S H O R T S T O R Y ~ P A R T T W O
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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OF COURSE no one knew what to think, except for a vague "that looks like Eamon," and all they could do was look up in awe at this apparition of their disbelief. What they saw was a man who looked to be asleep wearing nothing but boxer shorts and some thin white socks, and he was holding a large bowl on his hip but it was empty, and his skin was a mustardy yellow color, except where the gauze was still stuck, and he even smelled like mustard, it was a strong smell which carried down the steps and then into the various rooms on the first floor, and even years later when people came by to visit they would often remark that the whole house smelled like mustard, especially if it was their first time. Then the doctor stood up and faced the gawking incredulity before him and with a rigid composure born of professional discipline, as well as a stubborn though understandable desire to live to be one-hundred years old, he told them it was not a ghost, at least not yet, but they were in mortal danger nevertheless, for Eamon's sickness of the lingering death was quite possibly contagious, like cholera or bubonic plague, and until they knew for certain, meaning they should keep an eye on Leila for a couple of weeks and see if she came down with anything, they'd best give Eamon as wide a berth as was possible in a small town. The men murmured in grim and uncertain agreement, for they had yet to satisfy themselves that Eamon was truly among the not-dead, and then one went to warn the women, and the rest weaved their way out past the readied checker boards and the empty beer bottles, the doctor too. A few minutes later the house was empty, save for Leila on the porch, and Eamon at the top of the stairs, and they were both still asleep.
When Eamon woke the next morning he found himself in the soft chair on the porch, and at first it seemed to him that only a moment had passed since he and the good doctor had been playing checkers, that his sickness was not a sickness at all but something he had imagined, but then he saw the checker board on the floor, and also a few pieces, and he knew this wasn't so. "I am dying," he said to himself. And then he looked out through the screened-in porch and all around him was death. There was the fig tree in the sandy, grassy yard, and he remembered eating the figs, he and Leila would pick them on summer evenings and then sit on the porch and eat them and laugh and talk and sometimes Leila would sing and he would listen, and sometimes they would hear the far away basset horn sound of the ships calling to each other out on the Gulf and they would both listen, but there weren't as many figs this year as in years past, which suggested to Eamon then and there that the fig tree was dying a lingering death of its own. Then there was the smell of dead fish and dead crabs and the sour wet smells of the packing plants rising up from the south, and beyond that there was the smell of disinfectant. And from high up in the pines he heard a blue jay shriek, and even this sounded like death. Then Eamon called out to Leila, for he did not want to die alone, but she was slicing fruit in the kitchen and singing softly the same hymns the other women had sung the day before and did not hear him. Then he thought about the miracle man and the blue elixir, and he wished he had come with the others and bought a bottle instead of coming late and charging the stage, and then it occurred to him that if he had a bottle of his own he might not die, and then he was sure this was so, and in this glare of sudden insight he looked down at the floor and there in a heap next to his boots he saw dozens and dozens of pharmaceutical company catalogues, the very same catalogues that had spilled out of the miracle man's trunk upon his hasty, first departure, and without stopping even to consider how the catalogues had appeared -- Eamon simply assumed that it was somehow God's doing, which meant he should send off for a bottle of this Blue Elixir of the Nile right away -- he plucked the first catalogue from the floor and began paging through it. When Leila brought out a bowl of cut fruit for his breakfast he didn't even notice.
The catalogues became for Eamon an obsession. Once a week, most often after church on Sunday, for then he would be suitably inspired, he would sift through them until he came up with a list of three or four up till then uncontacted companies and then he would write three or four letters explaining about the curse and his lingering death and his need for this miraculous elixir and would they please send him a bottle. He spent hours writing these letters, sometimes far into the night, a fat, desperate figure wedged into a wicker chair on the porch of his insomnia, a stack of empty white paper on one corner of a small writing table, the faint, flickering yellow light of a kerosene lamp hanging from a hook, the heavy dark blue of the night pressing in against the screens and the hum of mosquitoes, and no two letters were exactly the same, for Eamon felt he never quite captured the sense of urgency his unconventional sickness demanded, and so he was constantly reworking his thoughts, a detail here, there, maybe he should put in the part about the boot-strap derringer, and there it would be in the next letter, and then all of the letters would be written and stuffed into their envelopes (even though Eamon was never satisfied, he did not waste paper), and a few dollars besides to cover the cost of the elixir. Then he would check off the names of the three or four companies and shove the catalogues underneath the table and put himself to bed.
The next thing he knew it would be late Tuesday morning around eleven o'clock, Mondays seemed to slide by unnoticed, and Eamon would slip the letters into his shirt pocket and head off to McCabe's to see if there were any word yet or a package and drop the new batch in the mail if there weren't, and sometimes he'd sit a while and talk politics and have a Coke, and sometimes he wouldn't. It took him several months to go through the catalogues the first time, and then he went through them a second time, and a third, and then he lost track. He lived in the void of infinite expectation, for every time he walked into McCabe's he imagined himself opening a small brown package and then pulling out a palm-sized bottle of the almost certainly by then mythical blue elixir and offering it up to McCabe and anyone else who happened to be in the drugstore as proof that he wasn't as mad as people had started to say. For thirty years Eamon went to McCabe's, and the absence of even a letter in all that time never discouraged him. Nor did the practical but passionate wisdom of Mr. McCabe.
"Aint nothing come in for you this week, Eamon."
"I can see that myself."
"You got some more letters you want sent out?"
"Eamon, I don't know why you're wasting all this paper. Them companies they aint never gonna send you a bottle. Hell, Eamon, how they gonna send you something you living in a town aint even got a name."
"You just wait and see. This is God's doing we're talking about. One of these days there's gonna be a small, brown package in that there cubby and you'll see."
"Well, maybe you're right Eamon. But all the same I wouldn't be too confident. Like as not the stuff in that bottle you're looking for don't exist no more. They'll probably go send you the wrong damn thing."
"Nothing I can do about that. But you'll see."
"I suppose I will at that. See you next week, Eamon."
"Be seeing you."
And then Eamon would head for home with his unsuspecting faith like that of a dog and his mind already writing and rewriting a new batch of letters. He believed in the hand of God. But what he didn't know was that for as long as he had been sending his letters and drinking Cokes at McCabe's and waiting for that small, brown package to arrive in the dream of his cubbyhole, his wife, Leila, had been intercepting the post and burying whatever came in a great jagged hole in back of Henderson's junkyard some fifteen yards from the black Fishweir river. Of course Leila also believed in the hand of God, but she was never so vocal as Eamon, and in this time of the curse her silent faith became an elusive thing and was immediately replaced by the harsh, imposing voice and apocalyptic presence of the doctor. The very day Eamon had gone to McCabe's with his first batch of letters, within ten minutes of his handing them over, the good and ever vigilant doctor had come knocking on the Patterson front door and was soon instructing poor Leila on the folly of Eamon's endeavor.
"This letter writing is not a good thing, Leila."
"But he only just started."
"Yes. I know. I know. But the moment one of those pharmaceutical companies writes back and tells poor Eamon there is no elixir -- and they will tell him this truth, Leila, you mark my words -- what do you think will happen then? No, no. The shock and disappointment would be too much for him. He'd be dead within minutes."
"What can we do?"
"The only thing we can. You must go to McCabe's every Tuesday morning. Before Eamon. And any letters that come you must burn them. Every Tuesday, Leila. And Eamon must never, ever know. This is no ordinary sickness. We wouldn't want to make things any worse."
She did what was asked, except she buried the letters instead of burning them, for she was not as decisive as the doctor, and besides, the letters terrified her, they were like dead things, like Eamon would be if he read them, and you did not burn dead things in this nameless, Catholic town, you put them in the earth. And so every Tuesday she would wake up an hour or so before Eamon and hurry to the make-shift Post Office, and sometimes the door would be locked when she got there, so she'd sit herself on the greenish, wrought-iron bench out front and hum to herself some song from the radio and watch the morning doves twittering in the sunny, dusty, warming street, and then they would fly away, and sometimes McCabe would be working behind the counter, a small brass lamp turned on, the faint glow of an electric bulb almost lost in the morning blue shadows of the empty storeroom, and Leila would wait on the bench outside or on one of the stools by the counter until McCabe had sorted the mail, and if there was anything for Eamon he would wrap the letters in a rag of blue oilcloth and lay the bundle up by the register, and if there wasn't he would disappear into the back without so much as a grunt, and on those days when there was something, Leila would pick up the bundle and head on down to the black black Fishweir river and her place of concealment in back of Henderson's junkyard, and in the haze of her burden she would shovel away the dirt from the time before, there was always a shovel, though how it came to be there she did not know, and then she would toss the bundle into the hole and cover it up again. She never read the letters. She didn't dare. And she always made it home in time to fix Eamon his lunch. And Eamon would always come in, with that smile of a happy dog and sit down in the old soft chair on the porch and eat his turkey or tuna or crabmeat sandwiches and a couple of Cokes, and then a thick slab of store-bought pie. He never even saw the dirt beneath her fingernails.
The only other person who knew about the buried letters was McCabe, for Leila had told no one in the terror of the doctor's advice. The doctor himself seemed little interested in the fate of Eamon and the letters after that first week, or in Leila either, for he had never gotten over his first impulse that this curse of the lingering death was contagious, and so in time he made himself quite absent from the Patterson household, and he rarely came within fifteen feet if he saw them in town. As for McCabe, he was relentless in his silence, for he believed that what people did was their own business, particularly if those people were married, and yet he also believed in the integrity of Leila's intentions, he could see it in her face when she walked into his store or waited outside on the bench, this love of enduring despair, and so he had helped her from the beginning. It was McCabe who had taken her to the loamy, bare patch in back of the junkyard and started her digging. It was McCabe who had provided the shovel. And if she failed to thank him, or even acknowledge his grandfatherly role in this conspiracy of the pharmaceutical company letters, as McCabe had come to think of it, it was only because she, too, had become a victim of the miracle man's curse.
Only Eamon was more alone.
And then it was thirty years to the day since the miracle man had set up his show and sold his blue bottles. It was also a Tuesday, and Leila was in back of the junkyard, only she was having a tough time digging because it had rained heavily the night before and the dirt was a sticky, clumpy, muddy mass, and every time she pushed the shovel into the ground it seemed like she was sinking into a deep, watery grave, which frightened her, and it was hard to pull the shovel out against the strength of this grave, as if a corpse were holding onto the shovel from below and would not let go, but then there would be a slow, sharp, sucking sound, and then she would slop a shovelful to the ground behind her and dig some more. There were two thick bundles of letters this time, which she had left in the damp, weedy grass by the junkyard fence while she dug the hole, and also a small, brown paper package about the size of a pack of cigarettes, which she had put in the front pocket of her petticoat, and she was thinking she wasn't going to finish the hole it was taking too long it was almost time for Eamon to have his lunch but then what was she going to do with all this mail, but she never had the chance to answer her own, unspoken question, for in the moment of her desperation she heard the voice of McCabe, it seemed to hover in the air directly above the black, watery hole that was not yet deep enough, and the voice simply said, "It's Eamon." Leila turned to see the back of the darkly dressed McCabe climbing up around the corner of the junkyard fence, the shoulder and arm of a dark green shirt, the squared heel of one black boot, and then she climbed up after him.
The next thing Leila knew she was standing in her own front yard, though she didn't seem too sure about this, and even looked to the large and thickly brooding McCabe standing next to her, she was almost clutching his arm, for some sign of confirmation, but McCabe said nothing. Leila was sure she was dreaming. There were dogs everywhere, thirteen of them, some scratching at the bushes by the steps, some looking up at the second story bedroom window where Eamon was and then a few low, moaning sounds from their throats and then moving off, and a couple even looked like they were dead themselves the way they were stretched out in the sandy grass, and they smelled like they were dead, too, dead or dying. And then there were the people, everyone was there, and some were standing about in twos and threes in the spitting heat of twelve o'clock, never in all her life had Leila felt such a sun as this, as if she were drowning in heat, a strange orange sun like a great sea spitting waves of heat, and some others were squatting down in the thick but warm shade of the front stoop or sitting bent-kneed on the rail and staring at the dogs, and the people did not move in the orange glare of Leila's confusion, but at the same time they spoke in low, desiccated murmurs, it sure took him a long long time, poor Eamon have a curse like that laying on his head and for thirty years too, I feel sorry for the man, I do too, but all the same it's too bad it couldn't of happened sooner, I tell you what if that miracle man show up again he gonna have a lot of explaining to do a lot of explaining, I don't mean no disrespect to the dead but you look at Leila now, I'd forgotten all about that miracle man show, what's she gonna do, and them bottles too, she's too old to start over and too young to give up herself where's she gonna go, why I'd give anything have one of them blue bottles right now, why if Eamon had died even ten years ago Leila could of found herself another husband but now there aint nobody left, what was that he called it, it's just too bad all the way around, that's right, The Blue Elixir of the Nile, that's right, it's just too, too bad.
Then the voices stopped, and Leila and McCabe went up the steps and inside, and the house was strangely dark, a heavy purple dark, as if it were already a place of shadows, but not a single curtain was drawn, for in the revelation of Eamon's first collapse, Leila had removed every curtain from the house, as if by doing so she could prevent his death from coming. So the orange sun raged against the uncurtained windows with the same feverish, orange glow as on the unmoving people and the thirteen dogs outside, but in the house it was still dark. Then the doctor appeared in the hall and ushered them into the dying room, and he said there was nothing he could do this time he wasn't a priest, and then he smiled weakly at Leila and left. Leila said nothing for a moment, and then she edged her way over to the bed and to Eamon and sat down, but Eamon did not recognize her. She closed her eyes and thought about Eamon now dying and what was she going to do and what was wrong with that doctor, and then she thought maybe to say a small prayer, but in the blur of her distress she couldn't remember one, and then she took a single, deep breath and opened her eyes, and there was her Eamon sitting up in bed, and he had in his hands a small, brown package. Instinctively, Leila reached for her pocket, but of course it was empty now, but whether she had taken it out herself or he had she did not know. Then Eamon opened the package and took out a small, blue bottle with a label that said The Blue Elixir of the Nile in fancy script, and then suddenly in this dream of his death Eamon saw himself standing across from the miracle man's stage and the abandoned movie house and he tried to call out, he tried to stop his former self from charging the drinking, dancing crowd and that thief of a miracle man who was maybe not a thief, but then there he was waving his arms in the air and shouting about wrack and ruin, and then just as suddenly the crowd was gone, and so was the miracle man, and all he had was the bottle in his hands. Then he looked to his wife and showed her the bottle, and then he saw McCabe brooding in the heavy purplish shadows of the far corner and held it up so he could see too, and then he spoke, though even Leila did not see his mouth move.
"I told you all it would come. I told you. This here is God's doing."
Then Eamon Patterson unscrewed the cap to the small bottle and nodded in the direction of Leila, and then McCabe, and before either could say a word he poured this Blue Elixir of the Nile down his throat, and then he gasped, and then he died.
They buried him that afternoon, of course, for death by curse was an unusual kind of death, and also unsettling, in case it became an epidemic, and so the townspeople wanted to be done with the whole affair as quickly as possible. They did not, however, bury Eamon in the cemetery lot, for the doctor, still cautious about the possibility of contagion, suggested a more remote site, and though Leila protested, the good doctor carried the town, for he still had about him an apocalyptic presence. Instead, they buried Eamon in the same jagged hole which contained the many letters he had received over the years, and when Leila died a few months later, they dug another hole not two feet from the first and buried her in this second grave of her enduring love. In time, of course, the curse was forgotten, and then one by one, the rest of the townspeople either died or moved away, the dogs, too, until only the ever-vigilant doctor was left. He himself was unaware of his abandonment and spent several hours each day calling on imaginary patients and treating their every ill with an imaginary roll of gauze, for he had long since run out. And then one warm, dark, rainy afternoon, the good doctor died, just three days after his one-hundredth birthday, and in the fever of this last, lingering death, the ancient miracle man returned once more. He buried the doctor next to Eamon and his wife, and then he climbed back into his dilapidated milk truck and drove away, slowly motoring towards the rain-drenched coast.
This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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