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Death Says It Isn't So Post by :steve1.smith Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :2172

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Death Says It Isn't So

THE scene is a sickroom. It is probably in a hospital, for the walls are plain and all the corners are eliminated in that peculiar circular construction which is supposed to annoy germs. The shades are down and the room is almost dark. A doctor who has been examining the sick man turns to go. The nurse at his side looks at him questioningly.

THE DOCTOR (briskly)--I don't believe he'll last out the day. If he wakes or seems unusually restless, let me know. There's nothing to do.

He goes out quietly, but quickly, for there is another man down at the end of the corridor who is almost as sick. The nurse potters about the room for a moment or two, arranging whatever things it is that nurses arrange. She exits l. c., or, in other words, goes out the door. There is just a short pause in the dark, quiet room shut out from all outside noises and most outside light. When the steam pipes are not clanking only the slow breathing of the man on the bed can be heard. Suddenly a strange thing happens.

The door does not open or the windows, but there is unquestionably another man in the room. It couldn't have been the chimney, because there isn't any. Possibly it is an optical illusion, but the newcomer seems just a bit indistinct for a moment or so in the darkened room. Quickly he raises both the window shades, and in the rush of bright sunlight he is definite enough in appearance. Upon better acquaintance it becomes evident that it couldn't have been the chimney, even if there had been one. The visitor is undeniably bulky, although extraordinarily brisk in his movements. He has a trick which will develop later in the scene of blushing on the slightest provocation. At that his color is habitually high. But this round, red, little man, peculiarly enough, has thin white hands and long tapering fingers, like an artist or a newspaper cartoonist. Very possibly his touch would be lighter than that of the nurse herself. At any rate, it is evident that he walks much more quietly. This is strange, for he does not rise on his toes, but puts his feet squarely on the ground. They are large feet, shod in heavy hobnail boots. No one but a golfer or a day laborer would wear such shoes.

The hands of the little, round, red man preclude the idea that he is a laborer. The impression that he is a golfer is heightened by the fact that he is dressed loudly in very bad taste. In fact, he wears a plaid vest of the sort which was brought over from Scotland in the days when clubs were called sticks. The man in the gaudy vest surveys the sunshine with great satisfaction. It reaches every corner of the room, or rather it would but for the fact that the corners have been turned into curves. A stray beam falls across the eyes of the sick man on the bed. He wakes, and, rubbing his eyes an instant, slowly sits up in bed and looks severely at the fat little man.

THE SICK MAN (feebly, but vehemently)--No, you don't. I won't stand for any male nurse. I want Miss Bluchblauer.

THE FAT MAN--I'm not a nurse, exactly.

THE SICK MAN--Who are you?

THE FAT MAN (cheerfully and in a matter of fact tone)--I'm Death.

THE SICK MAN (sinking back on the bed)--That rotten fever's up again. I'm seeing things.

THE FAT MAN (almost plaintively)--Don't you believe I'm Death? Honest, I am. I wouldn't fool you. (He fumbles in his pockets and produces in rapid succession a golf ball, a baseball pass, a G string, a large lump of gold, a receipted bill, two theater tickets and a white mass of sticky confection which looks as though it might be a combination of honey and something--milk, perhaps)--I've gone and left that card case again, but I'm Death, all right.

THE SICK MAN--What nonsense! If you really were I'd be frightened. I'd have cold shivers up and down my spine. My hair would stand on end like the fretful porcupine. I'm not afraid of you. Why, when Sadie Bluchblauer starts to argue about the war she scares me more than you do.

THE FAT MAN (very much relieved and visibly brighter)--That's fine. I'm glad you're not scared. Now we can sit down and talk things over like friends.

THE SICK MAN--I don't mind talking, but remember I know you're not Death. You're just some trick my hot head's playing on me. Don't get the idea you're putting anything over.

THE FAT MAN--But what makes you so sure I'm not Death?

THE SICK MAN--Go on! Where's your black cloak? Where's your sickle? Where's your skeleton? Why don't you rattle when you walk?

THE FAT MAN (horrified and distressed)--Why should I rattle? What do I want with a black overcoat or a skeleton? I'm not fooling you. I'm Death, all right.

THE SICK MAN--Don't tell me that. I've seen Death a thousand times in the war cartoons. And I've seen him on the stage--Maeterlinck, you know, with green lights and moaning, and that Russian fellow, Andreyeff, with no light at all, and hollering. And I've seen other plays with Death--lots of them. I'm one of the scene shifters with the Washington Square Players. This isn't regular, at all. There's more light in here right now than any day since I've been sick.

THE FAT MAN--I always come in the light. Be a good fellow and believe me. You'll see I'm right later on. I wouldn't fool anybody. It's mean.

THE SICK MAN (laughing out loud)--Mean! What's meaner than Death? You're not Death. You're as soft and smooth-talking as a press agent. Why, you could go on a picnic in that make-up.

THE FAT MAN (almost soberly)--I've been on picnics.

THE SICK MAN--You're open and above board. Death's a sneak. You've got a nice face. Yes; you've got a mighty nice face. You'd stop to help a bum in the street or a kid that was crying.

THE FAT MAN--I have stopped for beggars and children.

THE SICK MAN--There, you see; I told you. You're kind and considerate. Death's the cruellest thing in the world.

THE FAT MAN (very much agitated)--Oh, please don't say that! It isn't true. I'm kind; that's my business. When things get too rotten I'm the only one that can help. They've got to have me. You should hear them sometimes before I come. I'm the one that takes them off battlefields and out of slums and all terribly tired people. I whisper a joke in their ears, and we go away, laughing. We always go away laughing. Everybody sees my joke, it's so good.

THE SICK MAN--What's the joke?

THE FAT MAN--I'll tell it to you later.

Enter the Nurse. She almost runs into the Fat Man, but goes right past without paying any attention. It almost seems as if she cannot see him. She goes to the bedside of the patient.

THE NURSE--So, you're awake. You feel any more comfortable?

The Sick Man continues to stare at the Fat Man, but that worthy animated pantomime indicates that he shall say nothing of his being there. While this is on, the Nurse takes the patient's temperature. She looks at it, seems surprised, and then shakes the thermometer.

THE SICK MAN (eagerly)--I suppose my temperature's way up again, hey? I've been seeing things this afternoon and talking to myself.

THE NURSE--No; your temperature is almost normal.

THE SICK MAN (incredulously)--Almost normal?

THE NURSE--Yes; under a hundred.

She goes out quickly and quietly. The Sick Man turns to his fat friend.

THE SICK MAN--What do you make of that? Less than a hundred. That oughtn't to make me see things; do you think so?

THE FAT MAN--Well, I'd just as soon not be called a thing. Up there I'm called good old Death. Some of the fellows call me Bill. Maybe that's because I'm always due.

THE SICK MAN--Rats! Is that the joke you promised me?

THE FAT MAN (pained beyond measure)--Oh, that was just a little unofficial joke. The joke's not like that. I didn't make up the real one. It wasn't made up at all. It's been growing for years and years. A whole lot of people have had a hand in fixing it up--Aristophanes and Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Mark Twain and Rabelais--

THE SICK MAN--Did that fellow Rabelais get in--up there?

THE FAT MAN--Well, not exactly, but he lives in one of the most accessible parts of the suburb, and we have him up quite often. He's popular on account of his after-dinner stories. What I might call his physical humor is delightfully reminiscent and archaic.

THE SICK MAN--There won't be any bodies, then?

THE FAT MAN--Oh, yes, brand new ones. No tonsils or appendixes, of course. That is, not as a rule. We have to bring in a few tonsils every year to amuse our doctors.

THE SICK MAN--Any shows?

THE FAT MAN--I should say so. Lots of 'em, and all hits. In fact, we've never had a failure (provocatively). Now, what do you think is the best show you ever saw?

THE SICK MAN (reminiscently)--Well, just about the best show I ever saw was a piece called "Fair and Warmer," but, of course, you wouldn't have that.

THE FAT MAN--Of course, we have. The fellow before last wanted that.

THE SICK MAN (truculently)--I'll bet you haven't got the original company.

THE FAT MAN (apologetically)--No, but we expect to get most of them by and by. Nell Gwyn does pretty well in the lead just now.

THE SICK MAN (shocked)--Did she get in?

THE FAT MAN--No, but Rabelais sees her home after the show. We don't think so much of "Fair and Warmer." That might be a good show for New York, but it doesn't class with us. It isn't funny enough.

THE SICK MAN (with rising interest)--Do you mean to say you've got funnier shows than "Fair and Warmer"?

THE FAT MAN--We certainly have. Why, it can't begin to touch that thing of Shaw's called "Ah, There, Annie!"

THE SICK MAN--What Shaw's that?

THE FAT MAN--Regular Shaw.

THE SICK MAN--A lot of things must have been happening since I got sick. I hadn't heard he was dead. At that I always thought that vegetable truck was unhealthy.

THE FAT MAN--He isn't dead.

THE SICK MAN--Well, how about this "Ah, There, Annie!"? He never wrote that show down here.

THE FAT MAN--But he will.

THE SICK MAN (enormously impressed)--Do you get shows there before we have them in New York?

THE FAT MAN--I tell you we get them before they're written.

THE SICK MAN (indignantly)--How can you do that?

THE FAT MAN--I wish you wouldn't ask me. The answer's awfully complicated. You've got to know a lot of higher math. Wait and ask Euclid about it. We don't have any past and future, you know. None of that nuisance about keeping shall and will straight.

THE SICK MAN--Well, I must say that's quite a stunt. You get shows before they're written.

THE FAT MAN--More than that. We get some that never do get written. Take that one of Ibsen's now, "Merry Christmas"--

THE SICK MAN (fretfully)--Ibsen?

THE FAT MAN--Yes, it's a beautiful, sentimental little fairy story with a ghost for the hero. Ibsen just thought about it and never had the nerve to go through with it. He was scared people would kid him, but thinking things makes them so with us.

THE SICK MAN--Then I'd think a sixty-six round Van Cortlandt for myself.

THE FAT MAN--You could do that. But why Van Cortlandt? We've got much better greens on our course. It's a beauty. Seven thousand yards long and I've made it in fifty-four.

THE SICK MAN (suspiciously)--Did you hole out on every green or just estimate?

THE FAT MAN (stiffly)--The score is duly attested. I might add that it was possible because I drove more than four hundred yards on nine of the eighteen holes.

THE SICK MAN--More than four hundred yards? How did you do that?

THE FAT MAN--It must have been the climate, or (thoughtfully) it may be because I wanted so much to drive over four hundred yards on those holes.

THE SICK MAN (with just a shade of scorn)--So that's the trick. I guess nobody'd ever beat me on that course; I'd just want the ball in the hole in one every time.

THE FAT MAN (in gentle reproof)--No, you wouldn't. Where you and I are going pretty soon we're all true sportsmen and nobody there would take an unfair advantage of an opponent.

THE SICK MAN--Before I go I want to know something. There's a fellow in 125th Street's been awful decent to me. Is there any coming back to see people here? (A pause.)

THE FAT MAN--I can't explain to you yet, but it's difficult to arrange that. Still, I wouldn't say that there never were any slumming parties from beyond the grave.

THE SICK MAN (shivering)--The grave! I'd forgotten about that.

THE FAT MAN--Oh, you won't go there, and, what's more, you won't be at the funeral, either. I wish I could keep away from them. I hate funerals. They make me mad. You know, they say "Oh, Death, where is thy sting?" just as if they had a pretty good hunch I had one around me some place after all. And you know that other--"My friends, this is not a sad occasion," but they don't mean it. They keep it sad. They simply won't learn any better. I suppose they'd be a little surprised to know that you were sitting watching Radbourne pitch to Ed. Delehanty with the bases full and three balls and two strikes called. Two runs to win and one to tie.

THE SICK MAN--Will Radbourne pitch?

THE FAT MAN--Sure thing.

THE SICK MAN--And, say, will Delehanty bust that ball?

THE FAT MAN--Make it even money and bet me either way.

THE SICK MAN--I don't want to wait any longer. Tell me that joke of yours and let's go.

The light softens a little. The room is almost rose color now. It might be from the sunset. The Fat Man gently pushes the head of the Sick Man back on the pillow. Leaning over, he whispers in his ear briefly and the Sick Man roars with laughter. As his laughter slackens a little The Fat Man says, "I'll meet you in the press box," and then before you know it he's gone. The Sick Man is still laughing, but less loudly. People who did not know might think it was gasping. The Nurse opens the door and is frightened. She loudly calls "Doctor! Doctor!" and runs down the corridor. The Sick Man gives one more chuckle and is silent. The curtains at one of the windows sway slightly. Of course, it's the breeze.


(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Death Says It Isn't So

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