restricted access The Centenarian
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THE CENTENARIAN % darby constable howard elman (just barely) climbed a low boulder with a flat top, and that action got the attention of the thirty or so townspeople who had gathered at Cooty Patterson’s cabin in the hills above Darby Depot. Howard glanced at his left wrist as if it held a watch, and said in as grave tones as he could muster, “It’s twelve o’clock (actually it was 11:37 am) and here we are during this beautiful day (actually it was overcast, raw, gloomy) to celebrate the five hundredth birthday of Cooty Patterson, the man who discovered America.” Everybody but Cooty grinned. The old gentleman raised his stickcane and drew in the air, doing the math. “I ain’t five hundred; I’m only a hundred, Howie,” Cooty said in all seriousness, his thin lips vibrating in harmony with various shades of pink and blue, his wispy, wild white hair like spider webs fluttering on zephyrs of angel breath. The scraggly chin whiskers and beard were gone, apparently having been shaved off by his nurses. Cooty wore high-top sneakers, wrinkled dark pants with the fly unzipped , a heavy, blue smashed-toe colored wool sweater, no buttons, held together with a safety pin, and a blaze-orange hanky tied around his skinny chicken neck. When he leaned on his cane with one hand folded over the other, he reminded Howard of one of those twisty high-­ country California trees that have been around since the pyramids. Tess Jordan reached into the pouch she kept on a cord around her neck, lifted her fake cell phone, brought it to her ear, and said, “The old man is so thin that a breeze might pick him up and blow him to smithereen land.” Howard didn’t like the way Birch looked at her, with a bashful and appreciative smile that revealed the braces on his teeth. Jordan women were dangerous. 17 The ladies of the Darby Snowmobile Club had just finished lighting the hundred candles on the giant cake that rested on the tailgate of Bev Boufford’s station wagon under a maple tree. They were led by Priscilla Landry, a childhood friend of Howard’s youngest daughter. Remember Heather? The one you lost, the one you and Elenore gave away? We didn’t give her away. She was stolen from us by Mrs. Cutter. Birch cupped his hands and shouted, “Cooty, blow out the candles.” The centenarian had the idea to blow them out one by one to prolong the pleasure of the experience, but he got help from half a dozen little kids in attendance and the candle fires died very quickly in streamers of white smoke that resembled Cooty’s hair. Out of the corner of his eye Howard watched Tess Jordan. He wondered if she’d made peace with the voices on her imaginary cell phone. Did she control them, or did they control her? She was too pretty, too sharp-eyed for a crazy woman. Everybody sang “Happy Birthday,” everybody ate cake, everybody went to work. The volunteers had gathered in the woods by the old man’s cabin to move it and him to the grounds of the Salmon estate in Upper Darby so that Birch Latour, who lived there now, could keep an eye on Cooty in his declining years. A reporter for The Keene Sentinel took the centenarian’s picture and asked him the secret to his long life. “I like well-aged stew,” Cooty said, leaning on his cane, blinking in fear and wonder, the way he always did with strangers. Howard pointed to the blackened pot simmering on a grate over a tiny open fire not ten feet from the front steps of the cabin. “The secret ’s in the stew pot,” Howard said in his usual too loud voice to the reporter, who jotted the information on a notepad. The reporter turned to Cooty, “How many years have you had the pot?” “I don’t totally recall.” Cooty looked at Howard for an answer. “He bought it at Ike’s Auction barn for seventy-five cents back before the fire that burned my house down when Carter was the president ,” Howard said. Not strictly true, Howie. 18 I know, but not a perdition lie either. Why are so many things like that? Howard continued the story of the stew pot, not sure in his own mind which parts he was embellishing, nor caring. “Cooty used to...


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Subject Headings

  • Men -- New Hampshire -- Fiction.
  • City and town life -- Fiction.
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