Blue Zone by Michael C. Keith
Thou tyrant, tyrant Jealousy,
Thou tyrant of the mind!
–– John Dryden
Table of Contents
Millie Flynn had been one of fourteen centenarians interviewed in Dalby, Indiana, by the U.S. Census Bureau six months earlier. The government office had been prompted to recheck its previous year’s survey data because of the extraordinary number of people over 100 years old in the tiny southwestern farm community. Millie had resided there her entire life, and at 104, she had full possession of her faculties.
“Why do you suppose those government folks wanted to talk to me again?” she inquired of her eighty-two-year-old son, Harlan.
“Didn’t they tell you it was because there were so many really old people in Dalby, Mama?”
“Yes, they did, but what of it. People live long in lotsa places.”
“Guess not as many as they do here. ”
“Just a coincidence, I’m sure. Making such a big deal out of it.”
“Maybe it is a big deal, Mama? They say in the newspaper that there are more people over 100 than any other place in the country. Now that’s kinda something.”
“Coincidence is all. Next time they’ll be in a dither cause nobody lived to be 50 somewhere else. Things just happen in this world.”
“Well, maybe, but a bunch of reporters think it’s a good story and they’re starting to come here by the carloads.”
“For what, to see a bunch of rickety 100 year-olds? Silly. Must be stuff more important to tell about someplace else.”
“Maybe a slow news week, mama.”
“Got a call this morning from this professor at the university. Asked to interview me. Told him I was busy painting the house. He was at a loss for words wondering how someone 104 years old could be doing that. Didn’t laugh. Thought I was serious. Foolish man.”
“Well, you did fix the cement steps last year. Remember?”
“’Course I remember. Don’t forget nothing.”
“I know, mama, but maybe you should talk to them fellas. Everybody else is.”
“Not me. Got better things to do with the time I got left.”
“What things, mama?”
“None of your business, Harlan.”
“Oh, excuse me. Didn’t think it was top secret.”
“It ain’t. It’s just . . . stuff.”
“Now why would I need help?
“Just asking, mama . . . just asking.”
“Things I can do without someone standing over me waiting for me to fall.”
“Okay then, I’ll be back to check in on you tomorrow,” said Harlan, rising slowly from the couch. “I’ve got your list for the store. You sure this is all you need?”
“If I needed more, I’d have it on the list.”
“Fine, see you tomorrow, mama.”
On his way to his car, Harlan encountered a man and a woman.
“Sir, is this the home of Millie Flynn?”
“Yes, it is. Why do you ask?”
“We’re from People Magazine. We’d like to ask Mrs. Flynn some questions.”
Well, good luck with that,” said Harlan, climbing into his 15 year-old Buick LaSabre.
* * *
Max Calberry, owner of the Dalby Motel, calculated there were at least a dozen reporters staying at his place. The sudden burst of business pleased him and other business owners in the town that also had enjoyed a financial windfall.
“Got no rooms left. Two reservations called in just this morning. Raking it in,” boasted Max to his cousin, Howell Burns, a local realtor.
“I’ve been getting inquiries from all over the country about houses for sale. People think we got the Fountain of Youth here in Dalby,” declared Howell.
“I dunno . . . not so sure this is such a good thing,” mulled Carl Lester, the town sheriff.
“Why’s that?” asked Max.
“More people, more crime.”
“Yeah, but more people, more money, and we could use an influx of cash in the town coffers. All kinds of work needs to be done around here,” observed Howell.
“I hear you, but with fortune comes folly, they say,” said Lester.
“Not always. This can be good for everybody. Property values are bound to rise. Yours too, Carl.”
“We’re all getting near retirement. Think of how much more we might get for our houses. Get the heck out of this climate. Move to Florida. Be able to buy cheap down there,” added Max.
At this point in the conversation, Harlan entered the Keystone Café and joined the group of regulars.
“Hey, Harlan, we’re all gonna get rich,” spouted Max.
“How’s that, Max?”
“By selling our piece of the Fountain of Youth.”
“Howey says our property is going to be worth a bundle because of all the hoopla about the town’s ancient elders,” offered Max. “Could sell the motel for a heap and retire in luxury where it never snows.”
“Don’t think anyone would get my mom to sell out.”
“Well, Harlan, no disrespect intended, but how much longer is she going to be around at 104? You clearly got good genes, so when she goes to her reward, you can live high on the hog,” said Howell, raising his cup of coffee to his lips.
“No disrespect taken, but I’m not high on living high on the hog. Just be happy to stay put here in Dalby and give any money from my mom’s house to my grandkids. She’d like that. Already suggested it.”
Howell’s cellphone rang, and he excused himself from the table. In a couple minutes he returned, all smiles.
“Just sold the old Lambert place for top dollar to some retired folks in Minnesota. They’re convinced that this town will assure them longevity. They said they believe there’s something in the soil or water here that helps people live so long. I got to go to draw up the papers. I’m telling you guys, this is a good thing.”
* * *
As predicted, the day of the parade was bright and warm. Several floats decorated by high school students and staff and local civic groups gathered in the sports field just off the main street. The town’s celebrated ancients were divided among the floats, with Wilbur Cowell and Harry Cosgrove taking their place at the front of the procession to walk the length of the parade route. Precisely at noon, the cavalcade got underway. It ended four blocks away in the parking lot of the Elk’s Club, where a tribute was to take place. As expected, several members of the media were in attendance with their microphones and cameras.
“Welcome, my fellow Dalbyites, future residents, and visitors to what has become known worldwide as ‘Centenarian City’ because of these remarkable people here before you,” proclaimed Atwell.
“It would have been perfect if your mom had joined in,” whispered Howell into Harlan’s ear.
“Sorry,” said Millie Flynn’s octogenarian son. “Said she’d rather be in her garden than on display here like some kind of oddity.”
“Mabel Calloway, who herself will turn 100 next year, has made one of her famous cakes for members of our One Hundred Plus Club,” continued Atwell.
On cue, with the help of two assistants, 99 year-old Mabel wheeled out a cart containing her confectionery handiwork. The Town Manager then sliced the cake for the honorees, putting aside the last slice for the absent Millie Harlan, which inadvertently fell to the ground and consequently was deposited in a waste barrel. The esteemed elders ate their cake with zest and received loud cheers from the audience for doing so.
“So, the real secret of great longevity is cake,” joked Atwell.
Following the event, the prized centenarians were escorted out of the hall and returned to their respective homes where they all took their routine afternoon naps. By evening, however, news quickly spread that none of the elders had awakened. All 13 had apparently died in their sleep.
Shocked and baffled by the tragedy, the townspeople were further aghast when the coroner announced the deceased had been poisoned.
“Arsenic,” declared Dr. Donald Jason at an impromptu news conference.
“How?” shouted reporters.
“Cake,” replied the coroner. “Mabel’s cake was loaded with it.”
* * *
An hour earlier, Sheriff Lester had been at the alleged murderer’s bedside. Next to him stood the woman’s elderly daughter.
“She’s got late-stage cancer. I was totally amazed that she was able to make that cake and give it out. It was something she really wanted to do,” said Clair Calloway, unaware of why the sheriff was visiting her mother.
Lester bent to within inches of the dying woman’s ear and whispered to her. “Why’d you do it, Mabel?”
“Knew I wouldn’t make it to 100 and hated them for beating me to it. Now who’s the oldest in Dalby?” said the former baker with a faint cackle.
When Harlan reported the calamity to his mother, she replied, “Hope this town learned that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
Despite the deep sadness he felt for what had happened, Harlan could not keep from smiling.
Michael C. Keith is the author of four story collections and an acclaimed memoir. To learn more, click on his website http://www.michaelckeith.com