This is a short story I wrote a few years ago based a friend’s elderly mother. Enjoy.
It’s not true I hate everything.
Sure, I don’t like this dinner with the overcooked turkey, dry stuffing, and mushy potato salad. I hate the ugly knit pantsuit picked for me and despise the way Elise styled my hair into a ratty bun. The pumps pinch my bunions, and I really need to scratch in a delicate place. I would throw my plate across the room to get the attention of this nattering family if I could raise my bum arm. Instead, I sit in a wheelchair, scowling into my plate, blinking back tears, and thinking of the last Thanksgiving when I prepared the holiday dinner fit for a queen – or me, at least.
Sigh. Elise fusses again, hovering around me like a bird around a wilting flower. She’s my favorite child. We decided I’d live with her when the time came, but it hasn’t been anything I anticipated; I imagined being independent, living downstairs in the “mother-in-law” apartment, driving to my usual daily walks around the mall, the Wednesday night bridge games, or the occasional night out with the girls. Instead, I exist in a jerry-rigged bedroom off the kitchen.
Elise’s smothering cheeriness sucks the very breath from me.
I can’t seem to wrap my tongue around words like before, but you’d think I was speaking gibberish the way they repeat outlandish things back to me. Really, after ninety-two years on this earth, people should know me by now – understand me. Shouldn’t they?
“Mom, would you like some more green beans?”
Oh, good heavens, no. They taste like Sissy dumped them from a can and cooked them to death to boot. I taught Elise to cook, but obviously she hasn’t passed it down to her daughter. Surely Elise must remember all the fluffy mashed potatoes, the delectable roasts, and the fresh string beans from our modest garden. She certainly knew how to cook turkey to perfect, juicy done-ness; Sissy only presented this dry, tasteless excuse for a bird. And what was with all the mushy food? Really, I’m not a babbling baby who needs to gum her meals.
“Elaine, did you hear her? Have some more, you need to eat.”
Yes, I can hear just fine, Stephen. No, I’m not hungry and don’t need my son-in-law to keep harping on my diet. That’s another thing: the portions are too big. I eat what I can; the rest they should save. There’s no reason for me to paw over it so they can throw good food away. Back when times were hard, we did not waste food like that.
Ah, time for everybody to disperse to different rooms. I see the young ones trooping into the den to play on their video games. Must be time for Stephen and boys to puff their cigars outside; the smoke isn’t good for me, you know. Sissy’s cleaning the kitchen. I’d love to hear the gossip in there but-.
“You look tired, Mom. Ready for a nap?”
Yes, all that hovering and nattering has tired me out, but I really don’t like being put to bed like some toddler. Well, it’s not so much the naps I hate; it’s the gloom that falls after the door closes. It’s just me, wrapped up in the blankets, the darkness and the quiet, confined to a bed until somebody moves me. Often I lie awake staring at the walls, the silence so deep that Death could come any second and take me at last. I’ll close my eyes and never wake up; he’ll take my hand and we’ll walk out the front door together. When I feel ill, I warn Elise I’m waiting to die, but she gives me a vacant look and bustles around as if I hadn’t said a word. I hate when she does that.
The day nurse doesn’t demand I take naps. When I’m tired, I can doze off in the comfy winged-back chair with the music of Lawrence Welk on the television. I don’t mind sitting in companionable silence – no nattering, no hovering … just the click of her knitting needles.
Then I can cast my mind back to better days with dear Albert and our times together, to when we first met as children at school, our first date at the local soda shop, our courtship spent jitterbugging the nights away, and the lonely separation during the war. I think about our modest wedding after the army released him from the hospital. I relive the births of each of our children, their first hesitant steps, their graduations, their weddings. I think about life after my Al: the bridge games, the mall walks, and the grandchildren. I loved those things.
I imitated one of my fictional stories and joined a writers’ group at the nearby library last November. The group is fluid, consisting of about five older regulars and a revolving number of newcomers (to me). They meet the second and fourth Monday on the month to read our stuff and have it critiqued.
My attendance had been interrupted by first by the holidays, then visitors and finally an unshakable writing paralysis. I’d submitted an old ghost story for the group to review and happily survived the process. Nobody skewered me; they’d enjoyed the story (although it needed a few tweaks) and looked forward to seeing more of my work.
But my muse was missing in action. How could I critique others’ work when I had nothing really to offer up? Many in the group were working on novels and bringing in chapters. I hadn’t written anything for quite some time and felt like a fraud. Walking past the library to the local cantina, I remembered that it was again the fourth Monday of the month. I mulled over a rather delicious strawberry margarita. Should I go? Sure, said the margarita. There will be other muses there. Maybe you’ll catch one! Making a mental note not to order a big drink next time, I rushed to the meeting, hoping to catch a muse that was non-alcoholic.
The regulars greeted me as if I’d never been away but no muse jumped me at the door. The usual suspects pulled out their book chapters. Wait, I blurted out. Does anybody have writer’s block? One man raised his hand. We exchanged battle weary sighs. You just have to write, said the novelists. You just have to sit down and do it. Don’t wait for a muse. Try to write a sentence differently. Write nonsense. But you just have to write and the rest will come. The facilitator asked who would submit a story for next time? Well, I had a short story. It’s old, I added as if an apology. We wouldn’t have known that until you told us, they said. It doesn’t matter. Then they bowed their heads and began critiquing.
I looked around the room at the writers laboring over their literary children. Some were inspired, some weren’t. Then I recalled that the man with his writer’s block had yet to submit a completed story while I was there, but he never missed a meeting. That’s tenacity.
Even though I already intellectually knew their advice, there’s nothing like a group of writers poring over their work, saying it aloud that puts things in perspective.
As many of you know, I started writing in childhood, interrupted by a very long period as a legal scrivener. There’s something about the field that kills creativity. Thinking outside the box requires almost physical effort. A few years ago began reclaiming that part of me I left behind and joined writing.com. I wrote some stories, entered some contests and did pretty well. You can take a look at my portfolio here. Then I fell into the Big Sleep. Now that I’m out of hibernation, it’s back to the grindstone.
To keep myself honest, I will be posting short fiction pieces (in addition to The Man Series – don’t worry!) here on Writing Wall. The subjects will be whatever strikes me, so if you don’t like one piece, you might like another. In honor of upcoming Halloween, here is a story written three years ago. It’s a mash-up of two events: one is my great-grandfather’s apocryphal (maybe) tale that occurred in post WWI Chicago, and the other one concerns a house purportedly written about in the newspapers of the day. It would be fun to research, yes?
Enjoy Four Day Stay.
The place sat empty for years, but William Leary didn’t care. Nor did he care that the nervous, shifty-eyed landlord had left him to sweep, scrub, and drag out the grime and junk from years of neglect. His friends warned that a large apartment rented at such a ridiculous price even during these hard times spelled trouble, but that advice went ignored. William cared only that it was cheap. With a large five-room apartment, he could make a pretty penny bringing in lodgers to fill the space. Sure, he didn’t have much schooling, but he prided himself on having a good eye for deals and a level head. He paid the rumors no mind, slapped the money down on Friday, and moved in two days later.
Monday night, he walked from work, tired and foot sore. Being a porter wasn’t easy; he looked forward to getting off his feet a bit, but he had prospective lodgers to interview first. There’s probably five or six of them waiting, eager to line his pockets. The thought put a little spring in his step. He headed home.
When the lodgers didn’t beat a path to his door that night, he was surprised. He shifted in his only chair in the freshly scrubbed parlor, puffed on a cigarette, drummed his fingers, and gazed at the empty space. He had hardly a stick of furniture, and had been counting on boarders to bring their own. He heaved a sigh.
It echoed off the bare walls and floors, and fell harsh on his ear. Illuminated only by a dingy pool of light cast by the rickety lamp behind him, he pondered the situation. He had no money to waste on ads, and word of mouth trumped newspapers any time. What had kept them away? Surely it wasn’t the silly rumors?
After a while, he noticed something about the silence. Even on a hot summer night in the room closest to the street, he could hear nothing – no cars, doors, dogs – nothing. The silence felt almost oppressive in its completeness. Had he gone deaf? He coughed to make sure.
Another faint echo. Nah, just getting all fired up about nothing. He stubbed out the cigarette, rose and switched on the wireless, his prized possession.
“…Pre…dent Roo…velt …nounced…the…will…ceed… actment…” Static crackled through the speaker. William frowned. This old box could get a signal from anywhere on a drop of a dime. There had to be interference from somewhere. He continued twisting the knobs in case reception improved.
Squeee floomp . Squeee floomp.
He lifted his head. What was that?
Squeee floomp . Squeee floomp.
His head turned, following the sound. That noise – was coming from the back of the hallway! He barely knew where the light switch was, but – aha! The meager bulb barely came to life before sputtering, dying, and engulfing him again in gloom.
Squeee floomp . Squeee floomp.
He drew in a deep breath. All righty now. This was no time to get spooked by some noise. He just needed to walk down the hall, into the den and then the kitchen. Placing a guiding hand on the wall, he took one step and then another. Another jamb and glass paneled door told him that he’d found the den.
Squeee floomp . Squeee floomp
He groped again for a switch. Just as the dim bulb flickered on, the noise stopped. He strode into the middle of the empty room. Well, all the windows and bedroom doors were closed tight. He twisted the bedroom door knob for good measure. Yup, shut. So, the only thing left was the kitchen door.
He gave it a tentative push.
It creaked, and then swung back into place.
A careful check of the kitchen’s back door and closed pantry revealed the same thing. Nothing. He scowled at the kitchen door and tested it again. It swung once, twice, then nothing.
He stared. The noise must have been this door swinging – like somebody going in and out.
The fine hairs on his arms prickled. Of course that was silly; he was completely, totally alone in this damn silence. What was the matter with him? A few noises caused by a bad draft, and suddenly he was a screaming Nelly? He must be more tired than he thought. He gave himself a mental shake. Tomorrow, he’d find a lodger. That would take care of the – emptiness – of the place. And he’d get some oil for the creaky door.
He slept well that night.
Tuesday night, William strode home, optimistic that he’d put out the word about needing new lodgers. Skeezer had joked about the place being dubbed the Four Day Stay, ‘so good luck with those boarders,’ but he was a silly old coot. Still, that night found William sprawled in the same chair under the same dingy lamp, drumming his fingers. He’d done some more scrubbing around the place, added a small wooden table in the den that he’d found back in the alley, and laid a few possessions around to make the place a little homier.
He sat bold upright, mouth falling open.
Oh no, NO.
Just in case he had a bad draft problem, he’d latched all the windows and closed all the doors. That should’ve taken care of things. What in the –
Squee floomp. Squee floomp.
He jumped to his feet.
No, there had to be something else, something he’d missed. Things did not just go bump in the night. Sure of his bearings, he flicked the switch in the hall. The bulb fizzled. What in the hell? He just changed it. Could the wiring be bad?
He glanced over his shoulder, a bit hesitant to leave the dim but comforting glow from the parlor. He gazed down the long hall and swallowed hard. Okay, don’t be a chicken. Just go on in and see what in the hell’s causing that draft. There’s a logical explanation. Fingertips brushing the walls, he moved towards the den.
Squee floomp. Squee floomp.
A sharp bump into the paneled door signaled his destination. He grabbed the switch. In the seconds the bulb took to die, he stood rooted to the spot as the kitchen door swung widely open to inky blackness before quickly slamming shut.
The bulb exploded with a pop.
He jumped back, heart racing.
What? What had just happened?
He waited in the darkness for heaven knew what. Seconds elapsed, then a minute. He heard nothing but the rasp of his own breathing.
Okay, Okay. It’s okay. He reached in his pocket for the box of matches; a strike and the match sprang to life. He held it out before him like a talisman, moved to the center of the room and turned full circle.
Okay, Okay. He approached the kitchen door. Its silence seemed to mock him. A tentative shove revealed nothing amiss beyond but another broken bulb. By the fourth match, he’d collected his wits. All right. He had a faulty electrical system and a bad draft, that’s all. That’s all it could be.
It took a while to fall asleep that night.
On Wednesday, William headed home with not as much pep in his stride. More of the fellas had jokingly asked how his stay was going. He’d laughed it off but it irked that people were superstitious enough to listen to stupid rumors. Sure, there might be problems with the electrical, and some odd noises, but no logical person would pass up a great deal like his. He sighed and gripped the package containing his supper. At least he’s gotten a nice cheap cut from the butcher; he’d fry it up tonight. Nothing like the smell of home cooking to bring around any possible lookie-lous.
He sat in his chair under the dingy light, peering through the plume of cigarette smoke. Nobody had knocked on his door. He snorted and mashed the stub into the tray. What was wrong with people? This was the twentieth century, not some bygone time with spooks and ghouls. If he didn’t find any lodgers soon, he’d have to foot the rent by himself. The dream of squirreling away a little money seemed farther and farther away.
Damn. There it was again.
He jumped to his feet, but paused. Hold on. If it’s nothing but a draft messing with the door, then it would soon stop by itself, just like before. All he had to do was wait it out.
He reached for the cigarette box, hands shaking. Okay, too shaky to smoke. All right Leary, keep it together. It’s just a bit of noise, that’s all.
He wandered around the parlor, straightening the lamp shade, touching the table, checking the walls, looking for any distraction. Teeth on edge, he tapped his fingers along the fireplace mantle. He stopped before the old cast off clock as the hands ticked to 10:00.
He retreated to the chair and held its arms in a death grip. He closed his eyes, willing his heart to stop racing. That damn noise, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. He could wait this out. He could – block the door! Yes, he could find something to prop against it, and then tomorrow, he’d get a latch.
Satisfied with the plan, he made it to the den’s entry before realizing he had nothing to use. A strike of a match, and he spotted the solution.
Yes, the table!
The flame blew out.
He struck another match and froze.
The glow caught the kitchen door swinging open like a giant mouth before slamming closed and snuffing the light.
Heart pounding in his ears, he grabbed the table and shoved, its legs grating across the floor. It slammed against the door with a bang.
YES! That ought to do the trick.
What in the hell was that!
He struck another match. He turned, his jaw dropped. Now, the glass paneled door was closed and the back bed room door – stood wide open like a gaping maul.
He didn’t sleep that night.
On Thursday night, William hurried along, very late. Sweaty fingers clutched the parcel holding tonight’s supper. He wanted to head anyplace besides home but had no choice. Friends had sent his way locals from down South who needed quick lodgings tonight and more importantly, knew nothing about the rumors. With new boarders in the place, things should stay quiet.
He sent up a prayer: Oh please Lord, let them come.
The moment he opened the front door, he knew his pray had been answered. He could hear the voices drifting from the den and sighed with relief that they had arrived.
Hang on, what was this?
He paused on the threshold and stared.
They already moved in lock, stock, and barrel! He eyed the old settee in the parlor, and other pieces he didn’t recognize. Did his friends tell them they could do this? He’d never intended to send them away, but it would’ve been nice to a look them over before he took their money.
He walked down the hall. Well, they’d fixed the lights, hung some portraits, thrown down a nice runner in the hall. Was that really oriental? Their stuff was mighty nice, not anything they’d want to leave anywhere.
At the den’s entry, he gawked in amazement.
His table was gone. In its place, sat a large dining set surrounded by four hardy looking men, ties and high stiff collars loosened and sleeves rolled, engaged in a rowdy game of poker. They laughed and joked, their glasses of amber colored liquid tinkling and clinking as they sipped and revealed their hands. Smoke wafting from their cigars enveloped the room in a haze. William admired the two pretty young women with gold combs flashing in high-piled, dark hair, long white dresses, and high-top buttoned shoes peeking beneath the skirts. They hovered behind the men, smiling and whispering to each other.
William blinked. Well, this was – interesting and a bit disturbing. How could strangers move into a man’s home and make themselves comfortable like this? Didn’t they realize they were just boarders? He called out a greeting.
Nobody looked his way.
Were they ignoring him? What the hell was going on?
He wandered in, at a loss what to do. His damp fingers reminded him of the soggy package in his hand. He went into the kitchen and thrust the parcel into the ice box, none too gently. Were these folks raised in a barn? Sure, he needed lodgers but they took the cake. Moving in, taking over, smoking, gambling, without so much as a ‘howdy do’ or ‘here’s your money.’ He’d give them a piece of his mind, by God.
He jerked around.
What in the blazes?
He’d heard enough to recognize gunshots.
He raced towards the scream, pushed back through the swinging door and –
– Ran into utter darkness and absolute silence.
He blinked like a mole. Who turned out the lights? What happened? Where were they? He called out in confusion.
A faint echo. Not surprising but should he hear one if -?
His mind reeled. He felt at once hot and cold, his body fighting what his brain already knew. He brought out the box of matches. No, no, no. It can’t be.
“C’mon now, I know you’re here.”
Know you’re here
“Now look here, this isn’t funny.”
“Stop playing games!”
He gulped. His shaky hands moved of their own accord. A few false strikes and the match flared.
He stepped forward and bumped against something small.
Startled, he held the match closer. His table.
Swallowing hard, he willed himself to look up. The glow revealed what he knew would be there –
– An empty room.
No people. No furniture. Not even a lingering whiff of cordite.
His mind raced, filling in the details he’d been too busy to notice. The old light fixtures – where had they come from? And the wallpaper, nobody could’ve hung that in a few hours. Those people – they looked like something from his childhood with the high collars, long skirts and high-buttoned shoes. And they had that strange gauzy look like cheesecloth, if he could’ve reached out and put his hand –
– No, no, no, NOOOO!
He opened his mouth in a silent scream; his legs carried him forward, ramming against the table, bumping into door frames, into walls. He groped and stumbled for the exit – for the escape.
He didn’t stop for his clothes, his furniture, or his beloved wireless. He flung open the front door, and rushed headlong down the stairs and into the night.
The door closed behind him.
He never went back.
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