Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Story for Halloween

Grey chill days made it significantly harder for Julianne to get out of bed. She woke up the same—promptly at eight o’clock. Regardless of what hour she settled in the night before, always at eight o’clock, and without an alarm clock, her eyes would pop wide awake. This morning the light from the bedroom window trickled in sluggishly, dribbling over the sill like fog and rolling onto her bed like she was a wintry seaport canal.

She groaned and turned over, snuggling under the covers for an extra twenty minutes snooze. It was no use. Her mind refused to sleep any longer even as her body refused to get out of bed. Her mind traveled out of the bedroom into the kitchen, where it mentally prepared the coffee pot and lit the stove. Her body wistfully longed for someone to bring her coffee in bed.

From now on I will prepare the coffee pot the night before, she said to herself. It will make it easier to get out of bed if all I have to do is light the stove.

She opened one eye and peered at the grey window. Yesterday had been lovely; all autumn sunshine and midday heat. She’d been startled—and immediately pleased—to notice some tiny red strawberries appear in the grass outside her building. The unusual October sunshine had stimulated a last ditch effort at bearing fruit.

Thinking of the strawberries finally gave her enough stimulus to throw back the covers and emerge from bed. It was such tiny pleasures that got her through every day, the constant intentional effort to notice small details and relish them. She relished her morning schedule. Clean out yesterday’s coffee grounds, fill the espresso pot and light the stove, go make the bed while the coffee percs, slice some cheese and spread some honey on toast to make breakfast. After breakfast, tidy the flat. She kept her small apartment very clean. There wasn’t much to clutter it, all her belongings having come with her in a suitcase. The last owner, who apparently had moved out in a hurry, had left behind a few items—two candles, a half-dead plant, and a ceramic cross. Julianne made use of these small things, enjoying their strangeness just as she enjoyed the familiarity of everything else she owned. She put the cross over the window in her bedroom and was working to nurse the little plant back to life.

She moved its pot to the balcony and cast a critical eye at the sky. Not much sunlight to be had today, she said to the herb, but soak up as much as you can. She talked to things a lot, and to herself. When she thought about it, she wasn’t sure if she said her thoughts out loud or only with the voice inside her head. There wasn’t much difference when she was by herself anyway. Either way, a steady one-sided conversation kept her company as she moved through her day.

A high-pitched, grating buzzer erupted into her silent monologue. Julianne’s heart almost burst with the startle. Every time, she thought. It gets me every time. I must ask her to knock.

It was the doorbell, and at the door stood her first pupil of the day, clutching her notebook nervously in the hall. The English lesson commenced.

After a rather torturous explanation of why there was only one way to say the year 1342, even though there were two ways to read the number 1,342, the pair of them paused to digest and breathe before continuing on. In the few weeks since Julianne had arrived and started teaching English lessons, she had learned how to speak very slowly and clearly, using simple words and scanning her pupils’ faces, constantly checking for comprehension. A single flicker of blank eyes was enough warning to make her redirect her words, slow down further, and often use simple gestures or diagrams to clarify her meaning. This pupil, however, was particularly frustrating in that she would sit through an entire explanation, repeating certain phrases as if to signify understanding, and then at the end, draw a puzzled face.

“Pleese, I have not understand.”

Dull students of a foreign language insist on consistency. They want all rules to apply all the time. They want every peculiar irregularity to have an explanation. When they have learned one way to express an idea, they have no flexibility in receiving another way. A student learns to answer the question, “How are you?” with, “Fine, thanks, and you?” and will answer thus promptly every time. Any divergence from this pattern causes consternation to the dull student and can inhibit him or her from absorbing anything else for the entire lesson. So Julianne quickly learned never to say nice things such as “How’s it going?” and “Oh, pretty good, for the most part,” or “And how are you doing today?”.

Finally she was able to convey that the year 1342 was simply thirteen-hundred-forty-two and never one-thousand-three-hundred-forty-two simply because it was that way and stop.

“And stop.” the pupil repeated. “It’s peculiar. Fear-teen-ferty-too.”

So they paused to breathe. Julianne cracked her neck by twisting it quickly to the left and the right, a simple pleasure that allowed a surreptitious glance at the clock across the room. Only fifteen more minutes.

“Are you superstitious?” the pupil asked. Julianne eyed her, wondering how the large word had slipped into her vocabulary.


“Yes.” The woman nodded at a string of hot peppers drying in the kitchen.

“No,” she said with a forced chuckle in her voice. “Those are for cooking.” A hint of blankness. “Eating.” The fresh peppers were only sold in half-kilogram packages, which Julianne would take all winter to eat, so she had strung them up like she saw in the movies, hoping they would dry and also make her kitchen look authentic.

“Ah, okei.”

“Are you superstitious?”

“Ah, no. Just, sometimes, with the catt. The blacka catt. If I going, wiff car, and blacka catt goes like dis, I stop and a change my way.” She gestured to show a cat crossing the street in front of her. “I make a different way. It’s, ah, not, lookee.”

“Lucky,” the teacher gently corrected.


The hour ended and Julianne prodded the pupil out the door.

“Have a nice weekend.”

The pupil paused a long time. Julianne could see her start and stop several times and wondered what she was trying to say. Her mouth gaped like a fish.

Finally, “The same also you.”

“The same to you.”

“Ah, si, the same to you.” They practiced this phrase every week, but for some reason it refused to stick in the dull student’s mind.

Julianne shut the door and released her breath all in one go. She went back to the balcony for no particular reason other than to see if the grey showed any signs of letting up. It did not, although now it shone with an allover brightness that suggested there was a sun behind its curtain. She leaned over the balcony railing and looked into the yard.

The yard was just a patch of scrub that had grown up where it was untended by the gardener. Julianne looked into it intently, hoping to catch sight of the black cat that frequented there. She liked to watch the cat. She felt a distinct fraternity with him, like they both viewed the world in the same way. Of course the cat knew, as she did, that the yard was only weeds, but nevertheless he explored it with an air of mystery and self-importance as if it were truly a territory to be conquered. She imagined that he, like herself, built up a meaningful existence by giving simple details utmost attention. A cat, after all, could certainly appreciate simple pleasures, like an afternoon sunbath or a romp in the deepest jungle of the apartment yard.

The cat wasn’t there.

It was about twenty minutes until her next lesson. Julianne went back inside her apartment and tidied some invisible dust. The flat was noisy; it was always noisy with the sounds of a thin-walled building. Bumps and thuds and screeches made the background to her daily chores. Sometimes it sounded like someone was knocking on her wall or even her door. When she first moved there she had looked out into the empty hallway a few times, just to make sure there really wasn’t anyone there. Occasionally the sounds grew so loud as to drown out the music she played to keep herself company or the sound of the television at night. This latter occurrence frustrated her to no end. She hated not being able to hear the dialogue on the TV, even when she couldn’t understand the language.

She rarely heard her neighbors, however. Now that she stopped to think about it, she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard voices from another apartment. Occasionally the sound of a TV turned up too loudly—only for a minute until the volume was adjusted—or a key in a neighboring door at night, or footsteps ahead of her on the stairwell. She never heard their actual voices. Or saw them, for that matter. Only by these almost inhuman sounds did she know they were there, and by other things like the elevator changing floor or mail in the box having been removed. It was a solitary existence, but she didn’t mind. Her students kept her company, plus a few friends to see on the weekends.

Her next student arrived, one who (thankfully) spoke English rather well, and only wanted an hour of conversation to keep up his fluency rather than a perfunctory lesson. The first few weeks of their acquaintance having passed, the easiest hours were finished. They had covered all the introductory topics, like where he was from, where he worked, what he liked to do in his free time, about his family, and so on. Julianne didn’t want the discussions to go stagnant, both because she herself didn’t want to be bored, and also because she was afraid she might lose a customer if he felt the practice irrelevant. Last week she had asked him to explain the political system of his country. He managed to learn some new vocabulary and she had learned some political small talk, but in the end he decided politics were too unpleasant a subject. This week she wanted something lively but nevertheless practical.

It occurred to her that it was the day before Halloween. This was a perfect conversation starter, as she could share stories about her home country’s culture and then use it as a springboard to talk about something dear to his countrymen—superstitions.

She was pleased that their discussion flowed easily and naturally. She interrupted every few minutes to help him express a sentiment he found challenging, reshuffle complicated auxiliary verbs, or correct pronunciation, but for the most part they just talked.

“No, we don’t celebrate the Halloween here. Ah, sometimes in the discos. It’s becoming more common, but as a business, not because the tradition.”

“I see. It’s an excuse to have a party, to make more money.”

“Yes, the money. The business. I went in one last year, but it was mostly for younger. The Halloween is for younger, like twenty.”

“Halloween is a big time for superstitions. Are you superstitious?”

“Me, no, for me it is a not so big a problem. Not compared to, say, my parents or grandparents. There are a few things I don’t like. Salt like this on the table—no no.” He mimed a salt shaker tipping over and then waggled his finger.

“And, for me, the blacka cat. Many people know this. If we see a blacka cat cross our way, we take a different way.” His gestures strangely mimicked Julianne’s other pupil. His accent was not so strong, but he had the familiar difficulty with words ending in consonants and tended to add an open-mouthed vowel to his words. “To crossa the path is notta lucky.”

“Unlucky,” Julianne offered.

“Yes, unlucky. Do you find the blacka cat unlucky?”

“I had a black cat when I was a child, and I loved it very much, so how could I find a black cat unlucky? For me it is not a problem.” She silently reprimanded herself for falling into the linguistic traps of the non-native speakers. No one she knew back in the states would say, “For me it is not a problem.”

“Tell me, youra cat, was it all black? Or did it have some white somewhere?”

“Yes, it had a little tiny patch of white here, under its chin.”

“Ah, you see. Not all black. Not so unlucky.”

“Well, but, it was a very tiny patch, only a few hairs, really. From a distance you couldn’t tell at all. We always had to lock her up on Halloween.”

He put his hands up and shrugged in a movement that said, it’s not my fault, it’s the way things are, and also, it is just as I have said.

After her last pupil left Julianne turned the key to lock the door. She always remembered Mr. Grossi’s face when she did so, because every time he came to check on her he would sing in his lilting English, “Lock the door, it’s safer.” He was a cautious man and had insisted that she acquire the proper documentation to enter the country. She had been perfectly happy to work illegally for a few months since everyone—everyone except Mr. Grossi—told her that the authorities wouldn’t say boo to a nice American girl teaching a few English lessons to pay for her groceries. Nevertheless he had procured the paperwork for her despite the additional bureaucratic hoops to jump through, not to mention expense. His weekly visits were always punctuated by practical gifts for the apartment (the coffee percolator, for example) and questions about her health and how she was enjoying her stay. He looked at her with long, slow stares that struck Julianne as worried and somehow sad.

He must have a daughter somewhere, she decided. Probably estranged.

She didn’t mind his concern, because after all, no one else was looking after her. She took his advice and always locked the door.

She turned back to tidy the apartment yet again. She looked carefully at her peppers and clicked her tongue with disappointment to see that they had gone moldy. She would have to find a different way to dry them. She took the chain down and threw it away.

The afternoon hint at brightness dissolved into an even more permanent-looking grey. Julianne brought her plant inside. There was still no sign of the cat in the yard.

She decided it was late enough to justify cooking some dinner, so she busied herself with the solitary preparations. As her pasta boiled, she thought about the party her friend was hosting the next day. Her friend had visited California that summer and was eager to share her newfound cultural wisdom by initiating all her friends into Halloween. Of course she had invited Julianne, her one authentic foreign friend. Julianne was more than happy to accept the invitation, even though she was sure the night would be rather awkward. She even determined to fashion some kind of costume for the event. A new space film had premiered that month and the girl thought that an astronaut costume would be just right. She could fasten a cardboard control panel to her front and cover a backpack with tinfoil for her space pack.

After dinner and cleaning up from dinner she went to retrieve her backpack from storage. The storage unit was in the basement of the building. She had to go outside to access the basement door. She slipped on a sweater since the air looked so dreadfully cold (it was just starting to get really dark) and made sure she had the right keys. The door to the basement had a different key from the building’s main door. The storage unit opened with the same key, which meant she could access any of the units belonging to any of the other residents once inside. Julianne was the kind of person who believed that all storage spaces were like the attics of children’s stories—full of treasures waiting to be discovered. It thrilled her to think she could enter someone else’s bin if she wanted.

She brought the trash with her to the collection area outside. The rotten peppers would quickly smell up her kitchen. When she walked outside she looked for the strawberries that had brightened her previous day. She wondered if any of the other residents had noticed them. She hoped so, because otherwise she wanted to pick them and bring them upstairs to look at inside her apartment. The strawberries were gone, which disappointed Julianne very much. Her whole heart dropped a little when she saw that in fact the entire yard had been mowed down to colorless stubble.

Ridiculous gardener, she thought. Probably on a schedule. Twice a season he mows, regardless of whether there are little red berries trying to eke out an existence in the failing autumn light.

Then, with a characteristically feline flash of movement, the cat Julianne liked to watch from her balcony leapt out from behind the corner of the building.

“There you are!” she said. She had never seen the cat up close. She saw that he was completely, utterly black without a single white or silver or brown hair. He didn’t look at all like her childhood pet. He had a more pointed face and was much, much bigger, an unusually large cat. He stared at her with large yellow eyes that were almost unnerving. Julianne didn’t like to be unnerved by cats, since in general she liked them so much.

“What do you think of the mowing? Are you disappointed to lose your romping ground?”

The cat yawned, revealing the ridged roof of its mouth, the long pink tongue, and two exquisitely yellow eye teeth. Julianne had never seen such yellow teeth. She began to feel rather unpleasant about this cat. As if to challenge her fears, at that moment the cat marched directly across the path in front of her and sat on the other side in the grass clippings left behind by the gardener. Julianne felt a chill run down both arms, but almost immediately she shrugged it aside. It most certainly came from the grey evening settling in around her.

“Well aren’t you a big pain? Trying to scare me. Can’t be done.” She crossed right over the path made by the cat and continued on her way to the basement door. The big cat didn’t move, not even turning its head to watch her pass.

The apartment building was not especially old but the construction lacked something in quality. It had been built during a time of rapid development when the city was racing to catch up with its neighbors and government inspectors could easily be persuaded to overlook certain rough edges. The electricity in the basement happened to be one such edge. The stairwell light flickered.

When her things had gone into the bin, Mr. Grossi had carried them down for her and she had stood watch at the top of the stairs to flip the light switch if it happened to go off completely. Therefore she did not know exactly which was her bin. She switched the light on and off a few times until the connection seemed solid and the light didn’t flicker. Then she descended the stairs into the bowels of the building.

The ceiling was very low. Julianne had to duck her head to avoid cross beams, exposed pipes, and an overwhelming veil of spiderwebs. She had to step around various boxes that had been stacked haphazardly on the floor. A quick glance inside one showed that the boxes were full of glass jars, the kind used for canning or preserving animal specimen. The air had a stagnant and unusual smell. It reminded her of, well, she couldn’t quite place it. If it wasn’t so cold, the aroma might have been oppressive enough to trigger an acute claustrophobia.

Most of the doors lining the central space had padlocks, which thwarted her idea of exploring everybody else’s things. She wondered if she herself should install a padlock, but her space only held her empty suitcases, so it seemed silly. She tried to remember which box was hers. Mr. Grossi had explained to her the direction, but she had only half paid attention.

There were two doors without padlocks. One on the left and one on the right.

Before Julianne chose a door, the flickering light went off completely, leaving her in total darkness, that kind of darkness that can only be found underground on a grey day in the fall when one is by herself in a strange new place. She had the strange sense of being inside a refrigerator.

Julianne knew that within each box was another light. If she could reach a door, open it, and find the switch, she would be able to see again. The left door was closest, she remembered. She took a tentative step towards it, then another, feeling with her feet for any boxes in her way. She tried not to imagine the spiders that were hiding in the ceiling beams coming out more boldly in the darkness. She tried not to sense movement in the blackness, tried not to think of the absence of light moving like ink. She took a step and fell into a stack of boxes, sending a shower of dust into her eyes.

At that moment the light flooded back on with a pinging sound. Julianne was looking straight into the face of a horrifying cat. She screamed. The cat was not alive. It was dead and dried out and grotesque, a mummy. The skin had shriveled into the bones. The black fur had fallen away in chunks, exposing the shape of ribs and spine underneath. The skin around the face had tightened and pulled back from the mouth, showing off the pointed yellow teeth underneath in a terrible grimace.

Julianne pulled away so quickly she smacked her head on a beam behind her. As soon as the initial surge of adrenaline calmed, however, she took stock. She wasn’t sure, on reflection, if she had screamed aloud or only in her head. Either way—and she looked again just to make sure—it was only a cat, poor thing, that had somehow gotten trapped down there and died. Something in the refrigerator-like air quality had created just the condition for it to desiccate instead of rot. Disgusting, but nothing to fear.

With some effort her breathing returned to normal, slow breaths. She hoped her heart would follow suit. It occurred to her, briefly, that maybe this was her bad luck. She had never asked just why it was unlucky to cross the path of a black cat. Now she wished she had.

She fixed her attention on the door. Open it, get the backpack, and get out of there. Next time she needed to come down she would wait for Mr. Grossi. The key inserted easily into the lock, though it turned with some difficulty. The overhead light pinged off again, but now it didn’t matter. She opened the door, and a wave of smell poured out at her. It was the same smell as the rest of the basement, and very difficult to describe. Dusty, and somewhat animal, but not as pungent or alive as most animal smells. Musky. There was a faint hint of something sickeningly sweet.

In the fraction of a moment before she flipped the light switch, she hoped her suitcases had not absorbed the foul odor. Then the box filled with yellow light.

There was no question that Julianne’s scream was very much out loud.

She had made a mistake, a terrible, horrible, fatal mistake. The box on the left had presented itself as more convenient in that moment, but the box on the right held her suitcases, and she should have made the extra steps, even in the dark, even at the cost of a spider bite or a whack on the head. How desperately she wished she had chosen differently. The box on the left was dreadfully wrong.

A human face stared out at her. A human face with sunken, evaporated eyes, skin stretched and cracked, teeth bared in a carnivorous grin, hairs like so much wiry string still clinging to the skull. The mummified woman sat on a chair, and on the floor next to it sat her partner, slumped slightly to lean against it. His face was brown where the elasticity had recoiled his skin into ridges. His head tipped back but the jaw hung down, making a gaping black hole. Spiderwebs draped across the clothes which swallowed their shrunken forms. Bony hands protruded from the sleeves. The fingers were long, too long, like there was no hand but only fingers attached to an arm which disappeared into the clothes.

All this burned itself into Julianne’s mind in the fraction of an instant it took her eyes to snap to focus in the sudden light.

She abandoned her suitcases and fled. Like a nightmare, her progress through the basement felt hopelessly slow because of the boxes and beams and pipes and webs. She almost put her hand on the cat that had frightened her first, and her whole body recoiled as if she had actually touched it, actually felt the clumps of fur still clinging to the hardened flesh.

She didn’t bother to hit the stairwell switch. The light continued to flicker on and off at will. Her hands shook at the outer building door as she tried to turn the key in the lock. She fell up the stairs two at a time, for the first time not worried that loud footsteps would disturb someone else in the building. There was no one to disturb. Her heart pumped blood to her legs and to her lungs but seemed to bypass her brain, which had fixed on the sight of the couple in the storage bin. Like a record player, the needle was stuck, and she kept skipping back to the same freeze-frame moment where their hollow eyes and hollow mouths stared at her, grinned at her, invited her to join them with their long fingers.

She flew into her flat. The air was oppressive. The smell had followed her. She needed air, fresh air, even the grey foggy air from the October evening would do. She threw open her bedroom window, and in that quick, rash action, the ceramic cross left by the previous resident toppled from its perch on the window sill, fell tumbling out the window, and shattered on the cement walkway four stories below.

As Julianne looked at it, head hanging out the window over the ground below, it occurred to her sinking heart that the cross was the last good luck charm she had in her apartment, the last thing keeping anything out there at bay. Now she was alone.

She turned to face the empty room. The old sounds had started up again. The shriek of water pipes in the wall sounded human, almost but not quite, like something that once was, loud enough to drown out her pounding heart. And at the door was the persistent sound of knocking.

copyright 2008 EOliver.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

You're a good storyteller, Beth. I'm taking Bookmaking this Interim and Prof Greidanus wanted me to tell you to write her a postcard from Italy for a collection she's making. I hope you're doing well! Camp Fitzhugh misses you!