The Man Who Lived Too Long, Part 1/3

“There are few objects more comforting than a mug,” said Clive. “And, as for a mug full of coffee, well, there are no objects more comforting than that.”

“I disagree,” said Ed. “A mug full of coffee and a book in one’s lap. That’s more comforting.”

“That would be two objects, not one,” said Clive.

“But they’re together one thing,” said Ed. “Sitting and reading a book while sipping  a cup of coffee is all one thing. There should be a single word to describe it, a verb, perhaps. Not quite just reading, not quite just sipping, but, ‘sreading,’ or something like that. ‘Ripping’ perhaps.”

“So what,” said Clive. “You’ll just say to someone that you’re off to go sread or rip?”

“Better be ‘sread,’ not rip; rip is already a word,” said Ed.

“At any rate, you’re saying that to read and to sip coffee are two activities so close in relationship that they warrant a new word in the English language,” said Clive.

“Well, no. It’s not that they’re close in relationship. It’s that when one does them both at the same time the result is so harmonious that to refer to them in compound fashion is a crime.”

“You’re an odd one, Ed.”

“And you’re certainly one, Clive.”

Clive turned the page of the hard-back copy of Crime and Punishment that lay open in his lap. Ed sipped from a red mug full of black coffee, the side of which read, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” in white, cursive lettering. The two men sat in the driver’s seat of a horse carriage in the shade of a Magnolia tree that erupted out of the street corner. Several cobblestones lay around the trunk, as though that very day the tree had shot out of the ground for no other reason than to shield Clive’s Belgian draft horses from the July, Charleston sun.

Clive drove the carriage; Ed gave the tours. Clive knew every alley in Charleston; Ed knew when every alley had been cobbled. Clive could see; Ed could not. Clive was balding in his late forties; Ed had a full head of white hair and no one knew his age.

Decades ago, Ed had taught as a professor of history at the College of Charleston. The dean fired him for drinking from an open flask of whiskey during a lecture. Afterwards, Ed had taken to drinking in the seedier bars and clubs in the northern part of the peninsula. One Friday night at Cutty’s bar, Clive overheard an old, white-haired man give a convincing argument for the precise location of the very oak tree from which the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office was fashioned. Several fraternity brothers stood around him chanting, “Chug! Chug! Chug!”

“And so, ash you can shee,”  said Ed, drawing a pint of Blue Moon to his lips. “The plasche of the trees used to make H.M.S. Resolute was–,” Clive wrenched the glass from Ed’s hands and downed it himself.

“Why don’t you and I go for a walk?” said Clive.

The very next Monday, Ed began narrating Clive’s carriage tours in great detail. Tourists often joked that Ed must be hundreds of years old. “I am,” Ed always said with a laugh. “I really am.” About three months into his tenure as tour guide, Ed identified a tourist as an overlooked descendant of Charles Pinckney, signer of the Declaration of Independence.

“You simply have to ask the right questions,” said Ed to the journalist who interviewed him after researchers had verified his claim. “And besides, the man looked just like old Pinckney himself, the same eyes. You’d have to be a fool not to see it.”

That was fifteen years ago. Since then, Ed had lost his eyesight, and Clive had taken to reading to Ed out loud from the large stack of books that Ed insisted on keeping at their feet in the carriage seat. Clive had no children of his own, but he did have a niece named Alice who attended the College of Charleston. On Thursday afternoons, she would meet them for lunch in the shade of the Magnolia tree. Clive always packed egg salad sandwiches for the three of them, and Alice always brought historical trivia to stump Ed. But on the Thursday in question, Alice had not yet arrived.

“Siberia. On the banks of a broad solitary river stands a town, one of the administrative centres of Russia,” read Clive.

“Now, hold on,” said Ed. “How are we in Siberia all of a sudden?”

“It’s the epilogue,” said Clive. “Dostoevsky’s allowed to change location for the epilogue.”

“But it’s a bit of a lazy way of transitioning, isn’t it?” said Ed. “‘Siberia.’ Couldn’t have been any more poetic than that? Couldn’t have told us the name of the river or described it? This Dostoevsky’s all about ideas and no poetry, I’m telling you, Clive. This book wasn’t worth our time.”

“You couldn’t have said that a hundred pages ago?” said Clive. “You know I only read you these because it’s the only way you give the tours. I couldn’t care less about Dostoevsky.”

“Well, I wanted to give him a chance to repent, Clive. If God gives every man a chance to repent, so should I.”

“A hundred pages to repent?”

“Two hundred if need be, three hundred years even.”

“Oh, not this again. You’re not hundreds of years old, Ed. It’s a magnificent gimmick for the tourists, but you’re not hundreds of years old. You’re as wrinkled as a raisin and your hair’s as white as the horse’s socks, but you’re not hundreds of years old. I need to stay sane.”

“Suit yourself, Clive.”

“Are we done with Dostoevsky, then?”

“How many pages are left?”

“Two or three.”

“We’ll give him two or three pages to repent.”

Clive sighed and continued reading. Alice walked up to them from an alley across the street.

“Uncle Ed! How are you?” she said. She stood by the horses and fed one a carrot. Alice stood tall, even next to the massive horses, and her hair was curly. Ed liked to joke that she was the spitting image of some president’s daughter from the 1870s.

“Alice, dear! I’m bored out of my mind! How are you?” said Ed.

“Good, good,” said Alice. “I just got out of History of Modern Europe. What are we reading today? Still Dostoevsky?”

“Unfortunately,” said Ed.

“We don’t have to keep reading,” said Clive.

“Oh, but we must,” said Ed.

“Well,” said Alice. “Perhaps you can take a break from reading for just a few moments. Uncle Ed, I’ve got a trivia question that I know for a fact will stump you.”

“It can’t be done, Alice, dear,” said Ed. “It simply can’t be done.”

“Well,” said Alice. “I’m sure you’re familiar with one of South Carolina’s most famous heroes of the revolution, instrumental in the defense of Charleston, who had a fort named after him–”

“Yes, yes, William Moultrie. And what was your question?”
“Well,” said Alice, gathering herself, “What were his last words on his deathbed?”

Ed stared at her for a moment, his blue eyes wide, as though he were considering some long forgotten rhyme from an old poem. She thought she saw the slightest curl of his thin lips into a smile, but the smile never broke. Ed rarely smiled, though Alice felt he must be the happiest person she knew.

“William Moultrie,” said Ed, clearing his throat. “Died of old age at his Charleston home on September the 27th of the year 1805, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and a few close friends. He asked for a glass of whiskey. Then, he thought better of it, and asked for a copy of the New Testament, which a friend handed to him, though Moultrie never received it; he left this earth.”

Alice thought she saw a shadow of grief pass over Ed’s face for a moment in the telling, but, the very next, he smiled again.

“Well,” said Alice. “I’ve finally stumped you, Uncle Ed. The answer is that there are no historical records of William Moultrie’s last words!”

Clive could not contain himself. Some part of him loved old Ed, and some part of him hated him. Clive began to chuckle in quiet spurts. Then, he broke out into a nasty guffaw that echoed up and down the street. The horses pricked up their ears. Clive began to shake all over as though he had just heard the first joke ever told. His right arm bumped Ed’s left. Hot coffee spilled all over Ed’s lap. In an instant, Clive began dabbing Ed with paper towels from a roll he kept underneath the driver seat.

“So sorry, Ed, so sorry,” he said softly.

“Uncle Clive!” said Alice. “It was just a prank. You didn’t have to burn him!”

“Never mind, dear,” said Ed, his voice strangely calm. “The coffee wasn’t so hot after all. Your Uncle Ed’s faced far worse in his life than a couple of pranksters like you two! Isn’t that right, young Clive?”

Ed tousled Clive’s balding hair. For a moment, the sneer returned to Clive’s lips.

“Yes, Ed,” said Clive. “Just a prank. But you have to admit we got you didn’t we? We finally stumped you!”

“Well now wait just a moment,” said Ed. “You heard the young lady. She said there are no historical records of what Moultrie said on his deathbed. That doesn’t count against me and it doesn’t count for me. I could still be right.”

Now was Alice’s chance to roll her eyes. “Yes, Uncle Ed, a one in a million chance that you guessed right.”

“Now, where were we?” said Ed. “Somewhere in Siberia?”

Clive sighed and continued reading the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment while the three of them munched on their egg salad sandwiches.

For a few weeks, their meetings went on much as they always had. Clive brought the sandwiches, Alice brought the trivia, and Ed brought the answers. But Ed’s insistence that he had been right about the last words of William Moultrie rankled Clive’s heart like a tangle in a horse’s mane undone by no amount of combing. Truly, Clive loved old Ed as a son loves his father. He went to great lengths to quiet his irritation with the old man. He bought him a new mug. He bought him an annual membership to a local museum. He even bought him a first edition of his favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov. But the simple fact was the old man was smug and needed humbling. And who else would do it but Clive?

One Thursday, a month after the incident in question, a fourth person attended the trio’s weekly meeting. Much to her chagrin, Alice walked up to find her father Michael sitting in the backseat of the carriage, chuckling with the two men over some joke that Ed had told about the War of 1812.

“What are you doing here?” said Alice.

“Uncle Clive invited me,” said Michael, smiling. Alice couldn’t help but smile back; her father’s personality was magnetic, but she gave her Uncle Clive a dark look. Clive stepped down from the carriage and attended to the horses.

“Well,” said Alice, feigning disapproval. “You still should have told me you would be here. This is my space and we agreed that if I attended the same college you taught at, you’d leave me be.”

Michael was a professor of psychology at the College of Charleston. The truth was he went to a great deal of effort to ensure his path did not cross his daughter’s. He frowned when she mentioned this singular violation.

“Well, maybe you’ll forgive your old man just this once!” he said, handing a sandwich to Alice. Unlike Clive’s egg salad sandwiches which came in ziplock bags, the sandwich was wrapped in neat, brown paper and stamped with the logo of Caviar and Bananas, Alice’s favorite lunch spot.

“Pesto! Your favorite!” said Michael.

Ed was already halfway through his sandwich. Through a mouthful, he said, “Speaking of old men, this one barely has enough teeth to eat!”

The four laughed and ate in silence for a few minutes.

“You are rather old, aren’t you, Ed?” said Michael, patting him on the back.

“Oh yes, here comes the favorite joke,” said Ed himself. “Old Ed is hundreds of years old and must have known George Washington in the flesh!”

Clive frowned at Ed as he said the word, “joke.” He had never heard the old man acknowledge the joke as a joke before. He wondered if Ed was really so sly as to make a fool of him on the very day he had planned the old man’s undoing.

“Oh!” said Michael. “Just a joke, then? You see, Clive seemed to suggest to me the other day that you like to go along with the charade!”

“Well!” said Ed.

“Well?” said Michael.

“Well, I am hundreds of years old!”

Clive heaved a sigh of relief. He had almost lost faith in the man’s madness. Alice chuckled, thinking the old man’s words one more dalliance into an age old joke. All three of the men were silent.

“So it’s true then?” said Michael. “What Clive says? You truly believe yourself to be the oldest person alive?”

“Well, now who said that?” said Ed. He crossed his arms as though he was offended.

“There could easily be someone out there older than me,” he said. “How could I possibly know or test that?”

“Yes,” said Michael, smiling. He held Ed’s arm gently by the elbow. “But you know there are other tests we could run to find out just how old you are?”

“I am afraid, sir,” said Ed, laughing. “That your daughter conducts them weekly, and she hasn’t stumped me yet! Though she may have thought she did a few weeks ago!”

Entranced by the exchange, Clive had forgotten all about the horses’ in their feed bags, who were now enjoying a double helping of oats. His sneer grew until his face was contorted in the memory of a thousand afternoons spent listening to an old man pretend he is Methusaleh.

“Oh come on Ed! You didn’t have the answer!” shouted Clive, startling the horses. “There’s no historical record of the last words of William Moultrie!”

“Ed, please satisfy our curiosity,” said Michael. “Let us have a doctor examine you. I know just the man. He’ll get us a solid answer as to your biological, verified age. And then we can put to rest this whole debate!”

Michael grimaced as he spoke these words. Alice stared at him as though he were some burglar who now broke into the most guarded drawer in her own bedroom.

“So that’s what this is about!” she said. Several crows perched in the Magnolia tree flew away.

That’s what this is about!” she continued, throwing her sandwich in the gutter.

“Alice, I need you to be calm,” said Michael, his voice at its deepest yet. He pulled her across the street, but she fought him off.

“Don’t you dare touch me!” she screamed.

“Alice,” whispered Michael. “Uncle Ed is mentally ill and needs help. I meant to do this gently which is the best practice, but you’re not making it easy. I want to help him. A simple medical examination to determine his age could be the first step in unraveling his delusion. Uncle Clive told me he’s never seemed to have a driver’s license or any records or–”

“I don’t care about any tests!” screamed Alice.  “I don’t care if you wanted to cure him of cancer! Be a saint! I don’t care! This isn’t about him! You just want to use him for research! Just like me when I was a kid! You promised you’d never do that again! We’re all just research to you! You don’t have relationships! You just have psychological projects!”

The whole street was silent for a moment. One of the horses neighed and stamped his feet; his feed bag was empty at last.

“Alice dear,” said Ed. “ It’s alright. They can run the tests.”

Clive gasped. 

“Uncle Ed, no!” said Alice.

“It’s alright,” repeated Ed. “Your dad can run whatever tests will set him at peace.”

Ed faced Michael from across the street, his blue eyes wide, shining in the sun. For a moment, Michael felt as though he were the one under examination, and the gentle bedside manner belonged to Ed and not himself. Michael gathered himself, and smiled.

“Right, well why don’t I pick you up here next Thursday then?”

“Excellent,” said Ed, winking.

The next Thursday, Michael sat in the waiting room of the Outpatient Clinic at MUSC research hospital. He thumbed through a Moleskine notebook where he had recorded a number of historical trivia questions and answers provided by his colleagues. A couple of the history professors were old enough to remember Ed’s termination. They were eager to provide any assistance in puncturing the old man’s legendary, illimitable confidence.

Ed hobbled out the door of the doctor’s office, guided by the doctor himself.

“I tell you what,” said the doctor. “I had no idea that anyone but a few of my friends and I remembered the history of the early days at Palmetto Golf Club.”

“Remember the history?” said Ed. “Why, I lived it!”

The two men broke out in laughter. The doctor slapped Ed on the back.

“Well?” said Michael, rising to his feet, trying to enter the joke. “How old is this fella?”

“How old?” said the doctor. “Well, I don’t think we ever quite got to that. He’s just been telling such magnificent stories about the state’s oldest golf club. It’s as if he was there with Thomas Hitchcock when he founded the club in the 1890s! But don’t you worry– I understand your concern. The good news is he’s in perfect health, in fact, the best I’ve seen for someone so advanced in years. Nothing to worry about.”

The doctor squeezed Michael’s hand and left the room with a skip in his step. Ed stood there, silent for a moment, his mouth open, as though remembering some distant dream. Michael clenched his fists. He began to understand why Clive had been so irritated with Ed in the first place.

Putting on a sweet, velvety voice, Michael said, “Well, looks as though we’ll have to reschedule.”

“What’s that?” said Ed. “Oh yes, we shall. What a shame we got so distracted!”

“Ed,” said Michael. “I have–”

“A couple of questions for me?”

A smile wider than the Cheshire cat’s broke across Ed’s face. Michael found it both more annoying and disturbing than anything the old man had yet said or done.

“Yes,” said Michael. “How did you know?”

“Years of experience,” said Ed, grinning.

“Of course. Well you won’t mind if I ask you a few historical questions, will you?”

“Not at all, Michael. Might I suggest that we go over them back at my apartment? I’ll make us tea.”

Michael’s face reddened and his temple pounded. How could the old man put up such a front of manners? He agreed to drive the both of them to Ed’s apartment.

Ed and Clive shared an apartment far enough north on King Street that the rent was not as exorbitant as the central peninsula, but far enough south that they could, with some effort on Ed’s part, walk to the horses’ stables on Anson Street before the daily tours began. The building had no neighbors. An empty gravel lot surrounded its right, left and back. A faded Coca-Cola advertisement adorned its southern face, obscured by graffiti. The first floor housed an old locksmith shop; the second housed Ed and Clive. To get to the second floor you had to go through the first.

As they entered, Michael began to explain to the shop owner that he wasn’t looking to buy any locks. In fact, he had no idea why Ed had given him the address of a locksmith shop. He had never visited his brother.

“Never mind the shopkeep,” said Ed. “We’re not here for locks. We live here. He knows it. We all know it. Please lead me upstairs.”

Michael guided Ed up a staircase in the back that creaked as they climbed. At the top, a narrow door opened into a room that was far larger than Michael would have expected. Near the far wall, Clive and Alice sat at a dark, wooden, round table.

“What are you doing here?” said Michael.

“Uncle Clive invited me,” said Alice, smiling. “I wanted to check on Uncle Ed to see how he was after the terrible ordeal I’m sure the doctor put him through.”

Alice eyed Ed as she spoke, like a mother hen eyeing her chick.

“Oh, never mind that,” said Ed. “The doctor was a fantastic fellow. Michael, why don’t you sit down, and I’ll make us all some tea. Then, you can ask your questions.”

Ed knew his way around the apartment as if he had two pairs of seeing eyes. As he puttered about, Michael noticed that shelves lined the walls, laden with all manner of artifacts.

“His trinkets,” grunted Clive when he noticed Michael’s gaze.

“Trinkets?” said Michael.

“Yes, he says that they’re all very old and would be quite valuable if we were ever in a pinch, though I doubt he’d sell them even then,” said Clive.

“You never know what life will bring,” said Ed, without turning from the stove where a kettle now whistled. “Or death.”

Michael noted several old, rusted daggers, bits of silver jewelry, at least ten yellowed scrolls neatly tied up with ribbon, a box full of astrolabes, and a small wooden box with no label.

“One of those astrolabes belonged to Magellan!” said Ed, as though he could see Michael’s searching eyes.

“Oh, have I ever entertained a patient’s delusion as much as this?” muttered Michael to himself.

Alice elbowed him.

“Yes, what an amazing collection,” said Michael.

“And here’s your tea,” said Ed. “English Breakfast with a splash of milk. Don’t complain! You’re being served by a blind man!”

Clive and Alice chuckled, but Michael stared at the small wooden box in the corner which had taken his attention.

“Anyways, Michael, ask your questions!”

“Well,” said Michael. “Why don’t we start with a few basics. Can you tell me the precise date of the–”

“Now, hang on just a moment,” said Clive. “The way I see it, this whole enterprise is flawed. Now, I want to expose the truth about Ed just as much as you, Michael, and help him see that he is absolutely, insa–”

Michael and Alice both gave Clive a look of warning, perhaps for different reasons.

“Absolutely, insatiably obsessed with the past,” finished Clive. “But suppose there was a person who by some freak chance of genetics lived for hundreds of years. That wouldn’t make him a history expert. Sure, he might know a little more history than the average person, but not everything. In fact, there is a perfectly natural explanation for why Ed has always had the answer to any historical trivia. He is a history professor. Of course he would know. Even if we stump him, he can just say, ‘Well I am centuries old, but I’m not omniscient.’ And even if he gets all of them right, then we can just say, ‘He’s simply good at his job; he’s no seven hundred year old man.’”  

At the words, “seven hundred,” Ed chuckled to himself. Michael glared at his brother.

“There’s no proving anything one way or another, folks,” said Clive.

The four of them leaned back in their chairs and sipped their tea. A cuckoo clock on the wall behind Michael struck four in the afternoon. A little red bird hopped out and chirped once about a foot above Michael’s head, then twice, then a third time. Before it could hop out a fourth time, Michael stood up and wrenched the bird out of the clock, off of its spring, and he threw it into the sink on the other side of the room.

“That clock belonged to Frederick the Great,” said Ed.

“That’s it!” bellowed Michael. “I’m scheduling you another appointment with a new doctor tomorrow. He’ll let you know what your real, approximate age is whether you’ve got medical records that say it or no. I am sorry to tell it to you straight, Uncle Ed, but you are absolutely, certifiably, without-a-doubt, medically delu–”

“Dad,” said a small voice.

If anyone other than Alice had spoken, and if Alice had said anything other than that three-letter word, Michael may well have carted Ed off to a doctor that very moment. Something about the old man’s confidence had struck a nerve deep in the psychologist. But in recent years, Alice had taken to calling her father by his first name, as is often the fashion among youths looking to punish their parents. That three-letter word was like a drop of water on the tongue of a man long parched.

Michael looked down at his daughter, in horror that she should act so gentle towards him.

“Dad, I have an idea,” she continued, pressing her hand against his. “All this time we have been treating Uncle Ed as some sort of an experiment, with inputs and outputs, when, in fact, he’s a person. Surely, the best way to get to know someone, whether there is truth in them or not, is to hear their story? Not to grill them on random trivia, but to hear their account. Isn’t that how the courts work? The witness gives their side? In the telling, their tale either reveals itself a lie or shows itself to be the truth, with all of the truth’s idiosyncrasies.”

“What are you suggesting, dear?” said Michael who now sat beside his daughter, taking deep breaths. Alice turned to Ed, who sat to her left, and pressed her other hand into his. She could not help but notice that the old man’s hand shook a little.

“Uncle Ed,” she said. “Tell us your story.”