28 April 2015

When Duffy Died


Brain aneurysm. Killed him instantly. That’s the way it happens with them sometimes. He was 61 and only recently gotten a clean bill of health from the doctor. Was working steady and even got exercise swimming at the local Y. Good diet too.

He was sitting in his easy chair listening to a phonograph record and reading Kafka of all things. Nice enough fella. No debts. Couple of kids both grown. The boy fresh out of college (he didn’t have to be in the service owing to a bum knee) the girl recently married to an up and coming lawyer. The wife was on her way home from the grocery store. She’d taken early retirement a year before on account of heart problem. Everyone figured she’d go first.

His name was Will Duffy. He taught history at the local high school and had for 33 years. Pretty well respected although not the type who won any of those phony baloney teacher of the year awards. Most of Duffy’s friends were other teachers, a lot of whom he’d work with for 10, 20 and in one case, 30 years. He was friendly with the neighbors too and was always good for an appearance at block parties and such. But his wife Cora was more of the social butterfly. Had friends galore and liked to entertain.

It was smack in the middle of the school year when Duffy died. After this one he was going to teach two more then retire. Him and the wife were going to tour Europe if the war was over by then. Duffy’d figured it would be. He gave the whole mess another year tops. It was February 1944 so he wasn’t far wrong.

About ten minutes before Duffy died he’d finished grading a batch of papers and decided to treat himself with a little music — Benny Goodman — and what was for Duffy some recreational reading. Like I said it was Kafka, the book was called The Trial. He opened the book to page 100 which was where he left off. Duffy noted that the sun had just come out which was kind of ironic because it was near dusk. He also noted that there was a scratch — a minor one, but still — on his record. He also wondered what was keeping Cora. She was probably gabbing with someone at the market, he figured.

Duffy started to read but then stopped. It occurred to him that he forgotten to mail a letter he’d written the night before to his brother Larry in Milwaukee. Well it can wait another day. Larry was doing all right, had his own business and his wife was loaded. Plenty of dough and big fancy vacations to South America every year. But secretly Duffy thought his brother was an intellectual lightweight. Sure he was good in business but Larry knew nothing of art or literature or even good films.

Duffy thought about bringing the evening paper in. Cora would make a fuss if he didn’t. He never understood why she’d get so agitated with him for not bringing it in right away. She acted like it ruined the beauty of their front yard to have a newspaper there. Oh well, he’d get it when he was good and ready. Duffy didn’t read the evening paper until after supper anyway. He could always wait to catch up on the war news.

Duffy started reading again but had to stop right away to deal with an itch in his lower back. Worst spot possible. He wished Cora were here. That woman was a great back scratcher. Good cook too. Duffy wasn’t as crazy about his wife as a lot of guys were but he loved Cora well enough just the same. They’d have been together for 40 years come June. Never a big blow up between them. Sure they got on each other’s nerves now and again and Cora could be Grade A nag but they generally fit together like hand and glove. Duffy reckoned he couldn’t have done better.

She’d been a good mom too and Duffy was proud of his own parenting. The kids had turned out just fine. Matt had his degree and was looking ahead to a long successful career in engineering. It looked like Rosie was going to be a housewife but she’d married well and was happy as a clam. Neither one of his kids had given Duffy a moment of trouble.

Darned if Duffy wasn’t having a hard time concentrating on his book. He was really enjoying it too. But there was so much on his mind and it all felt good. The only thing bothering him was the scratch in the Goodman record. Duffy always made a point of taking real good care of his record collection so when there was even the smallest scratch it annoyed him to no end. The record and the flowers that adorned the front and sides of the house were what he called his happy time killers. Duffy was damn proud of the flowers and tended to them carefully. In the backyard Cora had a Victory Garden going pretty strong and it helped ensure that they had nice salads and vegetables with their meals.

It was going to be a light day at school. He was giving tests to all his classes. He’d grade the first batch during the second class and so on which would leave him only one set to grade when he got home. There was an all staff meeting after school but the new principal kept those thankfully brief.
He liked Mr. Wilde the principal. Young for the head of a school but competent and polite. Duffy liked most all of his teaching colleagues. There’d been a few over the years he hadn’t gotten along with but that happens.

The book was beckoning so Duffy tried to put aside his mental meanderings and concentrate on it for a bit. Duffy’d read a few paragraphs when he had a weird sensation in his head. Nothing that scared him but a little odd. Oh well, he thought and resumed reading but seconds later the weird feeling was replaced by a sharp pain like Duffy had never experienced before. He was frightened for a second. Then he was dead.

Cora came home five minutes later. When she realized what had happened she screamed and then cried and cried and cried.

Duffy’s funeral was well attended and many fine words were spoken. Duffy had touched more people than he ever realized. Scores of former students showed up, many of whom shared stories with one another or with Duffy’s family and friends about what a great teacher he had been. Always kind and patient and fair and never unwilling to explain and give detail where it was needed. Many of these former students reported that they'd developed a real appreciation for history and the country from Duffy and had left his class feeling inspired to be participatory citizens.

Cora and the children wept. Duffy’s brother Larry was there along with an assortment of cousins and nephews and an elderly aunt. No one could think of a bad thing to say about Duffy. Everyone loved him.

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