Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fiction #73: David Gerow

Taking Possession

We bought a place on Columbus Street in East York, me and my wife. Everyone said what a steal it was. The previous owner was pretty eager to sell so we just swooped in there and bam: starter home.
It was a one-storey brick house among other one-storey brick houses. Early 20th century, good walls. That’s what the real estate woman said when we were on the porch – “good walls.” I was trying to look all worldly so I kicked one. It didn’t fall over or anything. I said, “Yep, good walls.” My wife and I have laughed about that many times. What the hell do I know about walls?

The house was in a safe community, nice restaurants, good schools in case we have kids one day. Everyone drove Volkswagons and Toyotas. It was a mid-range kind of neighbourhood. We liked it.

But there was this guy across the street.

He lived alone in a little brown house, like our place but shrunken. There was a big window in his living room and two little ones upstairs, same as our place. He watched us from all of those windows.

I first noticed it in the daytime, about a week after we moved in. He was just sitting in the living room, this thin, bald, middle-aged creep on an easy chair, legs crossed, staring at us. I could see the top of a TV at the base of his window frame, but he wasn’t watching it. He wanted us to think he was, but he wasn’t. Whenever I looked at him he’d shift or scratch or react to something on his TV, which I doubt was even on, and when I looked away he was still. Columbus is a really narrow street, one-way with tiny lawns. The creep was near enough that I could see he had blue eyes.

I didn’t mention it to Claire that day, that we were being watched. She’d have overreacted, I have no doubt. But I did suggest we hurry up and hang the curtains.

“I like the boxes and the no curtains,” she said. “It feels like we’re still just moving in.”

She’s very sweet, my wife. She thinks life is a game.

That night we got an Indian takeaway and ate it in the living room while making fun of a John Wayne movie on AMC. It was mostly Claire who was laughing. I actually don’t mind John Wayne, and I was preoccupied by the house across the street.

He was there. He’d closed his living room curtains, left the downstairs light on and was sitting upstairs, in his bedroom I guess, in the dark. He sat at the back of the room, far from the window, but enough light crept upstairs from his living room that I could make him out in there, and there was always the glint on his glasses.

We went to bed around midnight. Our bedroom window also faces onto the street and also had no curtains. I made sure Claire was fully clothed when the light was on. I made sure I was, too.

#

Claire goes away sometimes for work. Not a lot, but sometimes. She’s a trainee curator in a museum and they send her on various assignments. She left for Ottawa about two weeks after we’d moved in.

She’d be gone four nights.

We had curtains in every room by that time. I’d talked Claire into hanging them the day after I’d noticed the watcher. We hung them in the late afternoon; he was in his living room, pretending to watch TV. He’d been there all day. He was wearing the same thing as the day before: white shirt, red tie. That’s the only thing I ever saw him wearing. I’d be surprised if he owned a second tie.

The morning Claire went away he was watching. I still hadn’t told her about him. After all, he hadn’t done anything except look. I was keeping a close eye on him, and I made sure Claire was home alone as little as possible, which was easy because I was on my first summer holiday as a teacher. I also added the police to the top of my phone contacts: “Aaa Police”.

Right when Claire left for Ottawa, I made a phone call.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” I said, “Is this Martin Feldman?”

“Yeah, this is Martin.”

“This is Jeff Mason. I’m the guy who bought your old place on Columbus Street.”

There was a silence. I said, “Hello?”

He asked, “Are you calling about Richard?”

“Ah, now I might be. Who’s Richard?”

“The guy across the street?”

“Right, good, so you know what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah, I know Richard.” He paused. “Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of Martin Feldman, but the apology was nice.

“What’s his deal then?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. He just likes to watch people, I guess.”

“Well, has he ever done anything else?”

“Uh, not as far as I know. I mean, I can’t be sure, but he never did anything to me or my partner.”

“Did he ever talk to you?” I said.

“No, never a word. He wouldn’t even look at me if we saw each other outside. That was the only time he wouldn’t look, really.” Martin Feldman laughed.

“Is he the reason you moved?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sorry. We should have said something but, you know. It’s not exactly a selling point.”

“No, it’s not,” I said. I could have been angry but there wasn’t much point. He sounded like a nice enough guy. Anyway, he’d apologized twice now.

#

That afternoon I decided to visit Richard. I’d rolled it over in my head many times and I decided it was the only thing to do. He was home, had been all day. When I came out my front door, I saw him get up and leave the living room, disappear into the back of the house, where the kitchen was in our place and probably in his, too.

I knocked on his front door and waited. He didn’t answer. I tried the doorbell, which seemed to be broken, then knocked again. I knocked six or seven times before I gave up.

Back in my living room, I watched for him out the window. I was going to gesture to him when he returned to his living room. But he didn’t come back. I didn’t spot him again until it got dark, when I caught the glint of his glasses in an upstairs window. There were no lights on in his house.

That night Claire and I Skyped around 9:30 and I went to bed at 10. That’s early for me, but I never know what to do with myself when Claire’s away. I left the downstairs lights on and the curtains closed so Richard would assume I was in the living room. It was after midnight when I woke to a steady tapping. It was coming from the back door. Someone was in the backyard tapping on the door.
I came downstairs into the kitchen, a bit of light coming down from the bedroom. When I turned the kitchen light on, there was Richard’s face in the backdoor window, looking in. He sort of smiled as I came toward the door. His lips were so thin.

So what was the situation? Well, I knew where the knives were. I knew that Richard was smaller and probably twenty years older than me. I had my phone in my hand and my thumb over Aaa Police. So yeah, I opened the door.

He was wearing the same white shirt, the same red tie, the same black pants as always.

“Mr. Mason,” he said, still sort of smiling, and he came right into the kitchen. I left the door open even though moths were already flying in.

“Yes, hello,” I said. “What do you want? It’s a bit late.”

“I wasn’t sure until now that Claire was still out,” he said.

I didn’t find it worrying that he knew our names. I’d assumed somehow that he knew our names.

What I found discomfiting was the volume of all the sounds around us: the clock on the kitchen wall, the boiler switching on, the crickets outside, the moths fluttering around, the continuous roar of the highway like one of those subliminal rumbling effects in a horror movie. All these sounds seemed to own the night, and Richard seemed to own it too, while I was a guest. It was my kitchen – I’d bought it – but I wasn’t in my natural habitat.

“What business is it of yours?” I asked. “What do you care if she’s out or not?”

“And you went to bed with the lights on,” he said. He was from the States, a Southerner, maybe from Tennessee or Mississippi or somewhere like that. “Tricky boy.”

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what your deal is, Richard, but you’re a creep. Okay?”

“But you,” he said, taking a quick step toward me, “are much worse. You are an imposter, an invader, a plague. What do you want here? Why have you come? This is not your house. And your wife, so innocent, so beautiful, Jeff. What would happen if –”

I clocked him on top of the head with my cell phone. He stumbled, I grabbed his neck, I squeezed. I was acting on instinct – why had he come? I went through with it, his throat caving under my thumbs, me trying to push right to the spine – just give ‘er! – his hands at my wrists, then dropping. I squeezed for a long time after he’d stopped struggling.

His eyes were still open. They were blue like the shallows of the sea, so vibrant that they looked like contact lenses.

#

So there was Richard on the kitchen floor. It had been bloodless, it had been silent. I think it had been necessary somehow, I don’t know. But it did leave me with a corpse to dispose of. I tried to recall how movie characters had disposed of their corpses. Car trunks and deep water for the most part, like in Psycho. What about movie characters who didn’t have spare cars? Off the back of a train in Double Indemnity. That wasn’t likely to fly on Via Rail. Dismemberment in Rear Window. Forensics would be all over that no matter how well I scrubbed the bathtub.

Then I remembered: my house has good walls.

I went down to the basement, a colourless, cold space, purely functional, with a concrete floor. My basement has two halves – a laundry room and a boiler/storage area – divided by a wall that I suspected was hollow. That wall is about 18 inches wide. A big section of it on the boiler room side was covered over with plywood, which was held in place by a lot of little boards, screwed and nailed in at different times. I got out the toolbox, a gift from my father-in-law that we’d never once needed in our old apartment. It took about half an hour to get all those little boards off.

I slid the plywood out of the way and looked inside the wall. It ran half the length of the house, like an extremely narrow hallway. There was a soft silver tube, an air duct for the dryer maybe, running along the top. That was probably why the wall was hollow, to accommodate that air duct (or whatever it was). The important thing was that the space was wide enough to accommodate a body.
I’d push Richard as far toward the back of the house as I could, then I’d cover him with concrete. Four bags of concrete powder had come with the basement and I knew how to use them. I’d spent one awful day mixing concrete with my father when I was a child, and four bags would make more than enough to pour a thick layer over a body. There were even buckets, everything I’d need.

I stepped inside the wall with my flashlight to scope the area out. As I squeezed toward the back of the house, the floor rose. There was a hill within this wall. And shining my light on it, I saw that it was a paler grey than the rest of the floor. This mound looked exactly as I expected my mound to look.

A chisel and a hammer and I found it: a foot in a sandal. Someone was buried in there and they still had flesh on them. I stopped chiselling.

#

The wall in the basement is boarded up again now. If anyone ever squeezes in there, they’ll find a mound twice the size as the one I cracked open. It took all four bags of concrete and a good six hours, not counting drying time. There’s been no stench at all, and it’s been months now. The investigation has come and gone. I got nothing more than a perfunctory questioning like all the other neighbours.
Claire and I now have two good anecdotes about our house. One is something we learned during the investigation: that our place was previously owned by an old lady who went missing a year before we moved in. Martin Feldman had bought it from her next of kin. Claire loves that as a spooky story, particularly when told in conjunction with the story of the man across the street, Richard Thompson, who has also gone missing. Claire loves macabre stuff. She treats it as a game.

Our other anecdote is the time I kicked the wall in front of the real estate agent. “It was so funny,” Claire says. “What the hell does he know about walls?”

*

Originally from Brantford, Ontario, David Gerow studied Theatre at the University of Guelph. After graduating, he spent ten years teaching English in China, South Korea and Italy, as well as working odd jobs in Newfoundland and Nepal. He moved to Scotland in 2014 to do his Master's in Film Studies, and recently had a scene from his first play workshopped at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. This is his first published story.

Photo credit: L.L. Nelson.

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