My granduncle was the oldest man I had ever seen. His name was Father William Cashman, and I guessed his age at 500 or 600 years, but that was just a guess. He may have been older.
He was a retired Catholic priest. Being a retired priest is sort of like being a retired baseball player, except that there’s no infield fly rule.
Fr. Will lived all by himself in a huge, deserted hospital in my hometown. A big new medical facility had been built years earlier, so the former hospital was merely used for storage – and for housing its sole occupant.
My superannuated granduncle made a tortoise seem like a gazelle. He walked in short, shuffling steps and would have easily lost a foot race with a banana slug. (I know, I know, bananas and slugs don’t have feet.)
My brothers and I used to imitate Fr. Will’s inch-by inch gait – one guaranteed to create vast amounts of static electricity. The 30-foot excursion that Fr. Will made to the bathroom from his small bedroom took longer than a pony ride from Kirkland to Auburn, by way of Everett.
He was also a delightful human – kind and gentle – and a first-class storyteller. My dad visited him every chance he got, and if my brothers and I were lucky, we got to go along, too. Then, while dad and Fr. Will sat in his room having a glass or two of whiskey and telling jokes, my brothers and I would wander around the halls of the old hospital.
It was spooky enough during the day, but at night it became a place where even Stephen King would have gotten the willies. We walked warily through the darkened corridors, peering into rooms filled with old beds and medical equipment, expecting a crazed doctor to jump out at us brandishing a bloody scalpel at any moment.
Since I was the older brother, it was my unofficial job to heighten the nervousness by occasionally whispering things like “What was that?” Or, “Do you guys hear a growling noise?” And sometimes, “I’m not really your brother. I escaped from a mental hospital several years ago.”
We could be sure our dad would bring us to visit Fr. Will each and every Christmas Eve night. That’s so our mom could remain behind at home to greet Santa and help him put presents under the tree. It was the perfect cover.
I remember one Christmas Eve particularly well. I was 12 years old. On our drive over to the old hospital, dad lectured my four brothers and me very solemnly. “Boys,” he said, “I want you to be very careful tonight. There have been some strange things going on in the old hospital.” We looked at him hard to see if there was any sign that he was kidding. He looked very serious, but didn’t say another thing.
When we arrived, Fr. Will greeted us all warmly, and as we handed him a Christmas present, he underscored what dad had said. “I wouldn’t go wandering around the halls tonight if I were you,” the old priest said. Then he and dad settled in for an hour of old jokes fueled by “Old Grand Dad.”
At first, my brothers and I hovered around the hall just outside of Fr. Will’s room. But before long, we began creeping farther away. We walked up a darkened stairway to the hospital’s second floor. The old halls creaked with our every step. The rooms were dark as tar, except for the slight light of the moon sneaking in through the filmy windows. The rooms with old hospital beds in them were otherwise empty and chillingly stark.
Then we noticed one room at the far end of the long hallway that seemed to have a bit more light coming from it. We inched towards it, our knees shaking like castanets. Then, with the five of us attached so closely that we looked like Siamese quintuplets, we peered warily into the room.
The shock of what we saw was so immense that if our eyes had bulged any bigger, they would have popped right out of their sockets and fallen onto the floor. For there, in the dim light from a single bare fixture, was an operating table. On it lay a naked human cadaver!
Our five simultaneous screams could have shattered bulletproof glass, and our terrified stampede back down the corridor was much like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Minus the horns.
But when we arrived breathlessly back at Fr. Will’s room, he and dad were howling with laughter, proud of how well the dummy they had set up had done the trick. They were a bit disappointed that in our hasty retreat, we hadn’t also noticed the big glass jar they had placed there, too – with a large cauliflower floating in water – labeled Human Brain.
Good thing I hadn’t seen that. I have always been terrified by cauliflower.