Darrel Donaldson rolled through the white-tiled hallway in the wheelchair the nurse had given him the day before. The right back wheel was a little shaky and made a squeaking noise when he rolled too quickly or too slowly, so he rolled just right, taking care to listen for the burgeoning squeak. To the left, against the wall, sat a strange man in his own wheelchair. The man was older than Darrel. His hair was white where Darrel’s still had some gray. The man talked too loudly, and his voice had an edge that made it more difficult for Darrel to hear the squeaking wheel. Darrel glared at the man. The man quieted.
A few feet down the hallway, recessed in the tile, was a glass door topped with a sign. The sign’s letters were shaped as colorful bubbles—pink, blue, yellow—like balloon animals from a child’s birthday party. It read The Soul Shoppe.
At nurse’s station, to the right side of the hallway, a younger nurse, the one with blonde hair tucked behind her ears, sat reading a chart. Darrel turned to her now. She held the tip of a pen to her lower lip.
“Nurse?” he said.
The nurse smiled and pulled her eyes slowly from the chart the way an adult does when a child has asked for attention at a too busy time. “Hello, Mr. Donaldson.”
“How much?” He gestured to the shop. “How much do they charge for a new soul?”
“Oh, Mr. Bartlett works on a sliding scale. Depends on the circumstance.”
“Have you tried it?”
“No, Mr. Donaldson. The shop is only for patients.”
Darrel considered the door and the sign again. The nurse returned to her chart. He ran the palms of his hands over his thighs in a repeated pattern as if working out the muscles.
“Yes, Mr. Donaldson?”
“What happens to the old soul? If you get a new one, what happens to the old one?”
“Mr. Bartlett cleans it. Couldn’t tell you how he cleans it. Mr. Bartlett doesn’t talk about his methods.” The nurse waved to Mr. Bartlett who stood behind the shop counter. He had a bushy beard, nest-like, with more gray than Darrel’s.
“Would you like to go in, Mr. Donaldson?” the nurse asked.
“Don’t be silly.”
The pain was more intense that night. Darrel considered the stillness of the room and how the pain might be more intense because of the room’s stillness or maybe it was the stillness of his body. Maybe his body died off a little faster in the quiet. The last surgery, gallbladder, had been successful, but it was the first in a line. Surgeries seemed to come in triplicate now.
The wheelchair was close, to the left of the bed. He lay watching it for a time, wondering about the distance of the bed to the chair and if his arm would be long enough to reach it, pull it to him. He wondered if he had the courage to try for the chair. He rationalized it would be easier to wait for the nurse to come in the morning, that the potential disappointment wasn’t worth it. Trying for the chair, not reaching it, could become a viral thing. The disappointment could kill him. It might infect him with self-loathing. He turned away.
He had not expected the night nurse and nearly smiled when he came in. He told the nurse it made him feel better if the chair touched the bed, in case he needed it. If there was a fire, he could grasp the chair quickly and roll himself to safety. The nurse didn’t argue.
Darrel waited for the nurse to leave and make his way down the hall before sliding into the chair.
The shop was smaller than it appeared from the outside. Other than a few tables topped with a half dozen pictures of blurry landscapes, children, monuments anyone could have taken with an old instant camera, the store was empty. Mr. Bartlett stood behind his counter, as he had earlier that day, not a book or magazine or newspaper in his hands.
“Good evening. How may I help you?”
“Don’t need anything. Couldn’t sleep is all.”
“Yes, of course.” Mr. Bartlett extended an open arm, an invitation to explore the store. Darrel wheeled between the tables.
“How is it that you stay in business with so little inventory?” Darrel studied a grainy photograph of an oak tree. “In my day… I sold shoes, you see. Good leather shoes. The kind that didn’t wear out. And we kept a stock that rivaled JCPenny’s. Just a small mom pop but we gave the biggies a run.”
“There’s more here than what you can see.”
“Oh sure. Bet you got a big stockroom. We had the biggest stock room around. All those boxes. Stacked floor to ceiling, twenty some rows and I had them all memorized. Style, length, width, make. Ladies, mens. Then when we started with the kids’s shoes. Well, that was another matter.”
Mr. Bartlett turned to some papers so Darrel studied the tables. On the smallest table, at the front of the store, sat a ring of photographs in frames. In the center was a black and white photograph of a little boy with a crooked, gapped smile, gangly arms, disproportionate nose and ears below a lopsided bowl cut. Darrel picked the photograph from the table and sat it in his lap. He stroked the silver frame. He knew this frame. He knew the photograph.
“Much business today?”
“A little. Tuesdays can be slow.”
“Not a good day for souls, huh?”
Mr. Bartlett chuckled the way an adult chuckles at a child’s joke that wasn’t really all that funny. Darrel let the gesture and the condescension settle. Then he waited for Mr. Bartlett to make the offer. He rolled his wheelchair a little forward, a little back until the squeaking wheel started again and he stopped, silent, and waited for the words to come but Mr. Bartlett turned his back and started to tidy things behind the counter as if closing for the evening.
“I think I might want an upgrade.”
Mr. Bartlett turned around again. “Don’t do upgrades.”
“Then what is it you do here?”
“It’s late, Mr. Donaldson, and I’m tired. Maybe you should just tell me exactly what it is you want.”
“Told you. I want an upgrade.”
“That’s not what I do here.”
“But this is The Soul Shoppe.” Darrel wheeled himself closer. “I have money. I could make this worth your while.”
“That’s nice, but I’m not interested in your money. Like I said, if you don’t have any business here, I’m gonna close for awhile. I need my sleep for the morning rush.” He closed a few drawers and finished tidying some papers.
“Look, son, I’m making you an offer, a generous offer. What more do you want?” He was shouting, now. His hands grasped the wheel rims of his chair, knuckles turned white.
“There is nothing generous about what you’re offering.” Bartlett moved from behind the counter. He was a slender man in pressed navy slacks. “And it’s not me you should be offering your generosity.”
“Then who? God?”
“No, that’s not how this works.” Bartlett walked to the front door and pushed a button by the frame. A metal gate began to descend from the top.
“Wait, wait. I’m dying. I know it. I’m desperate. I haven’t lived the best life. I haven’t been kind enough. I haven’t been generous enough. I wasn’t loyal or faithful enough. I was never really anything special and now I’m going to die old and worn out and nothing.”
The gate lowered to half-closed. Bartlett lifted his finger. “I suggest you leave before you’re locked in.”
Darrel reached for him and fell from the chair, onto boney knees. An acute pain radiated from his legs to his neck as he crawled on hands, dragging his legs with him. When he had made it to Bartlett’s feet, he wrapped his gangly arms around Bartlett’s ankles. “Please. I’m an old man. Help me.”
Bartlett picked Darrel up, effortlessly, and placed him into his wheelchair again. He knelt so to talk to Darrel on level. “I don’t save lives, Darrel, and I don’t save souls.”
“Then what the hell is the point of this Soul Shoppe?” Darrel was crying now.
“The Soul Shoppe is here for the people who need it. You don’t need it. You just want it. You’re not a bad man, Mr. Donaldson. You’re just an average man, worried about the squeaks in your wheels. ” Bartlett took the photograph of the boy, now on the floor, and handed it to Darrel. “Here, you should have this.”
Darrel studied the boy’s face, his bowl cut, the gapped teeth. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”
“I need to close.” Bartlett clapped his hands together and squeezed them tightly.
“Wait. I came to you for help. I’m a proud and stupid and stubborn man. I am stubborn…” He bowed his head and shook it like self-disappointment. He rolled his chair up and back letting the wheel squeak but nothing would turn Mr. Bartlett’s attentions. “I came to you! Please, just help me.”
Bartlett ignored him, pushed the gate button and they both, shopkeeper and shopper, watched the gate close them in.
“I want a new soul…” Darrel repeated the phrase as Bartlett slipped out the rear door.
The next morning, when the nurse walked into the shop, she found Darrel slouched in his chair, the photograph crumpled on the floor. Broken glass lay around the wheelchair. The silver frame had been mangled, twisted and broken. Mr. Bartlett stood behind the counter, his hands resting on top. The nurse turned to him and he shook his head then busied himself behind his counter. The nurse carefully smoothed out the photograph of the young, gap-toothed boy. She handed the photo to Mr. Bartlett.
“He’s so beautiful,” she said. “A pity.”
“Yes, it always is.”_
p style=”text-align: justify;”>Nathaniel Tower’s stories can be found in The Foundling Review, Caper Literary Journal and Johnny America. He is the founder and editor of Bartleby Snopes. His story “The Oaten Hands” was named one of 190 Notable Stories from 2009 by storySouth’s Million Writers Award. His first novel A Reason To Kill released from MuseItUp Publishing in 2011.