Miss Magnuson and the Druggist
Where does memoir end
and story begin?
John Burns, 63 years a teacher, at dinner one day.
Hurry, Thomas! The druggist.
I remembered, in a flash of light; when whatever instant agony came upon her, she’d have eyes darker than an owl.
That deep registry of torment had done it. Again!
As happens when you get knocked out of the ordinary, the riches of your past come flooding home with the slightest effort. Now and then there is no need for exertion; shapes, silhouettes, shadows coming off as close to substance as you can imagine.
So it was, when I sauntered away from visiting dear comrades at the veterans section of our cemetery, my mind and my mind’s eye searching for faces sainting me for another day, I saw Mabel Magnuson’s name on an edge-withered gray tombstone a dozen yards off the road.
Her slab was deeply faded and worn in comparison to those impersonal blocks in company with it; the nearby monuments sharper, clearer, granite standing finally at ease the way a cutter first leaves it with high intent. Every edge of her tombstone, as a result, came rough and abrasive on my eye. I suspect that that abrasiveness was for attention, the way her name loafed and rounded into shape, almost touched back at me harmlessly and with a soft echo and a small call from way off in memory. Mabel Magnuson, the antiqued headstone said, my eye or attentive and sympathetic ear catching the alliteration first, the half phonetics secondly: my dark-haired seventh grade teacher who was burdened, it had seemed to me from the first call, born to carry armfuls of pain in her eyes.
Such granite markers talk, have special messages of their own. You may not warrant an attitude exists about tombstones, or their messages, unless you take me for my bounden word, even as I vouch now that I was walking among spirits, some of them by acquaintance, some of them not. Mabel Magnuson, early in my life, had been pivotal to me and, as it would prove at once, hand-out helpless.
I heard the echo: Hurry, Thomas! The druggist.
Her tombstone was at an angle to my line of sight, yet carried a vector with it, where some elder plotter of this huge span of gravesites managed to squeeze it between a maple tree almost a yard across in the bole and a large mausoleum of colder, older granite. Punched for eternity into the mausoleum’s mounded and entirely obtuse face rested a heavy metal door frozen as much by idleness as by rust. Out loud it said this rugged monument was a place where one might register immediately and with sadness the end of a family’s reign, perhaps the last scion long past put to bed for the final nap. Loneliness, it was. Finality. I was thinking of last things first and first things last scanning the area of Miss Magnuson’s resting place, only the silence broken.
Hurry, Thomas! The druggist.
Perhaps it’s like the single pin in an alley when the bowler takes dead aim and makes a head-on hit; the pin flying close to smithereens, the ball plowing through like an old race car. That’s how I felt even on a day full of new blooms and old friends; green, warm, wondrous it was, and me knocked asunder by her latest summons.
Saugus had spread itself apart in this morning’s mad scurry, noisy from a distance, busy at sound and motion of people in the mix of the day, my swearing I could hear the truck tires racing on the turnpike nearly a mile away. Recess’s high chattering from my old school a few hundred yards away came as joyful and as mournful as old train whistles across a wide valley hankering to be heard, like the Route of the Phoebe Snow or the old Rock Island Line coming back. Fully alert I was, open, as avaricious as ever for fact or folly or whatever this day had dreamed up.
As part of my daily constitutional, my healthy walk about town, I had called on a few comrades at rest for as much as a half century, and more in some cases, to say a few words of continuity. The promise had been made, by me, that I would not forget them, not in my ever. That promise, here recorded, had been the dedication of a book of mine: “For those who have passed through Saugus, those comrades who bravely walked away from home and fell elsewhere, and the frailest imaginable soldier of all, frightened and glassy-eyed and knowing he is hapless, one foot onto the soil at D-Day or a statistical sandy beach of the South Pacific and going down, but not to be forgotten, not here.”
However long that ever or never would prove to be was up to these constitutionals, the doctors as would eventually come upon me, and life and its clash of vagaries. I was, for my comrades, firm with promise.
The maples are broad and sweeping now, I’d tell my them in short conversations at each site, saying their names over and over, finding a facial characteristic to grasp, eyes paired beneath a half brow, a nose abridged, a clipped earlobe, the way a lip dragged its mouth down at one corner sharp as a curse, like as on Mouse Marshall’s mouth in the pool hall at an opponent’s good shot. Now and then, on a slight sheet of air, usually cool and welcome, there’d be a word or two, an oath, a solid hurrah for grand surprise or occasion. Attention, it would be said, and thus said and done.
So often in return leaped a small incident being carried by a corner or an edge of the incident, as I read the dates on their flat memorials stained by tossed grass, wet leaves, or bird droppings, all part of time’s dread camouflage. Life’s plane geometry let them flood back into my consciousness suddenly absorbing last moments more than fifty years long in the teeth. In support of their presence, their own make-up and attention to detail, I’d carry on about aromas and new scents bristling along the edge of the cemetery, what birds I recognized by color or voice, the whispers urged by gasoline engines coming off the main road, telling each one that I am still able to identify a Ford or a Chevie by motor tendencies, and proving it. Hey, guys, I’d offer, it’ll be warm for a while. It’ll be months before the leaves redden for the winter toss, and then go flamboyant and pyrotechnic.
Also, by invention, I’d let them know occasionally and sadly that I’d found, much later in my life, some of them had rushed by to get out of my way, while others hardly as interesting are yet rumbling and sauntering happily on their way wherever. None of these noble correspondents were ever particularly put out by my offerings. None of them ever questioned the amplitude of my descriptions. No one found me wanting at the wrong season. I’d tell them the children at recess, where we first met in many instances, were from this shared perspective still riotously gay and free, shrill voices coming on the breath of wind, like an invasion at the beachhead mimicking movement.
Parkie, the Sahara Kid, rested here. And both Wingsy and the mad red-headed boxer Eddie Mac, the Korean Kids, who died a year apart in Korea and lie now but a grave apart, every so often calling me out in the night. More than a dozen teammates also occupied the holy ground, the same strata inhabited for sixty years by my seventh grade teacher, Mabel Magnuson.
Her worn gravestone said things too.
Hurry, Thomas! The druggist.
Recollection is an imp, a devilish counterpart of the mind, an upstart, yet a seer of what makes me me.
The first call of Mabel Magnuson came back to me harsh as a gunshot as I ambled down the curving road of the cemetery, noting other names on other headstones, forgetting them in an instant, scratching for knowledge, known names, in most cases bringing with them nothing at all. That’s a reverse sadness, not finding the names of friends petrified on stone. Perhaps it’s perverse, when you really think about it. I didn’t wish anything on anybody, just for recognition; but most names were alien to me.
But back at school, then, it was another May day, the outside looming brightly at window and doorway entry; maple odors leaping the way birds leap from limb to limb, flowers at riot, the myth of baseball with a music all its own, sending its relentless cries and echoes. I sat in the rear of Miss Magnuson’s classroom, second row from the back, behind dark-haired Bimper Mahany with her freckles imported or emigrated from Ireland, beside humorless Buddy Trottingham from Nottingham and robust Arthur Lauria on loan, apparently, from an Italian barbershop. In a few short months, it seemed, the barber’s son would sport dark hair on his chin, the first of our class. Behind me sat Charlie Flann, a survivor of infantile paralysis, a swift but knock-kneed runner who even then could pick them up and put them down with astonishing alacrity, to whom I would say goodbye to sixty years hence on my front steps one day as he sought out old time’s sake.
At geography we were, or at least the spread map of the world now finds a spot in my mind, and the maples, so close, were broadcasting their scent and that of the coming summer. I heard Miss Magnuson say, to this day I swear in a whisper but insistent manner, “Thomas! Thomas!”
Twice, on this spring day full of hope and escape, I was summoned. Out of a soft therapy of sounds and smells I was summoned. ‘Thomas,” I heard. I heard it again. “Thomas.”
It was not Bimper, for she’d called me Tommyrot from day one, nor Buddy Trottingham, nor pal Charlie at my backside. When I looked up front, Miss Magnuson was crooking a finger at me. Blackness filled her eyes, a whole field of it in stark recall, and solidified her face, emanated from her whole person. But, like a free clue to a mystery, she nodded a look as if to say, “You read that right. Come up here now. I do have need, Thomas.” Then I saw her lips say, “Please hurry.”
With a sense of acute awareness demanding support, I searched Miss Magnuson’s eyes and found what accompanied her voice. Disappointment I’d read in another’s eyes before that moment, the way my mother could broadcast it, stated but unsaid. I could never recall seeing pain in a person’s eyes before that moment, no matter in what guise or give because people hold back too often the things they want to say about pain, unless it was a sissy. But I saw it then. I did not attend at the moment of that communiqué the dark blue dress she wore every Tuesday, or the set of pearls usually about her neck with that repeated dress, pearls she often said in geography lessons had been lifted as treasure from a Pacific atoll. What I saw were her eyes, rimmed and owl dark, like old pie plates.
Miss Magnuson was hurting and the pain almost screamed in those dark sanctuaries. I knew I was being measured and I swear I could have melted, but when I neared her desk she placed her hand on mine. “Please hurry, Thomas,” she said. “Go down to Mr. Brecht’s drug store. Give him this note. Run as fast as you’ve ever run in your life. Please, Thomas, run, run! Don’t look back. Bring back what he gives you.” Then she used a big word that came all the way home for me. “I implore you,” she said, her mouth moving, her lips moving, as if annunciating for a deaf person and the plea leaped right out of her face. She folded the note into my hand and said again, her voice too in dark sorrow and quick emergency, “Hurry, Thomas! Hurry!”
Those words haunted me for the next two months, the balance of the school year. In my sleep I would hear the sound of them, see the depth in her face, her mute lips drawing the words for sensations, feel the clutch penetrating my soul, grasping. Why did she pick me, I wondered, where some of the others flew like the wind on the field, where they’d call me Snowshoes, slower than Tillie’s molasses in an ice storm. I never told anybody about my missions, secretive, in trust, trusted out of all my classmates, always wondering why me.
Of course, lack or speed or not, I never knew the cargo I carried back from Mr. Brecht’s store on the corner of Jasper Street two blocks from the school, now and then in a slim tube or a sealed envelope, probably whatever was at hand for the quick delivery. Never once did Mr. Brecht question me, cast an alert or an aspersion, never suppressed an oath, surely never tendered any advice or warning in tone or manner. Never was I refused the simple service, the understanding nod, and the acceptance of small terror or pain, the whole world beyond his means at some kind of suffering. More than a few times he’d leave a customer in the midst of business to take care of me and my mission, a questioning hand in the air, a shrug of complacency from some people. Whenever I entered his store it was an alarm sounding, for I made that run for Miss Mabel Magnuson at least ten times that seventh year of my education, and the first year of mortal knowledge.
Hurry, Thomas! Hurry!
It occurred to me as I wound down the curving road of the cemetery, away from last call with comrades and old pals, that the solution never surfaced with me, never came up for air. I never knew what caused her pain, her panic, her urgency. I suppose now in experienced attention it might have been a newly found disease that had dropped its foul hand on her. Maybe migraine’s deep thunder bolt-thick and wide as the sky I have since seen clapping a friend or two exactly behind the eyeballs, or some other mad tool of mortality inserted into the soul of that woman.
Charlie Brecht’s hair, to freshen memory, was black as a lagoon, while his complexion sat pink as a new rose on the vine. Dark glass frames made caricature of his face, disarming customers at the outset, putting common fears to rest. Among the souls of his trade he rose as an honest and totally warm soul. So many times, for innumerable causes in favor of youngsters and active teen agers, he had gone out of his way. Those efforts cost him money and a bit of reputation with a few odd sorts who specialized in rumor, but when he passed on I know he must have been a happy man, sad only for what he had not accomplished in his life.
When that first note of many was delivered by my hand, Charlie looked down at the scripture, looked back into my being, measured, accepted, and scurried behind the wall separating ice cream sodas and sundaes and odd cone colors from bottles and vials and pills of every order and disorder. It was a mahogany wall, or a dark wall at best, the part facing me and all customers being the back of a series and levels of small drawers built into the other side, tiers of them.
Mysteries abided there behind that wall, I had heard, cures and blessings sent upon the ailing, the elderly, and the unknown, those who hailed from all the corners of the town. For some, it was sure, Charlie was saint and savior, often hand-delivering a potion or a solution to pain or just plain-out misery when he closed his store down for the night. Until this day, whenever his name is mentioned, the elders among us nod with appreciation of the druggist with the pink complexion and the dark glasses, and bound to be blessed.
Yet, here I lingered in self-shot photos almost fifty years later worried about the fate of a teacher long absent. In the shift of mixing ideas swiftly came back the search for an old schoolmate, Hugh Menzies, now parallel with comrade Eddie McCarthy and those two graves separated by a stranger, one grave apart. He had been gone for a similar extravagance of age and my lifetime, and had been found, or the then current news of his demise came revealed only with the assistance of an advertisement in a military organization magazine.
With a monstrous nerve alive inside me, shorting on my soul, I wondered in what direction, what new vector, I could turn to for discovery of Mabel Magnuson’s departure. The face of pain kept coming back, as if demanding it be closed down in my mind. For weeks her visage haunted me, then went on into months, and brought me to her stone each time my comrades invited me back for a visit, their being relentless through spring burst, summer torpor, autumn ignition, winter stillness. There was no way for me to know that she was hearing any of my graveside chatter, never mind accepting it. No reply in any order, no look askance, no dimming to lighter gray of her owl-dark eyes.
Naught but silence came, accompanied by the frozen mobility of Mabel Magnuson. Oh, nothing the way my pals let me know they were listening. No answer of a sly look from Parkie once after scoring with a town beauty, his face as alive as it would ever be, the cleft on his chin almost chattering a sense of accomplishment, his eyes locked on mine the same night at the Meadowglen Club when he said, looking over the top of a bottle of beer, “Man, you’re fucking literate”; or the usually stoic Victor D.’s uncontrollable grin at a great hand in poker; or, lastly on a high and sad note, hearing Eddie M. repeat a tenor’s brilliance at Danny Boy at a party, blonde Gracie at his side all the minutes of his life.
Nothing of the sort.
I went looking.
Old obits revealed little more than the dates cut on her stone. No children succeeded her in a house half a dozen times remade and sold. Confreres too had idled away leaving few tracks, if any, back to that school on the side of the hill and a stone’s throw from the cemetery, and to names of teachers gone into thinnest air. Only a chance remark to a friend… who happened to drop the remark in front of an elderly aunt who knew a lady who knew a lady… found history.
The last lady in the line of knowledge was just short of being delivered to a nursing home
by a niece whose hands were now tied and spirits sagging with too many tasks. Three times now she had to call on neighbors to get the lady back into her bed, and once had to call help from the fire department. I could feel her plight, and my thirst ran it a good race.
Ethel Packard brightened at my face even before I dropped a few questions in her lap.
I had been told that her body was failing miserably, but that she was as sharp as she had ever been, and “with wit and charm,” I had also been advised. “Ethel Packard may be one of the nicest ladies you will ever meet, her own lady and has always been so.” A slightest lift of one eyebrow carried its own weight of announcement. Some thoughts, supposedly between the lines, create the soundest curiosity, offer a slash of objectivity. My interest was revved to high gear.
A few days later, the timid looking lady with thinning hair, high and near-escaping cheekbones scarping her face directly from an early Hitchcock film advertisement, caught in a landslide of loneliness it was apparent, nodded at my approach. She had been advised of my visit.
“Miss Packard, I am seeking any information I can about a most favorite teacher of mine, Mabel Magnuson. I had her in the seventh grade and I swear I cannot get her out of my mind, though I have not seen her in over sixty years.” I paused, thinking to hold back something dear, and then let it all go: “I used to run errands for her from school.” I had to make the full course. “A while ago I saw her gravestone at the cemetery. It rushed all these pell-mell years together.”
Down the tunnels of eyes of total discomfort I saw the sudden slash of light, and there began without doubt the punctuation of an earnest but slight smile. At first it curved half her lip in a minor distortion, half dragging her mouth into caricature, until she seemed to amass energy to call up the other side; a feeble, forlorn, but full smile that found other lights, other messages, sockets of knowledge bulging their properties.
I had struck home.
A flash from a powerful force passed on her countenance. It might have been the most enlightening look I had ever seen cross a person’s face. The timid crow’s feet she wore I nearly heard crinkle in their joy, and she offered the slimmest hand ever gestured. “Are you the boy who always went to Mr. Brecht’s for her? You are him, aren’t you? You’re not the boy who wouldn’t go that time, are you?” That most serious question flared as strong as the initial flash. There was for one short moment a true association between us, an alignment. The reserve she might have had began to fall away.
With a second breath she answered her own question. “No, you couldn’t be.” Her eyes rolled over in a halleluiah or Thanksgiving. “No, you couldn’t be him. That boy would never come this far to see an old body like this one. God forbid!”
One feeble hand made a feeble passing gesture, a look at the past, a condemnation of that pupil. She looked at me directly and said, in sound conviction, “I will tell you forthrightly, she was one of the loveliest creatures I have ever known. The warmest. The sweetest. The truest. We used to go on vacations together, to some of the grandest places on Earth. I miss her now, as I’ve missed her since that horrible day.” For a rushed moment I saw the same agony flush her face and eyes as had made Mabel Magnuson so remarkably clear at every recall.
“You went on vacations with Miss Magnuson? How marvelous.” I was excited. “What places did you go? What was she like as a traveling companion? Did the pain follow her,
the kind I saw in the old school when panic hit me broadside. I swear her eyes were dark as an owl’s on a dark limb. Like in a dark movie. Times I thought she’d die if I didn’t rush out and back until I was out of breath. I’d return from Mr. Brecht’s and she’d rush to the girls’ bathroom. I was never out of fright that she’d not come back to the classroom.”
“Oh, yes,” she replied, one hand continually shaking out messages, thinking about what I’d said, measuring it all. “We’d drive separately out of town and leave one of our cars someplace, and then carry on with our most glorious days. Oh, you know how it was then, in those times; the two of us were so sure of ourselves, not caring for the other world of things, touching endlessly, sweetly, never groping. I was beautiful then. I was always beautiful. And her, dear Mabel, until the pain came on her, was the loveliest creature I have ever known. We took in much of Maine on our vacations, high along the coast, often the mountains and a picturesque cabin at a serene lakeside. I’d cook in the morning and wake her, oh, sweet exhausted, lovely Mabel that mountain and sea adored.”
I finally had to ask about the other pupil. “”Did one boy refuse to go to the druggist?”
The first shot of anger came. “She called on him, for help. Told him what was needed, gave him a note, and that little shit ass of a boy ran right to the principal, shooting off his mouth all the way, telling everybody on the whole first floor what was going on. Old Razor Tarkins came straight to Mabel’s room and demanded she come to his office. He brought another teacher with him to take over her class. Mabel died in the girls’ room a few minutes later, the pain coming as bad as ever, I can imagine, and the stupid asses standing outside the door all caught up in their damn proprieties, heedless of her moans. When they finally did venture into the room, she was dead. I was all the way at the other end of the building. I heard about her. I rushed to her. Razor Tarkins, the truest ass of them all, grabbed my arm, tried to keep me away from her. “I know about you two,” he said. I slapped his face. Then I slapped it again. He fired me on the spot, but I didn’t care. The most important thing in my life had left me.” The wistful look overpowered me, as she closed with, “I have never looked back.”
Ethel Packard, so long a survivor of sorts, waved that feeble hand again, saying the visit was over.
Three days later, and two days before she died, I took Ethel Packard for her first visit to Mabel Magnuson’s gravesite in more than fifty years. She smiled once and fully, the way I have never seen an old lady smile, and I could hear the crow’s feet sending messages in a dialect all their own, something special, something one way toward understanding.
I never found out what took Mabel Magnuson down. It might well have been loneliness
of the strangest sort.
In later visits to my comrades, and on the way back down the crooked road, I know Mabel Magnuson’s stone heeded my voice, finally released some of its own music for my listening. I’d nod when passing by, wishing her back to the edge of a wide and lonely lake deep in a Maine forest, the silver moon gone to sleep over a far hill, mated loons most serious in their melancholy, and bacon’s morning babble calling her from a dreamy sleep.
© Tom Sheehan
Bio note: Sheehan’s books are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53, NC; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, Pocol Press, VA. His work appears in Home of the Brave, Stories in Uniform and Milspeak Anthology, Warriors, Veterans, Family and Friends Writing the Military Experience. He has 14 Pushcart nominations, Noted Stories for 2007 and 2008, Georges Simenon Fiction Award, and is included in Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology for 2009 and nominated for Best of the Web 2010 and 2011. He has 175 short stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Print issues include Rosebud (3) , Ocean Magazine (7) among others. He has hundreds of internet publications of prose and poetry, and has published 3 novels (An Accountable Death, Vigilantes East, and Death for the Phantom Receiver, a football mystery) and 5 poetry collections including This Rare Earth and Other Flights; Ah, Devon Unbowed; The Saugus Book; Reflections from Vinegar Hill. He served with the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea, 1951.