06 Jan
06Jan

   I recognized the House Halfway to Hell for what it was immediately and it recognized me. 

   You know when you meet an attractive stranger and you feel you've known them for a long time? You lose all caution, all sense, all the warnings your mother gave you about talking to strangers are forgotten. The House Halfway was the stranger that your mother told you not to talk to, the one you should never open the door for. The House (I think of it as an It, by the way, because there was some nameless, formless entity living inside it) recognized me immediately and in my desultory commitment to living my own life, I let the stranger in. 

   The House Halfway was a 19th century Victorian that smelled and creaked and groaned. It had been converted into small student apartments years before. The house’s outward appearance looked like a hastily constructed façade, like painted scenery in a shabby theatre, like facial plastic surgery gone horribly wrong, sagging in the worst places, tucked up here, stretched too thin there. It looked like the sad face of a disappointed woman who’d painted on a demented smile. Or perhaps the smile had been cut into a fleshy face with a knife, as if by a serial killer.

Yes, I can be dramatic and strange. That is, incidentally, why my fiancée left me and I ended up looking for an apartment at the House Halfway. He came home one day, told me that I was a black hole where happiness went to die, that I was just too weird. He packed his things and left.

   The House Halfway smelled old. At times, it exuded a vaguely floral funereal scent but only in certain spots, in front of apartment B2, for example, and two steps to the left of my mailbox on the first floor. The smell can only be described as a Grandma smell. Imagine an aging and terminally ill grandmother trying to cover up the scent of her own decay and that's the smell I'm describing. I didn't care much. I was too depressed and lonely and busy. I was working on my PhD in English at the university nearby. Most of the time I lived there (about six months), I was preoccupied with teaching, research and writing my thesis. I wanted to dig a hole and put myself in it for a few months and the House Halfway, with its funny smells and its squirrely lunatics, looked like a good black hole.

   The first night I slept there I had a dream that I was back in my childhood home. There were glasses on the kitchen table of my childhood home that still had ice in them. A summer wind blew through the white lace curtains in the window over the kitchen sink. A Roger Whittaker record was playing on my mother’s record player. As I walked down the hall to my child’s bedroom, I called out for my mother and father. There was no answer. I looked into my brother’s room. He was not there. I walked into my parent's room. My father's reading glasses were still on his nightstand. He'd left his work shirt next to the hamper instead of inside the hamper. I left the room and walked to the bathroom, the kids' bathroom, as my mother called it. No one there. I pulled the shower curtain back. There was a girl, about eight or nine, hanging from the shower head by a rope around her neck. Her eyes were open and the rope creaked as she swung. The girl was wearing a floral dress that I remembered wearing one summer, a dress that my grandmother had made for me. I knew the girl, of course.She was me.That morning, as I wrestled with the dregs of this dream, I wondered what it could mean. I tried to remember what Carl Jung might have said about such nightmares. Perhaps if I consulted Foucault (I had one of his books around somewhere, like most college kids) I could ferret out its meaning.

   When I came home that afternoon, I checked my mail, all junk. I took two steps to the left and I smelled the scent of my grandmother again, the clinging floral scent of funereal lilies. I took two steps back to where I had been standing and the smell went away. I don't remember exactly what I did after that. I probably made myself a sandwich, maybe some coffee and then I almost certainly resumed my work. I assume I went to bed at some point. I do not know if I had the dream again that night. I woke up, sweating and shaking, because I heard someone walking up and down the hall. I tried to resume my sleep. I counted my own breaths. (This was a habit I'd started in childhood).1 . . . 2 . . .3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . .Someone was walking up and down the hall slowly. . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 . . . 9 . . .Someone was walking slowly and deliberately. Someone must have been wearing some sort of house shoe, a cheaply made cloth slipper. I went to the door of the apartment and opened it a few inches. There was a grey-haired woman standing there. She had the improbably high hair of regularly kept appointments at a beauty salon. Her hair was copper-colored and shaped like a mushroom cloud. Her eyes were dusted with bright blue eyeshadow and her lips were smeared with red. She wore a housedress in a floral print. There were spectacles suspended from her neck by a chain. She just stood there, blankly staring at the door. I closed the door. I watched her through the keyhole until she slunk away, dragging her house slippered feet. It had to have been about 3 AM. The poor thing must have been experiencing dementia. Perhaps she couldn't remember which apartment was hers. I knew there were tenants at the House Halfway that had lived there for decades but I had no real curiosity about them. I was far too busy avoiding my own life to care for theirs. It wasn't until I was nearly asleep that I realized the pattern of her housedress was the same worn by the girl who had been hung from the shower head in my dream. I remembered the dress, white with blue and pink flowers entwined.

   I went about my days, trying not to think of the old woman outside my door. The next day I asked the neighbor across the hall if he’d seen or heard the old lady the night before. The neighbor, who was slight and unsteady on his feet, had the glaze of prescription medication in his eyes. His eyes shifted to the left and then to the right. He craned his neck to look down the hall and then he shook his head. He didn’t know any old women. Oh wait, he said, there was an old woman who’d lived in my apartment before I’d moved in. She’d been there for decades. She’d always lived alone and she hadn’t talked to anyone. He shut the door. I decided everyone living in the House Halfway was twitchy. Maybe the old woman had forgotten that she didn’t live in my apartment anymore and she kept coming back at night, confused. I’d heard about the elderly becoming more confused in the evenings, after sundown. Eventually, I forgot the old woman wearing the floral print of my childhood. I picked up my grief over my broken engagement and took it with me everywhere I went. This pain, I told myself, is only a bump in the journey that would inexorably lead to my emergence as a major literary talent. Because, you see, I was going to write a great book one day, when I could find the time, after my degrees, after a few disastrous love affairs, after I’d accumulated enough painful life experiences. Then, surely, I would begin to write.

   My father had always wanted to write. He’d been a professor at the university. He had enjoyed young girls, some of them barely out of their teens. There had been some sort of scene when I was young. My parents fought often, sometimes late into the night, until the day he left us. I was wearing the pink and blue floral dress when I ran out onto the porch and watched him get into his car. He waved at me, a half-hearted twitch of his wrist, before driving away. I never saw him again. At night, I continued dreaming the dream of my childhood home. I would wander through the house, sometimes my parents would be fighting, sometimes they would be watching TV. Every time, I would go out onto the porch and watch my father get into his car. I would watch him drive away but sometimes he would be smiling not waving. He would smile at me even as he pulled out of the driveway and he’d keep smiling as he drove off down the street, craning his neck so that he didn’t break with my eyes. His smile made me feel sick. I’d walk into the kitchen and my mother would be there, washing the dishes. She wouldn’t look up from the sink.

   “Go into the bathroom,” she’d say. I’d walk into the bathroom and close the door behind me. I’d stare at the closed door. I couldn’t bear the thought of turning around and confronting the girl in the bathtub with the broken neck. I could hear the creak of the rope as it swung back and forth through the air. I could hear my little girl shoes, the jelly sandals everyone wore that summer, hit the sides of the bathtub as my small child’s body swung from the rope. I would start to pound on the door and then I’d wake up with a painful jerk of my feet, as if the ground had receded beneath them and I was hanging. I started to set my alarm for every hour on the hour. I would wake up and set it again for the next hour. I started sleeping on the couch, on the floor, anywhere I thought might interrupt the flow of my subconscious. The dream persisted, no matter what I tried. One night, I woke up in the bathroom at the Halfway House, standing inside the tub, staring at the shower rod. I began to hear the creak of the rope while awake. I began to see people on campus wearing the blue and pink floral print of my childhood’s Sunday dress. One night, I awoke from the dream to hear a knocking at the door. It was 3 AM. I shook off the dream and staggered towards the front door. I looked through the peephole. I saw the same mushroom haired old woman. I sighed and wiped at my eyes. If I opened the door, I would almost certainly have to talk to the poor woman. I imagined her keeping me there at the door, telling me some disjointed story, possibly even inviting herself inside. I would never be able to get rid of her. I stood there for what felt like a long time. The old woman stood outside the door, pounding on it every few minutes. Finally, she shuffled away and I went back to bed. The next day I could think of nothing but the way my father had smiled at me in my dream. The smile struck at the core of me, the raw and wounded place that he created in me the day he left. I couldn’t eat anything that day or the next. I could barely gather myself enough to go to class. That night, sitting and staring at my uneaten microwave dinner, I decided I would call my mother. 

   She answered on the first ring. “I’ve been expecting your call,” she said.

   “Why?”

   “You always call on this day,” she said. “Every year.”

   “I do?”

   “Yes, you do.”

   “Why do I call you on this day?” I asked. 

   I began to feel nauseated. From somewhere, I could hear the dull thud my child’s feet in their jelly sandals make as they collide with the sides of the bathtub.“

   It’s the day your father left,” my mother said. I closed my eyes. My head began to swim. 

   “Of course it is,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

   “I thought maybe it would hurt you too much,” she said. Her voice became flat. She always lost all feeling when she was forced to talk about something painful. I did too. “But you kept calling year after year and I wondered if you weren’t trying to tell me somehow.”

   This was the most personal conversation I’d had with my mother in years. I hung up the phone. I felt like I was choking on my own voice. I stumbled out onto the porch for a cigarette. Then I noticed a man, grey-haired and maybe in his late forties, walking up the front porch steps.

   “Hello, do you live here?” he said. He had a resonant and mellifluous voice.

   “Um, yes, I guess I do live here,” I muttered. “I’m looking for my mother. Do you know where she lives?” He was smiling at me. He was quite handsome in a silver fox kind of way. I wanted desperately for him to go away. I shook my head. He went inside. I didn’t see him again until I happened to pass him in the hall.

   “I found her,” he said, cheerfully. “She is just two doors down from you.”It didn’t occur to me to wonder how he knew where I lived until later that evening. I sat in my apartment and tried to think of nothing. I turned on the TV but every show involved young girls in floral print dresses so I turned it off. Later that night, someone began pounding on the door. I tried to ignore it but it was no use. I got up and walked to the door.“

   "Ma’am, please stop banging on my door, ma’am,” I said. I tried to sound kind but firm. “Your son is looking for you. You need to call him. He’s worried about you.”

   There was no answer. I hovered around my door for what felt like hours. I didn’t go back to bed until I heard the unmistakable sound of slippered feet shuffling down the hall. 

   I didn’t see the Silver Fox again until a few days later. He found me on the porch again where I’d gone to smoke a cigarette.

   “Hey there,” he said. He had a deep and intimate voice, smooth and oozing. “You haven’t seen my mother, have you?”

   “Uh . . . well, not exactly,” I said.

   “What does that mean?”

“Not exactly means not exactly,” I said. I was being rude but he just laughed. "Sometimes she knocks on my door in the middle of the night but I don’t answer the door.” I felt awkward and flustered by him. The Silver Fox really was about as handsome as a man could be. He sat down in the chair beside mine.

   “My mother is terribly old. She can’t leave her bed, unfortunately. I don’t think she’s the woman who has been visiting you at night.” He was looking deeply into my face, a smile grazing his lips. He took off his expensive sunglasses. “I’ve been trying to get her to come and live with me but she’s just so stubborn.” His eyes drifted down the front of my white T-shirt. “Are you studying at the university?” I nodded. He asked what I was studying. I told him. He looked pleased. He began to quote Shakespeare at me, smiling the whole time. I wondered if he ever stopped smiling. He had the jocular and confident air of someone much younger.“

   Are you impressed with my knowledge of Shakespeare?” he asked, eyes glittering. 

   I swear to you. His eyes were glittering. I laughed, a hollow insincere sound that I hoped would make him go away. He began to rock in the rocking chair. He wiped at his sunglasses.

   “I’ve always liked young girls,” he said.

   “What? What did you say?”

   He put his sunglasses back on though it was evening. He stood up, still smiling. “I waved at you when I left. Did you see me? The sun was in my eyes that day. I couldn’t tell if you saw me.”

   I stared at him, mouth open.

   “I saw you one day sitting on the steps of the university, the steps that lead up to the fountain. I was getting out of my car. You know those steps?”

   I nodded. My breathing felt so short that I must have been panting like a dog. I stumbled back into the house and staggered towards my apartment. I don't remember what I did after that but I do remember what happened that night. Again, the old woman dragged her feet towards my door and stood there, blinking her blue-shadowed eyes at my keyhole, her face as slack as a wet bag.

   Only, this time, the Silver Fox was standing beside her.

   I started to scream at them, at both of them. I don't remember exactly what I said. I screamed and cursed, told them to get away from the door and to leave me alone for good. I pulled a chair over and stuck it under the door knob. Exhausted and head aching, I stumbled into bed. I tried to sleep but the old woman and her creeper of a son kept knocking on the door for what seemed like hours. The knocking began to sound like the little girl's feet (my feet) knocking against the sides of the tub as I swung back and forth on my broken neck. They knocked softly, every few seconds. I considered calling the police but what was I going to tell them? There's an old lady and a man knocking on my door? Would the cops come and arrest them?.

   I reached for the phone anyway.

   "Hello?" came my mother's sleep-soaked voice. 

   "They're here, Mom, right outside my door. They've been knocking for hours."

   "Who, honey?" 

   "The older man and his mother. She's wearing that dress I used to wear. You know, the one with the blue and pink flowers that grandma made for me. Grandma always wore that perfume that smelled like lilies, like dying lilies. She smelled like a goddamned funeral or something. She was Dad's mother. Her son is standing there too, just standing beside her, smiling and smiling." I was crying now. I hadn't cried in so long that it felt like a dam was breaking open inside me. "He won't stop knocking on the door, Mom. Daddy is outside my door and he's smiling at me. It makes me sick. I hate him so much.

   "The knocking grew louder, closer.

   "Can you hear it?"

   "No, I can't, honey. You sound terrible. Have you been sleepwalking again?"

   "What? No, I don't sleepwalk."

   "Yes, you did when you were about eight or nine, after your father left. I used to find you standing in the bathtub, with your eyes wide open, swaying back and forth."

   "Jesus, what the hell? Why didn't you tell me?"

   There was a pause. The sound of the knocking filled up the silence.

   "It was hard for me too," she said, finally. "I wanted it to be over. I didn't want to think about it anymore. But you were so young. You couldn't talk about it. You dreamed of it, over and over, walking in your sleep, up and down the hall."

   The Silver Fox was actually pounding on the door now. The door was shaking in its frame.

   "I'm going to kill them, Mom, if they come through that door." I was shouting. "The son of a bitch left us with nothing. No reason, no goodbye, nothing. He killed my childhood, Mom. All I got was a wave as the car pulled away."

   My mother was crying now. I had never heard her cry before. We didn't cry in our family. We didn't want to know. We kept ourselves to ourselves. Back then, whenever I thought of him I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was choking. I felt like there wasn't any ground beneath my feet. I felt like . . . I felt like I was hanging. He left me hanging. 

   My mother continued to sob. The door was still shaking in its frame. I put the phone down on the table."

   "I've had enough," I shouted at the door. "I'm done with all that shit. You took it from me, Daddy. You took it all."

   I took a few steps, flung the chair away, took hold of the doorknob and threw the door open. There was no one there. I stared at the space where the old woman and her son should have been. I stared at it through a mist of tears. The twitchy guy a few doors down came out of his door.

   "You all right?" he said. He was rubbing at his eyes. "You were yelling again." 

   I felt surprisingly calm. 

   "Yeah, I'm okay. Sorry about all that banging. I don't know why they wouldn't stop banging on the door."

   The guy stared at me in an open-mouthed and dazed kind of way. "I didn't hear any banging. I just heard you screaming. I called the police. I came out here to see if I could help you."

   I smiled at him. It was the first genuine smile I'd smiled in a long time. He was going to help me. Bless his twitchy heart.

   "Thank you for helping me," I said. "I think I feel better now. Go back to sleep. It's going to be all right."

   He slunk back inside his apartment. I picked up the phone.

   "You there, Mom?" I said."Yes, baby, I'm still here." Her voice was thick with tears."I feel better, Mom. They are gone now, both of them."

   We talked for a little while longer. Then I hung up. A few weeks later, I moved out of the House Halfway. And things did get better, a little at a time. I am still a bit of a negative Nancy but as the days pile up, I can see through them to something better, maybe, one day.I don’t understand anything that happened at the House Halfway. Was it haunted? Supernaturally charged? Was I suffering a kind of short-term psychotic break? I don’t know.I think the House Halfway had something growing inside it, something very old and slow that could get inside your skin, build up in your tissues like arsenic. I’m being dramatic again but I swear to you that is how it felt.

   A few months ago, I called my ex. He sounded happy to hear from me. He said I sounded different, lighter somehow. We talked of this and that, books and papers and ideas. I didn’t tell him about anything that had happened to me at the House Halfway. It was on the tip of my tongue, though, to tell him about how my father had come back. He’d come back long enough to show me that I could have been stuck in the House Halfway forever. I could have turned into the old woman wandering its halls, alone and disjointed, still wearing the sad garment of my lost childhood. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him how I was changing but I let the moment pass. Perhaps it was too late anyway. When he said goodbye, it was a warm thing, not an indifferent turn of the wrist.

   I hung up the phone and went outside onto the porch of my childhood home. I was staying with my mother for a while. I remembered the way he looked as he drove away. I remembered how my father looked. I thought of him lifting his hand and turning his wrist into a limp wave. I thought of him fighting with my mother, yelling and cursing at her. I thought of how he would leave his clothes beside the hamper rather than inside them. I felt his absence in my life as if it were a silent dark person that had always been standing beside me, leaning over me or whispering things at me.

   Then I imagined that man, the Silver Fox, standing in the yard in the darkness, smiling up at me. I met his gaze. I lifted my hand and gave a little twist of my wrist. I waved goodbye.

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