Deathville, PA is blustery in October. Wind blows from the rolling ridges of Knotaby’s Hill in towards Main Street, Barnard’s Grocery, Edgar Allen Poe Secondary School, Tfarcevol Pharmacy, King Diner, and out towards Route 80 and across the Ohio border towards Youngstown. Its 9,674 inhabitants hurry along poorly maintained sidewalks, rosy-cheeked and chapped, pulling coats up to cheeks and hats down to foreheads. Cars cross W South and Main, heated, rumbling, choreographed by the town’s sole traffic light.
On days like today, after a heavy rainstorm, three large puddles form on Main Street: one in the middle of the crosswalk in front of the traffic light, so that a gentle green, red, or yellow light reflects and disperses throughout the intersection, bathing the storefronts in a tinted glow; one in front of Tfarcevol Pharmacy, so that a customer exiting the store can read the mirror image of the neon sign bearing the drug store’s name before they enter their cars, and one on the bend in the road next to the sidewalk in front of the Secondary School, so that a particularly malicious and well-timed motorist can drench his or her target on the way to first period with a muddy splash.
Deathville’s name remains a mystery to its residents. It seems odd, out of place, and morbid for the name of a peaceful little town. Many town meetings are devoted to motions regarding changes in name. A slight majority of citizens believe the small yet steady trickle of local tourists attracted to the macabre title, who usually sleep in the Motel 6 and eat at King Diner, is worth any negative connotations the name might bring. Herbert Macabee, the oldest patient at Looming Sunsets retirement home at the corner of Walnut and S West, thinks the name is as apt as they come. “Not everyone in Mechanicsburg becomes a mechanic,” he says, chuckling and wheezing through his 105-year-old lungs. His wife doesn’t laugh. She was cremated at Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice 37 years ago today.
Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice is abandoned. It has been for some time, a comically large structure sprawled out along the base of Knotaby’s Hill that lies in ruin. The building has two wings. The Southwestern wing, lower on the hill and closer to the town, contains the remains of the funeral home: a Formica reception desk immediately inside the front door, several foam and plastic chairs against the front wall, facing the desk, then a wall, another, larger room, complete with a table that once strained under the weight of half-embalmed corpses, a cabinet that contains several bottles of embalming fluid and one container of partially-disintegrated Methaqualone, two beds, a bathroom, and a framed print of Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg. The Northeastern Wing houses the remains of the Italian ice parlor: an ice maker, a freezer, a display case, two containers of partially-disintegrated Methaqualone, and a framed print of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Separating the wings is a wall covered in two inches of foam on each side, lined with fiberboard, and painted aquamarine on the parlor side and cream on the funeral home side. The door, as well, is insulated with foam and fiberboard. Sounds from the parlor were not to seep into the home; sounds from the home were not to seep into the parlor.
Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice was founded in 1961 by Giovanni Padovesi, a drug addict, entrepreneur, and self-proclaimed painter, and his wife, Adela Padovesi. The couple envisioned a family-run business where the deceased could be treated and cared for by a trusted professional while the family relieved any lingering grief or sorrow with an authentic and refreshing frozen treat. Herbert Macabee, chuckling and wheezing, reports that the root beer flavor was delicious.
Tfarcevol Pharmacy was founded in 1958 by Henry Phillip Tfarcevol, a Romanian immigrant with an anglicized first name and a beautiful wife, Luciana, whose flowing black hair, sharp features and remarkably expressive eyebrows are perhaps best captured in Giovanni Padovesi’s painting The Woman with the Flowing Black Hair, which hung on the wall of Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice for several decades. Whatever ash, frayed strips, or scorched edges remain of the painting have blown across Western Pennsylvania, with the wind, out of Deathville, towards Route 80 and across the Ohio border into Youngstown.
Deathville had, for a time, a tidy economy revolving around its namesake. Looming Sunsets Retirement and Nursing Home, an exemplary standard in its industry, housed about six hundred senior citizens (the number, as one could imagine, fluctuated rather rapidly). It employed twenty-three Deathville residents full-time, including a doctor, five nurses, eleven attendants, two cooks, two janitors, an accountant, and a bus driver. Luciana and Henry worked at Tfarcevol Pharmacy as well as two cashiers. Giovanni and Lucia were the morticians at Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home, but there were also three Italian Ice vendors (four in the summer). Tfarcevol Pharmacy supplied a significant amount of required medication to the Retirement Home, and the Retirement Home supplied a significant number of corpses to the Funeral Home.
With every passing heart attack, the cogs of life in Deathville turned another notch.
Succinylcholine is a white powder, soluble in water, that can be injected or ingested orally (or taken as a suppository, notes Herbert Macabee, chuckling and wheezing through his 105-year-old lungs). It relaxes or paralyzes the muscles of the respiratory system. In a medical capacity, succinylcholine is administered before the insertion of a breathing tube into a still-conscious patient. In larger doses, it causes a patient to suffocate, mimicking the effects of a heart attack.
As Henry Phillip Tfarcevol walked (or was lead) toward Sheriff Derby’s waiting car, he stepped in the puddle in front of his pharmacy. He drenched his New Balances, splashed his khakis, and sent small ripples through the reflection of his pharmacy’s sign. He waited in the backseat three feet from his wife, her eyebrows raised expressively, his expression stoic, until the storefronts were bathed in green. Sheriff Derby accelerated away toward the tiny precinct, with its small desk and one cell. Luciana and Giovanni, who had been speaking and spending much of their time together, looked on in relative stoicism from within the pharmacy. Luciana raised her expressive eyebrows.
It was around this time, when the summer rains of 1979 left puddles scattered around town like italian ice splattered on an aquamarine wall, as they still do, that Giovanni Padovesi began a rather intensive and obsessive painting project. “Luciana,” he said to his corpses each night, “would be a being worth being for.”
The people of Deathville were convinced of Henry Phillip Tfarcevol’s guilt. Doses of succinylcholine were found in all three bodies currently stored at Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice, as well as in excessively large quantities in the pharmacy. “It’s criminal negligence, malpractice, at least,” they said. Always those words, nothing more. The people of Deathville were both excited and terrified at the prospect of murder. Due in part to this unanimous humdrum, the jurors for Henry’s trial were selected from other towns around the county. No juror knew (or, before this moment, cared) much about Deathville or its residents. For precisely this reason, they were chosen to be jurors, to judge the innocence of a perfect stranger. Instead, Henry Phillip Tfarcevol was found dead in his jail cell in the tiny precinct two days before his trial. “Heart attack,” pronounced the coroner.
Adela Padovesi discovered “The Woman with the Flowing Hair” by accident. Late one endless summer night, as Giovanni was caught up in the wondrous and strange effects of the Methaqualone he always kept around the Home, she stumbled over a chair directly into the print of Grant Woods’ “American Gothic”. Or, perhaps more accurately, she stumbled through the print of Grant Woods’ “American Gothic” into a small, immaculately cleaned, darkly lit alcove. On the far wall hung a meticulously painted portrait of a woman with flowing black hair, sharp features, and remarkably expressive eyebrows. Straining, Adela saw Giovanni’s large signature scrawled in the lower left corner of the canvas. She also saw that the woman in the painting was not, in fact, herself, but instead was Luciana, so Adela proceeded to scream at semiconscious Giovanni while she lit the canvas on fire with a cinnamon-scented candle, swept up the ashes, and scattered them out the front door of Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice. Giovanni found this quite amusing, considering the two thousand three hundred and twenty one exact copies of the painting that lay (and still lie) behind the print of Edward Hopper’s “The Longest Leg”.
Henry Phillip Tfarcevol was embalmed at Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice. His body is buried in a cemetery on Rosencrans Boulevard, about three miles out of Deathville. Inscribed on his tombstone, as per the request of his widow, is a phrase in Romanian: “În Moarte, Libertate”: In Death, Freedom.
Giovanni Padovesi was found dead by his jealous wife two weeks after the painting burned and two years after Henry Phillip Tfarcevol’s funeral. He held a container of Methaqualone from Tfarcevol Pharmacy and a complete roster of the five hundred and fifty six deceased handled, with utmost care, by Padovesi’s Combination Funeral Home and Italian Ice. “Heart attack,” said the coroner.
Luciana’s dressing gown drags on the floor behind her as she strides past dozens of Looming Sunsets inmates. She runs her nails along the cinderblock wall as she passes hordes of semi-sedated septuagenarians playing checkers in the cavernous rec room. She bites her lower lip as she passes the masses of senile senior citizens feasting half-heartedly on lemon jello and tapioca pudding in the dining hall. She blinks as she stares at the beautiful, crying woman holding a purple flowered handkerchief. She’s facing an elderly man unfazed by her emotion, confused by her presence. “Dad,” says the woman with the purple handkerchief, though she feels like screaming it. “Dad, do you know who I am?” Luciana continues on, unfazed. She passes Gertrude Waterson, who is dead, though the nurse won’t find her for another two hours. She stops in the doorway of a room at the end of the hall.
Herbert Macabee chuckles and wheezes through his 105-year-old lungs.
Luciana raises her remarkably expressive eyebrows.