January 17, 2014
Mitchell called to tell me that he had just shaken hands with a dead man and couldn't get any work done. "I can't get him out of my mind," Mitchell moaned. "I am really spooked."
I knew what Mitchell was going through and told him so. I had seen the Deadman around town for the past few weeks but had managed to avoid him until the other day in the post office. I turned around and there he was, standing right in front of me. This time I couldn't cross the street or pretend I was speaking to someone else as I had been doing each other time we came in close proximity. He had me and he knew it.
"How you doing?" He asked.
"Not bad,” I answered trying not to say, how about you, because I knew how he was doing. "How are you doing, Billy?" I asked anyway as I stared rudely at his bald head (save for maybe a half dozen hairs), not that he'd ever had a full head of hair anyway but. . .
"Radiation treatments,” Billy said catching my eyes as they lowered to meet his. "The Big C. No hope unless the Big Guy upstairs decides to let me hang around."
Billy's skin was pasty white, today more so than usual, probably because of the baldhead and my knowledge of his illness. He looked down at my belly, patted it, envious of its size. "You look good. Real . . . real good." I had the feeling that he was sizing me up for something. "How are the kids?" he asked. This skeleton spoke as if nothing at all were wrong.
"Terrific, Billy," I said turning and walking towards the post office door all the while looking at my watch, "have to run now, five minutes late already." He followed and grabbed my arm.
"Wait. Tell me. What did I ever do to deserve this?" His grip tightened. "Who have I ever bothered? Why me? Huh? Nobody can figure it out. I can't. My family can't. Can you? Can you explain why me? Do you know why? I lead a clean life and go to church every morning. Why me? Why me? Can you tell me? Me! Of all people! Me! Look at the life I lead."
Billy, I thought, could it be you because there is some justice in this world? You go to church every morning, but in the evening you go trolling at the turnpike men's rooms. You drink your kid's lunch money and owe everybody in town. Why you? Don't you remember that years ago I fired you for stealing? You, Billy—because you are the worst gossip in town.
"Gee Billy—who am I to say? But listen. . . .take care. . . . got to run."
As I pulled my arm away Billy grabbed my hand and pumped it and threw back his head and laughed. I looked at his sunken eyes and skeletal face. "Ha! Ha! Ha!" he cackled with his mouth wide-open showing his teeth. "Ha! Ha! Ha! You just shook hands with a dead man."
I pulled my hand away. "Take care, Billy."
When I reached the door I turned back and saw that Billy had positioned himself behind a woman who was getting her mail out of her post office box. I saw her gasp when she turned around and I watched them talk. They were too far away for me to hear the conversation but I could tell what it was. I saw Billy grab her hand and lean back and laugh his deathly laugh. She burst into tears and ran off past me and out the door.
Billy wouldn't go peacefully. He took to walking around town; into the coffee shop and bars with his Deadman routine, spooking people.
Forewarned was not forearmed.
Then—nothing for weeks—no one saw him, and even though we knew he hadn't died, we were still uneasy. Finally, he showed up as blatantly as he had disappeared—only no longer skeletal, but all puffy. His half dozen hairs were gone and he was now popeyed. He wouldn't speak to anyone. His old Deadman routine was gone too. Instead, Billy would sit and stare. He would sit and stare at people until they became uncomfortable enough to leave whatever restaurant, bar or public place he had wandered into. It was his game. His new game. How quickly could he empty out a place?
Billy still went to church every day, only now he never ventured inside. He would sit on the top step and stare at people entering and stare at them leaving. Billy did this for weeks, until the morning service worshipers dwindled in number to just a few. Finally one morning the priest came out and spoke to Billy.
On my way past St. Mary's that morning I saw Billy sitting on the steps looking up at the priest who was standing above him waving his arms in animated conversation. Then I saw Billy stand and grab the priest's hand and shake it and the priest tried to pull away as Billy reared back his head laughing.