In honour of #BellLetsTalk Day: A short story about the tragic consequences of how society views mental illness.
By Dexter McMillan
Just three days after Mr. Beasley went missing, it was all anyone in town could talk about.
Of course, in small American towns like his, news that wasn’t about a neighbour’s new fence or a car parked in contrary to local bylaws spread like the plague from mouth to mouth until there wasn’t a soul alive who hadn’t heard the news.
In nostalgic little towns like his — where houses rarely grew beyond a single storey, sitting neatly in carefully-planned rows exactly across from one another, with strict guidelines on how high your hedges could be or how many days a year you could water your lawn — there was little to do but build a routine around a nine to five occupation that allowed for only a brief beer with the guys after work before returning to your family for a home-cooked meal and a shift with the children. The conversations were feverish during these tavern gatherings, the patrons savouring every precious moment between responsibilities.
“I heard he just packed up and left. Him and the missus were having all sorts of troubles, that’s what I hear. You know he never did seem to be too kind to her. Kind of cold.” Two men sat around the table with Mr. Smithson as he gave his account of Mr. Beasley’s disappearance. “I hear he beat her almost every day.”
The man immediately to Smithson’s left slapped his knee.
“Ha, Beasley? He wouldn’t hurt a damn fly. Shy son of a bitch though, that one.” Dr. Potsdam took a monstrous swig of beer before slamming the mug back down on the table. “You know he came into my office just last week.”
This stoked the men’s interest, and they leaned closer in unison, expecting the town’s only doctor to elaborate.
Potsdam tossed a look from side to side before leaning in a bit. “Y’all know I shouldn’t be telling you this.” Potsdam shamefully took another swig from his beer. He slammed the glass down again, leaned way in, and resumed speaking with a fervour that entirely belied his previous shame.
“Yeah, he came in asking about a mole. It was a nasty looking guy, he was right to come in. You know how if moles are asymmetrical, they say you’re supposed to get them checked and whatnot. Well this one looked like a damn inkblot. It was awful.”
The other men leaned back a bit, their appetite for excitement now mildly satiated. After a brief digestive pause, Smithson spoke.
“Well, you’ve got to watch out for the big C. It’s so important to stay vigilant.” He gave his head a slight but very stern shake on the side to accentuate the seriousness of his assertion.
The other men all nodded in chorus. “Oh, you’ve got to,” chimed Mr. Mansfield. “Cancer runs in my family, you know. I get checked all the time.” With this he gave a slight nod in Potsdam’s direction, as if for approval.
“What if the guy croaked?” pondered Smithson anxiously. “What if the cancer got him earlier than expected?” He paused for a moment thoughtfully before coming to a firm conclusion. “You know what? That’s gotta be it.”
Potsdam dismissed the other men with a quick shake of his head and continued his story. “His results were fine, he was perfectly healthy. But you know — you know what was the strangest thing? Most folks when I give them good news like that, it’s all they can do to keep from jumping up and down. But Beasley, he wasn’t at all excited to hear the news.” Potsdam paused, remembering. “Come to think of it, he didn’t even seem too concerned in the first place. He came in looking like he didn’t really care, and left looking just as careless.”
A fly that had been buzzing around Potsdam’s arm finally came to rest right next to his hand, which was resting heavily on the oak table in front of him, wrapped around his mug. The men peered blankly into their own mugs while they contemplated the doctor’s account of Mr. Beasley. The fly continued to crawl furtively around Potsdam’s arm.
“Mr. Beasley was always a weird one, come to think of it,” Mr. Mansfield offered, piercing the silence and startling the other men from their meditation. “Jimmy, you remember that anniversary party you had last year? It was, I dunno, twenty five for you guys or something.”
Smithson nodded his confirmation. “Twenty five. Judith made those quiches.”
“Yeah, those egg pie things. Well, you know I saw him at that party just sitting in the corner. His wife was with us, playing charades or something, and he was just sitting over in the corner. Barely spoke a word to anyone. He didn’t even have an egg pie!” He exclaimed this last part indignantly, as if offended. After a moment, his eyebrows twitched upwards, and he added incredulously: “Drank half the damn bar though.”
Smithson casually corrected his story, as though he had only heard the first sentence. “It’s called a quiche.”
Mansfield had a soft, glassy look in his eyes and didn’t seem to hear him. “His wife though. Wow.”
The other men all melted into that same glassy look as they became lost in thought, fighting the urge to say anything inappropriate about a missing man’s wife.
By all accounts, April Beasley was a beautiful woman. She was much younger than most of the wives, with chestnut brown hair that tumbled gracefully down her shoulders.
It was nothing physical about her looks that had left the men stunned, but rather the gentle way she conversed and carried herself with the countenance of a woman who cared. Her eyes, independent of any words coming from between her perfect ruby lips, promised complete and total acceptance of anyone and everyone. She was the kind of woman who, simply by listening to whatever it was you had to say, made every man feel like they do on Christmas day.
The men, who would usually never hesitate to discuss a beautiful woman, sat awkwardly for a moment, stewing in a rare silence that threatened this sacred time they had together in the bar. None of them felt comfortable to continue talking about April given her husband’s strange disappearance. The fly, as though sensing the glaring silence, once again began buzzing around Mansfield’s pint glass.
Finally, desperately, Potsdam spoke.
“My cousin died of Cancer last year.” He admitted quietly. “It was a nasty time for our family, watching him slowly pass on.”
The tone in the room quickly became a syrupy quagmire of uncomfortable emotions as the other men, not used to such candid details, struggled with the best way to deal with these awkward feelings. They stared purposefully at anywhere but the table or their friends, as though a literal pile of uncomfortable feelings sat heaped in front of them.
“It’s so important to stay vigilant,” Mansfield finally offered with little confidence.
“Oh, you’ve got to,” echoed Smithson.
“I heard Mr. Beasley has just been holed up in his house for the last three days. Refuses to come out. You know that April’s away, looking after her mum? I heard she’s pretty sick.”
By now, several beers had produced a slur in Mr. Mansfield’s speech as he gave his account of Mr. Beasley’s disappearance. The other men, equally as inebriated, nodded along to indicate they had heard the same.
“Why would he refuse to come out of his own house? Why not get out and have a beer or two with us, at least?” Smithson wondered aloud, feeling not so much hurt as confused. “We used to be so close.” He squinted a bit as he said this, staring straight through the fly that continued to buzz around the table in front of the three men. Suddenly, he laughed and turned to Potsdam.
“Remember when he fell off his chair and broke his wrist? Wasn’t so funny then, but now it just cracks me right up.” The smile slowly faded from Smithson’s face as the memory vanished, replaced once again with the reality of the situation and the problem at hand. “I mean, my missus leaves now and again, on account of her folks are from out of town. But I still get up and go to work and all that. We all got lives to live.”
Potsdam shook his head and his gaze fell drunkenly on the table in front of him. “He’s a strange bird, what have I been telling you?”
“I don’t think it’s all that weird, when you think about it. He’s got the nicest house of all of us,” declared Mansfield rather dramatically. “I’d never want to leave either.”
Indeed, Mr. Beasley’s house was starkly different than the other houses in the neighbourhood. It stood two storeys high, boasting bright, clean, storm shutters where the other houses hung drapes for the same purpose. The roof was straight and modern, with a golden trim that was chic, but not gaudy enough to be abrasive. The door was stained a brilliant copper colour that shone aggressively against the pale scheme of the neighbours houses. Even the yard proved defiant, brandishing tall hedges instead of the cookie cutter fences surrounding the other neighbourhood houses.
“How about those hedges,” Potsdam gushed. His face shone with an effervescing envy.
“I’m not big on those hedges,” said Mansfield, his face twisting up dramatically. “They’re shady. Don’t we have bylaws against that? I mean you can’t see into his yard at all, it makes me wonder what he’s got to hide.”
The other two men shook with obnoxious laughter at the thought of Mr. Beasley keeping secrets, clumsily spilling their beer across the table. At this, the fly that had been haunting the men jumped from its resting spot next to Mansfield and found a new holding pattern above Smithson’s balding head.
“The thing about hedges,” Potsdam clumsily leaned in to say, “is that you gotta keep them trimmed. If he just kept them trimmed, it wouldn’t be such a problem.”
“Oh, you’ve got to keep them trimmed,” Mansfield agreed.
“You’ve got to,” echoed Smithson.
After some time, out of stories to share and theories to debate, the three men slowly began to trickle home, forced out by an atmosphere thick with emotion.
First, Mansfield decided he still had time to water his petunias if he hurried. There wasn’t supposed to be rain for a number of days, and as he claimed, petunias must be given the utmost attention during dry spells.
Smithson was next to leave. He got up slowly with a stagger, dropped two crisp twenties on the table in front of him, and left solemnly without a word, the heaviness of their conversation robbing him of all speech.
And finally, Potsdam was left alone at the table, wondering what on earth could have run off with Mr. Beasley. The initial wonder turned quickly into contemplation on why he even cared — Mr. Beasley had been completely AWOL for the last year. He never sent flowers when Potsdam’s cousin took ill and passed on. He barely even brought himself to muster a “Hello, Harry” when they passed each other in the street.
“Bah!” he exclaimed aloud. Potsdam forced his eyes into focus and remembered the other men had left. His blurry gaze settled momentarily on the fly that had been with the men since the start of the evening, now resting on the table across from him, just out of his reach.
“Bugger,” Potsdam whispered. “God bring the poor soul back to us, I guess.”
He lifted himself out of his seat and stumbled outside into the cool night air, on his way back to his wife, back to his bed, and back to all the comforts of home, leaving nothing but money to pay his tab, an unsolved mystery, and a small black fly buzzing about the empty chairs.
The fly, now left to its own devices at the table formerly occupied by the three men, became restless without the sweet temptation of crumbs and beer. It vacated the post it had held for the evening and drifted upwards, moving itself through an open window near the ceiling of the bar. Upon reaching the fresh air, a cool, violent gust of wind immediately knocked it from its path before sweeping the fly in a determined line down the street past the neat little houses all in a row. It picked up speed as gusts of wind continued to bully its small body left, then right, then left again. But the fly, with a steely and personified purpose, sped along the street past each of the carbon copied houses that so many people called home.
In the fly’s eye reflected a million little white fences and a million little petunias. And then, a hundred small men, and a hundred more as it zoomed over the heads of the tavern’s only patrons that night, currently meandering towards their home with the casual, deliberate gait of a man after too many drinks.
The fly’s sense of purpose mocked the men, as if it were flies and not men who had travelled in neat, straight little lines for thousands of years, nary to stray or detour for risk of not conforming. But the fly hadn’t those concerns. The fly simply continued in whatever direction the wind lead it. And it did so with determination.
The breeze eventually pushed the fly even higher upwards, and towards the only anomaly in an otherwise perfect collection of homes: a brash, tumultuous house that pierced the town’s monotonous aesthetics like an arrow. The fly, now breaking free of the wind and buzzing as hard as it could, penetrated the bright, clean shutters which had been closed for the past three days.
Now through the window and free from the aggressive atmosphere outside, the fly buzzed happily around the room before settling on a small lump of something soft — a small piece of food the fly happily consumed as it rested its wings.
The fly had landed in a second floor bedroom. A normal, unassuming bedroom with pale walls and carpeting — the plain, fleshy insides of a structure that on the outside was so desperate to be noticed. The room had been furnished with older, antique bookcases, laden with knickknacks and coated with a fine layer of dust. On the nightstand, an alarm clock blinked 12:00pm, frozen at the end of a nameless day.
On the bed against one wall, there lay a man.
There he was, with his neat, brown leather shoes pointed upwards towards the sky and his smart, creased pants leftover from a hard day at work.
There he was, with his arms flung violently to the out to the side, carelessly positioned in an unflattering pose and lazily gripping a loaded pistol, his face pasted violently along with the brain behind it across the headboard.
There he was, a once complex and beautiful synthesis of a human being, reduced to simple organic matter and beginning its cycle back to the earth in an endless loop that is only ever to be experienced once.
And there it was, the fly, perhaps the only entity to truly understand the mind of Mr. Beasley, sitting peacefully on its next project. A harbinger of the next cycle, feasting on which was once so complex and misunderstood and which now couldn’t be simpler.
If you enjoyed this story, please hit the recommend button below, and most importantly, tweet it on January 28, 2015 with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.