Blue (As In An Early Frost)
by Rob Hunter
The long black limousine from Flagg Bros. Morticians dropped Libby Pease off at the library after the brief service at the Unitarian Universalist chapel. This was Wednesday, her afternoon to sit at the desk, date-stamping checkouts, shelving returns, waiting for the volunteer driver who delivered the interlibrary loans. She started uphill, across the lawn, raised a hand to signal an afterthought, then retraced her steps. "He had fillings, crowns."
Billy Flagg held a Ziploc bag up to the light. In a sepia-toned plastic haze floated her father's partial and a gold wedding band. "Dental work -- caps, crowns, fillings. The cremation process vaporizes ‘em."
"Just curious, Billy. He'd want to know."
"Most folks don't seem to mind." Billy's window rose with an electric whisper. Most folks. There had been her, Billy Flagg and the minister. Billy touched Libby a two-finger salute from the bridge of his nose and backed up Mary Squibb's gravel drive to make a U-turn. At the curb Billy checked his necktie in the sideview mirror and guided his big, black funeral barge in a majestic retreat.
"70 years, Pop." Elizabeth Profitt Pease spoke to the pottery jar with what was left of her father. "And among all those days not a day when I didn't wish you dead so I could get on with things. Now you're dead and I've forgotten whatever it was I had in mind."
Libby's father had turned blue and died in his 95th year. Consensus had it that he passed out drunk and allowed the coal stove to go out. His lips and fingers were blue; he seemed to have frozen to death, except only from the neck up. The coroner had put forward cyanosis, "a severe condition indicating a lack of oxygen in the blood supply."
"Death will do that," Libby opined.
When she thought of the diminishing sameness of her life as lived to this point, which was not often, she felt a heart-deadening sense of loss. Libby did not allow herself this thought, but it sometimes crept upon her unawares, bringing with it the chill at the small of her back. From where it moved up her spine to... to... her soul, hiding there in its cupboard of the mind. Elizabeth Pease was a quilter of surpassing skill and that was all. "What have I done for myself lately?" Libby asked no one in particular. "Not much," she answered, "have I?"
She regarded the jar that contained her father's ashes. "I said, have I?"
The Franklin Free Library had been mostly closed for sixteen years. The last living librarian died in her sleep and the town selectmen were hard pressed to come up with the funds for a replacement. "No one reads books anymore," said Pillsbury Hennicott, known as Pilly, "newspapers and magazines is all. Except folks too old to make it to the library. They get the Bangor Daily News delivered at home. If we don't hire a librarian, we can take out subscriptions for everybody in town and have money left over."
"Napoleon," Profitt Pease, Libby's father not dead yet--in his forties now at this town meeting in 1956, called from the rear of the hall. "Napoleon Bonaparte. Did you know that the English Parliament established a stipend for the keeping of a perpetual watch on the English Channel against the return of Napoleon's fleet?"
"Beg youah pardon..." shouted Pilly, who was not hard of hearing but needed time to think. "That was two hundred years ago." He looked around for approval.
"Last I heard they were still paying it," Profitt Pease grumped, "and Napoleon bein' dead more'n a while. Here you are voting to close the library and all the whole time paying a person to come wind the clock. Will our grandchildren be coming to the empty cellar hole of the Franklin Free Library and presenting their Regulator key to the ashes that they, too, might wax fat on the bread of the poor?"
"Profitt... It is a tradition. Two dollars and fifty cents. You're being silly."
"That's two-fifty in tax dollars." There was a muttering of agreement. "Thutty-five cents. That I'd agree to."
"Two dollars," said Pilly from the podium.
"One dollar," said Profitt Pease.
"Sold." The motion was carried. The library would be open twice a month on alternate Wednesday afternoons, staffed by a volunteer librarian.
Libby's hands were cold. She shook them to bring the circulation back; dust motes danced. "Eight Days," said the old dead white ivory enameled dial of the library clock.
"Eight days," Libby said. "Of course they would not have expected a clock to have been wound upon the Sabbath." The offset involved getting an elementary school pupil to perform her assigned task, dutifully skipping Sundays and Saturdays. "Nine days forward, two days back," said Libby Pease, for in the libertarian clockwork of small town democracy, church and municipal mechanics made the Sabbaths of whatever cult, sect, assembly or communion, transparent. The Adventists, Congregationalists, Methodists and the like should not feel passed over like the Israelites of old, for they were voters. The leftover Children of the Book--Jews, Muslims and other Abrahamic believers--might have their Sabbaths honored by the asking. They did not ask. Saturday and Sunday were designated days of worship and rest; should a citizen be predisposed to kneel, that was his affair. "That would make you a nine-day clock. With an extra day, if needed, for the Abrahamites," said Libby.
"Elizabeth." The funeral home limo had returned and Billy Flagg walked up looking sheepish. He stood at her elbow and waited, unsure that he might have interrupted a séance with her late father. The urn with Profitt Pease's ashes was now on the librarian's desk, to the right of a bar code scanner. "Got this." He handed over a second Ziploc bag with a hearing aid in it. The Regulator clock's polished pendulum gave the room the sense of being in motion--a slow motion carnival ride, its brass medallion swept sideways. Foreshortened and scrunched together as in a fun house mirror Billy Flagg departed, upside down; the door closed behind him.
Libby raised her arm to see if she was in the picture. There. She waved. She stood very still, then waved again. The pendulum's sweep gave the appearance of animation; her face swelled and shrank. "Hello." She waved again, crossed her wrists at her throat, then stood very still. She stared intently at herself as she swung past, a miniature trapeze artist suspended in brass, a fly in amber.
One day in her late forties--long after her mother had taken to her bed, there to languish and finally die a hopeless invalid--Libby noticed a familiar face among the cast of All Our Lives, a daytime drama. "No. Just my imagination," said Libby, and continued with her vacuuming.
"ELIZABETH." It was Tina Carrington. In the TV. She was shouting above the whine of the vacuum. Libby turned it off. "That's better," said Tina.
"You have been watching me," said Libby Pease.
"Every minute," Tina said from inside the television. "You never do anything." She stuck out her tongue and approached the inside of the thick glass which separated them. "Thee," she lisped. She knelt out of sight on the floor, then rose in a slow reveal past the TV's arbitrary horizon, leaving a wet vertical smear up the inside of the cathode ray tube. The cast of All Our Lives had assembled around her and were staring curiously out at Libby. "Yuck. Bet you don't clean in here too often," she said. She made a face and spat.
"You died. You have been away."
"Another soap. I was over at ABC for seventeen years. Contract problem," said Tina. "My lawyer had them write me out."
Tina closed in on the foreground. Meanwhile, in the background, a handsome man, fifty-something, sixty, perhaps--steel-gray hair cropped short, the haircut tapered up the back--manly, thought Elizabeth, like Jimmy Stewart in the movies. Buttoning his shirt, the man slipped up on Tina; she pretended to be surprised. "Oh!" He had nuzzled her neck and bitten her on the ear. "We are having..." Tina's voice grew secretive, "...an affair."
"With, with..." Libby tried to call up a roster of characters from the program. "Each other..."
Tina giggled. "Silly."
"Libby..." Colleen Dysart stepped in, her tentative movement generating a cascade of dust mote galaxies and a fresh invasion of sunbeams. A sunny summer sometime in Willipaq, Maine and a sealed-up library was now a killing field with a googolplex of its dust mote citizens dead unawares, along with their attendant dreams, hopes and aspirations.
How many worlds have collided here? thought Libby. "Tina...?" she said.
"Libby. It's me, Corky... Colleen Dysart."
"Colleen, then." Not Tina miraculously resurrected by her lawyer. "Don't move."
Corky was ill at ease, and at the tone of command, she became teary-eyed.
"I am thinking, is all," Libby said. I have apologized to a perpetratrix of genocide, Libby thought.
"Libby. If this is a bad time, I..." Corky Dysart had looked starched and pressed since the elementary grades. Corky was a natural blond through middle age, but now with hair loss--a consequence of menopause--she had her graying hair fluffed and striped black into a skunk look at the salon. Corky's preference was likewise a vertical striping on her shirts and tops for a slimming effect.
"You are here to wind the clock." This was an accusation. "The selectmen slipped the stipend for a clock winder into the town warrant sixty years back. We were only children then. You must be dead, then--all those little girls are. Like Tina Carrington? My father is dead. But then you've met." She turned to the urn on the desk. "Pop. It's Corky, remember her?" The cluster flies were themselves dead but a season, their husks scattered at her feet. There would be a new swarming in the fall.
"I brought a pizza," said Corky, as if that could excuse the slaughter of uncounted billions along with their miniature universes. "And a bottle of diet Pepsi..." She held the offering forward, clutching it in both hands.
"All for yourself. You had no way of knowing I would be here. And my father..."
"Your father is dead. You just told me so. He turned blue and stopped breathing." A little-girl snippishness entered Corky's voice. "You called me over to have a look, confirm the evidence of your eyes, remember?" Corky's voice lowered. "It was a lovely blue. I am not dead."
"I surely hope so. My father, Billy Flagg put him in a jar. It would not be polite for us to have the pizza and not offer him any." Libby picked up her father's jar and carried it back to the porch. She returned, dusting her hands in a gesture of finality. "There."
"Then it's just you and me, Elizabeth. Smell." Corky popped the top of the carry-out box.
"Anchovies, too. Something fishy." Libby's nostrils flared to the ambrosial astringencies of goat and olive, the essence of the mezzogiorno--fishy, pungent like a Greek salad. The salad for which she was no longer a goddess, usurped by the false popes of Rome and Byzantium with their all-male religions, a salad denied.
"No!" Libby slapped the box a roundhouse right and the pizza leaped into the air. The steaming pizza--with anchovy and onions, cheese-and-tomato-side out--flew to hit the far wall with a cartoon "slurp." It stuck, clinging for a breathless moment, then slid floorwards, followed by a glistening stigmata. The two women stared as though they had just entered a movie theater and were waiting for their eyes to adjust during a massacre scene. Libby giggled.
"That's mean," Corky was on the verge of tears.
"I hate anchovies," Libby lied.
Elizabeth Profitt Pease discovered food at about the same time she discovered sex; the two were easily confused. In the Pease household, things were to be boiled, blanched and pummeled into submission before they were acceptable as dinner. Vegetables were to be canned, cheese to be orange and come in three pound blocks as decreed by Velveeta. That sex, as food, was to be thought unsavory unless allowed to simmer overlong, Libby feels years later, might have been planned as a deterrent to incest--a not small thing in latitudes where winters are long and days are short.
"Anchovies are not mean in and of themselves," said Libby. "They are a fish, and they are dead. Bringing them home, here, wherever--that is mean. You have been mean--to me--for bringing an anchovy pizza whether or not you knew I'd be here. But thank you for the thought. You were going to eat the whole thing. You had no way of knowing that I would be in the library."
"You are angry. Why?"
"I was trying to hold a thought. One of those moth-flutterings that brush your mind with the tip of a wing then is gone. A universe, universes in a dust mote. You set them spinning when you came in. They are dead now."
"Because I moved the air." Corky attempted an exasperated pose, hand on hip.
"In a sunbeam. The dust motes are a universe. No less precious than ours," said Libby. "You are the clock winder."
Corky blushed. "It was a secret when we were in school. Remember? No one was supposed to know who the winder was. And it paid two-fifty a week, real money for five minutes' work in 1956. And now..."
"My father weaseled it down by a dollar. A dollar-fifty. Still real money, though and you still need it. Even one and a half dollars is something these days."
Profitt Pease claimed senility with a bang, not a whimper. "Not dangerous..." Floyd Gunderson at the hardware store had said of Libby's father, "...even to himself. But he's crazy as a sugar-shocked baboon, a proper pain in the ass. Should you be lettin' him run at large, Miz Pease? All that poppin' up he does..."
Her father's sudden appearances he mostly confined to the privacy of the Pease house, where he crept up and down the carpeted and balustered stairway, polishing the runner brasses with the cuff of a flannel sleeve. The Pease doorknobs likewise glistened. He accompanied his polishings with a peripheral muttering that might have meant something to someone. But not to her, and not while she was seated on the commode. "Hiya, Lib." "Pop. Not now, please." His headlong slide into dementia had only begun in the months before his death.
Profitt Pease's exploits at skirt-lifting about town raised him to the status of a lesser celebrity; a slap, a blush, an embarrassed giggle put him in his place, and he went scampering for the safety of his toolshed. Libby had never loved or respected her father. Until this however, she had stood in awe of him.
Eurydice Wyndham Pease, her mother, had been the first to go. Her mother had a lingering affliction which, while causing her no great discomfort until the end, did eventually take her away. It took her many years to die and, through all the accumulation of months, days, weeks, high holidays, low amusements, fairs, films, and funerals, Dicey Pease bravely bore her dissolution without complaint. 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.
And now, thirty years later, my father.
Unencumbered by Profitt's unexpected comings-in and goings-out, his lurkings behind their hedges, Libby felt a new woman. The world was her oyster; the view ahead promised unobstructed horizons.
Some months after her father's death, the telephone rang. It was Billy Flagg. "Libby?"
"Your father is here. He's asking for you."
"He had lots of time to do that when he was alive, Billy; you know that. Is he bothering anybody?"
"Not so far."
"This way." Billy Flagg led her quickly down a carpeted corridor with subdued bay lighting toward his office; a muted organ noodled softly from hidden speakers. "See."
Her father looked up from a carved walnut desk where he had been rifling the drawers; his face was a faded cerulean blue. He held up a bent letter opener. "My teeth, Lib. He stole my teeth." He pointed accusingly at Billy Flagg. "If you'd left the desk unlocked, I'd have been and gone by now. And my wedding ring and hearing aid; what about them? A ghoul, stripping corpses; that's what he is, Elizabeth." He levitated from behind the desk to hover cross-legged at eye level. "You're surely not going to marry the ghoul who incinerated your old dad, now are you?"
"I'd have to have time to think it over. If he asked me." Billy's eyes glazed over as he flopped into a black leather easy chair. "Mr. Flagg is thirty years younger than I am. And besides, he's already married. And you're dead." She turned to Billy. "Breathe, Billy. You're safe." He patted at his brow with a white handkerchief.
"Movies and an ice cream."
"What?" Elizabeth and Billy Flagg both stared at Profitt Pease.
"Movies and an ice cream. That's my price. Extortion, I believe it is called." Libby's father looked around as if for a challenger. "Westerns--Randolph Scott, John Wayne, and tutti frutti or pistachio. Every week."
"How about an exorcism?" said Billy Flagg, who was looking uncomfortable. "The Rolodex is chock full of local clergy. Most of them owe me a favor..." His eyes cleared and the handkerchief was tucked into a breast pocket. "Or do you think you could get him to go home with you? Leave...?"
"The ectoplasm is a mite creaky," Libby's father pouted and hefted a glass paperweight, warming it in the palm of his hand like a major league pitcher. His eyes brightened, "But the spirit is willing as they say. I have feelings, too. You are talking about me in front of me. In the third person--that is rude." He heaved the glass missile at Billy's head; Billy ducked and the paperweight hit the wall with a muffled thump, dimpled the burgundy vinyl wallpaper, and bounced, once. "Treat me right and I might, jes' might, have hidden riches to bestow."
"Such as... a secret treasure. A map, something? Government bonds walled up in the cellar? Get real, Pop. Your partial, wedding ring and the hearing aid? Billy gave them to me. That's all you have in the world."
"A movie... once a week. Surely that is not too much to ask. I would be grateful. Remember, I now have contacts in the spirit-world."
"Elizabeth. Over here." Her father's voice.
"Pop? You're dead. Go away. I thought we had things settled." A dish of ice cream, mounded high with walnuts and syrup, was left beside the TV every Saturday morning.
"Libby..." Cajoling. The voice was coming from the television set. There was background music, the theme from All Our Lives. The TV was on. Smack dab in the middle of the screen a hand print was pressed flat against the inside surface. Libby pulled the TV away from the wall and checked the backside of the set. A bright blue glow flared from a squat rectifier tube. Just machinery in there--plus the fried ozone odor of electrical equipment. She walked around to the front. Tina Carrington stood with her father, their arms about one another's waists.
"You two. Carrying on in there... behind my back. Behind my mother's back."
"Your mother was dead and buried over ten years before we met, Elizabeth." Tina was consoling; her character's usual whine had disappeared. "You can watch only so many sunsets on the mesa, if you get my meaning." She smoothed an eyebrow with an extended pinky. This was the real flesh and blood woman. With her father.
"She's real, Pop--Tina Carrington; you're dead. Altogether a bad match."
"Tina was off the show for seventeen years, Lib. You thought she was dead; you told me so."
"So that makes everything OK then. That I said she was dead."
"You said your mother was dead."
"And then she was. Pop, are you accusing me of murdering my mother?"
Profitt Pease pouted. "If the shoe fits..." He edged around behind Tina Carrington, positioning her between him and his daughter. He held his hand up, palm out. "See?" It was covered with an orangey tobacco accretion. "Inside of the tube. You better get a-poppin' that rag, daughter."
Tina shrugged a shoulder out of her peasant blouse and gave Libby's father a spin like a tango dancer. Profitt Pease flew out of the picture. "I told you, Elizabeth. Remember? All those years ago. Just like yesterday-ay-ay-ay," her father cried out. As he pretended to fall off a precipice, over the edge of the world, Profitt Pease performed a shivering glissando, his ululating larynx a musical saw played with the mathematical certainty of a Doppler plunge. "Bet you don't clean in here too often, that's all I said," he wailed as he fell.
"Budgraksacyzl!" cursed young princess Gwylfillian for she had made a misstep with her stitches.
"Ooh..." chorused her traditional semicircle of ladies-in-waiting, municipal virgins all and pledged to her service for a year with ears yet unblemished as they themselves were likewise innocent of the moist and urgent utterances of the conjugal couch.
"No, I really mean it," said Gwylfillian, the municipal princess, as a polychrome starburst dissolved the scene and a chorus of floppy puppets danced. A butterscotch-tinctured announcer ordered children to buy cereal and tune in tomorrow.
A bubble popped and Libby awoke as her chin bumped against her sternum. "Ouch!" The word appeared over her head in a cartoon balloon. Her daydream dispersed.
"Bony chest," said the TV in the living room.
"Tina. Tina Carrington?" There was a furtive rustling from behind the curved glass. "Pop? Tina?" The rustlings stopped. "Pop, come out of there."
Profitt Pease shambled out from behind the television set. He carried a dish of ice cream. "I heard your neck crack all the way in Beverly Hills. A chiropractic realignment might be in order. You have been asleep for..." a pause as her father leaned backwards to check the time. "Tina? Time, lovey?" He blew a kiss over his shoulder and dribbled ice cream on the carpet.
A meaty thud issued from behind the TV. There was a scraping--nails on a chalkboard, backyard cats screeching midnight sex from backyard fences. A mild curse and Tina came out dusting her rear end. "Took a tumble, I did," she said, winking at Libby's father. The husky, almost sultry character of her voice, while it emphasized and enhanced a slight English accent, spoke to a lifelong tobacco habit.
"Huh! three minutes. Your sainted father couldn't bear to wake you up. Next time we'll call first. We'll be living on one of the Channel Isles--Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, you know." A lingering aura of cigarettes clung to her hair and clothes. Tina and Libby had never met without the thick glass of a TV screen between them. "I do hope you have some sort of Internet telephone scheme," said Tina.
"No," said Libby. "Just plain old long distance."
"Pity. Budgraksacyzl! That was what you said."
"The quilter's curse," said Libby. "It's a dream I have."
"Sorry, if you were meaning to offend. Not one bit shocking, your curse. What's it mean? It's not witchcraft, is it?"
"Oh, it's really dreadful. It needs a context is all. The municipal virgins were a custom from Puritan days..."
"...yes, yes, yes, its origin obscured by the mists of time. We grew up on those, too. The naughty girlies got starved in a dungeon, or locked up in the privy, whatever, till St. Swithin's Eve when they were properly trussed up and chucked into the well. To insure a bountiful harvest. Sounds like a scary under-the-covers read."
Tina, Tina Carrington. No, she was imaginary, a soap opera temptress. This had gone on long enough. "Mom. Are you watching me?" This was eerie.
"Here, now. You have been watching me. On the telly. Only fair, I'd say," said Tina. "No, I'm not your Mom."
Libby had been entertaining a growing suspicion. There were things that Tina Carrington knew or assumed about her, her life, her house--where she kept the many sugar bowls and gravy boats, her mother's Blue Willow dinnerware from the Willipaq Cinema's Wednesday afternoon matinees--that a stranger from thousands of miles away could not, should not know.
"Quite sensual, your daydreaming," said Tina. "I say this only in loco parentis, as your father's consort. When we were kids the girls were expected to take up needlework. Sort of like lifetime of Lent." Tina giggled. "Déjà vu all over again. Just say no. I said no a lot. But I said yes a lot, too. Ooh." There was a giggle and a slap. "You can just stop that, Profitt Pease. For now..."
A wicker chaise covered in character dolls crept toward Libby. Shoe button eyes glittered. Greybearded mountaineers nodded, doily-capped Aunt Betsys stared blindly as they advanced on her. The wicker chaise halted and the dolls fell on one another in suggestive poses. A bedspring creaked inside the TV and, through a spattering of distant stars, a gentle laugh.
Everyone watched the early Vs of Geese honking south. These were their practice runs; the wild geese at first only flew as far as the cemetery where they paddled about among the headstones, foraging for slugs. There was a freshly turned mound of earth, a headstone with the legend "Gone Home."
"Wan't bright, but he was dependable," said Marge Emmenthaler at the Emporium one day. "Didn't fall down or bump into things." The sense of the town was that for a sojourner from the spirit world Profitt Pease had been well behaved, and not like the zombies one saw on television. Survival in the complex commercial society into which he was born amidst high hopes at the dawn of the 20th Century made him a creature of habit.
"Didn't have any homeless in my day." Sidney Emmenthaler, Marge's husband, gestured broadly. The Emmenthaler overview encompassed much between liturgical creation and the 1980 census. "...we called ‘em bums."
Mothers whispered, "Homeless," into their bosoms, speaking a heart-breaking denial of Christian charity. The three theological virtues lumped together as Love allowed man to share in God's nature. Albeit the three virtues of Christian love (fides, spes and caritas) were of the Catholic catechism and did not apply past the state line, Pastor Brooks Havermeyer at the 2nd Baptist privately held Profitt Pease to be indeed a hopeless case, one of the undead, but in his public pronouncements held Hope to be the gift of Christ, thus mete and measure of the New Testament. "If our brother goes astray, it is our duty to call him back to Jesus." The Baptist burial ground opened to welcome Libby's father's ashes. Tina became melancholy and soon disappeared from the cast of All Our Lives.
Libby's father was quietly put to rest, but the memory of his blue-tinged skin lingered on. "I loved that blue," said Corky Dysart. "With a pattern figure of blue-eyed grass and white cornflowers it would be a memorable quilt." Corky said this during a time when quilting was returning to fashion, the late 2010s. If you had asked her when exactly she had uttered these memorable words, she would be at a loss to say just when. "After Pastor Havermeyer. I think. Oh, yes--most definitely--I loved blue then." The memory of Profitt Pease, turned blue as in an early frost, would caracole through the remainder of the 21st Century: in treasured wedding dresses, prom gowns and, eventually, quilts.
© 2011 Rob Hunter
Bio: With the onset of late middle age Rob Hunter is the sole support of a 1999 Ford Escort and the despair of his young wife. He does dishes, mows the lawn and keeps their Maine cottage spotless by moving as little as possible. In a former life he was a newspaper copy boy, railroad telegraph operator, recording engineer and film editor. He spent the 70s and 80s as a Top-40 disc jockey. Rob's work has appeared in print and online in publications such as The Harrow, Noctober, Farrago's Wainscot, and Aphelion, most recently The Queen's Head, November 2010.
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