The Beach House
We were four in a pup tent. Wes Ward over at the far edge, his brother Corey next to him, Randy Alan next, then me, all of us zipped into a double sleeping bag. We ran the spectrum from five to about nine I guess, with me representing seven. Under the cover of Parents laughing about the campfire, clinking of ice cubes and the snapping of the fire itself, we engaged to what boys our ages always did when together in a semiprivate place, told ghost stories.
“There’s a place was our house Corey declared “out in the woods there, where somebody stabbed his girlfriend and there was all this blood and they never really got it out of the ground and you can still see it sometimes, rising up out of the ground.” The last six words were delivered in an ominous manner like the same thing might just any minute happen right here and now. Randy made a noise as if not fully believing and “Right Wes?” Corey demanded. His little brother vigorously affirmed the claim.
“Wow” I said, not sure if I wanted to be numbered among the believers or the dissenters, after all Randy was the oldest. The conversation ran the gamut from spectral hitchhikers along undesignated roads, creepy houses, even a teacher that everybody was pretty sure practiced voodoo. I added my two cents when I could, but to tell the truth I didn’t have put to put in having been pretty much sheltered. My repertoire of scary or semi scary movies were The day the Earth Stood Still and part of a Frankenstein movie I’d listened to before Mom had shut the set off and sent me to bed. To this I could add a few folk tales I’d read which wouldn’t likely be recognized as fairy stories and therefore baby stuff. There was the huge black bird which could swoop down and carry people off to it’s nest and there was one about a ghost dog who helped his master find hidden money. Nobody seemed all that impressed though I did my second grade best to inject suspense and dread into the tellings.
“I’ll tell you one,” Randy said at last as if kid stuff had just gone on long enough. “There’s this house down the beach a mile or so and the lady who lived there shot herself, (collective intakes of breath) Brains all over the place,” Randy elaborated. “Nothing anybody could do. The cops just locked the house up and left it there. Said nobody’d live there anymore anyhow.” Well that seemed reasonable, who’d want a house after all with brains all over it? “But” Randy said and this time it was his turn to lay somber emphasis on each word. “She’s not really gone.”
“Waddaya mean?” I asked.
“Nobody knows for sure why,” Randy told us “but some nights people hear things like somebody moving around in there and sometimes they see somebody through the windows where some of the boards have come loose and she’s real short.”
“Like a kid?” Wes asked sleepily.
“No,” Randy said, “Like she doesn’t have any head!”
“Gosh Corey and I said together, myself hoping Mom didn’t hear because everybody knew gosh was just a sneaky way of saying God.
“One time” Randy continued “Me and my friend Lew and his sister Marcie were out pretty late. We were camping here for the Fourth of July last Summer and we got close to the place and it was getting pretty dark was then. Mom and Dad had gone into the trailer to rest or something. Pretty soon we figured out we were the only people on that part of the beach and Marcie kept saying we should go back. Lew wanted to get a closer look at the house he then, we’d go. so we snuck up on the place on the side where some bushes were growing over a window and Lew said he’d hold the bushes back while I got up close to the window to look in.”
The interior of the tent had grown silent except for the urgent whisper and Randy’s voice, even the sounds from the campfire seemed to have stilled just for a minute or two. “I got up on a rotten log or something that was underneath the window,” Randy resumed. “I could see in the window from there.”
“What did you see?” Corey breathed.
“Nothing at first. “It was pitch dark in there, but all of the sudden the window pushed open, hit me in the face, smashed my nose, this bony old hand came out and grabbed at my throat. I spun around on that log thing and jumped. The hand let go of my neck but got a hold of my coat in the back.
I pulled as hard as I could, then Lew grabbed me and started pulling and Marcie pulled me from the other side and I tore loose.”
“Was it Her?” I asked almost afraid to hear the answer.
“I don’t know,” Randy told us, sounding very calm now. “I never got a good look and I tell you, we ran like hell.” The word hell was uttered in a mere whisper, though nine Randy still wasn’t allowed to cuss. “I’ll tell you what I do know though.”
“What?” this was from everybody.
“We got back to the trailer,” Randy said, “and looked at the back of my coat and there were four long scratches all the way down it.”
“Like claws,” I demanded; dread deliciously prickling the back of my neck while knotting my middle.”
“Like claws.” Randy confirmed.
“Did you guys every go back there?” Corey inquired. I never got to hear the response because at that moment a tobacco scented hand came in through the flap, reaching for my shoulder.
“Crawl out of there,” my mother’s voice said. “I’m moving you to the station wagon.”
“Why?” I protested.
“Those kids were all rolling down on top of you,” Mom told me. “They were all rolling down on him,” this to one of the other women, Corey and Wes’s mom I think.
“The guys must’ve pitched the tent on a slope,” Shirley said.
“Nobody was rolling on me,” I countered but of course Mother’d seen what she’d seen.
“You’re not getting any sleep,” she admonished.
“Don’t worry Honey,” Shirley said. “I’ll probably be pulling Wessy out before long. “He can get overexcited sometimes.”
“Overexcited,” Mom agreed, shepherding me toward the station wagon where a bed had been made up in the fold down back end.. This was the ignominious ending to what had in many ways, been one of the most fun days of my life. I wondered if Mom would’ve done that to me if I hadn’t been blind.
It was Dad’s vacation and we’d decided more or less on the spur of the moment to run over to Hoods Canal near Belfair to spend a few days on the beach with the Alans and the Wards, some other people too I didn’t quite remember. Mom and Dad had played Pinochle with Fred and Marie Alan, Corey Shall, and Shirley Ward for years I guess but not until recently had I really met any of them. We’d shown up on a bright sunshiny day, the water in the shallows almost warm as a bath, a whole bunch of fascinating shells and rocks to examine and collect, a hose-full of water lying in the sun to wash off with to get all the salt off. Then there was the sand.
Corey, Wes and Randy had been digging a huge hole that was over my head when I stood in the bottom. I know because Fred got me under the armpits and lowered me down to the bottom. I pretended it was an army foxhole until I got pulled up again for roast weenies and raw oysters which surprisingly enough, I actually liked!
Since I lost my sight two years before I guess I’d spent a lot of time in my own head as they say it now, taking imaginary adventures building castles out of air. I always dreamed a lot about underground castles too like the giant in the Irish Fairy Tale Soriamoria castle lived in. I had a secret project in the back yard, digging a tunnel just as far as I could make it go, maybe clear across and block to my friend’s house but I never gotten beyond something in which adults might turn an ankle and have another reason to yell at me. This was “something like,” as torn Sawyer would say however, holes so big you really could have a house down there if you wanted! Well, that was the daytime full of adventure and then there came the night and getting yanked out of the middle of a really cool story without actually every hearing the end. Next morning Fred got a call from work, I guess the message came to the nearby store, Smoky Joe’s that something was wrong at work and he needed to get home. Fred was a supervisor at Boeing I think. Marie and Shirley were sisters and though I didn’t see what that had to do with anything the Wards packed up also and I went from having a whole gang to play with to nobody at all. Sitting glumly over my soggy cheerios that morning in the trailer Fred told us to go ahead and use and bring the keys when we returned, I ventured “Mom?”
“Isn’t there some kind of a house up the beach from here, an old house maybe?”
“Yes,” she said. “there is. Why, were the boys talking about it?”
“Yeah” I admitted. “They said there was a strange old lady living there.”
“Oh,” Mom laughed as if I’d said something precious, “Marie said she’s a nice old grandma type person who lost her husband a few years ago and now she lives in town but comes out here every once in a while for a week or two.” In Town meant Seattle at least to Mom, like there was only the one.
“I hope those boys weren’t bothering her,” Mom declared, like maybe I might know something about that.
“Well I don’t know,” I said. “Randy said he got his coat torn once when he went over there. You had to be pretty careful what you said to Mom. If you told her about something scary she’d ask what book it was in and maybe she should have a talk with that librarian. Not that I had all that much choice in what I read. The library sent the books of records out more or less randomly and you got what you got. If it sounded like another kid told it to you then maybe you should find somebody more reliable to play with.
“Now mom was laughing for real though. “Oh” she said “Marie told me about how Randy went over a wire fence and got hung up on his way down, tore that good ski jacket right down the back! Marie said she pretty near killed that damned kid!” I could see this wasn’t going much of anywhere and I didn’t have Randy to question anymore but there was still the beach.
“Can I go dig?” I asked, scraping the last dregs of brown sugar out of the plastic bowl.
“Well already,” Mom decreed “But I don’t want you wandering toward the water without anybody to watch you.” I promised.
This was the kind of thing my sister often enjoyed too but she’d found some other kids to horse around with and was gone. Mom led me to the hole we been playing in yesterday, gave me my sand pail, a clamming shovel and a big metal scoop my cousin Laurie had given us. “Yell if you need something,” Mom directed and went off about whatever moms did on beach outings after everyone was fed.
I wondered if I dared drop into hole all was myself with nobody to pull me up but when I reached over the edge of it with the shovel I found that the wind probably had drifted a lot of sand into it and it wasn’t more than a couple feet deep now.. I slid in and for a
3while, I filled my bucket, tossing it up over the edge, making a sort of wall which in turn made the hole seem deeper. When I’d cleaned out a fair amount of the drifted sand I attacked one side of the whole trying to dig horizontally to make that tunnel I’d always thought about. It didn’t take me long to find that sand makes no kind of a roof and I was starting a trench maybe but nothing more.
Somebody had told me if you dig down far enough in sand you come eventually to dirt or maybe rock and I was wondering how deep that would be, when somebody real close, said “That’s a pretty big hole.”
“Yeah,” I said and started digging again, heading downward.
“Would you like me to come in and help?” the kid asked then.
“I don’t care.”
Even when you’re a kid yourself it’s not always easy to tell when somebody around your age is a boy or a girl. I felt a body land in the sandy hole next to me.
“Are you digging a mine?”
“No,” I said, “I’m making an underground house. An under-sand house I guess,” I corrected.
“Neat.” the kid said “Are you going to put a roof on it?”
“Well I tried digging a tunnel,” I admitted though I hadn’t meant to. “It kept falling in though.”
“Yeah.” The kid seemed to think about it a little then “There’s a lot of driftwood down the beach. We could make a roof out of that.”
“Yeah!” the rightness of that flashed in my imagination’s eye, “and pile sand on top of that.”
“Yeah!” The kid said. “I’m Melissa.”
“I’m Neil,” I told her.
“Can you get out of here?” I did. “Come this way,” Melissa said, giving me a hand to hold onto while we walked along the low-tide beach. We made several trips back and forth across the sand, carrying between us lengths of gnarled, salt crusted wood which we laid closely together over one side of our hole. Fairly soon we had the suggestion of a roof but long before the project was half done Melissa said “You want to go throw rocks?”
“Sure” I said. Throwing rocks was one of my all-time favorite pastimes whenever I could get near water. The night before Big Corey and thrown a piece of wood out a few yards off shore to give me a target, handing me rocks to throw and giving me directions to correct on the target. “You want to throw something out to hit?” I asked.
“Okay,” Melissa agreed. “Here’s some good rocks.” I felt with my shoe for promising lump, gathering them for the bombardment.
“My daddy’s blind,” Melissa said more or less out of the blue.
“Mmhmm. He has a machine that talks.”
“Really?” I asked, this time with some interest.
“Yeah,” she said then began chanting in a sort of metallic tone “Se-ven times every plus be dev-vided by equals ock.”
“Like a parrot?” I asked.
“I guess. Do parrots really say ock?”
“I don’t know. Do you have a machine like that?”
“No,” I admitted. “What kinds of things does your dad’s machine say?”
“I don’t know,” Melissa said. “Stories I guess and arithmetic lessons. Sometimes he plays games with it and stuff.”
“Wow,” I said honestly. “That would be cool.” I’d known about Chatty Cathy and things like that but they were just for girls and I’d never heard about a machine that could tell a story.
“Just a minute!” Melissa called to someone down the beach, someone who must be calling her though I’d not heard it, which was surprising since everyone knew how sharp blind kid’s hearing was.
“I’ve got to go,” she said. “this lady I know is calling me.”
“Okay, bye now.”
I’d set out to while away a good part of the day at least was myself in the sand, but having someone to play with then suddenly not having one anymore it got pretty boring so I called for Mom to come get me.
“Looked like you had somebody to play with,” Mom commented as she took hold of my hand.
“Yeah,” I told her. “Her name’s Melissa.”
“Where is she staying?” Mom demanded as if I’d have some idea.
“I don’t know, down there somewhere I guess.” I pointed in the direction I thought she’d gone. Mom looked that direction.
“Doesn’t look like anybody camping that direction down the beach,” she said.
Maybe she’s from one of the motels up the road there. Long way for a little kid to hike I’d say.” Mom didn’t add that she was sure I’d never be able to walk that far as she would have.
“The girl I was playing with said that her daddy has a machine that talks,” I announced over dinner that night, a can of chicken noodle soup split between Chris and I, something that smelled like burnt steak for Mom and Dad, everything cooked on the Alan’s butane stove.
“yeah,” Dad enthused. “I heard how you were playing with a little girl in a hole in the sand. Sounds like you take after your dad!”
“Really,” I persisted. “it talks, tells stories, does numbers and everything.”
“Now Neil” Mom started in. “You know how your imagination gets away with you and you’ll believe anything.”
“Sounds to me,” Dad laughed “like you’re the one getting told the stories.”
I was about to say something else when Mom, anticipating my objection, put an arm around me and said “Honey, we’d all give anything if something like that could be true but some things just aren’t possible.”
“Maybe someday one of those real smart scientists” Dad offered “might figure out something like that but not right now.” I let the matter drop.
“Where do you live?” I asked when next day, Melissa and I were back at it, this time erecting a tower which kept managing to look more like a teepee.
“Seattle,” she said.
“In Town?” I asked sounding official like Mom.
“Probably,” she said, then “we haven’t lived there very long.”
I little while later I told her “Mom says you probably stay over at the motels.”
“No” she said “I’m visiting an old lady.”
“Is she your grandma?” I asked.
“No, but she’s by herself,” Melissa informed.
“Oh.” I thought about how silly it would be to ask the next question. Still Randy and the others weren’t there and I didn’t know if my parents would be likely to satisfy my curiosity. Some things they said, just weren’t any of my business. They might be some of theirs but usually not mine. “Are you in a house,” I asked waving my hand down the beach the way she’d left yesterday. “down there?”
“The lady lives there,” she told me, “but she’s asleep now, so I came out to play.” She stepped back evidently to have a look at what we were trying to accomplish. “I’d better go get more big rocks to put against the bottom of these logs,” she said. my daddy always says ‘bracing’s the key.'”
“What does that mean?” I wondered.
“Who knows?” she said, drawing away for a choice so, boulder. So ended the discussion of houses and motels and the meaning and aphorisms.
“Did you every find out where your little friend is staying?” Mom asked
“She says she lives at home.” I told her, “but she’s visiting an old lady in that house down the beach.”
“She must be her granddaughter,” Mom said with confidence.
“I don’t think so.”
“Baloney,” Mom said with equal confidence. “Why else would she be hanging around there?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Then Mom said thoughtfully, “Your sister and I walked up that way yesterday and it didn’t look like anybody was staying there. Looked all closed up.”
I didn’t say anything more because I didn’t want Mom to start in about how this girl was lying to me and maybe I should find somebody more trustworthy with whom to spend my time.
“That lady in the house down there isn’t your grandma is she?” I asked when Melissa had shown up the third day.
“No,” she said. “I think she’s poor.”
“What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?” I asked, using one of Mom’s favorite expressions and wishing I hadn’t because it sounded mean in my own ears.
Melissa didn’t seem to notice. “We’re trying to help her.” she said.
“Mom and Dad and me.”
“Oh,” I said.
“There’s an old boat pulled way up onto the beach above the high tide line,” Melissa confided. “Wanna get it in the water?”
“Sure!” When we’d picked out way through the rocks and sticker weeds though, we found it full of sand like our hole would be each new day. “Better get the pail and shovels,” she judged.
“In that house where your friend lives,” I said, as we scooped and flung wet sand, “You know, the old lady?”
“There isn’t anything scary is there?”
“Like what?” Melissa wanted to know.
“Well,” the question I wanted to ask sounded stupid to me even before I’d spoken it and even to another kid. “Like somebody getting killed in there,”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Melissa said, sounding pretty grown up just now.
“Some guys said,” I told her. “Something about a lady shooting herself in there.”
“Must’ve been a long time ago I guess,” Melissa said.
“Yeah.” Just about this time we gained the bottom of the boat and Melissa announced that there was a huge hole in it.
“How do you know?” I asked not too logically.
“I can see the ground right through it,” she said. “You can feel if you want to. Hell!”
“Damn,” I said.
“My daddy says Damn, damn, double damn, triple damn, shit!” Melissa proclaimed. We both sniggered in spite of our ship wrecked nautical aspirations. “He told me he said that to grandma one time and she laughed so hard she farted! That was when he was in college.” We cracked up again.
and I wondered if I’d ever have the guts to say something like that to my own mom no matter how big I got.
“My Mom and Dad say your daddy doesn’t really have a machine that talks, I told her a bit apologetically. They say that something like that is impossible.”
“Well, I guess that’s their problem,” Melissa replied without particular rancor. “Lots of people don’t believe my daddy when he tells them things but still he does stuff.”
“Good,” I said not knowing what else to say. I’d already gotten an inkling that some people didn’t believe things I told them either, like when Chuck and Gene and Eddie said I wasn’t really reading Braille but had memorized the book and was feeling those bumps just to fool them.
“I think she’s waking up now,” Melissa announced. “I’d better help you go to your trailer.” We collected our tools and set off toward the Alan’s camping place.
The trailer door opened as we came toward the steps and “Hello Honey,” Mom said in that kind of exaggeratedly hearty way she used when she first met somebody, even a kid.
“Hi,” Melissa said.
“This is my friend Melissa,” I told her.
“So I see,” Mom said. “Hell-o Melissa!”
“Hi,” Melissa said again. I was going to invite her to come in for what? a glass of milk? a bowl of cheerios? But… “I gotta go, ” she said.
“Okay dear,” Mom told her. “You go along. Come back and visit us again sometime.”
“Maybe,” Melissa said, sounding a bit doubtful. We exchanged goodbyes and she was gone.
7Mom was real quiet for a while after I’d stepped up into the trailer. “That girl looks awfully familiar,” she said. “I wonder where I’ve seen her before.”
“How do you get to be a scientist?” I asked that evening. Dad and I were taking a walk up
away from the water where there was dirt and cement, almost like in town.
“Well” Dad said without making it into a joke. “You gotta know your math and you’ve got a good smart long time in college.”
“Why do you need to know math?” I asked. This going to school forever it sounded like was bad enough and though I did okay in Math I’d never liked it much.
“I don’t know exactly why, buddy,” Dad said. “I’m just a poor old broken down truck driver, but the science stuff is all about math and you haveta know all of it by heart. But I hear your scientist or engineers, architects, all of that kind of people, can make real good money if they’re any good.” After a while Dad said “We’re coming up to the house Randy and Corey were telling you about.” Part of me wanted to hang back and not go any closer but I figured if anybody reached out the window and grabbed a hold of Dad they’d probably wish they hadn’t.
We’d come down a little hill from where we’d been walking and I could kind of hear the
echo you get from something big when you’re walking toward it.
In those days I could still see some shadows too or thought I could. “Gee Buddy,” Dad
said. “Doesn’t look to me like anybody’s been here for quite a long while.” We stepped up
on a porch and Dad rattled the door knob.
“Hello,” he called. “Hell-oh!” But nobody answered back.
“Well,” I said almost defensively, “She said she was visiting there.”
“Maybe she was,” Dad said reasonably. “COULD very well have been. Maybe that old lady there just came down for a while to look over the house and they’ve gone away now. Could very well be.”
We left the next day and I was back with my recorded books and the yard and our swing set and long evenings out on the porch, listening to Beverly Hillbillies and Andy Griffith through the screen door on those nights when I got to stay up that late.
I guess I’d never really given that much thought to what I’d be in a money sort of way before. From as long I could remember I’d wanted to be something, first a cowboy, then a sheriff, then a buccaneer or an officer in the Navy, all depending on which chapter in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates I was currently reading. I knew that Mom and Dad hoped I’d be a lawyer but by the end of summer I was pretty sure I wanted to be one of those real smart scientists like Dad talked about, math or not. It wasn’t just the talking machine that mostly decided me. Miss Gorder in second Grade had commented one day about how I was always so interested in finding out new things and doing experiments, she thought I’d make a good scientist. I think I’d been asking her how a battery was made or something like that.
The reading machine did occupy a lot of my daydream time though. I figured you’d need something like a camera or a magnifying glass to look at things with and somehow tell what they (, like if you wanted to read words on a page. Then you’d need some way of making word sounds. I thought about a lot of little records with just one word recorded on each, but that sounded like an awful lot of records. Maybe you could make a machine that just spelled everything out but that would take forever to read a whole book! It didn’t really matter to me that the whole thing looked impossible to reasonable people like Mom. Nobody knew that you could record Mary had a Little Lamb on a piece of tinfoil till Thomas Edison did it in 1877, almost by accident according to the article my teacher read to us last year.
I kept hoping that we’d go back to the beach before school started and maybe I’d see Melissa again. I didn’t talk about her much because I didn’t want to start up that argument about the house again or the motels or Randy’s torn coat either. Besides, I didn’t want people thinking she was my girl friend.
8I was almost sick to my stomach with excitement when Mom said we’d go over to Belfair for a couple of nights during Labor Day Weekend, just a couple days before Third Grade would start.
In my mind the beach would always remain sunny, and full of fun like it’d been the first time we’d been there. As usually seems to happen though, the memory doesn’t match up so good with the actual experience when it finally arrives for the day we arrived was cold I got into the water but not for long. Beach was somehow different too. The long stretch of sand seemed rockier and harder. Maybe we were in a different place I thought, because by now we had our own 16-6oot Shasta trailer. I stood leaning on my shovel wondering if I really wanted a big hole this time because I imagined it being too cold down there to have much fun. I suddenly heard “Nee-il.” It was so soft, so far away that I couldn’t be quite sure I’d heard it at all.
“Yeah?” I called way too quiet to be heard more than a few feet but it felt like not being entirely rude just in case somebody was calling.
“Nee-il!” A little bit stronger now and this time I’d definitely heard it.
“What?” I yelled, taking a few steps in the direction of the voice.
“I don’t think–” It was definitely the voice I recognized “That I can come out there today.” The voice finished.
“Sorry,” I called and then there was something which might have been goodbye then only the seagulls until
“Who were you yelling at?” Mom said at my elbow.
“I thought somebody was calling me,” I told her.
“Whoever would be calling?” she wanted to know.
“Melissa,” I said.”
“Who?” And that was the last I’d hear from Melissa or so I thought.
Though it seems like a forever between birthdays or Christmases and getting Big was like a unachievable eternity of waiting, I did get big and I did go to a right smart lot of college and I did so much Math that eventually I sort of liked it and eventually I became a fairly smart engineer though not a real successful one. I specialized in mechanics rather than electronics like the artificial speech people were mostly in and became fascinated with robots, which is really a little bit of everything. In my fifth year I met my wife to be and a couple years later we had a little girl. We lived a lot of places, eventually orbiting back to Seattle via Sedro Woolley and Bellingham and Northern Idaho and elsewhere and for a few years fetched up in a pretty seedy, rundown trailer park out on North Aurora, with no electricity we didn’t make ourselves, meaning a storage battery charged either in the car or at a neighbor’s, and a wood stove in which we burned old pallets and discarded particle board.
My friend Eric who had no degree though he’d done five years in Physics and Electronics and knew twice as much as most graduates, cobbled a talking device from Radio shack circuit boards, this plugged into the printer port of my discontinued $50 Color computer and verbalized what came up to the screen. The electric we used for lighting and running the little Sony TV didn’t last too long with the computer system drawing, rudimentary though it was, so ever week or so, I lugged computer, the talker, sometimes even the printer; up to the Center. Here I’d sit and write code, debug programs, listen to music, read my Bible. Sometimes others would be there and sometimes we’d talk. Once or twice a month we’d gather for celebrations of the nurturing Goddess. This was a Christian feminist resource library lounge squeezed into sort of upper tower room in one of the more radical Seattle churches. As I’ve hinted before, I’d had some trouble getting any sort of work let alone anything that paid a fraction of what my dg should have indicated and that had been depressing to tell the short version. At the same time I’d become aware of some things probably buried back when I was still very little, things which maybe could’ve been worked on then but weren’t and they’d come back to haunt some quarter century later. One very dark night listening to an ancient movie rerun I’d begun to pray and found that the God I’d called upon felt more like a mom than the patriarch I’d been raised to address.
9I’d felt warm and embraced and wanted at that time and like I could go on. in due course I’d come to this place, usually the solitary male in this gathering spot largely by and for women. That’s another story, several others, but it eventually changed my career course from things technological toward counseling and social work. it would take a while for the change to be one noticeable by others but we found, my wife and daughter and I that it’s pretty hard to get so poor that you can’t find somebody else worse off than you are. This was the time we met Her.
I was actually working that winter but we were snowed in, this being January and sheet ice pretty much everywhere. Jose our neighbor had brought us a load of stove length logs and I’d gone outside to split an armload for the evening fire. Gretchen was cooking brown rice and homemade chili on the venerable trash burner while our daughter watched the battery driven Star Trek rerun on the little Sony. I’d just thrown a quartered log on the porch, when I heard somebody coming toward me though not real direct. “Excuse me?” a rather tremulous voice came from over by the car maybe ten feet away.
“Yes?” I asked not real sure she was talking to me.
“Could you please tell me where I could buy an inexpensive meal,” the elderly-sounding lady inquired. We’d lacked for a lot I guess but never for food.
“We can do better than that.” I said “My family and I are having dinner in about five minutes. If you’d like to come on in, you’d be welcome to eat with us, and” this with a laugh, “it won’t cost you a dime! I’m Neil McPhearsen.”
“Rita,” she said and Somewhat to my surprise she accepted and we had a cozy time of it, talking about where we were from, us most recently from the woods and she just yesterday from a fire trap shack out in Lake City somewhere that somebody’s forgotten to condemn. “I put water on for soup”
she declared, then went to feed the cats and by the time I found all seven of them the pan had boiled dry and the stove had somehow caught the kitchen on fire. Poof! no house!”
It didn’t take too long to get the message that the old gal was what Mom might call dingy or dotty or maybe just a little wrong in the head. I suspected it didn’t all come from age maybe but she was harmless enough and we never had fit in with the trailer park either so it was fun pretending she was our long lost grandma. She’d been put up in a sleazy kind of apartment unit across the street from us and we walked her over there when she’d had enough of talking the thought she’d go to bed. I’d stuck a couple cans of food, a fork, a spoon, some Styrofoam cups, a pair of underwear and a change of socks ‘in a bag for her to take home with what she had or hadn’t.
We found out the Grandma was a pretty valiant soul a couple nights later when the propane tank on the trailer next door to us blew up and the tenant, himself about as batty as they come had sprinted out of his shower into the teeth of a snow storm and went running around without a stitch until Granny showed up, doffed her coat though she must’ve been a foot and a half shorter, presented it to him to wear. He disappeared, coat and all. When a firefighter hearing the story, asked “Could you describe your neighbor?” I said “What can I tell you? He’s running around buck-ass naked wearing a woman’s coat!”
About this time our daughter started going over to the little rental unit across the street afternoons, to spend time with Grandma. It was a chance for her to have something new and important to do and we figured it was good for the old lady to have someone to keep her company and run for help–well in case she made more soup.
“I’ve got a friend Daddy,” my daughter told me one evening.
“That’s nice,” I said. Then “she’s pretty cool old lady isn’t she?”
“Yeah I guess,” she, said “but there’s somebody else too.”
“Really?” That was no mystery since the trailer park was full of kids.
“Yeah,” she replied. “There’s a place out behind Grandma Rita’s house where there’s sand and stuff like that and water.”
“Hmm” I responded since kids imagine things and I’ve found it best to just pretend along
10with them but the water bit sounded a little strange since everything was frozen about as solid as a rink at the ice-capades. “You’re not getting into a busted pipe or something are you?” I wanted to know.
“She laughed. “No it’s not like that,” she said. “Sometimes when Rita goes to sleep I go outside and play there until she wakes up and calls me.”
“That’s good then” I said. “Just call somebody if either of you get in trouble.”
“I will,” she promised. “Sometimes I need some time on my own because that woman can really get on my nerves!”
“Can happen,” I said. “Anything special?”
“Oh,” she said, “she’ll say it’s Wednesday and I tell her it’s really Tuesday or she’ll
think it’s nine o’clock and I’ll show her it’s only eight o’clock and she’ll say “I wish
you’d stop that quarrelin.'” Her voice rose in pitch and took on a certain throaty
roughness remarkably like that of Rita. “Then she keeps talking about devil cults (she said it “devil cul’csh.”)
like a person with badly-fitting dentures). She thinks devil worshipers are putting pictures on her windows using a computer.”
“You don’t have to go over there” I told her, “if she gives you such a bad time.”
“It’s not that bad I guess,” she said. “She talks about good times too.”
“Really?” Gretchen who’d not spoken for time now asked. “It’s good that poor thing has nice memories too.”
“Yeah. She talks about this little house she used to have back when her husband was still alive and good times they had over there.”
“Where?” Gretchen asked.
“I don’t know for sure. Not around here I think but someplace by the water.
I guess she visited there sometimes until she just got too old to take care of it then she must’ve sold it or something. I don’t know. She’ll talk about that old place of hers then she goes to sleep and she gets the most peaceful look on her face.”
The next few days our daughter came back with snatches of news about her new friend, this boy she was playing with when her older charge was napping or otherwise indisposed and we were glad she had the company.
One night, I think it was a Sunday, Rita came to visit us which she hadn’t done for some time. “They’ve found me shum plashe to move in.” she announced. “Wenzedee the senior servishes people er comin ta take me an’ my shtuff over der.” We congratulated her on her new place and wished her well, promising that we’d visit her, which we did a couple of times in the weeks to come, until she forgot who we were and a new job had taken me to another place some 30 miles distant.
It was the following Thursday after Grandma Rita had departed when our little girl (seven years of age though so much more responsible than that at times), came to me very sadly, saying “I can’t find my friend any more.”
By now I knew she wasn’t talking about Rita so I offered “well maybe he’s hiding, you know, playing a joke on you. Boys’11 do that sometimes.”
“He wouldn’t be likely to do that Daddy,” she said as if I’d just multiplied two times three and gotten nineteen. “He’s blind.”
“Really?” I asked with some interest. “you never told me that before.”
“I didn’t think it was important,” she said.”
“No, I suppose not. When did you see him last?”
“Oh, I guess a few days ago.”
11Something made me ask “What was it you were doing then?”
“Oh,” she said “we were cleaning out a boat, you know, taking the sand out of it, but there was a big hole in the bottom.”
“A big hole in the bottom,” I repeated her. “by some water?”
“Yes Daddy,” she said “I’ve told you several times about the water.”
“And now you can’t find your friend.” I clarified.
“No I can’t.”
“What’s going on with the place where Rita was living?”
“They had to clean it out,” she said. “The door’s standing open right now.”
“Anybody around there?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Tell you what,” I offered. “How about I stand out on the porch so nobody bothers you are you go over there and try once more to find your friend.
Maybe you won’t be able to reach him but I’ve got a feeling he’d like you to at least say good-bye.” She seemed to understand. So I stood in the chilly February breeze hearing he footsteps crossing the drive which separating our trailer from the rental units and after a while, came the words I’d remembered from so long ago, words I’d misunderstood as it turned out. (I don’t think that I can come out there today,) not that she hadn’t been allowed but that she physically couldn’t. Whatever it was that had made the passage possible in the past was closing like seeing the trees of Narnia become coats again.
I was waiting with fifty cents in my hand when she returned. “Why don’t you go to the store and get you some candy,” I said. “Daddy needs to think.”
I went back in the trailer and along the hall past the bathroom into our bedroom, the only room in the place with a latching door. I’d hooked up the computer for today, to one of the spare batteries I kept there and for some reason I pushed the start button and typed load?wordesmythe which was a word processor I’d written. I typed list-ajj-aej then pressed enter. “100” the talker began to chant-hum. “O knowledge ” “li $ zero, go $ inkey i£ go knowledge space gosub 700 if go it chrbleac gosub 800 … ch $ o plus go 150 goto 105 ock!” This last was how my talker pronounced OK meaning ‘I’m done, what’s next?’ Like a parrot, I thought.
Maybe the dream of a very old lady, a strong and cherished one, coupled with the 7-year old’s ability to believe could make time in a sense, circle around and meet itself. I knew my parents would never have swallowed a thing like that. My 2nd grade teacher would have talked to me about it, believing or not but I’d not have broached that idea at home. Well hopefully some things change for the better. At least Melissa had been able to talk to me somewhat. Someday she’d figure out the rest of the story.
Melissa, I’d liked the name and Gretchen had agreed. I’d mentioned my friend from the beach house but don’t know that I’d ever managed to communicate the poignant sense of sadness that name could sometimes conjure up. Well not any more.
“Seven going on eight” I said aloud then wondered what the rules were (if such a thing like this is possible). Couldn’t January just as easily match to June than another January, or a February reach out to September?
“Time is a rubber band,” I announced to the echo-less walls not knowing for sure if this was a quote or something original. Then I sat quietly on the edge of the salvaged double bed, my keyboard across my lap, thinking, just thinking.