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Short Story

Death Came Through a Man

It was an early Easter in an early spring. Where Eileen worked, the odd flowers were already in bloom. Around the back of the old Lucienne library, a small crop of orange daylilies stuck out like blood in a spring. Walking to church, Eileen decided it was too early to pick from them. Let the daylilies grow bright and unorthodox, to shadow the odd flowers and weeds until they are too starved of light in the brilliant bigness of their peers, she thought. She’ll only have the daylilies left to pick then, and her vase of flowers will be the envy of the old ladies who only come to the library to gossip and judge. Those same old ladies will fill the pews in front of Eileen, Ma, and Tom in a matter of minutes. They’ll sing gospel in chirpy discord, hang on every word of Pastor Mitchell’s sermon, and then forget it all by lunch. On the walk to church, there were men all dressed in their best suits, faces half-cleaned by dull razors. The girls Eileen’s age, in shades of white and yellow and pink, swung alongside the men, as either daughter, sister, or wife. Nobody went to church without ties.

While efforts to look nice were always made, the dress was always prosaic; all the inspiration to buy new, good, fun things lost over the years. Now the old men recycled their suits from last Sunday’s wear, and all the young men wore what their Pa had passed down to them. The women did the same. Even Eileen’s dress, sagging white lace that went past her knees and brown pumps that once belonged to Ma, was as flat and lifeless as the rest of the girls. Nobody drove a car to church between spring and fall. All the folks of Lucienne were on a sad parade to hear the word of God. What did it matter that it was Easter? Nothing much had ever changed. There was nothing left to promise that it might. 

Ma and Tom had caught up with old friends of the family, the Winchells, who had a daughter of about sixteen named Sheila. She was Tom’s age, and they had a nice something between them. Eileen would usually walk and talk with them for a stretch, but she thought she might be alone, to scout out more daylilies for spectacle. Even though it was closed on Sundays like everything else in Lucienne, as Eileen was about to pass by the picture house, she hoped that the poster slot by the front doors might have been switched out for something different. It was a little game to herself: if the picture was changed, the day might be changed with it; this she was willing to bet with an Easter’s promises of good tidings of rebirth. For the past three months, Picnic had been playing to any audience larger than five. It was the newest film Lucienne had shown in years.

As Eileen approached the building, with its visible blistering wood and peeling paint, the same poster she’d passed every Sunday since December was there to greet her: COLUMBIA PICTURES PRESENTS: WILLIAM HOLDEN AND KIM NOVAK IN ‘PICNIC’. Maybe next week. Eileen thought about when she was sixteen, those dark days at the picture show, fooling around with the boys from school. They were never her first choice, and she always had the feeling she wasn’t theirs either. She’d let those years stretch on forever, and all the rest, church on every Sunday, fly clean out of sight. That couldn’t be changed. The outside of the picture house only grew weeds.

Caught up with her family, absent of daylily prospects, Eileen and the rest of the town filed into church, where murmurs of afternoon tea and who would meet at whose house for supper exhausted the room. Eileen noticed her hands had made the top of her bible damp with sweat. She suddenly became aware of all the little things. Her dark hair was pinned tightly to her head, giving her a small headache. Her pumps were pinching her feet a little too much to ignore. Her lipstick was a shade too pink, too juvenile. As soon as Pastor Mitchell took his stand, children coughed their last coughs, the old ladies came to a quick agreement on their after-church arrangements, and Eileen stood up for worship, just like everyone else.

In the stagnant air, he came in late, and over halfway into Pastor Mitchell’s sermon. Across the aisle, into the cold, hard, unforgiving pew, he was alone. Categorically, he was not out of place. God might welcome any man into his house and encourage him to stay for as long as need be. His suit and hat were exciting, his dress was smart. Dangling between his clasped hands was a hat, one that looked like it belonged to a man on the cover of one of those dime-store crime novels the General Store would get from time to time. The fact is, he could’ve been any other brother, fiance, husband, father of the town, but he wasn’t. He was new. He was out of place. He hunched right into prayer, and he didn’t relent until Pastor Mitchell closed service. When his prayer lapsed, he stood and went to shake hands with Pastor Mitchell, thanking him for the excellent sermon. It wasn’t excellent, Eileen thought, it was what they heard every Easter Sunday. But he was new, he found it excellent. On his way to the door, he fixed his eyes on Eileen. Ma and Tom had congregated to the lot outside to make their own Easter arrangements with the Winchells. Alone in her pew, Eileen had pledged herself to a couple more minutes of peace, a few more moments of surrender to someone she didn’t have to see or talk to. The man sat down next to her. He was someone she would have to see and talk to. Only, he didn’t talk to her. Eileen was fixed in prayer, though reeling from the presence of this other man who wasn’t her holy divination. She ignored his closeness, his cheery gratitude, his ridiculous insistence on sitting next to another person when he was all so new and happy.

When Eileen lost the words for her prayer, she stood up and started to leave. She looked back and realized that the man wasn’t watching her walk away, he was in that same hunched prayer that he was in during the sermon. How incredibly presumptuous of her to think he wanted anything from her but a little bit of company. As all of these concessions flooded her mind, the man broke his silence and addressed Eileen directly.

“You’re burning a hole in my back,” came a collected voice.

“Oh.” Startled, Eileen started to back away.

“No it’s alright, I didn’t like this coat too much anyway.” Before, the man was speaking to Eileen between his hands, still in prayer. Only now did he break his monologue with God. “I saw you were sitting with two other folks when I came in,” the man stood up and started to take off his coat, “Family?” He had clean nails and smelled of coffee.

“Yes,” Eileen began, “Listen, I better be catching up with them.” Her feet might have been glued to the floor.

“Of course,” the man paused, scratching the back of his neck, “would you mind if I caught up with them, too?”

“I mean, I don’t know you.” Eileen crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I don’t see why you’d want to do that.” The man shadowed Eileen when he stood up straight, but he still leveled with her eyes as if they were the same height, making her feel slightly unsure about the firm voice she’d just tried on. Something friendly in him began to crack up.

“Jerry Brackett,” the man loosened up a sideways grin, understanding her unease. “I’m from Illinois, a small town, well you might’ve heard of it, Chicago…” Eileen let herself laugh at his effort, and her smile grew affectionately on him.

“Well,” he chuckled, shoving his hands in his pockets, “Out there I fix up other people’s writing for a living, but you can do that practically anywhere.”

“I see. So you’re sold on the small-town outfit, that’s why you’re here in Lucienne,” said Eileen. It was only then she noticed that he might’ve missed a day’s shave. It made him look kinder, less trying somehow. All the men in church tried to look like newborn babies on Easter, but not Jerry. He looked like a man.

“Not exactly…” he trailed off, and into a thought he couldn’t let himself speak.

She let the silence grow between them before offering him more of herself, little by little. “I’m Eileen,” she said, offering an outstretched hand, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Jerry smiled generously, and shook. “I didn’t catch that last name,” he pushed further, extending the gesture longer than called for.

“Corcoran,” Eileen reached her hand away and clasped her arm behind her back, letting the untouched skin feel the heat Jerry had placed in her palm. 

“Corcoran?”

“Yes.” Jerry let the name satisfy his battery of questions for the moment being. Their silence matured, his eyes quelled any movement of her own. Jerry began nodding to himself, as if someone had come and whispered some sage secrets into his ear and disappeared without notice. 

His voice, a honeyed thickness, forced her to look up at him again. “Your folks,” he began, “they look like good people.”

“They are.” This, more than anything else Jerry could ask her, Eileen was sure of.

“Is that kid your brother?” Jerry asked, gesturing to the church window, where Tom was off talking to Sheila. She was pretty in her soft pink frills, her long blonde hair stuck inside two prim braids that trailed down her back, tightly cut off with ribbons that matched her dress. Tom’s bushy brown hair was all slicked back grease, his tall body was stuffed inside Pa’s old suit. Only this year did it fit just right on him. He looked proud with his hand on her shoulder. They were perfect young people, like the ceramic married couple on the top of a wedding cake.

“Yes, that’s Tom. He just turned sixteen last week. He’s a real great kid.” Nobody had ever needed to ask her who her family was; in Lucienne, they already knew. Jerry was kind, if not inquisitive, and she decided that it was nice to have all the answers meet satisfying ends.

“Who’s that girl?” This time Jerry pointed. “The one he’s talking up and down?”

“Sheila Winchell,” Eileen told him. “She’s a friend of the family.” 

“Ah,” Jerry seemed to bounce his next words around in his head before continuing, “you know Cal Mitchell and I are old pals. Boise State, class of ‘35.”

“You mean Pastor Mitchell?” Eileen’s confidence in Jerry piqued.

“Oh, right.” Jerry said, as if he had forgotten where they were. “Pastor Mitchell.” 

“I just assumed that with Chicago, well I just assumed you were a proper stranger to Montana,” Eileen leaned into a tease, “you should’ve said something!”

“I just did!” Jerry leaned harder.

“That’s not what I meant,” Eileen began, but gave up when Jerry started to laugh. It was a sweet, buoyant laugh, and completely becoming of him. Eileen let herself join in.

The two were interrupted by Pastor Mitchell, who offered to walk Jerry out of church and to join him for Easter supper with him and his wife. “It’d be an honor, Cal,” Jerry patted Pastor Mitchell on the back, startling the uptight man into a humoring laughter, “a stand-up guy like you. And to think, back in Boise…” 

“I think Eileen’s Ma ought to know where she is,” Pastor Mitchell interrupted, pushing his thick, coke-bottle glasses up too close to his eyes, which were bulging and nervous even without the magnified frames. His clamor caused Eileen and Jerry to steal glances, and laugh under their breath.

“Sure,” Eileen quickly extinguished her laughter and continued upright, “Pastor Mitchell, why don’t you and Mr. Brackett come to see Ma. I’m sure she’ll be glad to thank you for the sermon, and to meet your old friend.” Eileen decided that all Ma needed to know was that Jerry was Pastor Mitchell’s old friend from college.

Outside of church, Ma quickly broke up her chatter with the Winchells to thank Pastor Mitchell for the sermon. Jerry operated on perfect conversational beats, introducing himself as a college buddy of Pastor Mitchell’s, who Eileen learned was his roommate at some point. The two had bonded over their mutual boredom with a theology class. Ma offered polite laughter at this, as Pastor Mitchell turned bright red. With Jerry’s manner, always feeling the conversation like he was in on a joke that nobody else was, Eileen could feel herself growing to his warmth. Everything was a charade, but the fact that she knew it, made everything about him excite her more. As she fell into a rhythm of watching him speak between two people, blossoming when he looked in her direction, she noticed Ma doing the same. She never dropped her listening smile, responding generously to Jerry’s college stories with those of her own, stories that she never told Eileen or Tom. Jerry continued like this, feeding her curiosity and interest with a healthy wit, every story wilder than the last. It didn’t matter that they likely weren’t true. He also didn’t seem to mind that Pastor Mitchell had turned into a sweaty, uncomfortable mess, patting his back at every mention of him in a tall tale, giving him the one-two punch of a rejective finger, which, of course, was never honored by Jerry. Out of this spell of charisma, this sprawl of dizzying wit that swarmed like bees around Ma and Eileen and stung Pastor Mitchell, Jerry suddenly spoke with a bold abandon: He asked Ma if Eileen would be interested in having dinner with him and the Mitchells. Ma, with a lightened disposition, said it would be alright. Immediately after, catching herself in this sudden gaiety, Ma straightened herself out, and required that Eileen would home no later than 10, for coffee and prayer.

“Thank you, Miss Corcoran,” Jerry locked eyes with Eileen. “Meanwhile, Eileen here has promised to show me the ropes of Lucienne. It’s a fine town, but I’d have no idea where to start on my own.” To this, Ma agreed as well. She was back under his spell. All was well, new and fun with Jerry around.

Down the road from the church, where the plum trees of Richmond Avenue never bloomed but once every three years, Eileen stopped walking.

“Why did you tell Ma I promised to show you around Lucienne? She probably thinks I have some idea about you.”

“Well don’t you?” Jerry said, without hesitation, embarrassment, or failure. He reached his long arm up to the stretch of bare plum trees, and continued walking, attacking the branches at every odd step.

Eileen didn’t know what to say. Of course she had some idea about him. His personality was tall and lean, his voice worked at slant, to both please and amuse, and his face was handsome like all the men that lit up the bright big wall at the picture house. He was all of them combined. He had a nice way of buttering a person up to get something of them, without ever sounding insincere in the making. That’s the only reason why Ma had let him out with her, Eileen thought, but she had long disremembered the parts of Ma that made her worry. Jerry was a discovery of her own, they were alone, and she was willing to play his games.

Her laughter answered his question as he got his shirt sleeve caught on one of the plum tree branches. Jerry laughed, too. Perching up on her tip-toes to help him get unstuck, though he could’ve untangled himself in two seconds flat, he started to stare at her again, in the level-minded way he did before in church, that stare that’d made her so warm and unquestioning. Not like the picture house boys, all cold, needy hands and needy lips stained with Coca-Cola, Jerry was generous with his time, as he was willing to waste it on her. When he grabbed her face in his hands and moved his mouth to her right ear, Eileen needed it to last longer than it did.

“I’ll race you up the hill.” He departed from this whisper with a wild smile, and started to sprint up the road to a plateau. Eileen brought herself down to earth. She took off her shoes and met his pace. She didn’t beat him, but he was awful winded when she caught up. 

“Christ!” Jerry panted, his hands on his knees, desperately trying to regain his composure. Eileen wasn’t all-too keen on this impromptu foot race either, the bottoms of her stockings weathered thin from the exposed gravel of the street. 

They met a plateau of houses, separated only by tight alleyways with overflowing trash bins, leading to empty streets, stretching onto emptier roads. As Eileen was about to challenge Jerry to a race back down, back to civilization, he said, “Good a place as any to start, huh?”

Eileen was sure of it. She walked up closer to him, and the two began to walk the perimeters of the houses, their yards and quaint porches. Eileen began to question why it was that Jerry was in town, whether it was to get away from Chicago, whether it was to visit Pastor Mitchell, whether it was a meeting of the two, or neither. She pondered all of this while he talked about life in Chicago. “Nothing better or smarter about the people there than here,” he insisted. Eileen told him about Ma and Tom, her tedious work at the library, how Pa served in the Navy and died in the war, how his body never came back, even though his grave was marked at the town cemetery.

“I could take you there, if you’d like.” Eileen suggested.

“Well,” Jerry looked back at the ground they’d previously covered. “I don’t know.”

“Sure, it’s alright.” Eileen led him to a long stretch of land near the houses. No flowers decorated any headstones, and the middle of the yard was broken up by a garish mausoleum that belonged to the Lowells, one of the first families to settle in Lucienne. As Eileen explained this to Jerry, his eyes wandered around the individual grave markers, searching. He stopped abruptly at one of them, and reached his right hand up to his lips. Smoothing the corners of his mouth with his index finger and thumb, he made himself small, digging knees into the wet grass of the cemetery. Eileen made herself aware of the grave he was caught by: KELLY ANN FARROW. BELOVED DAUGHTER AND WIFE. MAY 6 1920 – SEPT. 18 1955.

A girl, bobbing blonde hair that swept over one eye and left the other wandering, appeared in Eileen’s memory. A high school senior when she was a freshman. A beautiful girl like one you’d see in a picture house. The perfect match for Jerry. There was a big commotion once she was gone from Lucienne, but the night she left there was no noise at all. The old ladies in church said she up and disappeared, just like that. Her Ma, her three younger sisters, all stayed behind. When Lucienne received word of her death, the murmurs became awful. Dropping out of an eastern college, eloping with a man her parents didn’t know, serving tables at a seedy dive, there was even talk of her getting one of those operations, the type Lucienne folk would spell letter-to-letter out of fear of a little girl listening in. All in a move to Chicago. Then there was her funeral. Just like Pa, her body never came back. The grave was marked for her family’s sake. Eileen liked to believe there were good things among all of those nasty whispers. She remembered the last night Kelly came into the library, the year Eileen began work there, and told her how nice the daylilies on her desk looked.

“I know the Farrows, they live a few blocks away from us,” Eileen managed. “I went to school with Kelly.” 

Jerry took his whole face in his hand, then pulled it down slowly, drooping his eyes and sinking his features that were just before so bold and brilliant.

Eileen made sense of things. “She was your wife. Wasn’t she?” 

After a while, he answered her.

“Yeah, she was.”

The man she ran off to, or maybe found when she was there. They might’ve shared an apartment. He might have seen her on her good days. He might have fought for her to be happy. He was the man, Eileen thought.

“I’m sorry,” Eileen began, soft with her words, “I wouldn’t have brought you here if I’d known.”

Jerry stood, started to shake his head, then offered Eileen a small smile. He stared at her with those burning eyes, and locked her into his arms, sweet and long and warm. Breaking apart, Eileen rested her head on his shoulder. His knees were stained green. They hadn’t yet moved from Kelly’s grave.

Calmer than ever before, Jerry spoke again. “It was cancer, you know. I don’t know if they ever told you that.” Cancer. The word was ugly. Jerry ran his thumb over Eileen’s cheek. His nice, clean nails. “I came here because I needed to. Kelly’s been gone for months and I haven’t been out here, I couldn’t bring myself to it. I finally took that train, but even then I wasn’t sure if I was ready to see her grave. Just showing up in Lucienne, I was proving something to myself. But then I met you.”

She pushed from his arms. “You had all those funny words saved for Ma, you volunteered me to show you around town, all so I could lead you here. And that’s that.” Eileen needed anything to justify her decision to stay with Jerry, some compliment to her pride, even if it wasn’t much, even though she’d made up her mind about him from the start.

“No,” Jerry smiled. “I wasn’t betting on all that. I just needed someone to talk to. I still do.”

That was all Eileen needed. She fell back into him.

“I’ve been lonely,” Jerry said.

“Me too.”

Back around the library in town, Eileen and Jerry picked the daylilies that were not yet in full bloom, and made the pilgrimage to the cemetery once more. There the daylilies would stay, not in a vase on Eileen’s desk at the library, but on Kelly’s grave. Eileen fixed one in Jerry’s lapel, and the two headed toward the Farrows’ old place. Pastor Mitchell would understand the wait.