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A Mid-Century Night's Mayhem
Out of a slumber I woke to the thump of the tome that tumbled from my hands. Victorian novel. A heavy, dense, soporific affair – best not read by firelight of a cold winter’s eve. The coals were well into their last embers, in need of fuel and a good stoke. As I leaned to toss in the remnants of a Heywood Wakefield coffee table, happily reduced to kindling from the salutations of my trusty sledgehammer, a second thud, this time from overhead, distracted me from my task. Cranky bastard. I tossed a table leg into the fire and made my way for the stairs to the second floor where I’d close a window, shut a door or tend to whatever needed tending to.
I ascended the stairs and surveyed my bleak enterprise: the remodeling of a decaying 19th century home into a suite of contemporary (read: cheap) apartments. It was my intention to strip the house bare, lay open the floorboards, pull down the veneer, batter the trim and door-frames and gut the old barn. Slap a new finish on it. Bring her into the 21st-century. I had driven into town through a December snow storm to stay the night and prepare for the final ruling in a court case – brought upon me by some backward facing locals, the Canaan Village Preservation Society, keen to see the house restored to its fussy, asymmetrical glory. The judge - may he rest in peace - saw things my way, but just as he was overturning the injunction, suffered a massive heart attack and died alone in his chambers. His colleague would be reviewing the case the next morning – a mere formality, as she’d certainly rule on the side of the old man with respect to his legacy. Once the papers were signed I’d begin the demolition. As luck would have it, the snowstorm trapped weekend visitors to this dreadful New England town and after facing yet another No Vacancy sign it was my fate to spend the night in this ill-tempered cave - as a sort of penance I suppose.
Topping the stairs I made the rounds. Bedroom number one was quiet as a crypt; the only sound to be heard was from the soft landing of snowflakes upon fir trees on the sheltered side of the house. The guest bathroom was calm as well, save for the hollow tap of the leaky faucet into a rust-stained porcelain sink. I could almost feel it shatter as I imagined the sledgehammer’s heavy descent. The sitting room was cold as the old crone, dead and buried now, who’d sat many-a-day knitting in the warm sunlit corner. If only she could be here now. I’d like to see her face when the judge reads the verdict. Bedrooms two and three were quiet, their former tenants grown and long since moved to the mid-west or to sunny southern climes – “on account of the asthma”. Well, the only wheezing to be heard on this night was from the chill, outside wind seeking refuge in the dry, deserted house.
I arrived at the master bedroom. Bare except for a couple of overturned Knoll chairs, a spindly Danish writing table, a bookshelf, and a large, chest-high, Russell Wright dresser, too heavy and probably too worthless to have been hauled away to Goodwill. I walked to the dresser, which stood in the front window. Running my hands along the sideboard and edges of the sturdy, well-made hulk, I watched as the snow blanketed the world outside, smothering it with a delicate caress. I’d wished the town below, so proud and proper in its New England-ness, were buried permanently – the mess they’d made of my finances. I looked forward to having my day in court – assuming it was open for business in this snowstorm – but the truth was, without rent to subsidize my costs, the mortgage had about bankrupted me on account of the delay. I rubbed a well-aimed epithet at the townies into the dust that had settled on top of the dresser, and satisfied that nothing was amiss, made my way back downstairs bringing the antique table along to use for kindling.
A northeast wind battered the outside walls and the chandelier flickered like a dying moth. A blackout had descended upon the town, now under three feet of snow. I’d have to read by firelight and an old oil lamp I’d salvaged from a basement closet. A surplus of leftover furniture meant there was plenty of wood for the fire. No court of law could keep me from warming myself, by my own fire, in my own house, could they? A Nelson bookcase served my purposes well. I tipped its endowment of dusty period romance and mystery novels onto the floor and swinging the sledgehammer felt the wood fracture from its force.
Once the acrid smell of the varnish burned off, the Maple gleefully crackled and warmed the room. I helped myself to some Cognac from a stash of liquor stored prudishly under the stairs. Even I had to blush when I saw that I was pouring Hennessey Richard into the crystal snifter. Ah, the smell of it as I sloshed it around the bottom of the cup. I settled into my chair, enjoying the Cognac, tossing scraps of bookshelf and writing table into the fire at my leisure. The language of the novel was more lucid now and dripped off the pages into my mind. One could get used to this, I thought. Maybe the old girl wasn’t so bad after all. Pulling a knitted cover over my shoulders, I read my book and drifted contentedly to sleep.
I was woken suddenly from what I couldn’t say. I rubbed my eyes and looked around the darkened room. The fire was on the wane and the cold gripped my chest crosswise, like arms folded over a corpse. Once again the book lay at my feet, and again I heard a rough movement coming from above. Trying hard not to be alarmed, I threw the remnants of the antique table into the fire, and hurried up the stairs to see what needed sorting. I checked the first bedroom. Nothing. As tranquil as King Tut’s tomb. I checked the bathroom and… ditto. The tap was dry now – I hoped the pipes weren’t frozen – but they needed replacing anyhow. Bedrooms two and three, as expected, were silent aside from the sound the wind made on the outside walls. The creaks and groans of an old home are its way of begging to be remodeled.
I entered the master bedroom by candlelight to check that all was safe. Everything was fine: as still as a mausoleum at midnight. The chairs overturned in the corner. The bookcase turned sideways on the floor. The dresser against the wall... Against the wall! How the hell did the dresser get against the wall? I checked behind the door and opened the closets to confront whoever or whatever would jump out. I was in no mood for pranks, but I reckoned the dresser weighed at least 200 pounds. How could it have moved? I studied the dresser and tried to shift it with my arms and hips. It budged reluctantly. It was a handsome thing, if a bit old fashioned. Made of solid walnut it had three four-foot long drawers stacked one atop the other, and above them, two smaller drawers that sat side by side. The drawers pulled out from handles that were beveled and hidden at the bottom of their wooden face, worn from years of use by its owners. With a little work it would look like new – but why bother? I stepped back and tried to solve the mystery. How could a thing of such size move across a room diagonally, then reposition itself without some sort of… help? The curtains undulated from a steady draft from the windowsill, so I ripped them down to strip into battening for the window creases. The hair on the back of my neck tingled as I plugged the gaps whilst staring at the chest of drawers tucked snug against the wall.
I closed the door and trod back downstairs, stomping on the landings and rattling the banisters for good measure. The house was robbing me of my finances and now it was robbing me of my sleep. Was the house itself in cahoots with the townies to make my life as miserable as possible? And speaking of finances, if I weren’t careful, tomorrow’s court appearance wouldn’t be my only visit to the halls of justice – I’d be in bankruptcy court as well. The least they could do would to let me get some rest.
At the foot of the stairs I was met by a blast of cold air gusting through a gap in the door-frame. I grabbed the old lady’s knitted cover from the living room along with the last of the few splinters of wood leftover from my furniture demolition activities. I stuffed her crewel handiwork under the door-frame and wedged it in tightly with the shards of wood. That would keep me cozy. Oh whom was I kidding – it was bitter cold. I re-entered the living room and gathered books and tapestries for the fire. What I’d have done for the Dunbar credenza I’d donated to charity. After placing them in the incinerator I sat back down to my Cognac and pondered my financial future. It was bleak. I’d have hell to pay if I couldn’t get another loan. Would it ever pay off - this pile of sticks - this hulking monument to the past? What was I doing here anyway? Who was I? What was I? A wannabe Realtor. A city-slicker meddling with town life in the most backward corner of Connecticut? I’m a wheeler dealer that’s who! A big shot soon to own a piece of your town and don’t you forget it, because your place is next pal! Throwing my glass at the fire, I stood and drained the last of the Cognac straight from the bottle. No matter how expensive, after it’s gone it just leaves you drunk – like malt liquor or cheap wine – no more, no less.
But my forced bravado couldn’t disguise my feelings of dread. A deeper, denser cloud cover had moved into the area and the glow of the snowfall earlier in the evening, was now extinguished. I looked around the living room, past the entrance hall, into the darkened dining area. The room was dark where I stood and red shadows flowed blood-like over the stained paneling of the walls. The wind howled and whipped snow crystals, sharp as shards of glass against the coal black windowpanes. Nothing could be seen beyond. I twisted the key on the lamp to let the wick soak up the last of the oil. As its fire died I gathered a second bottle of liquor from the closet and made my way back to my now cold chair. Tossing my novel on the fire I moved closer to the pit and cracked open a bottle of whiskey whose label I didn’t even bother to read.
The room was dark save for the glow of the last embers, rippling red and black on the hearthstone. I noted the amber hue of the whiskey as I drank it straight with a melted snow water chaser. At least I wouldn’t go thirsty. A Fernhill grandfather clock, appropriate for this museum of old and obscure wares struck three o’clock, accentuating my loneliness. Even the wind had gone home for the night. How I longed to hear it howl. I pulled my coat tighter around my shoulders and hovered over the coals, absorbing any warmth they would hasten to share. How I would get through the night without freezing was anybody’s guess – and then the dresser came to mind. Yes, the restless, behemoth, hardwood dresser. The top drawers alone could warm me for a week. Come to Papa! I exclaimed and shook off my fear as I stood to retrieve the sledgehammer.
I hurried into the entryway and strode up the stairs, my footfalls echoing into the vault. The blood was rushing in my ears as I jumped onto the balcony swinging the sledgehammer for practice and warmth. I bounded up to the doorway, grabbed the handle, flung open the door and… Shit! I froze as the sledgehammer fell from my marble fingers. Beyond the entrance, blocking the room stood the dresser. It loomed overhead, grim and sober in the dark. It seemed to have gained a full meter in height and its sharp edges pointed straight at my forehead. The house was completely still, save for the creaking of floorboards beneath the leviathan. Was it I that moved or did the giant move toward me? We stood face-to-face, so close that I could smell the decades of perfume that stained its top and sides. I reached out with my fingers, gingerly as if to beckon a strange dog. I ran them along its front, the volume and heft of which seemed animate to the touch. The dresser, faceless, stared back without mercy.
I backed out of the threshold and shut the door softly, leaving the sledgehammer where it lay. I walked slowly down the stairs, clutching the banister for balance as my feet struggled to hold firm. The house was freezing but my face and neck were wet with sweat. I stumbled onto the landing and ran careening across the living room for my chair. I sunk into a cesspool of self-pity. Drunk and sick, I pulled off my coat and cast it into the fire, cooling the alcoholic fever that gripped my soul. The room spun as I awaited my fate. Certain of death from exposure, or worse, would the bank think to look for me in the very house I was renovating? And what unlucky sap would find me? The Judge? Some spinster from the Canaan Village Preservation Society? A contractor – God forbid – that wouldn’t be till spring. Poor me! I gathered myself from the chair and stumbled to the toilet where I expunged myself of the evening’s libations.
Could a misanthrope such as myself complete a life altering turnaround at the foot of the porcelain idol that he prayed to? Many have invoked such reprieve and been denied, but after relieving myself I found the will and fortitude to reject failure, embrace life, and vowed to extract myself from the mess I’d gotten myself into. I’d leave the house to the locals. Wash my hands of Canaan and busy myself with projects in the city. Helpful, useful projects! I’d become a volunteer! They need people like me in the city schools. I could become a role model, like the guys on TV – dumb-asses who get themselves into trouble, but straighten up, find God and run self-help workshops for inner city children or stadiums full of middle aged white guys. If only it had known – whom or what I hadn’t a clue – but had it known of my transformation, maybe I wouldn’t be where I am today.
I’ve changed, I exclaimed. Making my way to the chair I pulled my smoldering coat from the fire. Useless! Son of a… I’ve changed – I shouted past the ceiling, aiming my vitriol in the general direction of the master bedroom. A loud thumping rejoined my invectives. No! I’m…. I’ve changed I tell you! A violent shudder shook the house and plaster fell like flour through a sieve from the ceiling. Who are you? What do you want? The chandelier rocked back and forth and the light bulbs, which should have been extinguished, pulsed to life at the culmination of each rollicking arc. The grandfather clock crashed to the ground vomiting coils and springs and chains and things all over the floor. I’m not the person you want! I’m better! Scrambling on all fours I searched in vain for the sledgehammer, which in my drunkenness I’d forgotten had been left behind. A pounding resounded throughout the house, the bearing walls strained under the threat. Steadying myself, I rose to my feet and made for the front door, desperate to escape. Please! Stop! This isn’t necessary! I’m leaving. I pulled the door handle with all my strength, lodging the knitted quilt and wooden wedges tighter between the gap in the door frame. Ahhhh! Panicking, I got down on my hands and knees and pulled at the rough hewn wedges with my bare hands, bloodying them, gauging them deeply with gnashes of raw, dagger sharp wood. The house shook and groaned as if its very foundations were summoning me to my death. I pulled until the skin ripped from my fingers, finally dislodging one of the many wedges. Gripping the doorknob with skinless hands, I pulled with all my might. My blood slick fingers slipped from the handle and I tumbled backward from the force. I landed in a heap at the foot of the stairs. For the love of God I’m leaving! Please, I screamed. I’ve chaaaay… ahhhh… I drew in my breath as I looked up. At the top of the stairs, with detritus and destruction raining down from above, the dresser drawers stood amidst the mayhem that swirled round. I gasped as the dresser looked down upon me. As if to acknowledge its prey, the dresser tipped up onto one leg for a farewell salute. After a brief yet meaningful pause, it pitched forward hurtling down the steps, crushing all in its path, battering spokes in the banister and crunching stair boards like match sticks. It tumbled end over end, careening from side to side denying safe passage of anything in its way. One of the small drawers sailed past my head like a missile, shattering on the door. With no time to spare, I flung myself lengthwise onto the bottom step of the stairs. Downward it tumbled, plaster dust stung my eyes and wooden shrapnel pierced my body. The stair riser was too low to cover me, the footer to narrow to hold me, but I held onto hope that the dresser would bounce over the top of me. Everything slowed down and the house was cloaked in silence. Splinters floated through the air and plaster chunks bounced like cotton wool before my eyes. I was warm at last and comfortable on my perch. The events of the night ran through my mind and the convoluted circumstances which brought me to this solitary post lay before me like actors in a movie turned inert and three dimensional, to harmonize and manipulate and cast away as folly and begin again anew. In the midst of the ruin there was hope. I turned my head to look for my nemesis, certain I’d been spared, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the leg of the dresser, crashing from above, slowly, slowly descending, with purpose, heading straight for my temple.
As I predicted, it was quite some time before they found me. And who would that lucky someone be? One Winona Scrip, the president of the Canaan Village Preservation Society who had stopped by “to see that everything was OK”. Well I guess everything was just dandy, from her point of view. To the cops I was presumed dead by DIY – “Probably slipped moving furniture during the blackout.” But Winona only shrugged and declined to offer an opinion as she feather-dusted the banister.
And what ever became of the house? Well, as luck would have it, Judge Judy Stephanopolous, while driving to the hearing to uphold her colleague’s ruling, found a nasty patch of ice and went careening off a bridge into the Housatonic River – right about the same time I was being flattened and skewered by the Russell Wright. In the end the bank washed their hands of the deal and put the old girl up for auction, where she was bought by – you guessed it - the Canaan Village Preservation Society. And what about the Russell Wright? Well, after a six week stopover in a Berkshire antique shop, it was bought by a couple who collected mid-century modern furniture. They sanded it down, patched the wood were it got roughed up in the fall, re-varnished it, and now it sits quietly in the upstairs bedroom of a Connecticut estate, keeping watch over its owners, protecting them and their wares from all who enter their house with ill-intent.
About the author
Peter Allison is the author of the novel Lockyer Self Storage, 2011, Ninth & Broad Press for sale on Lulu.