Monday, October 19, 2009

 

An October Moment...

(On the off-chance you're not familiar with October Moments by now, go here first...)


Old Sam was a nice man. Like so many of the men I knew during my life in New Hampshire, Sam was a big fellow, predisposed to wearing plaid work shirts and large, roomy overalls. When he walked into a room, the very floorboards creaked under his weight.

Often, the creaking floor was the only notice you had of Sam’s arrival. There were two kinds of men in our town: the merry, hail-well-met types who were given to storytelling and to shouting hellos across the town green; and the quiet types for whom conversation seemed almost painful. When they spoke at all, their vocabulary was limited to just a handful of words: Ayuh, nope, welp, and mebbe. Sam was this type of man.

At least, he was whenever he came to the post office, which is where I could be found most summer afternoons, helping my aunt Barbara, the village postmaster. Sam would lumber on in, give Barbara a jowly smile and a nod, then give me a quick wink or sketch a jaunty salute, and you knew instantly that he was a nice guy.

But like everyone in our town, he had his eccentricities. From my view of Sam through the post-office window boxes, they amounted to two things. First, he studiously read all of his junk mail. He’d stand right over the trash basket by the door and slowly, carefully open each colorful envelope, examine each shrill piece of marketing entreating him to join this book club or give to that charity. Then, one by one, he’d drop the pieces of paper into the basket. Then he’d look up. “Welp,” he’d say to us by way of farewell, then walk out the door.

The other eccentric thing he did was the thing with the keys.

Sam kept a fairly large ring of keys in the pocket of his overalls. I think it was a legal requirement for residency in our town, that every man over a certain age had to lug around this massive ring containing the keys to every car, truck, tractor, front door, and padlock that he ever owned in his entire life, even if those locks had long since rusted away to nothing. They made quite a jangle, now I’ll tell you. At town meeting, when all these men in their droopy overalls came into the hall, it sounded like a chain gang in the middle of a mass breakout.

Sam’s keys were curiously resistant to jingling, though, at least when he walked. But when he was at the post office, you could hear them. He’d take them out of his pocket and jangle them idly in his hand while he waited for Barbara to hand him his letters (he had long ago forgotten the combination to his mailbox), then put them back in his pocket to begin his careful examination of his junk mail.

But if another customer was in front of him and he had to wait long enough, Sam would stop jangling his keys and slowly shake out one particularly long, old-fashioned looking key. Then he’d carefully, deliberately stick that key--the whole shaft, as long as your middle finger--in his ear.

Whenever this happened, I always stopped what I was doing to watch him. You would have too. It is not physically possible to stick a three-inch long key in your ear--I speak from painful, experimental experience here. But Sam would not just manage to get the whole key shaft in his ear. Once he got it in position, he’d start twisting it this way and that, like he was trying to crank the starter on a cold engine. In fact, that’s how aunt Barbara and I referred to Sam’s strange habit. As he’d stand there in the post office lobby, cranking away, head quivering slightly, eyelids fluttering in some kind of strange ecstasy, Barbara would hiss to me, “Old Sam’s trying to start his brains up again!”

When you live in a small town, no one has his own unique story. Really, you all become part of the same big story, each person a supporting character in the lives of others. When I was young and stupid, I thought old Sam was just this guy I saw sometimes in the summer and would never have any real relation to, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sam had been friends with my grandfather, had known my Dad, man and boy. His wife Edna had been Dad’s first schoolteacher, a claim many older residents in town still make today. When Sam died sometime in the late 1980s (of a heart attack, I think, but am not sure. At least, it wasn’t from any kind of key-induced brain trauma, in case you were wondering), Edna couldn’t keep up the old farm out at Four Corners and so she decamped for the southwest, to live with one of her daughters. And when she did, my parents bought her house.

It was an old Cape-style house, with massive axe-hewn cedar beams notched with the initials of the housewright who framed the place. He had also notched a date on one of the beams: 1740. The frame was sound, as sturdy as the day it was put up, but my Dad had decided that just about everything else in the house had to be torn out and rebuilt. And I mean everything: walls, floors, plumbing, wiring, the whole magilla. I know because I tore most of it out.

I had recently moved back to New Hampshire after a bitterly unsuccessful attempt to find work as a magazine man. I was almost a year out of college and was bunked up with my Big Brother, in a cramped loft of an A-frame house my parents were renting until they found a house they wanted. When Dad came home very early in the spring of 1990 and told me he and Mom had bought Sam’s old house, it was my first real understanding of how the lives of others in this place were connected to mine in ways I had not fully appreciated before. I also understood that I was not going to get to sleep in a room of my own again unless somebody got busy over at Sam’s house and began clearing the way for a major remodel.

And so my days began to fall into a predictable and comfortable pattern. I would rise late in the morning after sleeping off the effects of my night job. I’d dress in my grubbiest clothes, fill a shopping bag with a stack of sandwiches, a large bag of chips and a 3-liter bottle of Coke, then head over to Sam’s house, pick a spot and start swinging my crowbar. I’d work til about 4, go home, shower all the dust and crap off me, then go off to my job.

It was a satisfying existence, although not without its minor inconveniences. One especially vexing concern, to my Dad anyway, was that we couldn’t find Sam’s keys. His widow didn’t have them, and she assured us they had not been buried with him--in fact, she was sure she'd left them somewhere in the house--but they were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t such a big deal when it came to the house proper--we were planning to tear out all the old doors and locks anyway. But in the barn and the back shed, there were a few nice old brass locks on some doors and hatches and Dad dearly wanted to salvage those locks. Of course, he also wanted to see what was behind those locked doors and hatches (and for the purpose of ending needless suspense, I’ll tell you what we ultimately found: old hay, some firewood, a few rat skeletons, and one very startled raccoon). Days passed, no keys turned up, and we just kept on working.

A little more than a month after we began work on the house, I found myself in the narrow, low-ceilinged space of an upstairs bedroom. We were planning to cut through the roof and build out a dormer, so I need to clear out most of the plaster wall and framing on one side. I tended to work alone, banging away with my sledge and crowbar, my earphones clamped firmly to my head, my favorite music blasting away. So I just about crapped myself one day when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. I squawked and jumped and turned, crowbar at the ready.

But it was just my Dad. “Better check your swing, Mister Man,” he said, laughing.

It was just shy of lunchtime, too early for my Dad to be here. “Why aren’t you at work down at the plant?” I asked as I took off my headset.

“Pipe fitters are on strike,” Dad said. He was a union man through and through and wouldn’t cross a picket line for love or money. “So you got another helper for today. Maybe even longer, if they don’t settle things.” He began inspecting my handiwork, noting where I’d have to saw something out, where we’d have to knock up a support beam to keep the other side of the roof from falling in while we built the dormer.

"And I want you to be real careful with these big boards in this closet wall right here," he was telling me. "Them are single sheets of pine, come from pine trees that ain’t around no more. I’m gonna woodwork them a bit and--"

He stopped talking and put his hand up. This was my Dad’s quick-quiet stance, which I knew from an entire youth of walking in the woods with him. The moment he heard a snap of twig or rustle of leaves, he’d freeze and put his hand up like this, and we’d listen. I always felt my pulse quicken at moments like these, half-expecting a large, child-eating bear to come crashing through the bushes at any moment.

But this time, there were no twigs to snap, no leaves to rustle. We stood there like statues for a long moment. Dust and plaster hung suspended in the weak sunlight, the stillness of the old house a palpable thing.

And then we heard it. The distinct sound of heavy feet lumbering across the floor downstairs.

Errrrrrrnk. Errrrrrrrnk. Orrrrnnnnnnk. Arrrrrrrnk.

Dad took his finger from his lips and pointed to the crowbar in my hand. Wordlessly, I handed it to him. He gripped it tight, his face hardening. Dad was always on the lookout for burglars and prowlers and people who might be generally out to Get His Stuff. He had a lot of expensive power tools stowed in the cupboard of the old pantry near the front door, too. They’d be real easy to carry off.

Whoever was downstairs, it sounded like he’d entered through the front door and was creeping slowly through the room that was just below us. But in the silence of the house, it sounded like he was right there with us.

Errrrrrrnk. Errrrrrrrnk. Orrrrnnnnnnk. Arrrrrrrnk.

The footsteps continued for a few seconds more, then stopped. Right below us, they stopped. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even breathe.

Then in one sudden motion, Dad dropped to the floor, elbows and knees and crowbar all slamming with a BANG that made me scream and would certainly have scared the bejesus out of anyone downstairs--the noise would have been directly over their heads. But we didn’t hear anyone shout or scream or call out. So my Dad yelled, in his very loudest voice. “WHO’S THERE, BY GORRY?!?”

If it had been a curious neighbor, they would surely have announced themselves. Had it been a prowler, we’d have heard the shuffling of feet as they got the hell out.

Instead, we heard nothing.

Dad was up off the floor, crowbar in the head-bashing position. “You look out, see if you see anyone,” he said, pointing to the dusty, cracked window set into the wall behind me. I did this while Dad scuttled to the ladder that would take him down. I peeked out the window—nothing but trees and a glimmer of wet tarmac out on the road beyond. Dad had clambered a few steps down the ladder, then stopped dead.

He called my name. “Come here a minute, will ya?” he asked, the let’s-kick-some-ass tone gone out of his voice.

As I walked over to where the ladder was, Dad was peering down below at something I couldn’t see. He was shaking his head. “We must be the stupidest sons-of-bitches alive, ol’ fella,” he said, laughing.

“Why?” I said.

He just laughed some more. “We heard someone creaking around on the floor downstairs, right?” I nodded. I was almost to the ladder now.

“Well, sir, then you tell me: How the hell could they do that when there IS no floor downstairs?” he asked.

I didn’t even have to come down the ladder to realize what he was saying. He was right, of course: We discovered early on that almost the entire downstairs floor of the place was dangerously rotted. Consequently, we had to tear out most of the floor first, leaving us with just a couple of narrow cedar beams as walkways over the pit of the old cellar. As I stood at the top of the ladder (it was a long one, extending all the way to the cellar floor), I surveyed the open area below, trying to see what could possibly have made that distinctive foot-on-floorboards sound we’d heard. But all that was down there was a lattice work of cedar beams and a couple of gravity-defying walls off in one corner that had hung onto the ceiling supports even after we tore the floor out from under them. Everything below this was stone and dirt from the cellar far below.

“Well, Mister Man,” Dad said, “If you can find a floorboard to creak down here, you’re a smarter fella than me. You ever heard anything like this going on here before?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head vigorously. Although of course, I usually wore my headphones and listened to my Walkman, or made so much noise with a saw or crowbar that I wouldn’t have heard anything, I realized a little sickly. Now granted, I was in my early 20s by this time, my years growing up in a haunted farmhouse already a fact of my life. But it had been a while since anything quite like this had happened to me. I was a little shook up.

So I did what I always do when I’m shook up; I made a joke out of it. “Must be old Sam walking around,” I said, hazarding a weak chuckle.

Dad liked this. “Ayuh! Ol’ fella come to check on our progress.” He took a breath, then bellowed. “Sam, hope you like what we done with the place! We’ll be starting on the barn next, soon as I find your goddamn keys!”

As soon as he said this, my Dad got a kind of shocked, startled look, as if he’d just remembered something. He hustled down the ladder and hopped to a floor beam that was immediately below. I started down the ladder myself, then stopped to watch as Dad edged along the floor beam until he was in the room that was right below where we had been standing, the room where we had heard someone walking on the floor that wasn’t there anymore. Along the outside wall of this room, two radiators sat on either side of the window. We hadn’t torn these out yet, so they just hung there, suspended by the strong pipes that came up from the furnace in the cellar. Dad hopped from the beam to the window and was now hanging by the sill to inspect the radiator.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“These are old radiators,” he said, staring closely at the one in front if him. “Hot-water heating. You know what you have to do every season when you turn the furnace on?”

I did. “Bleed the air out of the pipes?”

“Ayuh. And what do you need to open the radiator air valve?” He had his hand on the radiator now and was pulling on it.

I knew the answer, and by now you probably do too. “You need a special key,” I said.

But Dad didn’t hear my answer because he was too busy whooping. The moment he pulled the radiator out away from the wall, there was a loud jingle and the massive ring of keys (no doubt they had been set atop the radiator by Sam's wife and fell down the back) plummeted through the space where the floor should have been and landed in the dirt of the cellar. With a cackle, Dad let go of the window sill and dropped down to join them. He stood up and shook them at me triumphantly.

“Knew they had to be here somewheres,” he said. “Shoulda thought of the radiators. Guess I oughtta thank old Sam for jump-starting my brains for me.”

Dad got the locks open that afternoon. And I continued to work at the house almost every day for the next six months. Always with my headphones off.

But I never heard the floors creak again.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Comments:
I hope all is well with finding and learning the new paths. But, I will admit I was curious if you were going to let us in on any October Moments. Many thanks and happy thoughts to you and yours.
 
Loved this story! Clearly, Sam put those keys there for you to find, or told his wife to do it!
 
Wonderful story. As usual. Hope your paths are firming up well and you'll post more of these soon...
 
I'm glad old Sam didn't mind you guys renovating his house :)
 
I was wondering when we'd see an October moment! Well told as usual, MM. Sam must have liked what he saw since he never visited again. Hope things are going well at the new gig!
 
Cool story MM and I for one believe Sam was there. He could't rest easy with you all grousing about where his keys were. He just had to put you on the right track.
Hope things are all good at the magazine mansion.
 
Wonderful! Thanks...
 
Loved it! I live for October Moments!

Thanks so much, MM.
 
Yup, Sam was a great neighbor -- to us and to you. Hope everything's going well with the new job! --N
 
Cool story!
 
I was looking forward to reading an October Moment, and hoping you'd have time, what with the big new job and all. :-) Thanks for making my day.
 
you could make a whole book with just your october moments in it!
 
Thanks for the great bedtime story! I can't wait to hear more once life slows down for you again. :)
 
I always love the October Moments - yet another great one! :)
 
In all honesty, I'm not a ghost story kind of guy. But, damn it, MM, you have such a magnificent gift of storytelling, I was drawn right in and loved it. As usual.
 
October has been flying by me this year, and I almost forgot to check if you'd have time to dash off a "moment" for us. Thank you kindly for doing so. Loved the story about sam.
 
I had completely forgotten about October moments so this post was a pleasant surprise. This is one of my favorites.
 
My first reaction on checking in was "Yay! An October Moment!" MM, this one is awesome--thanks for putting these together for your readers. You've got such amazing stories to tell! Hope all is well at the new job, too!
 
Great story :)
 
a very good halloween story.
always the best kind ever.
 
your moments are very bright spots in october for me. this one was one of the best. thank you!

i hope all's going well for you!
 
Congrats on your article in BH&Gs, September 2009 edition.

I can't describe what it feels like to read an article at work (I won't say where at) and to recognize the author/writer.

You done good. :)
 
Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!
 
Just stopped over from Suldog's blog. Nice to meet you and congrats on your new job.

Loved this story! I'll be back for more!

jj
 
Congrats to you for many things. Your new esteemed position, your fine writing style and for having such a wonderful, Suldoggie friend.
 
I too came over from Suldog's blog. Glad I found you. I will visit again.
 
Dude. It's December.

!!!!!!!!!!
 
Hi MM,
Hope the new job etc. is going well, hope you can post again when you have time! Miss your stories.
 
I'll just keep checking back, hoping you can find time in this craziest time—made crazier by what I suspect is a very busy job—to post something new for us hungry MM readers. Even a tiny morsel, perhaps? When you can squeeze it in, of course.

Merry Christmas to you and your fam in the new place. Hope it feels like home now.
 
Merry Christmas MM! I miss your stories. I had a dream last night that you posted a new one and I was the first person to comment. LOL. I had to come check this morning to see if it was true. I hope you and your family have a Blessed Merry Christmas! :)
 
12-26-09

* * * * <--- tumbleweeds


Merry Christmas. Miss your blog.
 
Happy New Year! I'm hoping all is well with you and yours. Looking forward to reading when you're ready to write.
 
Dude. It's January!!!!!!

:)
 
Okay Magazinio. Get your write back on. We miss you.
 
yo where are u
 
uh, are you coming back?
 
Dude. We miss you.
 
Hey there, I hope all is going well with the new job. Have you settled in? We haven't heard from you in a while over here...

Take care, and come back, please?
 
Magazine Man, just let us faithful readers know if the blog is ended. We miss reading you, and now we're just kinda worried--it's been 3 months. Hope all is well.
 
Was re-running some of your old stories for a friend and...wait, there aren't any new ones?

Hope all is well in your corner of the world.

Miss your wit.
 
Dude! It's February!!! :)

You must be busy. Magazines are failing left and right so I'm sure you have your hands full. Best of Luck.
 
How long does a person not have to blog in order for the insurance company to be satisfied that he's dead? Not that I took out a policy on you or anything. I, um... forget I said anything.
 
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