A Salesman of Death

A story by Wallace E. Knight

A car was parked across the street from G. B. Barne’s store when the town got up one Monday morning in 1923. It was an old car, a dusty Model T with bugs all over the radiator and a man asleep with his hands grasping the wheel. A sign painted in white on the canvas spare-tire cover read “Marcus P. Libbey, Death Information.”

Peck Edele, The Law, heard about the car from Mr. Barne, who called him at home and said some kind of nut was in town. Peck shaved and put on his blue cap and walked over.

When he got there the guy had just awakened and was standing by the door of the car yawning and pushing in his shirttail. Peck said Hello and the fellow said Hello and Peck asked him what he was doing.

“Looking for a room, Captain,” he said. “Going to be here a week or two doing a little dignified selling, and need a room.”

Peck, who generally could pick out troublemakers, shook hands with Marcus P. Libbey, welcomed him to town, and told him how to find Mrs. Ape Johnson’s rooming house.

“Appreciate the help,” Libbey told him. “Now I believe I’ll get me some pie and hurry right down there and clean up. I drove about all night.” And he went over to The Cafe and ate eggs and sausage and sliced tomatoes and grits and apricot pie and drank three cups of coffee.

By eight-thirty everybody had seen the car and the sign on it. Nobody knew what Death Information was, but after Peck Edele said he thought the fellow was selling books or magazine subscriptions and he, Libbey, had minded his own business and left a nickel for Macel by his plate, nobody seemed to have the heart to ask.

After his breakfast, Marcus P. Libbey went up to Mrs. Ape’s and got himself a room. He paid cash in advance, and gave the Johnson kids stick candy from a poke in his valise, and then politely excused himself to clean up and take a nap.

That afternoon he was back downtown, leaning against his car and nodding to about everyone who passed. He didn’t say or do much. He is remembered to have commented frequently about the weather and how pretty the view toward the hill was.

And there he sat and nodded all evening, up until about nine o’clock, and all day Tuesday and Wednesday. Once in a while he’d light a fat cigar, and occasionally he’d go over to Bert’s place for a glass of iced tea, and sometimes somebody would sit down with him and they’d talk. That’s about all.

Marcus P. Libbey was a small man, indeterminately middle-aged, with thinning brown hair, blue eyes so pale they seemed faded by the sun, round steel-rimmed glasses, and a florid complexion. He wore striped blue wool pants that once must have had a matching coat, and a gray shirt buttoned at the collar. He wore a belt rather than suspenders, and it was made of alligator hide. The wear pattern indicated that he had lost weight. His shoes were tan, pointed, and unpolished.

On Thursday he leaned against the Model T until just before noon. Then, after checking his watch several times, he dipped into the back of the car and brought out a yellow button-on tie. Just as the Southern Methodist Church chimes announced midday he set off briskly toward and in and up to the mezzanine of the Waldron Hotel, affixing the tie as he went, then brushing his trousers with an open hand.

Bill Upps, the baker, met him at a table over which was displayed a blue and gold Rotary banner. “You a guest?” he asked when he saw Libbey. “Visitor,” replied Marcus P., taking a worn membership card from a worn billfold. “Charter member at Annion, Illinois, and I haven’t missed a week since I had the flu in 1919. Glad to see you. Name’s Marcus P. Libbey.”

Upps copied the name in a note pad and got lunch money from him and introduced the next three people who came by, one of them an acne-ridden kid representing the Times-Messenger whose name was Jenkin McCaffery. They sat down together in the meeting room at a round six-person table on the window side.

McCaffery stared sharply at Libbey. “You’re the gentleman who has been parked over by Gus Barne’s store, aren’t you?" he said. “I understand you’re a salesman.”

“Sort of,” Libbey answered. “What do you do?”

“I’ve been working for the newspaper this summer,” McCaffery responded. “I write things, and I’m trying to learn to cast type.”

“Nothing to it, son,” said Libbey. “I used to run a weekly myself. Did everything—composed, mailed, ran the press.” He smiled reminiscently. “Used to cut headlines out of linoleum. You can do anything if it’s urgent enough.”

McCaffery grunted. “It’s quite a business,” he murmured, trying to combine politeness and restraint.

At 12:15 the meeting began with an invocation and the pledge and nearly sixty members present. They ate ham and fried potatoes and fried apples and a limp salad with orange dressing on it and talked about business and rainfall. When a long pause came, just before desserts were served, McCaffery said, “Just what kind of death information do you sell?”

Two others were at the table with them. Gene Dobie sold insurance and Patrick Fullmeyer ran share land. They had been talking about corn, but stopped to listen.

Marcus P. Libbey sighed in preliminary fashion, an exhalation that seemed intended to give him time to choose words.

“I suppose,” he began, “it’s best to say that I’m a consultant.”

“I’m the only person I ever heard of in my line of work,” he continued. “I talk to folks about death.”

“Like estate planning?” Gene Dobie broke in, pleased to offer a term he had heard at a convention.

“Not exactly,” Libbey replied. “I don’t know much about wills and taxes and things like that. Most people don’t have enough of an estate to bother about, anyway.”

“You’re like a marriage broker,” said Fullmeyer, “only you get people ready for dying.”

Libbey almost smiled. “You’re about right,” he answered.

McCaffery detected evasion, and it made him alert and persistent. He looked for the first time into Libbey’s blue eyes. “You sound sort of like a preacher who’s trying to get all the old folks baptized.”

“I work with the elderly,” Libbey agreed, “but lots of younger people too. But no preaching; the call’s escaped me.”

“It seems like you ought to be with the health department or the state, then,” McCaffery pressed.

Now Marcus P. Libbey did smile. “No,” he said, “I’m purely an independent.”

The dishes of rice pudding interrupted; a waitress thrust them in front of the diners and then hurried back to pour coffee, and conversation was halted. Then the club sang three songs, spiritlessly, with Tubby Farber leading from atop a chair, and the guests and visitors were introduced. There were a couple of road engineers and a school principal and Libbey. They stood as their names were announced and Marcus spoke up to tell everybody that he hadn’t missed a meeting since 1919.

The program that day had a telephone company man talking about long distance. He seemed to assume that people here had reasons to talk to people in Chicago and New York, and was very enthusiastic. He talked right up to 1:15. When he sat down everybody else got up to go, so he got up too, and the meeting was over.

Young McCaffery caught Libbey’s arm with respectful gingerness. “Mark,” he began tentatively, “I wonder if you have a little time to talk some more. I’d like to hear more about your work.”

He paused, embarrassed at having used a name that didn’t seem to fit but was required, as Libbey was a fellow Rotarian. Then he explained: “This week’s paper is out, but I bet you’d make a good feature story for next time.”

Libbey was understanding. “Sure,” he said. “I like to talk about my work, but it’s the sort of job where it’s best just to talk to one person at a time.”

“We can go to my car,” he continued, hospitably, “or we can have a glass of iced tea and sit right here.”

The waitress was near, and Libbey asked if some tea was left. Friendly and unhurried now, she brought them glasses from the restaurant downstairs. The two sat down at a cleared table and sipped as she resumed the collection of dishes and the disposal of soiled tablecloths.

Then they were alone.

“I don’t expect you’ll want to do a story about I me,” Libbey began. “By next week I expect I’ll be gone. I only stay about a week anywhere.”

McCaffery was surprised. “I don’t know exactly what you do,” he said, “but I didn’t think you’d be leaving for a while. You haven’t done any work here yet.”

“Oh, you’re wrong about that,” Libbey responded. “I’ve been talking to quite a few folks, and I’ve already made a good piece of change.”

“All I heard was that you’d just been sitting,” McCaffery said quizzically. “You haven’t been out selling anything.”

Marcus P. Libbey stirred his tea. “People come to me,” he said at length. “You came to me. You’re maybe even a potential customer.”

“Maybe you should tell me just what it is you’re selling,” McCaffery replied, frowning.

“Yes,” said Libbey. “Of course.”

He took a deep breath, exhaled deliberately, fingered the moist glass until the ice tinkled unpleasantly, and then began.

“I sell death. Nobody ever takes me literally when I say that, but it’s the truth. I’m a salesman with a product at a price. That’s it—death.”

McCaffery leaned forward, conscious of the quietness of the large warm room. Libbey’s slowness was irritating and his words were irritating if not ridiculous, but McCaffery found himself reluctant to speak. He waited while Marcus P. Libbey examined a tinted lithograph of Waterloo in a golden oak frame, while his fingers idly rubbed at his yellow tie, while he coughed and cleared his throat.

“People die all the time. Everybody dies. But nobody knows how.

“Did you ever try to die? Did you ever roll over and face the wall and say to yourself, ‘Well, by God, I’m going to die right now’? Lots of people have tried it, but not many ever succeeded.”

He pursed his lips triumphantly.

“Nobody ever learned how to die on schedule until I came along.”

McCaffery straightened back while Libbey spooned the lemon slice from his glass, sucked it, and tossed the mangled remnants back.

“I was thirty-three years old when I learned about dying,” he continued. “I had been having some awful pains in my side, and headaches, mostly when I worked late, and they made me think about heart attacks. I got scared. I was too scared to go to a doctor so I just thought, and then it got so I almost wanted to die to get it over with, and I thought about killing myself and everything.”

“That’s the trouble with suicide,” he said, his voice assuming almost a lecture platform tone. “People who want to die and think the subject through generally won’t kill themselves. They get too analytical. They don’t want to lose out on their insurance, or they get embarrassed about family trouble they’ll cause, or religion scares them away.”

“And most people aren’t inventive enough to do it so it can’t be proved on them,” he went on, turning the tea glass, watching the ice slide and tumble. “If they’re smart enough to make it look like an accident, then they always seem to want to leave notes.”

Libbey drained the watery amber, bounced the remaining ice free from the sugary film at the bottom, and tipped the glass once more. Noisily he chewed, and McCaffery pushed his own glass away, repelled.

Libbey’s low voice began anew. “Well, one day I was thinking about dying and some things occurred to me that seemed awfully logical. I figured that maybe if I would do this thing"-and he gestured with one hand and then the other—“and went on to do that thing, why maybe then I could just close my eyes and quit breathing and my heart and brain would stop.”

“Then,” leaning forward, tracing patterns on the tabletop with a spoon, his voice lowering to a whisper, “right then I came to the conclusion that put me in the work I’m doing now.

“I decided to try my idea on someone else.”

Marcus Libbey looked up, his eyes shining. “Right then, the way I figure it, I did something nobody else had ever done before. Maybe dozens, even hundreds of people might have worked out the same formula before— but if they had, odds are they went and used it on themselves. But I was scientific.”

His tone changed from exultation to deep confidence. “This kid lived next door to the rooming house,” he said. “He was about eight or nine, big for his age and healthy as a bull calf. I used to talk to him once in a while or buy him soda water. He was a real good subject.

“So this time I bought him some chocolate candy and we sat out on the back steps and I told him how to die. I told it like it was an old story, and he laughed at me and said I was crazy and nothing could happen like that. So I just laughed too and said that’s what old magicians used to do.”

McCaffery tried to turn from Libbey’s gaze, to look across the room or out the window, but he couldn’t. The man’s watery blue eyes held him, and finally he picked up his glass and drank. The tea was lukewarm and bitter.

“They found the kid after I had gone to bed. He had crawled up under the back porch he liked to play there, making little roads where the ground was hard. He was curled up tight, and his face had a look on it like he had just said the last words and was waiting.”

Now Libbey stretched and straightened his coat and sat tall, a businessman again.

“I suppose you can fill in the rest. You’re a newspaper writer, so you know how to put things together.”

“No,” said McCaffery. “I want you to tell me the whole story.” His voice was clear and precise and it surprised him.

“Well, there isn’t much to be specific about,” Libbey replied, shrugging, “I knew I had a good thing, so I tried it a couple more times and went on the road with it.”

McCaffery saw nothing before him but a man and a chair and a finger-stained glass with a wedge of drying lemon in it. The room was gray around the fringes of his awareness and the only sound he heard was Libbey’s steady, slightly rasping breath.

“You say you’ve made some money here?”

“Oh, yes. More than $400, actually. I expect you have the obituaries. The old Morris woman with cancer—you got her?”

“Yes,” said McCafTery. “I heard about it Tuesday night. The funeral’s today.” He glanced at his watch. “In about an hour.”

“I talked to her right after breakfast Tuesday,” said Libbey thoughtfully. “Met her husband Monday night. Nice people.”

“And who else? Anybody else?”

“One yesterday,” tallied Libbey. “At least I got my money, and I’d judge he’d use the way pretty fast. It was a man from the hardware.”

For a moment McCaffery was puzzled and then he remembered the note that had been on his desk when he came to work. “Yes,” he said, “you got him. That was Morton Garlin. He went to school with my brother.”

“Too bad about that poor little wife of his getting burned up,” Libbey said consolingly. “Poor fellow was real affected by it.”

McCafTery felt a surge of something like fear in his chest. “Anyone else?” he demanded. “Have you killed anyone else?”

“Now, now, young man, don’t you start accusing,” Libbey replied, drawing back from the table. “I don’t kill. I talk, and I sell my product, which works. I satisfy my customers and otherwise don’t do anything to anybody.”

“You killed a boy,” McCaffery responded, his voice rising and his hands gripping the table edge. “You said so.”

“I did an experiment,” Libbey said sharply. “I was asleep in bed when the kid died.”

Anger brought McCaffery to his feet, and then, inexplicably, a feeling of helplessness quenched it. “What are you going to do now?” he asked Libbey, who appeared almost unconcerned.

“I’m going to sit down by my car and wait for customers. The sign draws them real good.”

“Well,” said McCaffery, “while you sit there I’m going to be writing the damnedest story you ever saw.” His voice and determination rose sharply. “We might even put out an extra. That should put an end to you and your business.”

Libbey’s blue eyes stared up steadily toward the young reporter, not insolently but with casual assuredness. “No,” he said, “you won’t.”

“First,” he explained, “most people wouldn’t believe what you’d print about me. You’d know that the minute you started writing anything; it’s not the sort of thing that’s accepted. And if you went ahead anyway and made a fool of yourself and printed a silly story, why, I’d just deny it. I could even sue you and ruin the paper.”

He nodded, as if reminding himself of points in a carefully rehearsed argument. “Then, on the other hand, if you printed a story there would be some people who would believe it. And you know what they’d do: they’d come to me. I’d have so many customers I might buy me a Nash and some golf clubs.”

“It’s the believers who want to learn about dying,” Libbey added confidently.

McCaffery sank slowly back into his uncomfortable chair.

“And then,” Libbey persisted, “just think about the people who’ve died. An old woman full of cancer, and a young widower who was sick of loneliness. People like that—people who are better off dead and who’ll pay to get that way.”

He smiled conciliatorily. “See why I said it’s best to tell one person at a time?”

McCaffery nodded dully, his mind racing over replies and the enormity of Libbey’s bland words. Abruptly he blurted, “Just what is it you tell these people?”

Libbey laughed. It was a happy, clean, the-joke’s-onyou laugh.

“Do you really want to know, young man?”

McCaffery shuddered. He could think of nothing more to say; he stared into the faded blue eyes, and at the red, aging face, and at the ridiculous buttoned tie, and at the yellowed, stained teeth of the grinning man before him. And behind Marcus P. Libbey once more appeared the room, with its tables and circles of chairs, the Waterloo lithograph and others like it, and the sounds of auto horns and voices outside.

The waitress came to the door, plump, greenuniformed, cheerful.

“Finished your tea?” she asked.

Libbey looked inquisitively across the table. “Have another glass?”

McCaffery shook his head, and then found himself rising as Libbey stood and stretched and smiled.

“Well, I’d better get back,” said Marcus P. Libbey.

“I’ve got things to do too,” replied McCaffery dully.

He was at the hotel entrance before he realized the insensible blandness of his response.

How had Libbey answered? “We’ve all got things to do.” That’s what he had said. Over his shoulder, on his way out, almost jauntily, he had said with consummate cheerfulness, “We’ve all got things to do.”

On Monday morning the car was gone. □