FICTION -- SPIRITS
By Michael Jesse
Jack Goddard drove his convertible down the highway exit ramp and cruised through downtown Brayton, or what was left of it. More than 25 years had gone by since he left the city of his birth to go to college. By then, his mother and grandmother — who had been his only family — were both dead so there had been no reason to come back, until now.
“Future Site of Brayton Centre Mall! - Opening in 1994!” declared a colorful sign attached to the six-foot chain link fence that enclosed several square blocks just north of City Square. Inside the enclosure, most of the buildings had been razed and excavated to the sub-basement level, giving the impression of a bombed-out war zone, but many of the facades had been preserved. Held erect by steel beams, their windows showed empty sky where interior spaces should have been, they waited as patiently as Stonehenge for a promised rebirth.
Parking next to the fence, Jack walked along the perimeter trying to recognize the city of his childhood. He remembered the Square well enough -- the two Civil War cannons and the statue of Gov. Orville Cox still frozen in mid-speech, his hand dramatically aloft in eternal exhortation. In adulthood, Jack had nearly forgotten it, but now he could see through 27 years of time as 10-year-old Mickey Wymer climbed up the statue to wedge a cigarette between the bronze fingers. Mickey had been Jack’s best friend and protector -- but only intermittently. Mickey’s family rarely stayed in one place for long, moving back and forth from West Virginia as his father gained and lost jobs. Mickey would be in school for a few months, then gone, then back again. Twice he reappeared at just the right moment, when some other boy was bullying Jack. Suddenly there Mickey would be, his confident grin showing a chipped front tooth while the scar splitting his left eyebrow testified to his worldliness. Mickey Wymer rarely needed to actually fight -- his cocky fearlessness making larger boys back down. Mickey disappeared for good the summer after eighth grade, though a few more years would go by before Jack stopped expecting him to turn up.
Scanning the skeletal building facades, Jack tried to pick out the few he recognized. The former First National Bank was easy to spot because of its four massive pillars. That’s where his mother took him every Friday to deposit her paycheck. Jack could pick out the buildings that had been Neisner’s Five and Dime, and the Reed’s department store where they went at Christmas time to see the elaborate window displays. The electric train went from window to window, chugging and tooting amid wrapped presents, snow scenes and mechanical elves industriously pounding hammers and sawing boards at Santa’s Workshop.
The sign on the chain link fence included an artist’s conception of what the new mall would look like with the preserved storefronts serving as the exterior walls of an ultra-modern shopping mall. That was the plan, anyway, but Jack had been following the news and knew that the project was already a year behind schedule and no activity had taken place on the site in months. City officials and the lead contractor expressed rosy optimism that it would be resolved soon, but rumor had it that a dispute over ownership of one of the properties was at the heart of it — and that the whole project might collapse as a result.
And that was why Jack had come back to his hometown on the first day of Spring in 1993. He had until recently been a business reporter for the Harrington Herald on the other side of the state. Come Monday, however, he’d be on the special projects team of the Brayton Morning Star covering the downtown mall story. Jack was looking forward to the change. The Morning Star was the biggest paper in the state, so it would have been crazy not to take the job even if he’d still been happy at the Herald. After the breakup with Allison, though, things had been awkward because she worked at the paper also, in Marketing. Sometimes he would see her in the hallways,but she would ignore him, as if she had never met him or could no longer see him. He knew he should be feeling hurt and angry, and he did -- a little. Mostly, he felt relief. It was easier being alone. Other people were so loose and spontaneous. Allison had been like that — able to just let herself “be in the moment.” Jack understood that intellectually, but he was not sure he had ever experienced it.
It had been at the annual conference of the Society of Professional Journalists in Cincinnati that Jack was given an unexpected opportunity to disappear from Harrington and reinvent himself someplace new where no one knew him. He’d been on a panel discussion on how journalists could use the Internet in their research. A Washington Post reporter showed how to use Telnet and Gopher to access government and university records while Jack’s presentation was on Usenet groups. The third panelist, an entertainment writer, stole the show with a demonstration of the Internet Movie Database, which had started out on Usenet but was now migrating to the Internet’s newest platform — the World Wide Web.
That evening at the hospitality suite, Jack was introduced to Max Flemming, managing editor of the Morning Star. “This Internet thing could be a real boon to the newspaper industry, “ Fleming declared. “Imagine people reading the Morning Star on their computers -- and not just in the morning, but all day long as news breaks. And what if readers could leave their own thoughtful comments at the end of the story and start a conversation with other readers? Why, it could be the best thing that ever happened to the newspaper industry.” Flemming extended the job offer that night, and Jack was ready to accept on the spot, but pretended to think it over until the next morning.
Back in his car, Jack drove around the Square, passing the Morning Star building at one end and then parking near the Essex Club at the other. Aside from its castle-like Neo-Romanesque exterior, the Essex had left no particular imprint on his childhood memories because he’d never been inside. Originally an exclusive men’s club, the Essex had long ago surrendered to financial necessity and become essentially a hotel — renting out its lavish but outdated sleeping rooms and banquet halls for weddings and bar mitzvahs. The Morning Star used the Essex for all of its overnight visitors, and the paper was paying for Jack’s first week’s lodging.
Carrying his suitcase and his PowerBook 180 laptop, Jack pushed through the brass-handled revolving door and found himself in a majestic hall with a vaulted ceiling three stories high, leaded glass windows, dark paneled walls and a marble floor that echoed his footsteps as he walked towards the elegant reception desk. He felt the urge to straighten his tie, though he wasn’t wearing one. The gray-haired, ashen-faced desk clerk with the trim mustache and impeccable manners seemed to have stepped out of a black-and-white movie. He smoothly rattled off the amenities of the club as a bellhop who looked to be at least 80 wrestled Jack’s bag from him and deftly snatched up the key from the glass countertop.
Jack followed the aged bellhop to an elevator that felt small with just two occupants and which lurched with effort to lift them to the eighth floor. The bellhop, whose name badge said “Tommy,” navigated the floral-wallpapered hallway to room 803, in whose doorway Jack awkwardly took possession of his belongings in exchange for $2. Finally inside, he was surprised to realize that his room was almost a suite. The bed was behind a screen and the front half of the room was furnished with leather wing-back chairs and a couch. Behind another screen he discovered a tiny kitchen just big enough for one person to move around, but efficiently equipped with a hot plate, sink and small refrigerator.
After unpacking his bag, Jack took his key and went out again. On the street, he walked past the fenced construction area to a row of dilapidated shops, most of them boarded up. There, towering above the other buildings, he saw the familiar shape of the Pembroke Theatre where he’d worked as an usher when he was 15.
Jack remembered seeing Charleton Heston in “Soylent Green,” Clint Eastwood in “High Plains Drifter” and Paul Newman in “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” but he saw most of the scenes out of sequence over the span of several showings. While the movie was playing, he would explore the old dressing rooms that overlooked the stage on both sides. The Pembroke had started out as a live theater in the vaudeville era and Jack could imagine actors changing their costumes as they glanced down to check how far along the show was and therefore how much time they had before going on again.
Now, the theater’s doors were closed and the letters on the marquee spelled out “Thanks for the Memories.” Following the alley that ran along the side of the theater building, he glanced at the arched rear entrance where his grandmother once told him that a murder had taken place -- the orchestra leader shot by a jealous violinist over the affections of one of the showgirls. It was the backside of the Pembroke Theatre that Jack most remembered because he could see it from his bedroom window at his grandmother’s house.
He still remembered the address -- 103 Elm Street, and he knew it was the second from the left of a row of tall, skinny Victorian houses set so close together there was barely enough room for one person to walk in between. Standing in front of the house now, Jack almost didn’t recognize it. In his memory, it was bright yellow though even in his childhood the paint was beginning to peel. Now, it was driftwood gray with only a fleck of yellow here and there to testify to its former color. Part of the porch was missing, as were most of the shutters. The first and second floor windows were boarded up and the third floor window was missing most of its glass.
“I’ll be back when the big hand is on the six,” Grandma said, looking down at him. Though barely taller than five feet, she towered above him, her shaggy gray hair partly combed for the occasion. She once had black hair, but had gone partly white. There were no gray hairs, just black ones and white ones, and the same salt-and-pepper pattern was repeated in the short spiky hairs on her upper lip. “Be still and don’t open the door for anyone -- not even me.” She held up the key and added, “The real me wouldn’t need to knock because I have my key.”
Johnny nodded and watched as the door closed with a decisive click, the metal blinds closed tight and drawn down almost to the window sills. He was actually very good at being still and could pass the time tracing his finger on the patterns of the linoleum or watching the embroidered ring handles of the blinds dangling by strings in a dust-speckled ray of sunshine streaming through the gap. The only hard part was not listening to the noises of the house. He didn’t notice them when Grandma was home, but when he was alone he could hear all the creaks and sighs the old house made. He had seen dark corners in the basement and the locked doors upstairs that no one ever entered. What lived in those quiet spaces? And he knew it must be -- because Grandma had implied as much in her instructions -- that evil spirits could make themselves look like people we knew and trusted. Johnny had to be vigilant and never open the door to anyone -- even if it looked like Grandma herself. The real Grandma would have her key.
It was only sometimes that Grandma left him home alone when she went out. Usually, she took him with her. They would walk across a weed-grown parking lot to the grocery store, or to the post office that had the richest, greenest grass in the neighborhood, though “keep off the grass” signs were posted at regular intervals.
Usually, they walked down Fourth Street along the ragged southern edge of the business district. At the intersection with Main Street, they sometimes turned left to walk up the hill towards the Square where all the stores sold new things. Grandma bought her knitting yarn at Neisner’s Dime Store where Johnny always went to the pet aisle to see the puppies, kittens, canaries and parakeets. That’s where Grandma bought a new blue parakeet to replace Bertie, the one who died. She named the new one Bertie too, and it was as if the old Bertie never died, but Johnny knew that he did because he was buried in a metal recipe box in the side yard.
At the Uptown stores, Johnny was lucky to talk Grandma into getting him one small toy. Sometimes she would say no, but then when they were out of the store she would produce it from her pocket even though they hadn’t gone to the cashier. “I paid the clerk when you weren’t looking,” she would say. Johnny liked going to Neisner’s -- especially when they stopped at the lunch counter and sat under the big black ceiling fans on cushioned stools that were attached to the floor and swiveled. Grandma would have coffee and smoke a Chesterfield while Johnny got Coke in a glass with ice cubes that had holes in the middle of them. He would try to spear them with his paper straw, but the straw would get too soggy after a while and collapse when he sucked on it.
He was more likely to get toys when they did not turn left on Main Street to walk up the hill, but instead turned right to walk down the hill to a mostly empty part of town of old brick factories where no one worked anymore. Grandma called it “the Flats.” Above one of the buildings was a big metal box with a pointed roof that Grandma said was a water tower. It had a giant “W” on it that Johnny assumed stood for “water.” He liked going to the Flats because that’s where the rummage stores were. Instead of selling new toys and clothes like the expensive stores Uptown, they sold toys and clothes that had belonged to someone else before. When they went to the rummage stores, they went through the line and Grandma always got him something. The toys were battered and scuffed and missing some of their parts, but they were new to him. He jumped up and down with excitement at his new possessions, and Grandma would lightly touch his head with her fingertips in a gesture that he knew was affection. It was hard to be sure because she never smiled. He had never seen her smile.
Most days they did not go anywhere, but just stayed home together until Momma came home from work. Grandma would sit on the couch in the living room smoking Chesterfields. When she wanted to take a nap she would put her eyeglasses and her teeth on the coffee table, sigh “mercy,” and soon begin to snore. Johnny knew not to make noise while Grandma was taking her nap, and usually he was very quiet. Johnny was good at being still and quiet -- when he was by himself.
But sometimes she was there. She was his cousin visiting from out of town, or maybe she was another kid from the neighborhood who came over to play. He was not sure, but he liked it when she was there because he had someone to play with. But she was not as careful as he was and sometimes there would be too much noise.
“Don’t make me come over there,” Grandma would say and both of them would freeze, but eventually she would giggle and then he would too because he could not help it when she was around. Johnny knew when Grandma was losing her patience because she would quietly start singing a church-like song that went ‘have mercy mercy, have mercy on me.”
He knew that was Grandma’s last warning, but she did not take it seriously and stuck out her tongue, making him laugh and then she dashed out of the room and was gone.
Grandma was not fast. She was old and stout and had to push herself off of the couch with a grunt. From his vantage point on the dining room floor, Johnny saw her mostly from the knees down -- the frayed hem of her house dress, her swollen ankles, the yardstick nearly touching the floor as she carried it at one side like a gunslinger on TV. He tried to get away from her, but there was nowhere to go. From behind, she slapped the yardstick against his bare legs as he ran.
Afterwards, as he sobbed in a corner begging her forgiveness, Grandma would trudge wearily back into the living room and slump back down onto the couch. “Mercy,” she would sigh and light another Chesterfield.
Late in the afternoons, Johnny would go outside in the tiny front yard and look down the brick-paved street in the direction he knew his mother would be coming from. Sometimes he heard her before she came into view amid the bushes and trees -- the clip-clop of her high heels against the sidewalk. Thinking he was being clever, Johnny would hide behind the lilac bush and fall in line behind her as she climbed the few steps onto their porch and opened the screen door. Though she did not look back, she knew he was there because (she told him later in life) the screen door didn’t slam shut behind her as she entered. That’s when she would turn and sweep him up into her arms as Grandma stirred from her nap on the couch.
They lived with Grandma until Johnny was seven. It was not long after his birthday that Johnny realized one day that Grandma must have gone out without telling him she was leaving. He heard the door open and close, but sometimes she did that when she checked the mail or went out to sweep the sidewalk. After a few minutes when she didn’t come back in again, Johnny went to the picture window to peek out, but she was gone. Though she hadn’t told him she was leaving, as she normally did, Johnny knew his job. He was to stay quiet and not answer the door -- not even if it was Grandma herself, because the real Grandma would have her key. He closed the blinds, which she normally did but must have forgotten, and sat dutifully in the darkened room.
A long time went by -- longer than usual -- but Johnny was vigilant in maintaining his assigned position. He was growing sleepy when he heard footsteps on the porch and the doorknob turning. But the door didn’t open, and then someone knocked. Johnny knew that whoever was out there was not Grandma because they didn’t have the key. He held his breath as he watched the knob turn back and forth and then the screen door slammed, but he did not hear any footsteps walking away. Hiding behind the couch, Johnny felt certain that someone was looking in the picture window on the porch. He stayed very still and slowly counted to one hundred.
Holding his breath, Johnny listened for a long while and heard nothing at all except Bertie the parakeet scratching in his cage. Slowly, he crawled around the edge of the couch so he could see the picture window, and then he froze. Someone was out there, and it looked like Grandma. But the real Grandma would have taken her coat . . . and her glasses . . . and her teeth. But beyond those details, Johnny knew with certainty that the thing looking in the window at him could not be his Grandma because it was . . . it was smiling.