S H O R T S T O R Y
THE LINGERING DEATH OF EAMON PATTERSON
b y p e t e r d a m i a n b e l l i s ~ s t . p a u l , m i n n e s o t a
NOTE TO READERS: This story is in two parts.
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EAMON PATTERSON and his wife, Leila, lived in a small nameless, mostly Catholic town along the Gulf Coast, a town which smelled of paper mills and pine and burning tar and river sewage when the wind came from the north, and salt water and old beer and rotting fish and motor oil when the wind came from the south, and which, perhaps because of the thought-provoking quality of so many distinct yet native odors blended together, boasted the fewest occupants of any town in the county, twenty-two people and thirteen itinerant dogs, and with the exception of the dogs, and one or possibly two people, if you counted both Pattersons, everyone had been expecting Eamon Patterson to die for the last thirty years.
The town itself was in the last stages of its abandonment and it seemed more a symbol of municipal oblivion than anything else. There were four or five white clapboard houses in town and a few more outside the limits, and a Standard Oil with one pump working and two pumps not working down along the Old Kings Highway, and they sold Cokes there and Ne-Hi Orange and peanuts and chewing gum and even some Dolly Cakes when they weren't selling any gas, which was most of the time. The only store within the town limits was McCabe's Drugstore, which masqueraded as a church on Sundays and the Post Office on Tuesday mornings, and across from McCabe's was an old abandoned movie house, which some had thought a disgrace when it first went out of business and wanted to tear it down for the vanity fixtures, they were made of pink and white marble and suggested the extravagance of New York City or Boston or some such place, but the Widow Mrs. J. D. Dobbs, she was the only Protestant in town, said they couldn't do that, the building was historic, a landmark, and then she turned it into a Christian mission and hung out a sign and had soup and sandwiches five days a week and Bible readings every other night. It was for the vagrants she said, any that came this way, though there weren't but a handful ever showed up at any one time, and they seemed to come mostly for the free soup. Eamon couldn't have a picked a more appropriate town to die in.
The death of Eamon began the day an ancient traveling miracle man came to town to do a show. The man arrived in a dilapidated milk truck, it still had the word "MILK" printed on both sides in a neat arc, but he did look vaguely Spanish, which suggested to the townspeople great passion, and perhaps even violence, and since such idiosyncrasies were a rarity in this town, at least as part of a public spectacle, there was a crowd of maybe a dozen who came simply to watch the ancient miracle man set up his platform stage in the sandy, grassy lot next to the abandoned movie house. They watched with a deliberate and yet humble interest, even the dogs. And everything the man brought out spoke marvels. On one side there was a table displaying a variety of oddly shaped musical instruments and a collection of antique weapons, mostly swords edged with rust, but there was also a small boot-strap derringer, which the miracle man waved at the watchers and said it was the gun Jesse James had been killed with and then he set it down. On the other side there was a mysterious trunk with strange, arcane scribblings on it and pictures of the sun and the moon and the stars and a man poling a long boat in a sea of fish and a woman with the head of a baboon, all of which the miracle man claimed was a fair example of Egyptian writing. Then, since there was nothing more to be done about the stage, the ancient miracle man put out a sign which said the next show was at one o'clock and disappeared into the back of his truck. Then the people began to talk.
"What does it mean there the next show is at one o'clock? He aint even done the first show yet."
"Maybe he's only got one sign."
"Who'd this fellow say he was?"
"He didn't say."
"Well I aint gonna watch him less I know who he is."
"What are you talking about Hubert. You'd watch him if it was raining whether you knew him or not. So would the rest of us."
"I heard he came all the way from St. Louis. I got a cousin over in One-Egg and she saw him a couple of weeks ago. That's what she said."
"What'd he come down here for?"
"I don't know. That's just what I heard."
"Your cousin have an opinion about the show?"
"No. She pretty much keeps her mind to herself. But she did say they ran him off after three or four days."
"That's good enough for me."
And then it was one o'clock, and from the moment the ancient miracle man began his routine, the entire town, except for Eamon Patterson, who had fallen asleep after a lunch of cold crabmeat and crackers and a piece of store-bought pie, but including the various mongrel and pedigreed dogs, which in this time of the almost mythic past numbered twenty-seven, they all fell into a feverish almost clownish trance, the people clapping their hands, and the dogs dancing. Then the miracle man called out for volunteers and the clapping and dancing stopped and two men scrambled onto the stage, and also a young girl, and the miracle man gave them each an instrument and then instructed them how to play, and then he smiled and said he had never had a pupil fail him yet, though it seemed a certainty this time, for the two men were swinging their instruments about as they might wrenches, and the girl was tone deaf. Then the miracle man commanded his less than musically inclined trio to play, and they did, and what's more it sounded like something you could hear on the radio, which some said it was -- they were sure there was a radio somewhere in the back of that milk track, and one even tried to get in and see -- but the rest said it was a mystery only God could explain. Even the Widow Mrs. Dobbs was impressed, and she later said that the giddy, unrehearsed virtuosity of the performance was more than enough to make a body convert on the spot, though just what she'd have been converting to she didn't say. Then everybody clapped some more and the trio left the stage, and then the miracle man launched into a recitation of some passage, from Homer, he said, from a long poem called The Iliad, and he was going to do it in the original Latin first and then explain it afterwards, which he did, and everyone said it was powerfully delivered and moving and very beautiful for poetry, but nobody understood it even after the explanation. Then he did a little play about the Wild West and bandied about the stage for a while with a sword in one hand and the derringer in the other, and it seemed well-acted, but it was hard to tell just what was going on, there being six or seven parts and only one actor, and when he was done with that he sang a couple of songs he said were love songs, and then he bowed to the women and saluted the men. Then he stood up and looked to his audience, with fiercely dark eyes, Spanish eyes people would later say, and some of the women had to fan themselves in the heat of his glare, and some of the men wondered if there might be a fight. And some of the dogs too.
Then the miracle man made his pitch.
"My good, good people, let me direct your attention to the large trunk on my left. It is covered top to bottom with ancient Egyptian writing, hieroglyphics, as they say in the ivory towers of academia, and it contains The Blue Elixir of the Nile, a potion which, I don't mind telling you, can cure everything from cataracts to the common cold. But do not simply take my word for it." And then he moved over to the trunk and pulled out a drawer and picked up a handful of papers and waved them about. "These are signed affidavits from people like yourselves from here all the way to St. Louis. Signed in the presence of notaries and priests. But not even this, good people, not even the mighty weight of all this sworn testimony should persuade you to buy a bottle against your better judgment. What you need is actual proof, not paper." And then the miracle man tossed the sworn affidavits to the ground with a tremendous and practiced flourish. "What you need to do, good people, you need to witness the miracle of this blue elixir for yourselves. And only after you have been convinced of its curative properties should you buy a bottle for your very own."
The crowd murmured a furious amen, for they took what the ancient miracle man said to be a sort of New Deal gospel, and then he asked if any of them suffered from headaches or insomnia or boils or any one of a thousand and one ailments, and there was a flurry of nods, and then from out of the flurry the miracle man invited a young boy of about seventeen to come up and give the elixir a try. The boy's particular malady was marked by sporadic coughing and a graceless, stoop-shouldered gait, which most of the townspeople would have said was a sign the boy had taken up smoking or become a shiftless vagrant had not his sickness been generally acknowledged. Then the miracle man held up a bottle of blue elixir, a bottle which he had specially prepared the night before and which contained five parts grain alcohol and two parts blue elixir, and he gave the boy a swig and the boy gasped and stumbled to the edge of the stage and then fell headfirst onto the sandy, grassy ground, and when the people rolled him over and saw the twisted yet somehow joyously angelic smile spread across his face, the boy looked like a saint, they were suddenly and passionately convinced that the boy would never again suffer from his strange, graceless malady, a revelation which they pondered with a suitable amount of reverent awe, and then they turned towards the stage en masse and waved their arms wildly in the air and clamored almost desperately for as many bottles as the ancient miracle man could spare, and he in turn pulled bottle after blue bottle from out of the mysteriously inscribed trunk and sold them for three dollars a piece, which was more than usual, a good drunk was rarely worth more than a dollar, but then the ancient miracle man hadn't anticipated the sanctifying effect his potion would have on the vagrant boy.
It was then that Eamon Patterson arrived. He had fallen asleep in an old soft chair he kept out on the back porch, a pair of heavy work boots on the rough floor beneath, but then the timely stench of a south wind roused him from his stupor and he put on his boots and walked into town. He had sensed that something peculiar was taking place even a mile away, but what he saw when he stood in front of McCabe's drugstore he could hardly believe. The men were guzzling from tiny blue bottles and laughing and spitting out streams of blue liquid, and some were wrestling on the ground, and the women were saving their bottles for later but they were laughing as well, and some were even turning pirouettes in the street like music-box ballerinas. Even the dogs took part, following after the men, slipping in and out of legs, lapping at the puddles where the men had spit. Then the two men and the young girl who had volunteered for the musical portion of the show once again grabbed instruments and began playing, and though they certainly fell short of the radio-style sound they had achieved earlier, nobody seemed to mind, not even the dogs, for they were all of them drunk with the maddening prospect of imminent salvation.
At first Eamon thought he was still asleep, for even the sunlight burned with the heat of a dream, but gradually he came to understand that the town was possessed of a great madness, even his wife seemed overwhelmed, she was in front of the movie house-mission dancing with a Cocker Spaniel. And then Eamon saw the ancient miracle man, the dark complexion, the fiercely dark eyes, an impatient vendor of obscure reputation who had just shoved the last of this town's legal tender into a large, brown burlap sack and was ready to dismantle the stage and load up the milk wagon, and the instant Eamon looked at the man and saw the sack he felt within himself a deep and burgeoning rage, he would not let this vagabond quack of a thief work over the town, he had to do something, and in the novelty of this sudden heroism, for he had never had such feelings before, he charged towards the sandy, grassy lot and the drinking, dancing people, and all the while he was waving his arms in the air and shouting almost incoherently about wrack and ruin.
Immediately the dancing and drinking stopped, and the people fanned out to let Eamon pass, the dogs too, but as Eamon neared the stage he slowed and then stopped, for he wasn't sure what to do next. The miracle man, for his part, had looked suddenly less miraculous during the charge, but in the absence of any continued movement from Eamon he regained his color, and then he began to mock Eamon's stationary ambivalence with a wink to the crowd and a cavalier laugh. Of course by this time the crowd had become somewhat suspicious of this miracle man with a large burlap sack in his hand, for in their memory Eamon had never been one to act so impetuously, and so they looked at the sack and then they looked at the bottles they were holding and then again at the sack, and then suddenly the imagined effect of the blue elixir was gone, and the crowd surged past the still stationary and now seemingly perplexed Eamon Patterson and demanded their money back, and then receiving no answer, for the ancient miracle man was now behind the wheel of his dilapidated milk truck and driving away, they hurled empty and half-empty and even full bottles of this Blue Elixir of the Nile at the receding truck, some of the bottles breaking against the two flapping back doors and all sorts of theatrical paraphernalia spilling out, and some of the bottles landing among the splintered remnants of the stage, for it had been loosely fixed to the back of the truck and unable to withstand the torque of so hasty an exit.
Then the barrage stopped, for the people had no bottles left, and anyway, the ancient miracle man and his milk truck were beyond their immediate reach, they didn't think about pursuit, and so in the frustration of their rage they turned upon the spilled-out heap of musical instruments and antique weapons (the swords and a few muskets, but not the derringer) and a few brightly colored costumes, and in the middle of the heap sat the mysteriously inscribed trunk, its many drawers now on the ground and affidavits scattered about, and also dozens and dozens of pharmaceutical company catalogues. At first all the townspeople did was throw things around and shout and stamp their feet and say God damn it and that was all the money they had and they'd show him he ever showed his face in this town again, and then they thought to make a great a pile of everything the miracle man had abandoned, which they did, and some were for having a sale and some were for burning it and the Widow Mrs. Dobbs was for giving it away, but they just couldn't agree on what was best for the town. Then all of sudden they heard a great shout, or a gunshot, or perhaps it was the sound of a motor backfiring, for when they turned they saw the ancient miracle man driving his dilapidated milk truck towards them in a jerky but slow-moving kind of frenzy, and then the truck stopped and the miracle man climbed out. He had the boot-strap derringer in his hand, and in the dream of his return he pointed the small pistol directly at Eamon, who ever since his heroic but aborted charge had remained in a kind of daze. Nobody moved.
Then the miracle man spoke.
"You there. You have dared to rouse the suspicions of these good, good people against me, and falsely so. I should kill you now. But there is no need. In three days you will begin to die, and your death will be a lingering death, so that everyone here will know it comes from your own iniquity and not some natural cause."
So the ancient miracle man climbed into his milk truck and drove away, and the townspeople watched him go, and so did Eamon Patterson, and then everyone began to go home in twos and threes, though not without a few sideways almost fearful glances at the man who was to die a lingering death, for these were people who believed in curses.
Three days later, Eamon and the town's only doctor were playing a game of checkers on the Patterson's back porch. The doctor had decided to pay a call on account of this curse of the lingering death, he too was a firm believer, and so Eamon had invited him in and Leila fixed them both turkey sandwiches and some iced tea and there they were. They had been playing for sometime, and had, in fact, quite forgotten about the curse in the obsession of their thirty-ninth game, when Eamon suddenly doubled over on top of the checkerboard and fell to the floor, the checker pieces scattering about the room. At first the doctor did nothing, for he suddenly wondered if the curse were contagious, but then he heard Leila step onto the porch and gasp. She almost knocked the good doctor over in her haste to reach her heap of a husband. Then the two of them dragged Eamon's unconscious body into the house, the doctor pulling Eamon by the ankles in his efforts to steer clear of contagion, and Leila holding up one arm as best she could to keep her husband's fat head from banging against the floor.
"You must save him, doctor."
"I'll do what I can."
"Will that be enough?"
"I don't know. I'm not all that knowledgeable when it comes to curses."
They dumped Eamon in the good mahogany bed and pulled off his boots and the doctor said maybe they could draw the sickness out with a mustard plaster, and so he sent Leila to the kitchen to mix it up, but when she returned with the paste, the doctor had seemingly given up. He was hunched over in the mahogany chair next to the bed, his eyes fixed on the pale, motionless features of Eamon's face, and he seemed to be mumbling to himself. He gave no sign that he had heard Leila come in, she was standing but three steps behind him, but then he turned suddenly and spoke to her.
"It's no use. He's dying for sure."
"No. He's not dying. You said you would help him."
"I know what I said. But it's no use. There's nothing I can do. This is no ordinary sickness."
"But what about the plaster?"
Then the doctor relented and took the bowl from Leila's hands and applied a thin coat of paste to Eamon's skin, and then some gauze to keep in the heat, the doctor always kept a roll in his coat pocket for emergencies, and then he was finished and he said the best thing would be to leave Eamon alone give the plaster a chance to work yes that would be best let him sleep through the night and she should lock the door this was no ordinary sickness there was no telling what Eamon might do in his delirium he was sure of that, and then the doctor smiled at Leila and they left the empty bowl at the foot of the bed, and Eamon to the lingering of his death.
By noon the following day, everyone who had flung a bottle at the ancient miracle man, which was everyone in town, had shown up at the Patterson doorstep, some with hot tuna casseroles in hand, some with sandwiches and beer, some with fresh baked pies, and some with baskets of fruit and nuts. Everyone behaved as if Eamon were already dead, which meant they were bothered by guilt, for in the confusion of their accumulated superstitions, they now believed that each bottle of this Blue Elixir of the Nile meant life and each broken bottle meant death, and since the town had broken every bottle, Eamon's death was a foregone conclusion. It was as if the town itself had delivered the curse, not the miracle man, and so the townspeople sought a reconciliation of sorts, if not with Eamon, for he remained in a semicomatose state behind the locked bedroom door, then perhaps with Leila. They spent the next two hours eating and drinking and attesting to the apparent virtues of the one who had been cursed, and some not so apparent, and it was all Leila could do not to cry.
"Eamon he sure was a good old boy."
"You're telling me. I remember when Eamon and Leila first came to town. They didn't know nobody and nobody seemed interested in knowing them, and then a couple days later Eamon he came into the Standard Oil and started telling jokes and then he bought everybody a Coke. He was always doing something like that. Ask my wife."
Then a murmur of masculine agreement, a few hands reaching for some more sandwiches, some more beer, and then a few quick looks across the hall at the women in the dining room, the women sitting in the good dining room chairs, the curtains drawn out of respect for the dead, or almost dead, a small, dark circle in the dimly lit room, the women in a conversation of their own, more refined, elegant, almost subdued.
"Well all I know is there was nothing that poor old Eamon wouldn't do. Why if the rest of them louts sitting over there were half as considerate there wouldn't be a single one of us have to worry about going into debt or getting to Sunday church on time."
"You remember how he used to take Leila to town on Saturday afternoons?"
"I sure do."
"The two of them arm in arm and looking for all the world like they were going to a ball."
"And if she wanted something like a new hat or one of them fancy, ivory-handled New York umbrellas, he'd march her straight into McCabe's and order her one then and there right out of the Sears catalogue."
"Now there was a man knew how to treat a woman."
Then the women thinking about umbrellas or hats. And then the men again.
"And he was one hell of a checker player, wasn't he?"
"I never seen anything like it."
"I don't think I ever beat him but once in my life."
"You were lucky. I must have played him a thousand times and damn if he didn't beat me every single time."
"I think he'd rather of been playing checkers than just about anything else. No offense to Leila. But that board was always up."
"Well one thing's for sure, he must have died happy. I mean one minute he was thinking checkers and happy as a dog and the next he just keeled over."
"He was sure lucky."
"He sure was."
Then there was nothing more to say about the good man Eamon once was, and so the women began clearing away dishes and washing them and wiping down the good table and the side tables, and all the while humming, it sounded a little like hymns, all except Leila, who by this time was sleeping in the old soft chair on the back porch. As for the men, one of them said he couldn't think of a better way to honor their collective memory of Eamon than to have themselves a checker tournament, and so they set up half a dozen checker boards in the front room. (Eamon kept a ready supply in the front hall closet for all sorts of get-togethers in spite of his wife's insistence that being social was more than sitting around the house jumping for kings.) But before even one piece had been played, Eamon himself appeared at the top of the stairs.
THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE
CLICK HERE TO LINK TO PART TWO
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