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As was the way with small towns, the kids got there first―squinting through the slats of the Venetian blinds, hoping to catch Pansy Graham doing something strange, something out of the ordinary. Balloon-tire bicycles, dolls and jump ropes, catcher’s mitts and softball gear were set by at the entrance to the back alley which was the view from Pansy’s one window. There was silence. Eventually, after some days, the mothers were called. The mothers then peered through the blinds. The women called out Pansy’s name just in case he had been miraculously restored to life, just in case they might surprise him playing dead. The Milos knocked and entered, expecting to find him cowering as usual, a coverlet clutched to cover his body, sobs diminishing to a quiet weeping as he scuttled sideways to a closet.
Today he did not move. “Oh, the poor, dear man,” said Dicey Pease. Pansy Graham’s lips were drawn tight, his fingers stiffened to blue claws, eyes open and staring.
Pansy had been described as cognitively challenged by the Maine state offices that looked after such things, and lived on a slender stipend. A shrinking dollar dogged his footsteps as the small brown envelopes dispersed by Ephraim Crouch at the Norumbega Trust shriveled and shrank. Now he had frozen to death in his unheated room at the rear of the Pythian Brotherhood as though in a terminal sprint to write “account closed” before the Trust cut him off.
Noses were crinkled, then relaxed. In death as in life Pansy Graham was preceded by a clinging aura Eurydice Wyndham Pease, known as Dicey, identified as the yellow bar soap provided by the Daughters of Milo. It was the soap that killed him, Libby―Elizabeth Profitt Pease, Dicey’s daughter, eight years old at the time and the first child on the scene―will think many years after the event. With the olfactory short-circuiting attendant on the aging process, Libby the daughter will - by her 70th birthday - believe that she can still smell the Milo’s soap.
“Dead.” said Marge Emmenthaler, a lifelong Milo. “He’s made a choice, something definite, then. There’s a plus.” Marge had brought a covered dish casserole to hold between herself and the odd, muddled man. Dicey Pease rolled her eyes and brushed past Marge and the cooling casserole. “Mental,” warned Marge, “a retard. I told ya.” That their charge might be dead had yet to appear on the cork board down at the Red and White, where funeral home postings reported who was dead and who wasn’t.
As the neighborhood women―wives, mothers―undid the corpse’s nightshirt, an aroma issued forth: the bouquet of heathery dawns on a highland moor with industrial bass notes of citronella and carbolic acid. The children crowded in only to be shooed from the room. “Let’s get him ready,” said Dicey, a natural leader. This meant getting Pansy stripped, washed, into a presentable suit of clothes, into a box, then into the ground.
Later that afternoon, after the chores of dispatching the late Woodrow Wilson (Pansy) Graham to Flagg’s Furniture and Embalmers on High Street, Dicey’s husband will enter their kitchen, grump and stomp the snow from big rubber galoshes. Profitt Pease flops into the battered oak Morris chair, his. The rope webbing creaks as he picks up the newspaper. “When you kill a goose, Profitt, you lead it out behind the woodshed. I have seen this,” said Dicey, as if challenging him to deny it.
“Makes ’em edgy,” says her husband. “Watchin.’ Like they’ll wonder about it at night―who’s next. Lose weight. Get thin with worry. Won’t trust me. Can’t have that. This is about Pansy being dead, isn’t it?”
Dicey Pease pretends to be busy, catching up on the darning in her workbasket. She feels cheated; she has missed out on something.
The thought comes again the next morning as she brushes her teeth. “I have been denied a deathbed experience,” she says out loud. The words have a pepperminty taste. There had to have been a foreshortening of the Christian mysteries. People she knew went somewhere else to die or were locked away in an upstairs room. The house was hushed, drapes were drawn, the family waited. The doctor withdrew to the confines of a sickroom to emerge hours, days, weeks later, head held down. “With the Lord. All I can do.”
She figures the Higher Power owes her one. Pansy was dead at sixty-five and she had missed it. Sixty-five, the same age as her husband who is not dead. The consensus of the Daughters of Milo has it that Pansy passed out drunk and allowed his tiny kerosene stove to gutter and fail.
* * *
Young Pansy Graham, age ten, was holding a dead mouse up to the light when the first blast went off. Profitt Pease, likewise age ten, looked on. Pansy, called Woodrow Wilson Graham at home, held the small corpse warily, by the tail. “You never know; they’re hard to kill.” The mouse’s eyes were still bright and beady and only beginning to glaze over. Young Pansy raised the corpse slowly at arm’s length until they were eye-to-eye. The mouse swung, a tiny dead pendulum. “Nope. Dead alright.”
The mouse’s eyes held a look of determined surprise. If the summons of death had not interrupted it, it would have got away with the peanut butter bait. As it was it left a brownish-red smear of blood and bait on a joist of the hayloft. It had struggled briefly, dragging the trap behind it as best it could with a broken neck. Death happens for a reason, Pansy had heard that in one of in Rev. Havermeyer’s homilies. They were the reason today. That they were murderers did not mean that they and their victim could not at least exercise some civility after the fact. “Hiya, little fella,” said Profitt. “Hiya,” said Pansy. There was an explosion from down by the road. The barn shook. Pansy lost his balance.
A hayloft in high August, its air made immediately unbreathable with hay dust; blinded by the dust squall, Pansy fell. Profitt clung and swayed with his arms wrapped around a crossbeam thirty feet above the floor, feet flailing. Young Pansy lay sprawled on the floor below. The mouse was gone. What remained of their catch was a line of string wrapped around his wrist. At the end of the string hung an empty mousetrap. Profitt fought for breath in the oppressive air. He regained his purchase on the beam, scrambled to the ladder, then to the floor. Pansy’s eyes were unfocused and staring. “Pansy?” Profitt shook his friend’s shoulder until his head wobbled from side to side.
“I can’t see. Help me sit.” The two boys sat on the floor for ten minutes or so.
Pansy got up. “Huh. How’s about that?”
Pansy and Profitt ran down toward the cluster of black-belching diesel trucks where the state road was going through, and hoped for further explosions. There were many. The next day they set out more traps.
After that, Pansy Graham stopped learning. Pansy struggled on, three years in the fourth grade, but one day―Tuesday May 16th―he circled the date on the calendar and stayed home from school. No one looked for him.
The next day Pansy went looking for a job. Cutting the tails from tiny herrings with big, shining scissors prior to laying them out head-to-tail in mustard sauce was blocked by the child labor laws. There was nothing else but the cannery in the way of commercial employment. He scavenged returnables from door-to-door and became self-employed as The Bottle King. His pushcart as his soap was provided by the Daughters of Milo. The Woodsmen of the World painted a sign for his handcart. Sons of Italy, Foresters and The Redmen parsed Pansy’s needs out amongst themselves. The Knights of Pythias had a room out back that Pansy was moved into after the rent at the Barlow House grew too heavy for Banker Crouch’s small brown envelope to bear.
* * *
Once, some years before he died, Libby Pease—who will grow up to be a quilter of some renown, although not yet—met Pansy the Bottle King as he wheeled his cart through town, collecting deposit bottles, rags, scrap brass and tin. She was fourteen, not yet schooled in the ways of the street. She made eye contact and was immediately saddened by this strange, solitary man.
“Elizabeth. You’re Eurydice’s daughter, then?” said Pansy, without his usual sputterings and stutterings. “You have a dream.”
Well, yes, she did have a dream, a recurring dream; he should not know this. She looked at her feet. Dicey Pease had warned her daughter of strange men. Like Pansy Graham, although he had never been mentioned by name. Libby turned and ran. He pursued her, handcart wheels squealing, bottles rattling, and caught up with her in front of Roger Abalone’s grocery, the Red and White. It was 1946 and butter was inflated but available, at $1.40 a pound. Her mother had sent her to stock up.
“Here. There’s an index.” He presented her with a book, a much-thumbed manifesto with its binding set in glue and trimmed square, was thrust into her hands. It had the heft of the Bangor Yellow Pages.
“No. Nonononono.” She weighed the book and passed it back, but did not look at it or at its profferer, who exuded a sweet heavy odor. “You had a dream?” He looked at her suspiciously.
“Yes. Grasshoppers,” she lied. The grasshopper dreams were to come later, but she could not know this.
“Your nose,” said the man accusingly. “You are trying to suck it shut. A sure giveaway. I am making you uncomfortable. But you have chosen me as your partner for conversation. Grasshoppers, look it up.” Here he fluttered the pages at her. “And save your mother’s money. Butter will drop a dollar next week. I saw it in a dream.” The man thrust the book under an arm, brightened and shuffled in a psychotic slump around her, giggling and pushing and pulling his hands in and out of his pockets. “Your nose, you’re lying,” he sang. “The face muscles don’t work that way. I can do it. I practice in front of a mirror. See?” It was an invitation. For what? To notice him? No. Do not encourage him, said her mother’s voice.
He can suck his nose shut. Quite an accomplishment, really, like rolling up one’s tongue or Spock’s Vulcan hello from Star Trek decades afterward. Libby looks away. She will practice this as an adult. “I am sure your book is very interesting,” she says, her face averted, eyes rolled to the side so as to make out the title on the spine, Dreams, Their Scientific and Practical Interpretations.
"No, it’s not—it’s not interesting. It’s prophesy,” Pansy Graham said triumphantly. “The price gouging on butter is in the book...” he said hopefully, as if sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. His voice was the voice of a man in middle years, much younger than he looked. His breath spoke of neglected dental appointments. He flipped through to the Gs. “Here.” He handed her the book.
Libby reads, “‘If you see grasshoppers between you and the sun, it denotes that you will have a vexatious problem in your immediate business life to settle, but using caution it will adjust itself in your favor. To call people’s attention to the grasshoppers shows that you are not discreet in dispatching your private business.’”
* * *
It is sixty years later—a significant passage in generations of grasshoppers, commerce and auguries. Since her father’s death, Libby has lived alone with a vaporous retinue of gentlemen callers—past, future, never-to-be—and two cats, Cat Junior and Cat Senior. Elizabeth Profitt Pease tosses restlessly in her thin bed and dreams of conversations with old men—once young, now dead and largely imaginary.
4:30 in the morning and in her dream a large green insect—a grasshopper, Libby supposes—looms high above her in a threatening pose. It has a human face. Not Pansy Graham’s face, but that of her father. It flubs at its lips with an insect-like pincer, and winks, scattering a shower of spit and cracker crumbs, flwerm-flwerm. “You are eating crackers with your mouth open,” says Libby.
“Ooo...” roars the grasshopper as it rips her head off. Libby wonders how she can be an observer at her own death. At the best—the very best—things should be dark inside a giant insect, even one with her father’s face. She wonders if her father is still dead and realizes that she is still asleep. A bee, some flying insect, its harmonic resonances hinting at danger—a hornet, wasp, then—zips past her ear. Her face feels the flurry of its tiny wings. Libby opens her eyes to find she is in the garden. Am I awake? Then which is the dream, the Godzilla grasshopper, my dead father? Pansy Graham? Me?
Awake now, not dreaming.
A chipmunk has been gnawing at the sills of Libby’s house—that was it. Eventually the chipmunk will get fat and careless from wintering-over and the easy bounty of spilled sunflower seeds from the bird feeders. The cats will catch him. The gnawing is chipmunk prophylaxis—rodents’ incisors grow continuously throughout their lives, Libby has read this—and, as with her puckered nose at the over-ripe presence of Pansy Graham, a telltale. The mice scamper more than chipmunks and chew the plaster bulging through the insides of the laths. Mice are less resonant than the chipmunks, less threatening than the grasshopper, chewing the century-old sills of the Pease house.
Wham! Bam! There is a ruckus from downstairs. The perpetrators come out in the cellar for their water, the pump leaks. Cat Senior has collided with the forest of copper pipes that crisscrosses the basement ceiling beams. A kill. Cat Senior has three legs, his stump a souvenir of a tangle with a muskrat trap four years ago. The vet’s bill cost Libby a week’s worth of her monthly Social Security check. She calls him the fastest thing on three legs and figures the doctor's bill has amortized out at 15 cents a mouse by now.
* * *
“You are normal. Your old self today?” Libby says this to Profitt Pease as her father painstakingly descends the back porch steps balancing two cups and a steaming saucepan of cocoa.
“Have a rest, Lib. And define ‘normal.’” Profitt winks. Even though he is twisted by arthritis, they have together gotten in four cords of wood and this weekend a senior from Willipaq High will square stack three more cords to dry in the yard under a tarpaulin. “Look on the bright side, Lib,” he gestures. The arthritis makes him carry a cane, a useful tool. Profitt Pease’s exploits at skirt-lifting and generally poking about raised him to the status of a lesser celebrity: he is regarded as a nut, harmless—loved but unrespected. With the failure of a hip replacement, he is trapped in the house, his antics mostly concealed. In his moments away from dementia, he is a caring person and solicitous of his daughter’s well-being.
Libby had never loved or respected her father. She had however stood in awe of him.
Eurydice Wyndham Pease, her mother, was the first to go. She grew smaller and smaller until one morning she was not there. “Guess your mother’s dead,” said her father. They buried what was left of Dicey Pease and got along with things.
Three months later, after the death of her father, there is a trip to the Red and White for ice cream. On the way back home fat crows feeding on the remains of anxious rabbits skim lower across the road, careless of her old Chevy Celebrity. She swerves, there is a driving wave of pain, a retinal zigzag pattern, a flash, and she is blind.
Libby pulls the car over, by feel, her heart pounding wildly in her ears. She turns the ignition key and the Chevy shudders into silence. Cawing, fluttering, the crows return to their dinner. Libby decides that she must be getting a migraine. She feels her heartbeat slow. She makes her way back to the side of the road and stands on the shoulder until Dalton Comfrey, the oil deliveryman, pulls up in his red, white and blue tank truck.
“Hiya, Lib,” says Dalton. “Breakdown?”
“Eye trouble, Dalton. Give me a lift?”
She is deposited at her front porch where she stands squinting into the hazy morning light. The zigzag is still there. Then she is in an elevator. The door opens and closes, people get on and off, but the floor never changes. The other passengers are players in the upcoming community theater play. The door closes on the last lines of the play. When it opens, the actors are gone.
And she is in the bathroom. The toilet, just flushed, gurgles with reddish, mineral-rich water from her shallow well. The house shudders as the pump comes on in the cellar. Libby blinks and shakes her head to clear it. Her own face stares back at her from the mirror. Now I can see. Huh. Oh yes, she is here for an aspirin.
Libby opens the medicine cabinet door. Just bottles: a big pink Pepto-Bismol, a green citrate of magnesia, lotions, poultices, aspirin and BandAids. “Parallel universes. Huh, I must have read that, too. A book. A kid next to me on the bus left it behind on the seat. A Sci-Fi paperback, a thrusting-breasted girl and a green, many-tentacled molester on the cover.” Inside the book the story had nothing to do with the cover. “I’d never carry anything I was really reading, not leave it behind where anyone could pick it up and get a glimpse of my soul.” Libby would never carry something to read. Make her too much of a mark. Reading a book, a magazine, any passing pervert would have wet, sticky hands all over her secret self by guessing at the contents. A scantily dressed Sci-Fi bimbo with a big, green letch grabbing her. Ho-boy. Yuck. Libby’s feet feel heavy. She looks down; there is mud on her shoes. Her car. Where had she left her car? Calmly, now—the panic eases as the memory returns.
She smiles as she recalls how she got home. Dalton Comfrey had asked her out once in high school; she had said no. Hadn’t she had a gentleman caller once—not Dalton—but properly attentive as was expected in her parents’ day? He still comes for Sunday tea with lemonade in season—this is the recurring dream, not the grasshoppers. He comes to the front door, is announced by a pretty parlor-maid, accepted and ushered in. They immediately have sex in this dream, undressing one another with medical precision. The dream is silent but in color, an anomaly. The sleeping Libby notices this, but her dream self pays no attention―was this a scrambling for attention by some unseen projectionist―God? Some peculiar angel? Jesus or the apostles?―something new to boost attendance after the Wednesday matinee place setting give-aways failed to draw lonely housewives who just stayed home with the TV and got drunk.
The silent dream-film flickers with retrograde expressions―moving lips from which no sound comes forth―the only action, a silent, acrobatic thumping. The participants seem to take no pleasure, just get to their work. Humpity-hump, passionless. Everybody seems to be getting naked these days. In my dreams, at least, thinks Libby. She turns around to check herself in the full length mirror. “I am lovely,” she speaks the words out loud.
“Not bad for an old lady.” It is the voice of Pansy Graham. “They say the ass is the last to go. You are a fine figure of a woman, Libby Pease,” says the dead Pansy.
“You. Pansy Graham―the gentleman caller. But you should be so much older...”
“Older than you by thirty years, Lib. And ‘cognitively challenged?’ Nope. All bets are off, my dear. Oh, I am dead, alright. Now that’s challenged. In life I dribbled, played with myself, blew bubbles and chased after slow-witted butterflies that no one else could see. Entertaining, it was. People got so they thought they could say anything with me in the room. I wouldn’t understand, you see. I understood you, Elizabeth Pease. You had nothing to hide. A dreary, uneventful existence you have lived, but I found it refreshing. Folks find it easier to bare their bodies than their souls. Particularly these days when professional actors are ready do both on cable TV, pickled in Botox, surgeried with uplifts, tummy-tucks and six-pack abs.”
“Ahh...” said Libby. She had heard in high school that retarded folk could turn violent and lustful at a moment’s turnaround. “They don't know their own strength,” said Wanda Seeley one afternoon at girls’ volleyball practice.
“Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, I hear you thinking,” said Pansy. “Nope. No, I know my strength. None. Ectoplasm is all floppy. No X-ray eyes, either. That’s in the comics. This is real life, Libby. Or death. I mean, look at me.”
“You are not there. You are a voice I am hearing.”
“So, I am dead. Invisibility is no big deal.” There was a considerable pause, then, “Hearing voices, are we? You are getting on in years; this is only to be expected. Get naked. This will let you breathe, clear the sinuses. Everybody’s doing it. You said that yourself. Or thought it.”
What was this that this rude man, this rude retarded man Pansy Graham, had just said to her? She did not understand. “What are you trying to say, Pansy?” she says. “That you and I...” That he was having fun at her expense was clear from his crooked smile―not a smile, not a sneer―just a lifted eyebrow, one corner of his mouth turned up.
She had not grasped its meaning at the time, just thought it another of the snippy, incomprehensible things he liked to say―insulting people to their faces and getting away with it. Insulting folks so that they would not understand that he was being rude. He was a joker, and a joker was not a solid man.
“That Pansy,” says Libby’s mother. “Calls himself Pansy, like a girl. What does that say about what he does when the shades are drawn?”
“Dinner would be nice,” says Pansy.
* * *
At the next migraine, Libby Pease awakens in the pantry, wedged between tightly packed rows of cans, bottles and cartons of powdered milk, cereal, sugar and flour. “I must have bumped my head.” She attempts to escape from the grasp of the shelving in the narrow passageway but only gets wedged in tighter. At an itching between her shoulder blades, she raises a hand to scratch, thereby knocking a glass jar of pickles off the shelf. Its lid pops off as it hits and a vinegary smell pervades the cramped space. It must have been spoiled. Botulism. Death by pickles. They would find her here, a withered corpse―a skeleton. If a visitor came by before her body was too far along in decay she might yet be presentable.
The pantry. “I am in the pantry and shall spend the rest of my life in here.” It is, somehow, a comforting thought. She is a devoted clipper of coupons. “I know a good thing when I see it,” she says. “Lo, the Redeemer cometh,” one of the boys at the Red and White had said that. Snippy like Pansy Graham and Profitt Pease her father. There is a twinge of sadness with the thought that there will be no prince to discover her and wake her with a kiss. No gentleman caller.
“Substance,” her father had pronounced at the expulsion of Libby’s first unsuitable suitor, a boy from her sixth grade class. The drawing of straws to find an escort for her was the idea of Miss Pomfret, their sixth grade teacher. Tony Veader had come up short in the Libby lottery—he was the losing boy. He was not very good-looking but Libby was grateful for whatever came her way, date-wise. “Not a substantial man, nothing inside. Like a chocolate Easter rabbit.” Her father consulted his watch, “You are still here, young man. Better get along home.” Young Tony Veader had gratefully fled. He had played out his part in their comedy of courtship with squared shoulders and a dab of jam on his chin.
“You were becoming a young lady,” Pansy Graham’s voice tells her. “Best not to grab hold of the first underfed suitor who comes along.” He adjourns to the porcelain-topped kitchen table where fried potatoes with onions and vinegar are waiting. Her dream of young love shattered, Libby realizes she has no future, young or otherwise. But there is dinner.
“You wanted bliss; you get dinner. You’re not stupid, Libby. People are born stupid―that is the human condition. Ignorance is hard work, a lifetime of denial. You have labored mightily to be a cipher.”
“Ecstasy is nice, but dinner will do. That is what you are saying—my message from the spirit world. Then I take it for us to be lovers is out of the question...”
“Think about it. I am dead. Then there’s the mental thing. Sweaty and wet is what you are thinking. Me, too. I just don’t know what it is. People would see us as a mismatch. You want a ‘Gentleman Caller’ is all. You need a plan like Miss Marple on TV. Ahh... pickle juice, a sure-fire erotic cover-up—with enough garlic. Didn’t have TV when I was alive. I never bathed much when I was alive, either.”
“I bathe and I am a quilter. Designing a quilt is like a detective story; a plan is hidden somewhere in the squares. I sew it together then quilt my way back through things till I get to the beginning where I started laying things out―you know, at the beginning. Except by the time I’ve made the round trip I know how things come out. I do not get naked; I am a quilter,” she smiled. Libby had a haphazard attitude toward the fragile geometries of a quilt in the making―a quilt as seen from space, every thread standing out against the celestial globe, pierced by steel needles and receding to a single point. “I like to know how things end. Like Miss Marple.”
“And I am dead,” says the voice.
* * *
The coroner’s inquest brought a ruling that Pansy Graham had indeed succumbed to noxious fumes and froze to death in his bed. Case closed. The Pythian Brotherhood and the Milos pooled their spare change for a quarter-page obituary. There was a photograph of Pansy and his returnables wagon. The legend, “Willipaq says a fond farewell to its Bottle King.” The newspaper smells like the heather and citronella of the Milos’ yellow soap.
“Remember we helped our moms clean out his place?” says Corky Dysart, a friend.
Libby, now long grown, remembers. “It was winter. His lips were blue and I was eight.”
Raymond Coulombe, Michael Gallant, Timothy O. Goyette
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