The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 15, No. 1

The Butler's Lament

by David Means

He could be seen wandering the paths in front of the main building, walking stiffly with his arm out and his hand extended, holding an imaginary platter on his palm, moving around the hospital grounds with dainty steps and mumbling to himself. (I’d not judge you, dear sir, not one whit, for ravishing the ladies of the village, sir.) He had a stiff formality in those moments, standing alone, one more soul cut loose from his former life, trying to establish a presence under the arching trees; one more patient amid many, shuffling around with a kind of benign gentility that was disorienting to the staff members, myself included. For the most part, we ignored his long soliloquies about the inelegant desperation of the flesh compared to the elegance of precise work. As they did with many of the patients, the nurses had given him a nickname—the Butler. As a professional, I resisted using nicknames, but eventually even I began calling him the Butler, because he so firmly inhabited the role, claiming that he had been butler to Lord Leitrim, or Lord Byron—he vacillated between the two when he was in his primary delusional state—though sometimes he suffered fits that shattered his usual decorum, sending him into convulsively amplified gestures of servitude. He would place his open hand on his midriff and bow violently forward until his head came close to touching the ground. (At your service, sir! I’d get you the tea, sir, if you’d be so kind as to loosen the restrictions of these garments.) All the while, presumably, he still remembered his former days as a tool and die man out of Detroit.

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