"I'd be happy to listen, sir," Ajay said. "If you want to talk about it."
"Well, then. Good. To start with, I must tell you that I'm older than I look."
"I was born in 1850."
Dementia, definitely.
"1850," Ajay said. "It's 2013 now, sir. That would make you 163 years old, you know. Are you sure you have that date right?"
"Yes. Math has never been my strong suit, so I'll take your word for it, but 1850 it was, certainly."
"I'm sorry, sir, but that's impossible."
"Maybe, maybe. I don't like to say what's possible, myself. I wouldn't underestimate sheer bloody-mindedness. You can live as long as you like, provided you just won't die. I didn't go seeking immortality, though. Quite the opposite. After my son died, in the war in South Africa--see his photograph, there?"
Ron gestured at a small picture in a gilt frame, a young man in a moustache and military uniform.
"Yes. Huh. You do look like him." Or would, if you stripped away the rheum and red from the eyes, straightened the hump, pulled taut the jowls. The two faces were similarly monochrome, but rather than sepia, Ron was drawn in gray.
"My darling boy," Ron said. "I didn't want to go on. My wife was ill, and I cared for her. I built her this house, a quiet place for her to recover. She died the day after we moved in. And the day after that, I had nothing keeping me in this world any longer, so I walked to the cliff edge. To jump. That was in 1906."
Ajay let himself ignore the date. "But you didn't jump."
Ron laughed. "Funniest thing that's ever happened to me. There was a chap already there, standing on the edge himself, near peeing his pants. We surprised the hell out of each other, I can tell you. I talked him away from the edge and I suppose he talked me away from it too, although I was still on the fence, you might say. I came back and I set my chair up here, to look out the window. I wasn't doing much those first few weeks but sitting, and thinking. And darn it all if people didn't keep coming up here to jump, and giving me reasons to stay. I've poured more cups of tea than I could count."
Ajay felt something crabbing his spirit, something like jealousy. Ron seemed so content. Crazy, maybe, but content.
"You'll forgive me, sir, but you don't look like a man who was born in 1850."
"How many 163-year-olds do you know?"
Ajay almost chuckled. "Yes, but you're still walking. You're still able to pour tea without spilling it. You're still alive, for heaven's sake."
"It's the house, you see," said Ron. "That's what I've been trying to make you understand. It comes with certain responsibilities. I haven't been able to die. Who would take my place?"
"Yes," Ajay said, glancing at the window. "Yes, I do understand that."
"The thing is, I'm ready to go. I've been ready for a long time. This body's worn right out. But I just can't leave this house empty. It's been my duty and my privilege to live here, to be a caretaker for this beautiful, terrible place."
A coughing fit convulsed his small body. Ajay bent over him, offered him a sip of tea, and the old man put it to his lips, closing his eyes for a moment.
"I shouldn't say terrible," he said hoarsely after he'd recovered his breath. "It's not so bad. People sometimes send me donations, afterward, you know. I get by. And the work, well, it's a happy kind of sad. After I lost my son and my wife, this house gave me a reason to keep going."
Ajay frowned.
"But now you don't want to keep going. You offered me the house. You want to give up."
"Well, I wouldn't say that. I'd say I'm asking for an honorable discharge. I don't like to grouse but the God's truth is I'm tired. Trouble is, I can't seem to find a buyer I can trust with the responsibility that comes with this window. I'm not just selling a house. I'm selling my life. And who would want my life, if it was for sale? Who wants to spend their time afraid to look out their own window, and just as afraid to look away?"
Ajay looked out the window. The light was nearly gone; soon he wouldn't be able to find his way back down the path to the road. But what did it matter, if he was jumping? Maybe it would be better in the dark. Just to run and run, blind, until there was nothing under his feet.
"Some of them say they want the job," Ron continued, "but I haven't found one yet who'd last a week. Some just want the property and they think the price is right. The price is nothing, by the way, in terms of money. Some of them have a sick fascination with The Ridge."
"And you think I'm different. That I'm worthy of the house."
Ron shrugged his bony shoulders. "Haven't the foggiest. I don't know you from Adam. I'll know, though, if you accept my condition."
"You mean, a promise to sit here, like you, every day, and watch for suicides?"
"A promise isn't good enough, I'm afraid. I'll need you to prove yourself. To pass the test no one else has been able to pass. A test of courage, kindness, and respect."
"And what kind of test would that be?"
The old man leaned forward, and said: "I need to know whether you'll help me die."
It was wrong, Ajay told himself, violently. It was wrong of him to sit here listening to this pitiable wreck. He'd chosen The Ridge for its silence and beauty and instead he'd found the familiar sick sound of human beings grating on each other. One more person to be sorry to.
Ajay stood up, spilling his tea. "I'm sorry. Let me get a towel."
Ron waved his hand. "Leave it. I should apologize to you. You didn't want to hear my tale of woe. That's not why you came."
"No." He stood looking at Ron's face for a moment, and found himself unwilling to select a banality to end their conversation. He said nothing further, walked out the front door, down the porch steps, across to the cliff. It was the wrong side of twilight and the colors all seemed the same, the rock and the lichen and the grasses all hues of gray.
Ajay stood at the edge and leaned, gingerly, on the ramshackle railing. The paint had peeled so that the hotline number was only partly visible. Beyond it there was the dark lake and the sky, lavender at the horizon and violet above. A star--a planet, it must be--was out already, brilliant.
He took a long, slow breath scented with juniper.
There are worse things a person could breathe in every day of his life, he thought. There are less noble things than trying to persuade another person to turn, and walk, into a little white house to drink a cup of tea. It would be repetitive, that life, but so is music.
Ron leaned on his cane and watched him. The boy was so close. So close to the edge. Maybe a little nudge would keep him on the right side of it, if Ron could time it right.
Ron would do whatever it took. He would give anything to save any one of them. And what he had to give now, he would give joyfully, content after long labors.
Ajay turned, uncertain. He had heard a sound, but the failing light seemed to have the same blurring effect on sound as it did on color. He thought he could see, lying on the porch of the little white house, the crumpled form of the old man.
He ran toward the house. As he ran, he seemed to see it changing in the half-light, like a tape played in reverse: the paint smoothing, brightening, the roof straightening.
He came to the porch and helped Ron to his feet. "Let me get you inside. Have you got a telephone? I left my cell--I didn't want--"
Ron waved his hand to stop him. "No. Not inside. Get me to the cliff. Please."
He let the old man's little bit of weight sag in his arms. "I won't."
"Look at me," said Ron. "Look at my face, and tell me I don't know what I want. Tell me you have all the answers."
Ajay looked. He didn't see madness. He saw a man who had lived 163 years, out of mere stubbornness, and who had the right to make up his own mind.
He saw a man who would probably live another century if he had to, if he never found anyone willing to take his place. God, the toll those years would take on him.
Ajay's eyes and his throat choked with tears. "I can't throw you over," he said. "I can't do it."
"That's all right," said Ron, putting weight on his feet, pulling himself up to stand, leaning on Ajay's arm. "I only need to take a step. I just don't want to take it alone."
Ajay stopped playing his piano. He had set it up so that he could watch the window while he played. And here was a woman, trudging up the hill.
His first would-be jumper. If he didn't count Ron. He had decided not to count that as a failure, and not to count it as a success. Better not to count at all. Better not to wonder if he, too, would end up like Ron, living impossibly long, stretched out by the loneliness of dharma.
Better to think only of the human being before him, now, and do what he could.
Finally a job that might starve his addiction to judging himself. There was no standard of comparison. The old man had never told him how many he'd saved. He hadn't demanded perfection. Only willingness to try. Kindness. Respect.
Ajay stood and looked around the room. He was starting to make it his own. The dead soldier still stared out from his gilt frame, but Ajay had gotten rid of the doilies. A guitar leaned against the wall where the old brown recliner used to be. The clay Ganesha statue his grandmother had given him, years ago, stood near the door.
Ajay put the kettle on the stove and walked out toward the cliff. To help.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Author Comments

This story was inspired by the very different but equally remarkable true story of Don Ritchie of Sydney, Australia, known as The Angel of the Gap, 1925-2012.

- Kate Heartfield
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