LaVon limped and trudged from his little house to his workshop after lunch. He hadn’t eaten much; it was too hot to care about food. He had made himself drink one glass of water, but even that had been an effort.
“Don’t rightly know why I’m botherin’,” he told himself as he wiped his brow. “Ain’t no one ’round here been needin’ any blades sharpened in a month of Sundays.” He grunted softly. “Folks ’cross the tracks have their own sharpenin’ man.”
But a man went to work; LaVon had been going to one kind of work or another since he was eight years old, and that had been more than six decades ago. Now his work, when he got any, was running a foot-powered grindstone to sharpen dull blades. He couldn’t lift and tote and bend like he had done in his younger days, and this was what was left to him to keep body and soul together.
There were occasional rewards to the job. Like the day Raymond from a couple of blocks over brought Raymond Jr. into the shop. It was Junior’s birthday and his daddy had given him a folding knife he’d gotten cheap. The blade was as dull as a brick, which had accounted for the price. Junior watched closely as LaVon’s right foot worked the treadle and his hands moved the blade across the stone. Soon, the knife was in top form again. LaVon knew the lesson Raymond wanted to teach Junior was part of the birthday present, and he hoped Junior would understand that someday.
LaVon glanced ahead and to the left, near the dirt road. He could see only the back of the sign he’d stuck into the ground almost ten years before, but it was a habit to make sure the sign was still there. He had taken a can of runny red paint and a flat, square board and written as carefully as he could: Blades Sharpened Wile You Wate.
He walked in the door of his workshop and stopped dead in his tracks, staring.
Death waited by the grindstone.
LaVon swallowed hard and found his voice, soft and strained though it was. “I reckon you’re here for me.”
The cowled figure nodded once and turned his scythe sideways to display it. One bony finger pointed to various spots on the blade.
“Oh, just a professional visit,” LaVon said a little more firmly. He edged closer, wary but polite. Death was just bones now, but LaVon figured that in his day Death had been a white man; it only made sense. LaVon had spent his life being polite to white men with large blades.
LaVon peered at the blade. “Oh, yes, I see, I see. Yes, that does need sharpened up.”
Death took the blade off the snaith – the staff – and handed it to LaVon, who inspected the damage: a large nick in the toe, or point, of the blade; the beard, the part closest to the snaith, was a ragged mess; and the rest of the blade was just dull.
“Have a seat, sir,” he told the Grim Reaper. Death’s cowl made a single side-to-side motion. “As you like, but this is going to take a while.” LaVon took a few steps toward a small anvil and he picked up his cross peen hammer to begin peening the blade. He set a steady pace, bringing the hammer down on the blade with firm but not heavy strokes. He beat the blade, thinning it and hardening it so he could make a sharp edge that would hold.
Sweat dripped on the anvil and he shook his head. “ ’Scuse me, sir. I don’t mean to be rude, putting on a hat in your presence and indoors, but I’ve got to keep the sweat from gettin’ in my eyes and on my work.” Death nodded his understanding. “Whooo-ee! These days are getting hotter and hotter. I suppose it’s been this hot before, but I sure do feel it more than I used to.” He lifted his hammer from the workbench but hefted it no higher.
“It just occurs to me that you’ve been here before,” he said, not looking at his customer. “It’s been six years since you came for my Essie.” He stared at the long, curved blade that had harvested his wife. His hand moved of its own volition, resuming his work. You didn’t just stand around when the boss was watching. “Well, her body was sick and her soul was ready.” He didn’t look up to see the Reaper nod slightly.
When he had peened the blade to his satisfaction, he took it over to the grindstone and sat down. His foot automatically found the pedal and began pumping. He slowly and methodically passed the blade down the stone.
“This ol’ blade sure has seen some heavy use,” he said. “But then I read in the papers that you been awful busy of late. There’s that war on, and those lynchings. Then, I suppose, you’ve got your normal daily work on top of that, what with the usual murders and car crashes and people just gettin’ old. I suppose this blade sees a lot of use in a day’s time.”
Rivulets of sweat trickled down the sides of LaVon’s head but the hat kept most of his perspiration contained. He pumped the pedal a little harder and the wheel spun faster. He drew a long breath as he made another slow pass along the grindstone.
“I suppose sharpening this up will give folks an easier way to go than your last few customers have had. I’d’ve hate to have been taken by that beard, looking like it did. That would’ve been a hard death.”
Death himself said nothing.
Eventually, LaVon held the blade up to the light of a dirty window and inspected his work carefully. He was silent for some minutes, looking at the blade and cautiously running a finger down its length and checking particular points. He finally sighed and said, “That does ’er. I do believe that’s the best edge we’re going to get on that, and it should do nicely.”
He handed the blade back to the Grim Reaper, who looked at it from the darkness of his cowl. He nodded once and reattached the blade to the snaith. Then the Reaper’s right hand made as if to reach for a wallet.
“No, sir,” LaVon said. “No charge for this one. It’s not many men get to work on that blade and I know it’s an honor.” He shifted in his chair, trying and failing to create a comfortable position. “Besides, I figure in the end I’m doing myself as much a favor as I am you.”
Death nodded again and swung his scythe. LaVon had done his work well and scarcely felt a thing.