Set, Sand, and Finish
When the doorbell rang, she was already standing in the vestibule. The late summer sun was shining through the transom, which still had its original wavy glass, so that Miriam was bathed in rippling patterns of shadow and light, like being underwater. So much else about the old house had changed since she had seen it last. Walls torn down to make an open floor plan. Dark scarred wood painted over a glossy white. The floors, which had been painted a garish turquoise when she had squatted here as a girl, had been stripped and sanded down, stained and burnished to a mellow glow.
It hardly resembled the house that had haunted her dreams for the past fifty years.
The doorbell rang again. Miriam glanced Into the gilt-edged entryway mirror, as though to check who she was. Was she seventeen, or sixty-seven? A little old woman with long white hair looked back at her. Face still round, but with fine crinkles. Like a topographical map.
She counted to three in her head, and opened the door.
A man stood on the front porch, wearing a uniform, some type of industrial cover all with snaps on it. A chest pocket full of pens, on which was a patch stenciled BOB. He looked to be somewhere around her age. His hair, too, was white, and transparent at the top where the sun shown through. But he had the open, cheerful mien of someone younger, unchallenged by life. When she opened the door he had his hands behind his back and was looking up at the front façade of the refurbished Victorian, bouncing on his heels just a little bit.
“Hi! I’m here from On Call Handyman. And you are Mrs…” He squinted at a clipboard. His fingernails were neat and clean. He wore an expensive looking watch.
“Bob. Good to meet you. May I come in?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Thank you for coming so quickly .”
“Not a problem.”
He picked up a soft sided tool box that he had set on the ground, and she led him into the front room. But when she turned he was not looking at her. He was looking at the walls, the ceilings.
It’s amazing, what they’ve done with this place. I know Blake and Susan. Good people, not local but I don’t hold it against them. You should have seen what this place looked like before. I mean, it has some, um, history, to put it lightly. Stories some people would rather forget. But I always knew this place had great bones, even back in the bad old days. Heck, I even thought about buying it, myself. But I couldn’t have done this place better, the way they way they opened it up, brought light into the place. New tile, new molding. Redone the whole electric. The skylight alone, well…,” he peaked around the corner, up into the stairwell. Gave an approving nod. “Yeah, thought I remembered they’d done that. Well! Anyway…” He finally swiveled on his heel to face Miriam. “So you must be renting this place through Airbnb?”
“Mmmm HMMM. Mmmm hmmmm. Is it for a family gathering? Family reunion? Big old place like this, people like to use it for get-togethers, anniversaries. So much space here.”
“No, just me.”
He looked at her more closely now. Noticed the pale gray of her eyes, like twilight, like ice, like ash. There was something unusual about them that he couldn’t place. Most women cut their hair when it went white, but hers was long and untamed. And she was thin. So very thin. She wore a long brown linen dress and a large oval amber pendant on a chain.
His eyes flicked away, and his voice came out sputtering and apologetic. “Well, you certainly, uh, picked a fine place. You, uh, here long?”
There was an awkward silence as Bob looked back at his customer, waiting for her to say more. This woman who seemed so bewildered and haunted. She’s sick, he thought. He felt an instinct to move a few paces back, but didn’t.
“Now, um. It’s kind of unusual to get a call from someone who is a guest. I do maintenance for a couple of Airbnb’s, and usually it’s the owner who contacts. Have you spoken to Blake and Susan about…”
“No! I can’t be bothered with that,” Miriam said with a sudden intensity. “No time for nonsense. I need someone now. If I have to listen to that sound any more I’ll go mad….”
Bob blinked at her, then looked down at his clipboard. “I see from the call that you said you had an animal in the house. It wasn’t too clear on the details, you must have got the new girl I just hired. So are we talking…in the chimney or what?”
Miriam looked at him reproachfully for a beat of silence, then said, slowly, “I don’t know if it is an animal. I never said that it was.”
“But you obviously heard a noise. Did you hear scampering, clawing?”
“I said there was something trapped under the floor, in the attic.”
“And what does it sound like? I mean, is it all the time? Sometimes?”
“It never stops. It makes a sound like…well, listen for yourself! I can hear it right now.”
And so they stood for some long moments, looking into each other’s eyes. But there was no sound except a car swishing by outside. The putter of the mail truck. Someone far away calling a greeting to a neighbor.
Then, the sound of Miriam who had begun breathing very quickly and shallowly. She had gone very pale.
“Are you okay? Maybe…how about we sit you down for a..”
“No, I’m fine!” she said, though her voice had gone thin and wavering.. “I think…I think never mind. This was a mistake. I should never have called you. Should not involve you with this. You aren’t the right person. You should leave. Sorry to waste your time. Goodbye.”
“Now, now,” Bob moved towards her, then hesitated and moved back. She did not look well. He noticed for the first time that she was not wearing shoes. How odd, he thought, young girls went barefoot. You never saw an older woman like that, though. “Since I’m already here I may as well have a look. Could be a raccoon. They can cause all kinds of damage. You’d be shocked.”
Miriam had her eyes tightly shut and shook her head. Go, she mouthed silently, and gestured vaguely with her fingers.
“Absolutely not,” Bob said, resolutely. All at once, he had made up his mind. He would help this woman. So fragile and bird like. Frantic. Not in her right mind. Dementia, maybe. “Whatever it is, I can fix it. But listen…” He stepped forward, tilted his head to one side, thinking. Then looked her straight in the eye and said gently, “You don’t trust me, do you, Miriam?”
She went very still, and narrowed her eyes. “Excuse me?”
Bob smiled, and put his hands in the air as though to show he had no weapons. “Now, I don’t mean to be too forward. Though my friends know I’m a straight shooter. There are people that have known me fifty years. See, I’m from here. Never left my home town. I built my business up here. If I’m a success, it’s only because of the people here that know and trust me. Where are you from, Miriam?”
A strained silence. Miriam squeezed her arms around herself, cupping her own elbows. Then she answered in a rush, “I’m from here.”
A slow smile spread over Bob’s face. “Well, knock me down! Did you go to Foreman High? I was class of ’74.”
“Yes,” she answered stiffly, not quite looking at him. And as though to head off the next question, said, “I went there but finished somewhere else.”
Bob thought back. It seemed, in his mind, that he could remember a girl that could be Miriam. An upperclassman when he was a freshman. The sister of a friend of a friend maybe? Small framed, long frizzed hair. She dressed theatrically, in platform boots and wide brimmed hats. Painted her face like a silent movie star, little bow mouth and thin plucked brows. He seemed to remember a glittery tear drop painted under one eye. Something had happened where she had to leave school. There were rumors, whispering…
…but the memory felt like a blur, a glimpse, as of a figure in a train window speeding by. The minute he thought he could remember her fully, the memory dissolved.
“Well Miriam, you must have been feeling homesick if you came back to visit.”
It was a statement, but it trailed upwards at the end so it sounded like a question. But it was one she was not willing to answer. And it was beginning to irk her, the way he kept over-using her name. Like a trick they teach you in a sales seminar. She looked him boldly in the eye, and let the silence stretch uncomfortably.
Bob cleared his throat. “This town is full of good people. It’s my belief, and feel free to disagree with me, but most people have good intentions. You just gotta give them the benefit of the doubt, you know what I mean?”
“I said I don’t want your help, and yet you just keep talking.”
“Because I know you don’t really mean it. Maybe something happened to you, a long time ago, that made you think you can’t trust people. Someone must have hurt you, Miriam. But I won’t give up until I can prove to you otherwise. I just want to help you. Please?”
First, she look stricken. Then affronted. Then, after appearing to struggle with some argument in her head, she looked up at him and said,
“You are insisting, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am!” He smiled valiantly.
“Well, just remember that then. You were the one that insisted.”
His bantering talk was halted for just a moment, as his face blurred with confusion at the dark-sounding statement. But he recovered himself, and he made a military salute and said, “Lead the way to the raccoon, m’lady!”
With that she started walking to up the stairs to the second floor. Bob followed behind, admiring the refurbished newel post, stroking it, as he said, wistfully, “Blake and Susan really outdid themselves. They mentioned maybe picking up another property, doing the same. I know them from the historic district commission meetings that I’m involved in.. Sometimes we stay late and shoot the bull. Good stuff, good stuff…”
They ascended to a landing that had a stained glass window. It was a tall, narrow panel, blazing red and cobalt and gold. So sudden and striking, it reverberated like the echo of a shout.
“Oh, my,” Bob said reverently. “They had told me about the window. It was quite a story. Such a find. A church was auctioning it off because they needed money for a homeless shelter or something. Susan snapped it right up. Had the installer cut a new space in the wall and everything.”
He edged closer to it. The window depicted a young woman, somber faced, dressed in a long robe, holding a white lily in one hand and a
crucifix in the other.
“Well, I’ll be. I wonder if that’s Mother Mary?”
“No. It’s Saint Catherine.”
“Catherine, huh? I’m just an old Protestant. I don’t know saints from shinola. But she sure is a beauty!”
“She was a preacher. Writer. Mystic.” Miriam paused, then added as though she had just thought of it, “They keep her mummified head in a
reliquary, you know. Along with her thumb.”
“Oh, are you catholic or…”
He let the rest of his question hang in the air lamely,, because Miriam was already gone.
Bob had to quicken his step to catch up with her as she moved down the hallway.
“You know, I think Susan belongs to a book club. All ladies around your age. They rotate houses and whatnot. I can pass along your name if you’re interested. If you’re staying a while that is…”
She didn’t answer, but opened the door to a room at the rear of the house. It was small and L shaped, holding one twin bed and a small chest of drawers. There was a small set of stairs in one corner.
“Is this the first time you’ve been back to your hometown, Miriam?”
“No. I was here once before. I had to attend a trial. I gave testimony.” She started leading him up the stairs.
“Oh yeah? When was that? We only have so many of those around here, so I bet I’d know it.” He had to duck down, the ceiling was so low.
“Twenty years ago.” She brushed a spider web aside. “In fact,” she added sprightly, like an afterthought, “It was a murder trial.”
Bob seemed struck dumb. In the face of his bafflement, Miriam said coaxingly, “It was the trial of Bodhi Jones?”
They emerged into the attic. Unlike the rest of the house, this space was not renovated. The floors were splintered grayish wood that creaked and sagged. There was an old exercise bike, a sewing table, a stack of metal folding chairs.
When Bob finally spoke again, he said, “Bodhi Jones? That hippie freak that killed that poor woman…”
He cleared this throat. “Bodhi Jones used to live in this house. With about a dozen of his so called followers…”
“I know. I lived here, too, when I was a girl.”
She turned to see how he was taking the news. He was standing still, and not smiling any more. In fact, it seemed as though his soul had briefly stopped animating his body. His eyes were hollow.
After a long, contemplative moment, Bob said, “He was not one of us.” His voice was solemnly resolute. “He was not from here. He was dirty. Sick.” His lip curled with disgust on the word sick. But then, he seemed to remember himself again. “Well, Miriam, I’m sorry you ever had to know a person like that. I guess you know he’s rotting in prison at the moment.”
“Yes. I helped put him there.”
“Well. You know, the past is the past. And every day is a new day. I sincerely believe that. Now! Show me where it is you think you heard a critter.” His tone was trying to be jovial, but trailed off feebly.
Miriam walked over to a spot on the outskirts of the attic, near a dormer window that looked out at the top of an elm tree, whose branches swayed silently in the late afternoon breeze. “It’s over here,” she said. “It’s trapped under the floor.”
Bob approached the spot that she indicated. He banged his foot against the wood, listened for an answer. “Well, whatever it is, it’s quiet now.”
“But it’s there,” Miriam was staring down at the spot. The expression on her face was implacable. For a moment she looked as though she had gone somewhere else in her head. Her lips were parted, her expression was soft and stunned. “It’s there,” she whispered, with a lilt of wonderment at the edge of her voice.
Bob squatted down. “Now, I personally don’t hear anything myself but…look at this.” He reached to touch the wood. “It’s damaged, see? Those marks? Looks like the claw of a hammer, right there. And over there,” he said, pointing near Miriam’s feet. He squinted. “Those are saw marks. See the way they’re all jagged? That could be from an old style circular saw. Maybe even a hand saw. I mean, you can tell whoever did that didn’t know woodworking.”
Miriam didn’t answer. Now she was looking at him expectantly, with her eyes so wide that the whites shown all around.
She must be having a spell, Bob thought. I need to distract her. “But you know what, I just love attic spaces. Something about an attic makes you feel so, I don’t know. Liberated. From the horizontal and the vertical.” What was he saying? Even he didn’t know. He wasn’t feeling free.
He was feeling a bit ill, and wanted to get out of there.
“What are you going to do? How will you get to it, Bob?”
“Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know that I rightly can, if I don’t hear anything.”
“If you don’t hear it, then you aren’t listening!” Miriam was all at once agitated. “I can’t take it anymore! I hear it in my dreams. You don’t know what it’s like. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. Sometimes you just have to do something, instead of going on ignoring what torments you. You said you were going to help me, Bob,” she said, putting emphasis on his name.Though she noticed he had stopped using hers.
“Well, I, I just don’t know. I would have to pull up some of these boards. And the owners are the ones who…well, I don’t know that Blake and Susan…”
“Pussy!” She said in a low, furious voice. Bob looked up at her, shocked at the ugly word: she despised him. All at once he had the disorienting realization that he was out of his league. That he may have made a faulty assessment. He always was a man of good faith. Giving the benefit of the doubt to all. It wasn’t just a habit. It was his mantra. It was who he was. But what if was actually bullshit? What if sometimes, you shouldn’t trust?
The very thought of it made it feel like the world was made of sawdust and fluff. Insubstantial. Unreal. He had a feeling of vertigo.
“You are wasting my time, Bob! And I don’t have time to waste. Hurry before I change my mind.”
“Well I…” his voice came out so weakly. Like he was under a spell. “Well, I guess maybe I can pull up a couple of boards. Someone has obviously done it before.” How it pained him, looking at the brutal, ugly gashes in the wood made by the jagged teeth. Even if it was old, soft wood. It just showed a lack of caring.
“Hurry, I’m running out of time,” she urged. She was aroused and vigilant. Her eyes were glistening in an odd and dangerous looking way.
He opened his tool bag. Took out a chisel and a mallet. Chose a joint where butt ends of two square-edged floorboards met together. Lay the wide chisel blade carefully between the ends. Hit the chisel with the mallet, worked his way gently, gently…
At least, he would work with care.
Carefully, he levered the first board up, pressing down on the chisel, pulling the nails out of the floor joist.
He concentrated fiercely on pulling the nails, but his mind churned, trying to come up with things he guessed to be right to say. And then he said them:
“I think I actually remember you from school, to tell you the truth. I’m so sorry you had to go away. Some people may have said some things about you, gossipy things, but I didn’t. I knew whatever it was, you were on some kind of hard road. Guess it made you a strong woman.”
“I’m tired of being strong. That’s why I called you. I’m tired of strong. I’m tired of being quiet. I’m tired of shame. Fuck it all.”
One nail was being tricky. The wood was so soft. He used a pair of locking pliers, being careful to not chip the wood. What could he say? What was the right thing? He wanted, needed, to be right. To be liked. “Well, whatever it was, you need to realize it wasn’t your fault. And I think you’ll find that our town, our people, our church, hell, our book groups…what I mean to say is, this is a good place. And…” he lifted up a plank, all in one piece, whole after all. He smiled, a half smile accompanied by a shrug, and looked up at her, “the truth is, you can go home again! Heh heh…”
“Keep working, please.” She seemed not to hear his little joke. She was staring too intensely at the hole in the floor.
“Yes MA’AM.” It would be okay. If anything, he was capable with a chisel. His bag of tools always felt so solid in his hand. “And anyway, that man is serving life. No parole…”
She gave him a startled look, and put her hand to her heart, as though to test that it was beating. Outside, two neighbors were talking, their voices were murmuring indistinctly like a distant television.
Another board was already loosened, and came right up with no resistance. Maybe he had gotten through to her. He just had to keep at it.
“The thing about the past is, you can let it go. Drop it like a sack of rocks.”
“But you can’t always drop what is yours to bear,” she said faintly.
“I think you’ll find that that’s simply not true.” There was a bit more chiseling, a bit of prying, before Bob finally said, “That ought to do it. Think it’s time for a look-see?”
She only nodded, lips pursed grimly tight.
He pulled a flashlight from his bag. “Well, I don’t smell anything. But let me just…”
He knelt and reached into the opening. He began gently moving aside swaths of insulation.
“Well, there is a bit of space here. A cavity. Sometimes people will hide things in a space like this. You know, time capsule, bootlegger cash. I could tell you some stories.”
“That’s not what I’m after.”
“Well, so far…wires are intact. An animal would probably have chewed them. No droppings…” Now he slid onto his stomach to get a better look. “Hey…”
“I think I see something in here.”
“You do?” Her voice came out high, young sounding.
“Hold on a sec…” He grabbed the chisel back up. “If I could open this up just a little bit more…”
“What is it?”
“Well, it looked to me like a bag, a leather bag.” The floor board popped right up. Then another. “Someone hid it there on purpose. Had to have.” He took a deep breath and said, “I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, when you find a hidden box or a hidden bag. It could be something valuable, sure. Or it could just be old recipe cards.”
He placed the board gently on top of the others, then took a moment to look at her: “But you can’t deny the fact that it’s a treasure hunt.”
She regarded this man. The look on his face was so earnest, so almost dog-like. Eager to be please. She peered at him closely, thinking. Thinking that the time to stop him was now. But she didn’t.
After a bit of stretching and contorting (Christ these spider webs!)his fingers were able to grasp what they sought. He groaned a bit as he pulled…
…and all at once, out came the cracked leather doctor’s satchel.
“Hoo-HOO NELLY! Would you look at that, Miriam! What do you think could be in there?”
He set it on the floor in front of him, grinning and shaking his head.
She didn’t answer, so he answered himself. “Could be anything. But I wager it’s money, or why would they bother? Well…” He took a deep breath and seemed to say a silent prayer, “Here goes nothing.”
He had to fumble a bit with the brass clasp which didn’t want to open. The bag was black fine grained leather, still substantial looking though the folds and the corners were worn raw. It was so jarring. So abruptly solid and real.
“Well son of a—ah, there it goes.” It released with a loud clunk. He opened it wide, and it locked into position like a good, metal framed doctors bag would.
He reached in and gently pulled something out, wrapped in yellowed newspaper. “Look at that! Our hometown paper, the Beacon. From…” he squinted, “1972! Our high school days!” He gave Miriam a coy, conspirational look. “It’s so light. It weighs nearly nothing. Well? Should I unwrap it or what?”
She nodded solemnly.
He was rapt, like a child on his birthday. Until the look on his face changed.
Miriam directed her gaze away, out the window, to the elm branches, bowing and swaying…
“Dear god, it’s…what is this? It feels like a…it’s in the shape of a…but it couldn’t be.” Now he was breathing shallowly, until he called out in a strangled voice,
“My god, Miriam, what happened to it?”
She didn’t answer, all she could do was stand witness. Bob gazed down into the crumpled newspaper. The look on his face altered him profoundly. He didn’t even resemble the man who had walked into the house less than an hour before. The look was one of fear and disbelief and awe. A man who for the first time learned to forget who he was, and what he was.
After some moments that seemed to stretch infinitely, he slowly wrapped the bundle up again. From his gestures, it made it seem as though the thing wrapped in paper had gone from being light as air to something very, very heavy. He settled it gently back in the bag, and shut the heavy metal clasp. He was talking to himself under his breath, she couldn’t quite make out what he was saying but it might have been we disturbed the spirit.
He carefully eased the bag back under the floor. Lay the first board back down. Took a hammer, took a nail. But he didn’t seem to know how to use them anymore. Things slipped from his grasp. He tried to hit the nail with the hammer. The nail skittered across the floor, off into the shadows, but he still pounded away at the floor, unseeing and mechanical. Over and over and over. Harder and harder. The whole room shook from the blows. He kept going until he ran out of breath.
Still on his hands and knees, he rolled his eyes up to Miriam’s. For a terrible moment she thought he would yell out some accusation, some curse. But he didn’t. His eyes were pleading, helpless, like a man sinking into quicksand.
When he spoke, his voice came back a little broken. But he sounded calm, as though consulting with a colleague:
“A rivet gun, maybe? Should do the trick. We will drive those nails in. Sand it all down. Set, sand, and finish.” He held her eye, as though what he said held a special significance for them alone. “Set, sand, and finish.”