Death Wears a Tall Hat (1991)


Dr. Polk made his way down the hall, doing his midday rounds. The quiet pulse of the hospital rushed in his ears. Room 447 was the last one; Horace Elder’s room. The old man was Dr. Folk’s favorite patient, the reason he saved him for last.

“I hope you’re satisfied,” said Polk with a hint of a smile. “You’ve got all the nurses on the wing convinced you’re a hundred and two years old.” Elder smiled. Dr. Polk raised his voice a bit, “Horace, you’re a hundred and twenty two! I checked your records!”

The smile grew broader. “Well, I do have my modesty,” Elder explained with a deep guffaw. Polk just shook his head in amazement. The man’s hair was completely white, but plentiful (more plentiful than mine, thought the doctor). Deep wrinkles ran like fault lines across his face, but his eyes were still bright. Horace was still sharp as a tack and in perfect health. Dr. Polk told him so.

“Sorry, but you’re mysterious pains are still a mystery to modern medicine.” Elder nodded solemnly. Dr. Polk pulled a chair towards the bed. The legs grumbled as they were dragged across the tile floor. The whole chair sagged under the doctor’s weight, but held together. He sat back and crossed his legs, placing the old man’s chart on his lap with his hands folded across it. “I’m glad you’re not like our ordinary patients,” Dr. Polk continued, “otherwise we’d be out of business!” Elder laughed again. Polk joined with him for a moment then asked, “What’s your secret to long life?”

“Avoid Death,” replied the old man. The doctor smiled, but it faded as he realized Horace was serious. Polk cleared his throat.

“Would you care to explain how you do that? I’d be very interested to know.” Horace sighed and looked out his window.

“I’ve lived here all my life. My family came here in a horse drawn wagon with a cow tied to the back. I worked in the fields when my Daddy was alive; growing corn and wheat. The soil was rich, but you had to work to keep it clear. We didn’t have fertilizers back then. No tractors either, or plows. Everything was pulled by the horses, or us kids.”

“So your secret is hard work,” finished Dr. Polk, beginning to stand up. Elder shook his head and motioned for the doctor to stay.

“No, I left the farm when I was fourteen and went to work for Watterson’s Textiles. Old man Watterson opened up the mill after the Civil War and his kid had it until the Great War. I worked twelve hours a day, from five at night to five in the morning. That was the Graveyard Shift and it paid more. I think it was eight dollars and forty five cents a week plus a dollar bonus at Christmas and Easter.

“There weren’t many roads back then. We were real proud of our downtown. Main Street was paved for three blocks and we even had sidewalks. Let’s see, that’s about where Johnson Boulevard catches the expressway nowadays. Anyway, the rest of the town had wood blocks, filled with creosote so they didn’t rot. It was just dirt paths around the factory and going out of town. I used to have to walk home four miles every morning before dawn down one of those paths after choking for twelve hours on the fiber in the air at the factory. My ears would ring all the way home from all the noise of the machines.

“There used to be a grove of trees on the way home. That was the only part I enjoyed. The birds would just be waking up and chirping to each other. They chopped them down after WWII when they opened up that Duncastle Estates subdivision for all the families moving out here. I always thought that was kind of funny, they called it an ‘Estates’ – none of those houses is bigger that my garage…

“You were talking about the forest?” reminded Dr. Polk gently. The chair groaned again as he shifted his weight and checked his watch.

“Oh yeah, the forest…” mumbled Elder. “You just jump in if I trail off again like that. Anyway, I’d walk home four miles through this little grove of trees. The sky would be getting gray and orange in the east by that time and the trees would still be dark. Most times, I had the path to myself. No one ever traveled at that time of day.

“Except one morning, I had this bad cough. I wasn’t really paying much attention to where I was going. My cough was a blessing compared to John Berkley, a friend of mine. He was hacking all night at work and spitting blood. I told him to go see a doctor, but John was stubborn fool. He wouldn’t go until he was in a wooden box. Anyway, suddenly this voice comes out of nowhere. It damn near stopped my heart. You know, that’s nearly ninety years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday…

“It wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it. His voice was deep – I thought at first he was a Negro, but he wasn’t. His voice… it was alien – I can’t describe it better than that. He said ‘excuse me’ and touched me on the shoulder. I guess I was so tired that I didn’t hear him walk up behind me.

“He was a big man. He dressed in a black coat, long like a trenchcoat, but it was double-breasted. He wore a tall black hat like the stovepipe that President Lincoln had. It was odd, because no one wore a hat like that – even then. The shadows hid his face… I never did see his face. He asked me if my name was John Berkley. Now I would have laughed at anyone else who asked me that question. John and me were about as different as you could get. He was short with a red face and stubby fingers. He had lost a thumb in the machines a time before and we always were telling him we would buy him a wooden thumb…

“About the man -” interrupted Dr. Polk.

Horace blinked, “Oh yeah, well he said something like ‘Excuse me, are you John Berkley?’. I shook my head no because he had scared away my voice. Not to mention he was odd. My shoulder was covered in goose-flesh where he tapped me. Anyway, I told him John worked the day shift now and his house was down aways – about three or four miles. He thanked me and went on his way. I went home and went to sleep. I wouldn’t have thought any more about it except that the next day John Berkley died.

“Now John had been pretty sick for a few days and ends up he had pneumonia. Back then, they didn’t have penicillin and people died of pneumonia all the time. Poor John died in his sleep around dawn. I asked the boys at work if his relations had shown up. They didn’t know who I was talking about. No one had come to the Berkley house, or nobody they knew of. It was real strange.

“Anyway, I was walking home again four nights later when the man stopped me again. This time he asked me if I was old man Watterson. I told him no and he went on his way. This time, something else grabbed my attention. His footsteps were strange. Most people’s sound like a crunch. It’s one, quick sound: CRUNCH. His footsteps were loose, like bones rattling. I never heard anything like it before or again. I could hear that sound echoing down the path. It scared me. And old man Watterson died that morning.

“Once is a coincidence and twice is a conspiracy. The guy could have been a killer like Jack the Ripper. But Watterson was old when he opened up the business, he was ancient when he died. No one had killed him, it was just old age. Still it bothered me a lot. I saw the man in my dreams sometimes and I would wake up sweating like crazy.

“Well, I met the man two more times. Every time he asked me about someone, they would die that morning. I never said anything about it – not to him or to anybody. I kept thinking it was my imagination. Imagination does strange things to a body sometimes, doesn’t it? And I have to admit that I was scared. Scared of him, scared of what he was… if he was who I thought he was.

Polk nodded. Elder was pale. The doctor noticed his hands were shaking and the palms were sweaty. The old man sat up and took a sip of water from a blue plastic cup on his bedside meal tray. He looked back at the doctor, fear in his eyes.

“In the end it didn’t matter. The next time I saw him, the man asked for me.” Dr. Polk straightened and the chair groaned a warning.

“Now you believe that this man with the stovepipe hat was the Grim Reaper?” he asked. Elder frowned, making up his mind.

“He wasn’t like that… he was a man, but I guess you could call him that. Now I’m a rational person, then and now. I didn’t think of this right away. It was the only explanation I could come up with.”

“But if he was Death,” asked the doctor slowly, “you shouldn’t be here today.”

“I cheated Death,” replied Elder. “You see, I had been sick for awhile. I think I probably had pneumonia like John. In the shop, you were working with everybody and if anyone had something, everybody got. And anything to do with the lungs was surer than a bullet between the eyes. A number of guys passed away that year from pneumonia including one of the ones He asked me about.”

“But how did you cheat Him?” asked Polk.

“I was getting to that. Well, this was the fifth time I’d met this man and every time he thought I was someone else. This time, the last time, he stopped me and asked, ‘Are you Horace Elder?’ My blood turned cold. I noticed that the birds had stopped singing. I realized that every time he had appeared, the world became silent. I couldn’t find my voice. All this time – it couldn’t have been more than a minute, but it seemed like a day – I kept thinking over and over, ‘this is your time.’

“But it wasn’t. I finally shook my head and he went on his way. I’ll never forget that. There was a cold breeze of wind that cut through my clothes and those footsteps. I watched as he walked down the path and vanished. I guess he figured I couldn’t see him anymore. He just faded away as the sun rose.

“Well, I was really sick by the time I got home. I was in bed with pneumonia for nearly a month. Most of the time I was delirious from the fever. I screamed for my wife – God rest her soul – to watch for the man. Don’t let him in. He never came though. I got better and went back to work. I stayed at the mill until it burned down in the winter of 1915. A lot of good men met the big man that night, but I never saw him again.”

Dr. Polk stood from the chair and slid it back into its place in the corner. Horace still looked out the window. His eyes weren’t as bright.

“… lived enough,” Horace muttered to himself. “I’ve laid my wife, my three children and their children in their graves…” Dr. Polk looked at his watch and was shocked at the time. He had been spellbound by the man’s tale for two hours! It was a good story though, well worth the time spent. He thanked Elder who looked at him strangely.

“Story? You think -” Elder looked away. “Of course, it would be just a story… Just the ravings of an old codger,” he finished with a laugh. Dr. Polk closed the door to the room on his way out and started for the elevator. The story haunted the back of his mind. He tried to affix all of the details into memory, but he realized that it was the way Elder had told it. The man really acted scared. Horace was a natural bard –

“Excuse me, could you tell me which room Horace Elder is in?”

“Room 447,” answered Dr. Polk without looking up. He stepped into the elevator and a cold breeze caught his attention. He looked up. His mouth unhinged, but he could make no sound. Dr. Polk was frozen in place.

And he watched as Death put on a stovepipe hat and walked down the hallway as the elevator doors closed.

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