A haunted house would make a good article, I thought. I called in sick on Tuesday, drank some coffee, and sat down to write. My wife went to work. Now it was 10:30 AM, which is like a magic hour when you call in sick because it’s not too late, plenty of possibility left in the day, and usually some good TV shows come on about this time. Old reruns, sensational talk shows, and Judge’s Court. But I’m not watching the judge today. I’ve got a story to write about the haunted house across the street.
It is not a traditional haunted house; it’s a Florida haunted house, meaning there is a window on the second floor shaped like a porthole that seems to scream shrilly at you when you walk past it at night. Then there’s the old dead coconut tree and the rusted anchor someone put in the yard years ago for decoration. The scarred up door that’s been broken into and patched up twice. Nobody has lived there for seven years, which is strange. There has never been a For Sale sign in the front yard. People say it’s haunted because of inexplicable incidents, like when some kids snuck in for kicks and came out all freaked about a “hairy legged” apparition they saw. I don’t know what the hell they saw.
To write, I took a pill to wake me up along with the coffee.
I was also waiting on the Sears Plumber to fix my clogged sewer pipe. I was getting very pissed off because the plumber was late. They are always late.
I got out there in the yard and dug up part of the pipe but the glaring, hot sun sent me scurrying for air-conditioned cover. The only thing I hate about Florida is the sun.
Now I’m waiting for the plumber and I’m on edge. I needed something to take the edge off.
My wife’s gay cousin Mark was living next door with my biker neighbors, Big’un and Fran. Mark had been kicked out of his last house over a misunderstanding involving dope. He had pawned his roommate’s TV while the roommate was away doing a construction job.
Mark was always moving for one reason or other. He was a big hulk of a man who had played football in high school and liked to refer to himself as a “red-neck queer.” His parents had made him move out of their house when they failed to turn him straight by threats and preaching.
I had been pissed off at Mark for trying to tell me how to run my life and being stingy with his dope, but now, in the spirit of Christian forgiveness, I called him on the phone and said, “Hey, how’s it going, does Big’un have any more of that scotch?”
“The good scotch in the Harley Davidson decanter?” Mark asked in horror. “Helll, nahhh, I can’t touch that! Big’un would kill me! I got some special diet pills if you need a pick-me-up…”
“Well, we can’t do one without the other!” I barked. “Listen, man, this is no time to quibble over situational ethics! Pour the scotch in a cup and put some ice tea in the decanter to replace the scotch. You’ll be moved or kicked out before they discover it’s gone!”
Big’un and Fran were away at Bike Week in Daytona.
The next thing you know, my wife’s cousin Mark and I are over at Big’un and Fran’s house sharing a big Burger King cup full of good scotch. I thought I was ready to write, but Mark had other ideas.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Mark started in on me. “Take my dope and then leave to go write that bogus crap you always write. Pushing your friends away! Chasing a dream!”
“But, the Sears plumber is supposed to show up at my house,” I said.
Mark snorted in disgust, “Are you a dumb-ass or what?”
“What now, for God’s sake?” I asked.
“You called Sears? You know they are a booj-wa outfit!”
He meant “bourgeois” and I don’t even know if he knows what it means.
I said, “What are you talking about?”
“They take on more customers than they can possibly serve, just to insure money coming in, but they don’t give a rat’s ass about you.”
“Well,” I said. “You may be right.”
“I’m always right,” he said smugly. “You know,” he added, “They came out with the last Sears catalog and I’ve got one. It’ll be a collector’s item.”
He waved the slick, glossy Sears catalog in the air. “Last one ever made!” he said.
“Yeah, right,” I said.
“Hey,” Mark’s face lit up. “I think we have a way to get revenge on the Sears plumber. The empty haunted house across the street. We call the plumber to that house, and nobody lives there so we can do whatever we want!”
I said, “You mean, like, kick his ass?” I was just asking.
“And stuff pages of the Sears catalog up his ass!” Mark shrieked.
“Wait a minute,” I cautioned firmly. “Nobody’s gonna stick nothing up anyone’s ass!”
“You fuckin’ closet poof,” he yelled. “If we call the plumber to the haunted house, we stuff pages up his ass! As long as he doesn’t see out faces, people will think the ghosts did it! See?”
“Fine,” I said. “Whatever. And I’m not a closet poof. I just happen to like drama, like you, but I’m not!”
“Yeah, yeah,” he brushed me off.
By now it was 12 noon and we were buzzing. We drank deep from the cup of booze and Mark dialed the phone… Someone at Sears answered the phone.
“Yes,” Mark began. “I’m calling to ask why the plumber isn’t here yet. Yes. My address is 2201 Blatbaum Place.”
He was giving the address across the street.
“What?” he asked. “No. 2201. Yes. Well, I don’t know why you have 2202 on your clee-up board. We’re on the right side, about a mile from you as the crow flies…What? Crow. It don’t matter, look, it’s 2201 Blatbaum! Dammit, when can I expect someone?”
I had found a pack of Fran’s Belle Air cigarettes, so I fired up one of those. I was rushing and feeling good but also kind of worried about the passing of time. It was after one o’clock. More scotch.
The next thing I remember is I’m in Big’un and Fran’s bath tub in hot water and bubble bath, just wearing my underpants, reading an Easy Rider biker magazine I found.
Mark was in the kitchen cutting up vegetables to make a stew. He was stealing onions, potatoes, celery, and a can of Campbell’s cream-of-something soup from the pantry. We knew they wouldn’t be back from Bike Week until tomorrow.
The damn Sears plumber van pulled up across the street. I was out of the bath and into a Japanese robe that belongs to Big’un & Fran’s 19 year old daughter, Stella, who was away at Flagler college in Saint Augustine. Mark and I gazed out the window at the plumber across the street.
“What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“Just follow my lead,” Mark said authoritatively.
Much of the action is a blur in my mind but it involved a Sears plumber gagging and snorting as Mark hollered, “Squeal!” and pages and clothing were torn and some violent kicking and cussing and scotch flying all over the room. I know we forgot to remain anonymous.
I tried everything in my power to quell the atrocity, falling back by instinct on the “just say no” virtue.
I remember yelling at Mark, “He said no you perverted hick! What part of no do you not understand?!”
Mark always calls me a dumb-ass but now he was dangerously out of control and risking jail time. I convinced Mark we had to flee the scene.
About 3:30 PM we were back at Big’un and Fran’s house. I was starting to get paranoid because I knew my wife would be home in a hour or so. This was not at all the blissful 10:30 AM vibe; time was running out. Christmas was over and the toys were broken. Damn, now what?
I focused my eyes on the spoonful of soup Mark was holding in front of my face to taste. The soup was very good and it helped to clear my head.
“Where’s the plumber?” I asked.
“Chasing a turd down desolation row!” Mark gleefully replied. “HeeHeeeee!”
I ate more soup to sober up and maybe hide my alcohol breath and then realized I was wearing the Japanese robe and some plastic deer antlers. Mark was now wearing a leather jacket he had found in a closet and a shower cap that belonged to Fran. I changed back into my clothes, throwing my wet underwear into the tank on the back of their toilet.
The glaring sun trounced upon my eyes when I walked outside and stumbled on the sandy grass lawn. I made my way home, put Visine in my eyes, and laid down on the couch. When my wife came home I pretended to be sick.
“Might be the flu,” I said.
That night I told my wife, Sonya, “The stupid Sears plumber never showed up. I’m gonna cut my Sears card in two and mail it back to them.”
“That’s not what I heard,” said Sonya. “While you were napping Mark told me the plumber showed up drunk across the street brandishing a pistol. Mark said he had to call the police and he thinks the plumber lost his job.”
“Well, it serves him right,” I said.
Supernatural hauntings, Victorian drug use, and the strange disappearance of a Sears plumber – all these things swirled in my mind as I called my employer the next morning to say I was still “under the weather.” I had a new idea for an article about drug use in the 19th century.
Across the street, the Florida haunted house loomed like a sinister pirate ship. Port-hole window in which people reported seeing a strange figure looking out, the old rusted anchor in the front yard, and at the top of the dead coconut tree there perched a forlorn egret bird, like an omen.
My wife’s cousin Mark, ex-Georgia football playing gay red-neck, had done something in that house but I wasn’t sure what.
Mark is an expert at redirecting blame and had convinced the police that the plumber was the guilty party for pulling a gun. We had not expected a gun.
The police came to my house around 9:00 AM to question me.
“I wouldn’t know,” I told them. “Plumbers are always missing when I call them. I heard he was drunk. Most of them drink on the job and rely on the sewage to cover the odor of booze.”
I went inside and poured a generous dollop of MD-2020 wine into a coffee cup. I wanted to get this article about Victorian drug use started.
See, back in the day when people like Charles Dickens were alive, people could get medicine at the drug store which contained narcotics. I may have my time-line off here, but it wasn’t long before Sigmund Freud was prescribing cocaine to help people get off the morphine. A buddy of mine who majored in psychology warned me not to slander the great psychoanalyst with “half-assed” accusations, saying that Freud later went back and told everyone that cocaine might not be such a good idea. He said it was more important to examine ours dreams for sexual objects and it’s hard to dream if you are wide awake, wired on blow.
But the point is, aspirin is made from tree bark. How in hell was that first discovered? A lot of old witches were simply unlicensed pharmacists with an array of home remedies.
Nowadays, all I take is the occasional beer and, in the winter, Nyquil to slumber golden through the cold & flu bouts. Some cold medicines make me dream in color, complete movies from beginning to end, and if I could ever write those down, well, we’d really have something.
I was having trouble actually writing the article. I couldn’t concentrate due to various minor aches and a general malaise in my brain which needed clearing.
Strong black coffee helps, so I had some of that. Then, off to the store to buy cigarettes. The liquor store wasn’t open yet so I picked up a bottle of strong, cheap wine, MD-2020, at the convenience store. I’m not trying to set a bad example for the young people, so don’t drink in the morning. Unless you work all night; I guess that would be okay.
Questions needed answers. What happened to the plumber? Of course, the place to start would be Mark, who had been directly involved in the melee.
I called Mark. He had convinced Big’n & Fran that while they were away at Bike Week, someone must have broken into their house while he was at work at the dry-cleaners. The culprit had cooked food and ransacked their daughter’s wardrobe. They would not have understood that Mark and I had done this on a wild binge, bikers or not. Mark convinced them that they should not charge him any rent so he could work less often and stay home to guard the house. He assured them, “I won’t tolerate the violation of your home,” and they were grateful.
“Yeah,” Mark told me on the phone. “I get off at noon and I need a ride home.”
When I picked Mark up at the dry-cleaners I asked him, “What exactly happened to the plumber?”
“He was still in the house when we left,” Mark said. “Hiding in a closet. He has been reported missing. When the police questioned me about it, hell yeah, I told them he has a gun. I told them I think he’s schizophrenic because of his irrational behavior and that I’m quite worried about him.”
“So,” I asked, “Do you think he’s still in the house?”
“I’m meeting him there today,” Mark announced. “Perhaps you would like to come along.”
“What? You’re meeting him there?! What for?”
“You know,” Mark explained, “How two guys can get in a fight and then be good friends, drinking buddies?”
“Go on,” I said.
“Well,” Mark continued, “After I tried to stuff a page from the Sears catalog up his ass, he had an epiphany of sorts, and confessed that as a plumber he was very disrespectful of his customers and he wanted to change. He said he didn’t even want to be a plumber anymore and he’s thinking about opening up a clinic to teach laymen how to fix their own pipes.”
“You are a saint,” I said earnestly. “So he’s still in the house?”
“Yeah, and he still has at least three bullets in his gun,” cautioned Mark. “We have to approach him carefully. He trusts me but he thinks you are two-faced. I told him I would keep you in check. By the way, his name is Kelp.”
“Kelp?” I asked. “What the hell kind of a name is that?”
“He used to be a merchant seaman.”
“That doesn’t make all that much sense,” I said.
~ Intermission ~
Cherub, the Red-assed Baboon
As kids, we were afraid to go into Mr. Claxton’s yard. When a baseball or Frisbee went over his fence, it stayed there. That’s because Mr. Claxton had an ugly baboon named Cherub, of all things, which was supposedly caged but our parents warned us that the hairy gargoyle might somehow escape, and those things can bite. And they are nasty, my Mom said. And my Dad said one time when he was stationed overseas, a chimp had thrown shit at him.
We were out in my friend’s yard one day and decided to put some dog excrement in a paper bag, and put the bag on someone’s porch, set it in fire, and when they went to stomp out the fire, AHH, hahahaha, they would soil their shoe in the dog shit. This was something we always heard about other kids doing. We had never tried it but it was time, before we became teenagers and old enough to be tried as adults. Of course, we were going to do this to Mr. Claxton even though we were afraid of Cherub, the red-assed baboon.
The three of us crouched behind some shrubs and peered into the dark, earthy-smelling wooden lattice-work door, which led under the fence into Mr. Claxton’s yard. The door, about two feet square, was at the bottom of the fence was hidden by a row of shrubs. You could look in between the crisscrossed slat-boards into diamonds of night. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could make out Claxton’s house in the distance.
Paul’s older brother said if you go through that door, it’s like a passage to another time, and all different times are like rooms in a mansion; you can go from one room to another. The old lady at the pawn shop had told Paul that there were zillions of “rooms” connected by doors, also called portals, and the rooms right next to each other looked almost exactly the same, like a movie frame, but if you travel to a far away room it will look different and you will be older or younger, or maybe dead. We weren’t sure how heaven fit into it.
We drew open the door as cobwebs stretched and the diamonds spread into squares, framing the well-trimmed lawn of Mr. Claxton. We looked at each other and then crawled, one by one, through the door toward our adventure.
~ End of Intermission ~
House & Baboon, Part 2
“That plumber is going to shoot us,” I whined to Mark as we approached the ‘haunted house.’
“Shoot you, maybe,” Mark said. “You are the one who pissed him off. I saved him from a life of greed.”
“Go drink some ‘Cabana Boy’ you Georgia fruit,” I said to Mark.
He hit me hard on the shoulder.
As Mark and I strolled along the sidewalk toward the house, I felt a strange wave pass through me. I could tell Mark felt it, too, because he shuddered and shivered the same time I did.
“Whoa,” I said. “Did you feel that?”
We reached the house and Mark tried the doorknob. It was unlocked. We walked in to an amazing sight.
The plumber had knocked out a large portion of the ceiling between the 1st & 2nd floor so you could look up, up all the way to a small hole in the roof, where beautiful hues of light cascaded down onto pipes. It was like a cathedral of pipes! Kelp the plumber had pipes running everywhere. Big pipes, small pipes, copper, steel, and white PVC plastic pipes, and a couple of black rubber-hose radiator pipes, and all these pipes stretched zigzag in all directions, from the floor up through the second floor to the ceiling. The pipes spread in all directions, turning at angles with elbow joints and connectors and clamps, and a few of the connections had small leaks and every few seconds we could hear the “drip/blip!” echo of water dripping onto the wet, carpeted floor. It was wild. The air was cool and relaxing. The plumber was nowhere in sight.
Silence in the house except for the “drip/blip!” of the water drops. It was several degrees cooler inside the house. Mark was wearing flip-flops so he waded right into the ankle-deep water. I hesitated because I was wearing my good Nikes, but I decided to follow him into the house.
We looked around in wonder at this monumental array of pipes. Sometimes we had to duck under or step over pipes to move through the room.
A noise came from inside a closet.
“Kelp?” said Mark. “Kelp, is that you in there?”
Something stirred behind the closet door.
I started to back away, remembering the gun.
Mark slowly turned the doorknob and opened the door a few inches.
Something horrible, with hairy arms and legs flailing, burst out of the closet with an awful SCREECH!
Its ugly snarl of teeth and hate-filled eyes froze me. The ape grabbed Mark with one gnarly-knuckled hand on each of his shoulders and lunged forward, sinking its teeth into his neck. Mark fell backwards screaming.
“AHHHHHH! GET IT OFF ME!”
Mark and the baboon were thrashing in the water on the floor, the ape still biting his neck. I ran to them and kicked the ape on the side of the head. It raised up its fur-slathered head and look at me.
Mark, being strong, threw the baboon off of him and it rolled on the floor and stood up, that bow-legged ape-walk with both hands raised in the air over its head and came after me.
I don’t know how I moved so fast, but as the baboon jumped at me I held my hand outstretched, thumb tucked in tight, and rammed my hand and forearm into the beast’s mouth and down its throat, in an effort to choke it. The baboon’s sharp teeth closed on my forearm and I felt pain from the jerking of the animal’s head. My only chance was to wrap my other arm around the ape’s neck and pull it tight to my body to keep its head from thrashing. I held tight and stood up straight as I could while the baboon’s feet kicked me and kicked splashing water on the floor. I thought I was going to lose my grip.
“Over here!” Mark’s shout echoed on the walls. “The closet!”
Mark held the closet door open with one hand while clutching his bloody neck with the other hand. There was blood spreading in the water.
I staggered with the baboon clumsily over to the closet. Mark grabbed the son-of-a-bitch’s jaws, pried them off my arm, and we both threw the damn thing into the closet and slammed the door shut.
I was leaning on the door, breathing hard, my arm bleeding from the bite.
Mark fell to his knees with a thud and a splash, bleeding badly from the neck, crying and gasping through the tears, “Oh, God, Oh, God!” and was still holding his neck.
I yelled, “Mark, go outside! You go out the front door and I’ll run out right behind you! You slam the door shut as soon as I run out!”
“Okay, okay.” He sobbed, standing up awkwardly, his big mass dripping water and blood. He staggered to the front door.
Mark walked out onto the front porch and stepped right on a flaming paper bag!
“OWW!” Mark cried as he lifted his right foot to his left hand, still clutching the bleeding neck trauma with his right hand, and suddenly there was shit everywhere from where his foot stepped on the bag.
“JESUS GAAAAA!” Mark wailed, hopping on one leg, bleeding, and slinging crap everywhere from his hand. He yelled, “MAMA!” and tumbled headlong off the porch into the front yard.
I noticed it was dark outside and three children were running, laughing in the distance toward some shrubs. I recognized this now as old Mr. Claxton’s house.
From behind me I heard the BANG of the closet door flying open and the baboon was bounding out again. This time it knocked me down, face down in the water, its pumping feet grinding my face against the rough, wet carpet, causing a big scrape on my forehead.
The ape bounded over me and out the front door, jumped over Mark, and was chasing the three running children. The kids looked back and screamed in terror. I was too weak to run after the baboon and Mark was wheezing hysterically.
The first child disappeared under the shrubs to safety, then the second child, but the vicious baboon snagged the third child with its teeth, right on the butt. The child screamed in pain and fear.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a dark figure of a man appeared in what looked like a one-piece jumpsuit. The light of the moon gleamed off the object in his hand – a big, heavy wrench.
Kelp the plumber swung the wrench hard and whacked the ape on the head. The baboon froze and then stood straight up, face to face with Kelp, with that bow-legged ape stance, both arms raised above its head. Then it fell forward with a thud, face down on the ground, and didn’t move.
The third and last child, having been bitten, disappeared quickly beneath the shrubs through a secret door in the fence, and we could hear their footsteps echoing down the street as they ran.
We ran as fast as our twelve year old legs would run. Which was pretty fast. I was so shook up I didn’t notice I was leaving drops of blood in the road from the baboon’s bite on my butt. Paul ran to his house and Mark ran to his grandmother’s house where he was visiting from Georgia during summer vacation. I ran to my house.
When I got home, my Dad was talking on the phone to Mr. Claxton.
“Don’t worry, Claxton,” my Dad was saying, “If I find out my boy was involved in this prank I’ll…what?…Yes, I said prank. Look, a little shoe polish will…No, sir, no need to call the police! Like I say…”
“Oh, Lord!” my Mom cried when she saw me bleeding. “What happened?!”
“That bamboon bit me!”
My Dad stopped talking for a moment, looked at me, and said, “Goddamit, Claxton! Maybe I oughta sue your ass for lettin’ that stinking ape bite my boy!”
Then Dad said to me, “I thought I told you to stay away from that son-of-a-bitch!”
Of course, Mom was all upset and started crying.
I figured my best defense was to cry, too. Mom inspected the wound and cleaned it with warm, soapy water and Bacteen, which hurt like hell and made my tears more genuine. But she still wanted to take me to the emergency room.
“That thing might have rabies or God-knows-what,” my Dad said.
I don’t really know how the incident was resolved between Claxton and my parents. When you’re a kid, things seem to blow over because your parents take care of it. I remember Claxton had some papers to prove the baboon had all its shots. I was grounded for a week and so were Mark and Paul.
I’ll never forget Cherub, the red-assed baboon. I never even noticed if his ass was really red, but mine sure was for a while.
My wife Sonya thought it was crazy that two grown men could get into such a flap with a plumber and a baboon, but she was getting used to it.
The day after our ordeal, I met Mark and Kelp back in the weirdly piped house.
Kelp sat balanced on a horizontal pipe about six feet off the ground with a toothpick in his mouth. I was sitting on another pipe, which was low enough for my feet to touch the floor. Mark was leaning back in a folding chair with his feet propped up on still another pipe, smoking a cigarette. There were bandages on my arm and Mark’s neck.
Over in the corner, sedated with animal tranquilizer but still awake, the baboon sat cross-legged on the floor with a plaster cast on the crown of its head, slowly and sloppily eating a Nutty Buddy ice cream cone. Kelp had adopted the animal and said he wanted to train it to operate a plunger.
Mark was explaining the time travel formula that we found in a pawn shop when we were kids.
“Picture a straight line,” said Mark. “You are a dot in the middle of the line. If you travel forward to the right, you get older. Too far and you’re dead. If you travel backward to the left, you get younger. Too far and you were never born. We think that might be Heaven but nobody knows for sure, and that’s why we’re afraid to die.”
“Who do you think you are?” I asked. “Madeleine L’Engle?”
“I look better in a dress than her,” Mark shot back. He continued, “Now, think of that straight line and join the ends together and you have a circle. Then, there is no longer a left or right.”
Kelp spoke up excitedly, “It all blends together!”
I asked, “Does that mean Heaven can exist here on Earth?”
“So the theory goes,” Mark sighed. “But a time travel formula from a pawn shop has its uncertainties.”
The air was cool and soothing. The gentle “drip/blip” of water was relaxing. The thought of heaven on earth made me feel so good I stood up on the pipe and began to climb. Beautiful cascading hues of light filtered down from the hole in the ceiling as I started climbed the pipes like they were fantastic monkey bars on a secret playground.
I climbed without fear and felt such strength and calm and lack of pain, it was like I was a kid again, or almost like I was Superboy. I climbed to where the floor used to divide the first story from the second. I side-stepped over to another horizontal pipe and climbed higher. Getting wet didn’t bother me. I was beyond the confines of ‘wet’; I existed in bliss. Water doesn’t hurt; it evaporates and all things are new.
I smiled and climbed until I reached the apex, the hole in the ceiling, which was bigger than it looked from down below. I stuck my head and shoulders up through the hole and could see all around, such a great expanse, so wide a world and safe, and I owned it all. I don’t mean I owned it like I could pick it up and take it; I owned it in the sense that it was all there for me and no one could take it away.
And miles and miles of clouds and earth and telephone lines and streets leading to oceans and sparkling oceans as far as the eye could see, and the swelling awe that engulfed me like looking at the biggest thing in the world. And as wide as the ocean was, I sensed it was also deep, so deep, and connecting everything.
Then I was standing on the roof with my arms outstretched and my head back and I felt a sudden jump in my stomach like when you dream you are falling. I realized I had been tense for so long and now the tightness in my stomach muscles relaxed and I noticed there were no aches or pains and my scalp tingled and I seemed to float as I laughed.
I fell back into the hole in the roof and remembered something Jack Kerouac said in the Dharma Bums about, “You can’t fall off the side of a mountain,” or something.
So I let myself fall. Rolling back into the hole I found myself gently supported by the network if pipes. Slowly, like a sloth, I rolled, slid, and melted down the pipe structure from one level down to the next. It seemed to take luxurious hours to settle on the first floor.
By this time, Mark was ready to leave. We said goodbye to Kelp and the baboon.
As we walked home, Mark said, “You know, the pawn shop lady said we would get our wish if we didn’t fight time.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And I did. I wanted to face that baboon again and I did it. What was your wish, Mark?”
“Well,” said Mark, “When we were kids, hiding under those shrubs, it was like a secret hideout. I felt like I belonged. You know, I’ve lived from place to place ever since my parents disowned me.”
“You’re a nomad,” I agreed.
Mark continued, “Kelp said I can move into that weird house with him. He knows someone at City Hall who fudged some papers so that the house doesn’t exist on city records! It could be years before anyone finds out!”
“Years,” I said. “Man, that could be all the time in the world.”
I had used up all my sick days at work so I had to buckle down and learn how to do my job. A few months later, my wife and I moved across town to live in a big house she inherited from her mother. Mark and Kelp still live in the “haunted” pipe house but I heard they had ditched the baboon in one of those big Salvation Army containers where people donate items by shoving them through a door flap. The idea was for the baboon to hand clothing and stuff out to Mark through the small door, but a cop car drove by and Mark hauled ass. A hysterical Salvation Army employee was in the news the next day but the ape got away. All the police found was a big, stuffed teddy bear and they assumed the employee was hallucinating and made him check into a clinic.
One day I’m going to make it back over to their house to catch up on my parallel existence
Wistful evenings sometimes begin with sunny afternoons and there is a certain part of me that likes being wistful. Miss Glenly understood that feeling more than anyone when I was fourteen years old, walking home from school, stopping at her sunny house for a glass of iced tea and conversation during the prelude to sunset. She was cool for a 67 year old woman, I thought. In the small town where we lived, Miss Glenly had knowledge of a wider world. Some of that knowledge turned out to be terrifying.
She lived alone in a modest but nice, well-kept wooden house with a screened-in sun porch amid plants and books, some comfortable wicker chairs and a porch swing. Miss Glenly was a retired English teacher. Her husband, who died before I met her, had been the head of the psychology department at a nearby college.
We sat in the wicker chairs and she brought out two glasses of delicious iced tea with orange slices instead of lemon wedges.
“What are you reading now?” she always asked. “Still into Double-O-Seven?”
I had been reading all the James Bond books when I first went to her house to ask if she needed her lawn mowed, trying to earn some money during the summer. She did let me mow her lawn and we became friends and she invited me to stop by anytime on the way home from school as summer ended and Autumn began.
“No, I finished all the James Bond books,” I said. “I’m reading Dracula.”
“Ah, yes,” she said. “The red, gleaming eyes of Dracula, when he is looking at Mina through the fog, standing over the helpless Lucy. That’s the scene I remember.”
“I don’t think I’ve read that far yet,” I said.
“Well, I don’t want to give it away. You know, my late husband and I saw Bela Lugosi when he reprised his Dracula role on stage in the 1950’s.”
“Wow,” I said. “Was he good?”
“Lugosi was a consummate performer, despite his later reputation for strange behavior. But you know, I rather like the newer Dracula movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “With Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves.”
“Yes,” said Miss Glenly. “And that Tom Waits as Renfield. Such a performance! So scary and pathetic at the same time!”
That is how the conversations went until about six o’clock. Then I walked the rest of the way to my house. My parents got home from work around 6:30 and we ate dinner.
There was no hint that anything ever troubled Miss Glenly until we started talking about a literary idea called deconstruction. I never dreamed of the shocking event this would lead to.
“What is deconstruction?” I asked.
“It would be easier to demonstrate than to explain,” she said. “Give me a statement.”
“A statement? Like what?”
“Anything,” she said. “Your opinion on something.”
I looked around and said, “This is a cozy screened-in porch.”
“Oh,” smiled Miss Glenly. “This is the most cozy room in the house.”
“Okay,” I continued. “That’s our sentence, ‘This is the most cozy room in the house’.”
“Good.” Miss Glenly was now perky and involved. “You see, the word ‘cozy’ has a meaning to each person who hears it. You can’t hear ‘cozy’ without having a preconceived notion of what it means.”
“Ok,” I said. “But everybody knows what it means.”
“Do they?” she asked. “Does it mean the same thing to everyone?”
“Well,” I said, reaching for the Webster’s Dictionary which she always kept on the table beside some crossword puzzle books. I looked up the word ‘cozy’ and read the definition out loud. “Enjoying or affording warmth and ease. Comfortable. Relaxing. Marked by intimacy of the family or a close group.”
“Right,” said Miss Glenly. “What about the word ‘most’? If this is the most cozy room . . .”
I interrupted, “So, what is the least cozy room in the house?”
My smile quickly faded when I saw the strange expression on Miss Glenly’s face. She was staring into the house through the door that led in to the kitchen. I shuddered because she looked afraid. I turned around quickly, thinking she was staring at something, but saw nothing but the inside of the kitchen.
“Are you okay, Miss Glenly?”
She didn’t answer. I felt alarmed.
“Oh,” she said, suddenly looking at me. “Oh, I’m sorry. I…oh, dear, I’m…not feeling well…I guess I’m just tired.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“What were we just talking about?” she asked. “Oh, yes. Least cozy. I guess the, uh . . . storage room isn’t very cozy.” She forced a nervous laugh.
“We were talking about deconstruction,” I reminded her. “But if you’re tired, I should probably be going anyway. We can talk about it later.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re right. Maybe I should lie down, take a nap. I’ll be fine.”
She walked over to the porch swing. The swing was made of wood, but it had thick vinyl cushions on it and a pillow at one end. There was always a light blue comforter on there, too, because Miss Glenly sometimes took naps on the porch swing. She wasn’t very tall, so she had only to bend her knees a little to lay on the swing, pull the comforter over her, and take a nap. Now that’s cozy, I thought.
On my way home I kept thinking about it. If the screened-in porch is the most cozy, why is the storage room the least cozy? What is the opposite of cozy? Uncomfortable? Cold instead of warm? Producing anxiety instead of relaxation?
I remembered last Halloween when I and two friends were taking a short cut through Miss Glenly’s yard. We were too old to go trick-or-treating, but we liked to go out walking just to check out the scene, maybe get into some minor mischief. When we first passed her house, walking in the street, she was cheerfully handing out candy to costumed children. Much later that night, on our way home, we tromped across Miss Glenly’s dark lawn. As we passed the porch, we all jumped with fright at the sight of her sitting upright in the swing. She had been sleeping there until awakened by our voices.
We stopped in our tracks.
“Hello, boys,” she said. “Out for a walk?”
“We’re sorry. We didn’t know you were out here.”
“No harm done,” she had said. “I’ll go right back to sleep. There’s a cool ‘Florida-Autumn’ breeze blowing and it’s too stuffy inside.”
A few days after our “cozy” conversation, I went to see Miss Glenly again but she wasn’t sitting on her porch. The screen door hung open. I walked into the porch area and knocked on the inner door. My knocking made the wooden door glide open. It must not have been shut all the way. I could see into her neat, clean kitchen.
“Miss Glenly?” I said, and knocked on the door a little louder. “Hello? Miss Glenly?”
I walked into the well-kept kitchen. No one was there. It didn’t seem right that the door had been left open.
“Miss Glenly?” I said, rather loudly.
I walked from the kitchen into the hallway, realizing for the first time just how small this boxy house was. The first door to the left was the bathroom. There was one more door on the left (closed), no doors on the right, and one door facing me at the other end of the hall, also closed.
The door at the end of the hall had an old glass door knob. There was something unusual about it. In the otherwise clean house, there was a thick cobweb stretching from the dull dusty glass knob and clinging to the wooden door frame. This door obviously not been opened in a long time so I assumed this was the storage room. The only remaining room, the second door on the left, must be the bedroom, I thought. I knocked softly on it.
Something didn’t sound right. The rapping of my fist on the wood sounded muffled. I gripped the doorknob nervously and turned it slowly.
I gasped and backed up as door jolted open!
It only opened about an inch then nothing happened. It was just a closet stuffed so full of folded towels, sheets, and blankets that Miss Glenly must have pushed hard on the door to make it close and latch. So when I turned the knob, the compressed towels and linens had popped the door open about an inch. I opened the door wide. Just a closet.
I frowned and looked around. The only other door was the one at the end of the hall with cobwebs on it. If that is the bedroom. . . has she been sleeping on the porch swing every night?
I closed the closet door, pushing hard against the packed fabrics until the latch clicked.
Turning back to the kitchen, I looked out through the screen door. There was Miss Glenly, happily bustling from the bus stop with a shopping bag.
“Well, hello!” she said when she saw me in the kitchen. “Looking for me?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, walking out onto the screened-in porch. “I shouldn’t have walked in but I was worried. Your door was open. Can I help you with that bag?”
“You did the right thing,” she assured me, placing the bag on the porch table. “I must have left in too big a hurry. I was shopping. Sometimes I get anxious to leave the house.”
Her voice trailed off.
I asked, “What’s the matter, Miss Glenly?”
One thing I liked about her was she spoke to me like an adult, not a child.
“I’ve been . . . I’ve been depressed,” she said. “There’s no reason not to talk about it, I guess. Sometimes I can’t stand being in this house.”
“Oh,” I said. “Not even out here on the porch?”
“Not anymore,” she said. “I started thinking about the word ‘cozy’ and I thought, ‘the opposite of cozy is dreadful”.
“Why dreadful?” I asked.
“Because if this sun room is the most cozy, then some room has to be the least cozy. Instead of peace, anxiety. Instead of warmth, cold as nails. Instead of safety, a feeling of dread . . . a dreadful room.”
I just looked at Miss Glenly, feeling kind of scared.
She continued, “So if this screened-in porch is the least dreadful room, there must be a most dreadful room, right?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“And if the porch is the least dreadful room,” Miss Glenly’s lip began to quiver and tears were in her eyes. “It’s still a dreadful room,” she wept.
She sat down in one of the wicker chairs as I just stared at her, realizing that she must sleep out here every night because the only other room, what must be the bedroom, is the one with cobwebs on the doorknob.
“What?” I finally asked.
“If two people get caught in the rain,” she said, trying to compose herself, “Even the one who is the least wet is still wet! This porch is not as dreadful as . . . as . . . oh, but it’s still dreadful!”
She was crying again.
I was worried about my friend and couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You run along,” she said. “I’ll be alright. I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Oh, this is so embarrassing.”
I didn’t see Miss Glenly as often after that. She was almost never home, always taking the bus to who-knows-where.
One day I had to take the bus to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a test to get my restricted license for Driver’s Education.
The bus driver asked me, “Is Miss Glenly alright?”
“I guess so,” was my usual response to any question I didn’t quite understand.
“Well,” said the bus driver, “I used to see her almost every day, but it’s been almost a week now since she’s taken the bus. Did she start driving?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, worried.
That evening I went to check on her. I went onto the screened-in porch. It was dark and quiet inside. I thought she wasn’t home.
I walked past the table and into the kitchen. The bathroom door on the left was open, no one in there. I passed the closet on the left. There were no doors to the right. Something was different about the door at the end of the hall. No cobwebs. The glass doorknob was clean.
I was going to knock softly on the door when a strange cold feeling hit my feet and legs. What was that? Cold air. I reached down and held my hand near the bottom of the door. Cold air was coming from under the door. There must be an air conditioner in there, I thought.
I went back down the hall, outside through the front door, and walked around to the back of the house. There was an air conditioner. A window unit. I had always heard it running; I just never thought about it before.
Some ancient duct tape, used to seal the edges of the AC unit in the window, was painted over, so it was dry and brittle, with curling edges. I peeled it back, until it cracked and fell away, exposing a half-inch space between the AC unit and the window frame. I could see inside the bedroom through this space. The drone of the AC covered the sound of my tampering. I looked in.
Miss Glenly looked so proper, brave, and elegant as she sat at the edge of a bed, legs crossed like a glamorous movie heroine, speaking to a wall of books. She was looking up at an entire wall covered with home-made wooden bookshelves, full of books, opposite from where she sat.
She was saying, “I’m sorry, Henry. I’m sorry! I know I should visit you more often. But you shouldn’t have left me the way you did.”
Suddenly books flew off the shelves, past Miss Glenly on both sides and over her head! The books crashed into the wall behind her. One of the books hit her forehead, drawing blood. Every book, two or three at a time, spinning off the shelves and flailing around Miss Glenly’s small but resolute figure. Another book hit her shoulder. She never raised her arms to protect herself. The books that missed her flew past and slammed hard on the wall behind her. One large hardback volume hit the paneled wall so hard it broke the wood and wedged itself into the paneling. An old pair of men’s shoes also went air-born and whizzed by Miss Glenly’s face and slapped against the wall, leaving scuff marks.
Miss Glenly faced this terrifying barrage bravely, refusing to be moved, even as the faint traces of a dry water stain on the wall behind the shelves began to glisten moist and crimson.
I ran as fast as I could, home.
When I tried to tell my parents what I saw, they got the idea that Miss Glenly herself had been throwing books around the room. They scolded me for spying on her.
My father said sternly, “You need to calm down!”
“But,” I asked, “Why would she throw books?”
“That poor woman,” my mother said. “We never told you this, but her husband committed suicide in that room. Who can blame her for getting hysterical sometimes?”
“And sleeping on the porch swing,” my father added.
I started thinking maybe I had imagined it. I lay on my bed that night, listening to music through my headphones, which was my other escape from the world besides reading. I stared at the ceiling until my eyelids got heavy and I fell asleep.
For the next two days I did nothing but read a book about deconstruction by French author Jacques Derrida. The book, translated into English, was called Spectres of Marx. The part about a “dancing table” caught my attention. At first I imagined an animated cartoon, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia, with a wooden table scampering around the room. Derrida was making a point that the word “table” means different things to different people.
Wood from a tree becomes lumber. A carpenter fashions the lumber into a table. When one person sees that table, it might represent businessmen having lunch at a bistro in the financial district. To the owner of the restaurant, it signifies one more space for a paying customer to sit. Still another person might be reminded of dinner with their family, and by extension, their departed grandmother, who’s memory is now but a ghost in the empty chair. The table dances with possibilities.
With some apprehension, I went back to visit Miss Glenly. She wasn’t home when I got there so I waited. Soon enough, the bus pulled up to the corner bus stop and she stepped onto the sidewalk carrying one of those shopping bags with handles on it and the name of the store on the bag. She had a band-aid on her forehead.
“Hello,” she greeted me.
We walked onto the porch and sat down.
“I’ve been reading about deconstruction,” I told her.
She was silent for a moment, and then said quietly, “I didn’t do a very good job of explaining it to you. You know why? Because, in all my years of teaching English, I don’t think I ever fully understood the concept.”
“Well,” I began haltingly. “Let’s deconstruct the words cozy and dreadful.”
“Alright,” she said, seeming to be glad to get back to the old discussions we used to have.
I said, “You didn’t find this room to be “most cozy” based on the most dreadful room. If the dreadful room were the only dreadful place in your life, then anywhere in the world would be cozy compared to that room.”
“Oh,” she said. “I can think of other cozy places. The farmhouse I grew up in had a fireplace and in the winter we sat around it and drank hot chocolate. And the dorm room in college was nice. Outside the window, squirrels darted around on the tree limbs.”
“Cool,” I said. “So you base the idea of cozy on good experiences.”
Miss Glenly gave me a closed-eyed smile and said, “Warmth and safe places.”
“What were some cold, bad places you remember?”
“Oh, my,” she said. “I’ll never forget the time Henry and I were on a luxury cruise in Alaska and the ship hit an iceberg. It was almost like the Titanic, only nobody died. But we were frightened and cold, because the power was out and we didn’t know if we were going to make it back to port. That was a dreadful experience.”
“Dreadful?” I nudged. “Like that dreadful room in your house?”
“What about that dreadful room?” she shuddered.
“Well,” I said, “That room has nothing to do with this room. What do you dread?”
“Oh,” Miss Glenly began in an off-hand way, “Going to the dentist.”
“Me, too,” I said.
We were silent for a moment.
“I really dread going to funerals,” she said. “I mean, don’t we all?”
I said, “Dentists and funerals have nothing to do with fireplaces, hot chocolate, or dorm rooms.”
“I kept yelling at him to get up,” Miss Glenly said, confusing me for a moment. “I didn’t see the empty pill bottle. I thought he would rather be with his books than me. I thought he was asleep so I started pulling books off the shelves and throwing them at him. When he didn’t move, I got down and listened for his breath. He had overdosed.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Then I felt really guilty like I had killed him with the books but the coroner said he’d been dead for hours. But I still blamed myself. Aren’t I stupid? I dread that memory when I see it coming. I try not to think about it. In the winter, I used to stretch an indoor clothesline down the hall, from the kitchen to the bedroom, to hang the wash up to dry, so I wouldn’t have to go outside. After a while, it seemed like the clothesline connected the front of the house with the back, and I couldn’t stand it any longer after Henry died. So I took the clothesline down.”
“There are lines connected to those rooms,” I said. “But the lines don’t connect the rooms together.”
I drew two squares on a piece of paper, side by side, and then drew a straight line from one square to the other.
“There’s your clothesline,” I said, pointing at the line I had drawn. “Each square represents a room, connected by that line.”
Then I erased the horizontal line and drew two vertical lines, straight up & down through each square. The lines did not cross; they were parallel.
Miss Glenly picked up a pencil and wrote a list of words at the bottom of each line. The first list was, “sad, cold, and afraid.” The second list was “happy, warm, cozy.”
She said, “My ideas of cozy and dreadful come from different experiences that formed separately. So, instead of two rooms being ‘connected’ by a line running through the hallway, it is more like each room has it’s own ‘line’ running straight up & down. Two separate lines which never touch each other; each line connects to separate experiences in my life, good feelings and bad.”
“Right,” I was even surprising myself. “The lines never cross, never intersect; they are independent of one another. The rooms are independent of each other, too,” I said. “Each room based on independent past experiences; not based on each other.”
“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to have to take a nap.”
I went home.
One summer morning when I went to mow Miss Glenly’s lawn, I noticed the window AC unit was gone. In its place was a freshly painted window frame and inside were some soft, cheerful curtains, drawn back part-way so I could see into the room.
The bedroom was clean and picturesque. The golden sun flowed warmly through the window and onto Miss Glenly, sleeping in a real bed instead of a porch swing, the light blue comforter snuggled over her. Her alarm clock went off and she yawned and stretched and smiled at the new day.
She had patched the hole in the wall where the book had stuck, repainted the wooden bookshelves, and carefully replaced each book, where they sat handsomely, at peace, satisfied to be taken down individually on occasion for some light reading.