Twenty-three

WOODFORD RESERVE

Fried Catfish Sandwich, Jalapenos, Iceberg Lettuce, Pickled Green Tomato, Toasted Roll

The next morning I realized I had a review due for Publisher’s Weekly, so I opened a new page in Word and began entering the header material for the book. The first thing I noticed was that the Hell to Pay words, in red, appeared when I opened the blank page. This was a surprise, but not a shock; my computer is an aging iMac and while it works perfectly well most of the time it will occasionally throw off an annoying error that I have to stop and fix. I deleted the blank page and opened a new one. Same problem. I’ll spare you the various fixes I tried, but after an unfruitful, frustrating fifteen minutes I ended up highlighting the text and changing the font color to white, which made it “disappear” on the page. Yes, crude, akin to fixing a typo on a gravestone by chiseling off the offending letters with a rock, but so far it’s working. It’s there, but I can’t see it and neither can you, so I’ll just pretend it’s gone and hope it eventually fixes itself.

I wrote my review, rewrote it six or seven more times and sent it off to my editor, gathered up my various notebooks and my pack and headed off to the library. Rafe had asked me to go look up his friend there, Professor Aiden Mann.

I have always loved libraries and librarians. I wrote my first published book, Time After Time (still available for purchase at Amazon!) at a table in my tiny, local storefront library in the town of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, while two wonderful elderly librarians took care of my daughter, Leah, who was a baby at the time. She would sit on the checkout counter and play with one of the book stamps while they made sure she didn’t fall off. It was hell getting that ink off her at the end of the day.

The American Library Association selected Till the End of Time as one of their Books of the Year when it was published. When I started my second book, Twice Upon a Time, the library had moved to larger permanent quarters, in the same small town but down the street. My old librarians had been transferred to other branches, and no one was willing to babysit while I wrote. Time, and progress, I guess, marches on.

Hillsborough, another small town, has a terrific library. Housed in a new but old-appearing Greek Revival building, it has lots of books, helpful librarians and many computers for the public. I think they would draw the line at babysitting, but everyone has always been friendly, and as I said, helpful.

When I asked the librarian downstairs if she knew an Aiden Mann, she pointed at the nearby stairs.

“The Professor. He’s up there at a table way in the back,” she said, gesturing toward the rear of the library. “You can’t miss him. He’s the one who looks like he’s camping out.”

I walked up the broad staircase and was distracted by the Recent Novels display. Since I review thrillers professionally, I seldom have time to read for pleasure. I scanned the books on the shelves and though tempted to stop and leaf through a few of the recent bestsellers, I moved on. I was here on a mission.

There were six or seven tables with computers and patrons, but no one who looked like he was camping out. I followed the downstairs librarian’s directions and walked straight back to the rear of the room through ranks of bookcases housing the nonfiction collection. There, at a table that would seat at least eight, was a grey-haired, ruddy complexioned man who could only be the professor. He was seated at the head of the table behind a laptop computer and surrounded by open packs and briefcases that held reams of paper, blue notebooks, snacks of all sorts and bottles of water. He was wearing a blue Duke t-shirt. He looked up over a pair of bright red reading glasses and raised his eyebrows. He was a smallish man, about my size or a little slighter, meaning he wasn’t portly as I tend to be.

“Rafe sent me,” I said, sounding like I had just knocked on the door of a speakeasy and uttered the secret password.

“Aiden,” he said, holding up his hand. We shook. He pushed away a pile of books on the table to his left and gestured to the seat. I sat down. There were several younger people at the far end of the table, but they were working on their computers and didn’t look up.

“You can speak in a normal tone,” he said. “They can’t hear us up front. That’s why they stuck me back here.”

I nodded and sat for a minute trying to decide what I was going to say. I certainly wasn’t going to mention any poltergeists or paranormal activity.

“I live in a house on West Orange. I’ve been researching its history and Rafe said you might have some information about it.”

“What years are you interested in?”

“Probably 1850 to 1857. Maybe before. Up to the Civil War. It’s called the Daisy Lynch house.” Aiden nodded.

“I know the house,” he said. “It’s been pieced together over the years like a three dimensional puzzle. Starting from the old school house, which was procured from the Ashburns by Lemuel Lynch, one of the region’s most famous silversmiths. Actually, I think the schoolhouse was given to the guy who was doing the renovation on the Ashburn house, John Berry. He was a local builder who designed and built the County Courthouse. Lynch probably bought it from Berry.” He stopped a minute and thought. “The Ashburn renovations took place in 1848, so that’s when the interior rooms would have been hauled to their final resting place — your lot.”

I was impressed. “Right, at least as far as I have been able to find. I wonder how I could dig up more information, in particular references to slavery of the period, both in the Ashburn family and the Lynch family. And maybe the Berry family as well.” I thought briefly about my use of the term ‘dig up.’

He looked toward the ceiling for a minute. “I’d try the census materials, sometimes they listed slaves as part of the property of the household. The library carries family genealogy material, but slaves are almost never mentioned. It’s not something modern folks want remembered or brought to the notice of others. The Orange County tax records might list them as declared property of the family you’re interested in. I know John Berry had slaves. He used them in his building business, trained them and when they reached a certain proficiency he gave them their freedom and hired them. At least some of them.”

“He sounds like he must have been one of the good guys.”

Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “There was nothing good about slavery. Nothing. If you meant he had slightly more enlightened ideas than most of the people of the day, you would probably be correct. But I wouldn’t go much further than that. Why are you interested in slavery?”

Now what was I going to tell him? Well, Mister Historian, there’s the ghost of a young slave girl living under my house.

“I’m interested in history in general. I wrote a series of time travel books that were set in different historical periods, the Civil War being one of them. I like to get a feel for what life was like in whatever period I’m researching. Since I’m interested in this town fifteen or twenty years before the Civil War, that would have to include slavery.”

I could see he was weighing my words. I hadn’t meant to piss him off, but it appeared from his expression that I had done so.

“What are going to do with this research?”

“I’m not sure. I have I blog I write about Hillsborough and my house. Slavery was a part of that history. Am I doing something wrong?” I gave him one of the cards I had printed up. They list the blog site, http://www.my69drinks.blog and read, Sit back; Have a drink; Start from the beginning. I have trouble getting people who aren’t keeping up with the posts or who have fallen behind from just skipping to the current post. Aiden glanced at the card and tucked it into the small notebook he was writing in.

“Are you doing something wrong? Not that I know of. I’m a bit touchy on the subject because I’ve seen so many people romanticize that part of the history of the South. There was nothing romantic about it as far as the enslaved were concerned. Every day was a reminder of their condition, of the burden they suffered under.” He looked away for a minute then went on. “I taught history at the University for 30 years and I watched as most professors got it wrong. They taught the good parts: Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, Elizabeth Keckley, Frederick Douglass, all the success stories of people of color rising above their servitude. Elementary school stuff. Meanwhile they mostly left out the hard parts, the daily life of 99% of the rest of enslaved humanity. The part that no one wants to hear or even think about now.” He stopped and took a breath.

I had really set him off.

“Sorry,” he said. “As you can see, this is something of a sore subject for me. Actually I’m not really sorry. I tell you what, here’s a homework assignment. Go on the website of the Library of Congress and look up the Hillsborough Record. That was the newspaper here during the period you’re interested in. Read it and see if you can find articles that include the men you’re asking about, Lynch and Berry, the Ashford School, anything that might have to do with your house. Pay attention to the advertisements on the back page, that’s a good place to get a feel for how the regular people lived. Come back in a week and we’ll talk.” He picked up his notebook and wrote a few words.

Dismissed, I thought.

“Rafe said I should be reading the old Hillsborough newspaper as well.” Aiden nodded.

As I turned to leave he said, “Just a minute, when you see Rafe tell him to come see me, I have a job for him.”

I stopped. “I have no idea when or even if I’m going to see Rafe. I don’t know how to get in touch with him. He was extremely vague on the details of his life. He just kind of shows up.”

Aiden laughed. “Yeah, well, that’s our Rafe.”

 

I walked over to the Penny and ordered a catfish sandwich, which came with jalapenos, pickled green tomatoes and lettuce on a toasted roll. I love catfish sandwiches. I studied my list of drinks and ordered a Woodford Reserve. It’s a medium-to-expensive Kentucky Bourbon that I have had before. There’s a realtor in Hillsborough who’s named Woodford and he uses little airline bottles of the bourbon as kind of a calling card. He invited me over to his house one night, and I drank so many of those little bottles I should have been ashamed. I wasn’t. He hasn’t invited me back.

I looked the distillery up on my cell phone while I was sitting there and found it was/is one of the oldest in the US having been founded in 1780. The distillery building still in use was built in 1838, so this whiskey was probably pretty much like what they were drinking back when they were dragging my house onto the lot and covering up graves. I added to my research chores trying to find out how whiskeys differ today from back then. While I ate my catfish and French fries I thought about my meeting with historian Aiden Mann and how I was now headed down a road that was beginning to feel like I was working on a dissertation.

Besides the homework, I had a couple of unfinished tasks, or maybe I should call them opportunities. I still hadn’t done anything about putting a camera under the house, and I hadn’t really thought about the old bottle the crawlspace guy had found jammed in one of the pillars. Cleaned up it sure as hell looked like an old whiskey bottle that was three-quarters full of old whiskey. Definitely an opportunity. I wanted to find out how whiskey then differed from whiskey now? All I had to do was pull the cork, carefully, and take a taste. Now, if this was a story by some dope on the Internet, the next words would be… “After all, what could go wrong?”

 

 

Twenty-two

BAKER

Smoked Pulled Pork w/Loaded Mashed Yukon Potatoes, Sautéed Green Beans, Texas Toast

I’m not sure what I think about my evening yesterday with Rafe. I guess I know far more than I knew before, but the question remains, as it has all along: do I believe what I now “know?” Talking to Rafe was, at times, like talking to a man from another time. Or another something. It could just as easily be that he’s the crazy one, not me.

I spent the morning today surfing around on the Internet, primarily on the site Rafe told me about that has the photocopies of the old local newspaper of the period, the Hillsborough Record. Here’s the Library of Congress website for one of the pages if you’re interested. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026472/1850-02-06/ed-1/seq-4/#

Those of you who do a lot of historical research will understand when I say combing through these old newspapers will lead to insanity and blindness because of the visual difficulty of trying to read the old newsprint, but there is a certain thrill to be in touch so intimately with the past. One starts out a session vowing to only spend X amount of time looking at the newspapers, and then hours go by and you find yourself thinking, Just one more, Just one more. I think of it as History Porn.

I didn’t find anything that referred directly to my house or to the Ashburns or any incidents concerning them or their slaves, but it was fascinating to read contemporary accounts of life at the time, especially the local stuff, but also what was going on in Congress in Washington and the world in general. For instance, the newspaper ran many articles as early as 1850 saying that those politicians who kept bringing up succession from the Union as a tactic were obviously lunatics, that nothing like that would ever happen in America, that the South loved the Union and would never leave it. Knowing what was going to happen in 14 years made that definitive an opinion seem ludicrous. The advertisements were also interesting: many were for various remedies to cure the ills of the time, particularly Piles (hemorrhoids) and Female Problems, but pretty much any known disease was curable with one nostrum or another.

The most disturbing advertisements to me were those placed by people selling slaves, which are shocking to see through modern eyes. I understand that this is a cliché, but it’s one thing to know something intellectually and another to see it in stark black and white. The slaves were often sold in portions – ½, 1/3, ¼, and whole – men, women, and children. This selling by portion was something that I didn’t know happened; learning a detail like this is like seeing the actual ads, an oddity that makes something terrible even more so.

But there’s a lot I don’t know about what happened back then. I remember the look in Rafe’s eyes as he leaned toward me and spoke about the terrible truths of slavery. And I remember his last words to me, “Hell to pay.”

I was at the Penny and, for once, the room was only half full. I was at the bar and Big Guy was tending. I was drinking a Baker’s bourbon, which BG informed me (the man is a font of whiskey wisdom) was a higher proof offering from Jim Beam. Also that it was named for Jim Beam’s grandnephew, Baker Beam. That’s a hell of a moniker to drag around your whole life. I liked the bourbon; it’s not sweet and it’s got a high alcohol burn.

BG leaned on the sink and dried his hands on a white bar towel. He put his initials on my paper list of drinks. “So, you a friend of Raphael’s?” he asked.

“Not exactly a friend, I only met him recently. He told me he has a room upstairs?”

“That’s right. He came in about a year ago and offered to help out in the kitchen if we had a place for him to stay. Everyone likes him, a really nice guy. He doesn’t work in the kitchen much anymore, but he’s here most nights when he’s in town.”

“Why have I never seen him in here before?”

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” He nodded at the corner of the bar. “He usually sits over there. He kind of blends in or something; you don’t notice him unless he hails you and then all of a sudden there he is.”

“You must see a lot of him if he lives upstairs.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him up there. Most of the rooms are used for storage except the one he stays in. He goes away for long periods, and then all of a sudden he turns up again. He has some sort of a strange job, but he’s never told me what it is. I don’t think it pays much.”

His job is digging up graves underneath my house, I thought. This is not something I would share with BG. He wouldn’t understand; I barely understand it myself. I’ve never told BG or any of the Penny personnel about this blog. I’ve learned that people can get pissed off about the strangest things, or at least they’re strange to me. This is the reason I’ve changed the name of the bar, as I’ve said elsewhere, to the Lead Penny.

“I’ve never seen him sit with anyone as long as he sat at the table with you last night. He’s friendly, he’ll talk to people around him, but mostly he keeps to himself.”

BG didn’t exactly ask a question, but you could tell he wanted to know how I knew Rafe. “He and I are working on a project,” I said. “It has to do with the Ashburn School.” BG nodded and moved off to snag a Budweiser out of the cooler and put it on the bar in front of a customer. I’ve never understood why someone would drink a Bud, especially when they’re in a classic barroom that features a revolving list of excellent draft craft beers, carefully chosen for their interest. The only reason I can think of is that Bud is cheap. One can drink a couple of them for the cost of one draft. But the alcohol content is half that of the higher priced, more interesting brews. So what’s the point?

“What’s that he drinks?” I asked. “You served it to him in an iced shot glass. Is it on my list?”

BG laughed. “I have no idea what it is. He brought in a really ancient bottle early on and had me put it on the shelf. Here, I’ll show you.” He went back to a corner of the bar over the cash register, or rather the computer screen that functions as a cash register in these modern times. He brought back a bottle and held it up for me to see. It was an exact duplicate of the one Jason Longwell the foundation inspector found underneath my house jammed into one of the pillars. Except the liquid in this one was perfectly clear, unlike the dark amber in my bottle.

“The weird thing, “ BG said, “is that when you pour it into a shot glass it turns ice cold. The glass gets misty with condensation. I’m the only one who’s allowed to touch the bottle.”

“Has anyone ever tasted it?” I asked. BG appeared shocked at the suggestion and shook his head. “Nope. Rafe’s never offered.” He looked at me and leaned closer. “The dude’s not the sort you’d want to cross. I don’t think it would be smart to poach his liquor. He’s not that big, but there’s something about him. You know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. Not the sort of dude you’d want to cross. I remembered the feeling when he dragged me out from under the house. As if I weighed next to nothing.

I paid my tab and walked home. It was just getting dark. The house was lonely with Sherry gone. I thought about all the entities that were knocking around, or might be knocking around underneath. I wondered if Rafe would be down there tonight, digging away, collecting bones, trying to put to rest one spirit and prevent another from arising. Hell to pay, I thought.

I went upstairs to type this entry, which I’m doing right now. Then I’ll go to the Library of Congress website and pull up more of the Hillsborough Record, looking for any clues to why the house is where it is and why there are graves underneath.

Hell to pay. I watched as the words appear on the screen, unaware that I had typed them. I stared at them for a minute and deleted them. Now the screen was the way you see it. Blank from here on down. What words will I fill it with in the future? I have no idea.

I must have typed the words Hell To Pay. Didn’t I? Then I deleted them. Right. If so, why has this just appeared on my screen?

 

HELL TO PAY

 

 

 

Twenty-One

WILD TURKEY 101

Barbacoa and Black Bean Wrap, Chipolte Black Beans, Lettuce, Tomato, Jack Cheese, Ranch

Continued…

Rafe took a small taste of his drink. I wondered again what it was, but I didn’t want to inject a new topic into the conversation. I was determined to get answers, and Rafe was the best hope I had.

“You said it was your job to give Ada a proper burial. Who’s your employer?”

“Well, job is just the way I refer to what I do. I’ve been at it for a very long time. I don’t really have an employer, I just work on my own. When I sense an imbalance or see a problem that’s in my area of expertise, I try to rectify it.”

“Tell me more about Ada.”

“She’s what writers refer to as a poltergeist. She has a small kingdom under your house where she rules over the squirrels and other creatures. That includes the insects. She’s responsible for the lights going off and on, and any noises you hear. The word poltergeist means ‘noisy spirit’ in German. Sometimes they pound on things.”

“Why is she digging?”

“I’m the one who’s digging. After I get a certain amount of physical remains, I can rebury them somewhere else where she will rest easy. She’ll be gone from your house. In her present life, if we can call it that, she gets bored, which is when she makes herself known. She isn’t harmful, but poltergeists can be extremely annoying. She wouldn’t have hurt your cat.”

“So you’re digging up her bones? From her gravesite? And then you’ll what? Bury them somewhere else?”

“Yes, as I said. Somewhere more appropriate than beneath a house.”

“How did they get there in the first place?”

“That is a very good question; as I said earlier, one that I can’t answer. Yet.”

I thought about that, suddenly aware that it was pretty creepy living over a gravesite. And one that was in the process of being dug up. I decided to not exactly change the subject, but move it laterally.

“She can speak. She spoke to me.”

“Oh yes, in her way she’s conscious and aware of what’s goin on around her. Your mind is what came up with the sewed-up lips, that’s not reality.”

Reality?”

“Yes. You can either accept it or reject it, that’s up to you.”

“Can other people see her?”

“That depends. I can, though I see her differently than you do. She’s older to me, a teenager. She puts up with me because she knows I’m trying to help her. She doesn’t know what form that help will take, but she knows my intentions are good. Could your wife see her? Or even be aware of her? I doubt it. You are particularly invested in your house and your house’s history. And your job as a writer of fiction opens you to possibilities that other, normal, people would reject. You’re used to building worlds that others can’t see. These worlds exist only in your mind. When you write them down and put them where others have access to them they are out of your control. You worry about being crazy. All fiction writers are crazy to some extent, though I don’t really like the term crazy. Schizophrenic, used in a non medical way is better.”

So now, besides being whatever he was, some sort of spirit hunter and grave robber, Rafe was a psychologist and literary critic. His opinion didn’t surprise me; I believe what he said as well, at least the part about how writers have to carry around unreal worlds in their heads. And treat them as of they were real when they write them down.

BG noticed I had finished my Jagermeister and brought me a new drink. “Wild Turkey 101,” he said, setting the glass down. “It’s called 101 because that’s the proof. That’ll make up for the low-octane Jager.” I pushed my list of 69 drinks toward him and he initialed the Wild Turkey.

I was happy to get the Wild Turkey. Before I was a George Dickel man (as reported in an earlier post) I was a Wild Turkey drinker. At 101 proof and a medium-level price it’s a very economical drink and it fits nicely into my fondness for rough alcohol.

“I know I’m asking the same question but I can’t get my head around it: how did this Ada come to be buried under my house?”

“As I also said earlier, I believe she was buried first, then your house was moved on top of the grave.” He took another sip of his drink. For some reason the level of the liquid stayed the same, or at least it seemed that way to me. Also, the thick shot glass kept its gloss of frost.

“It’s all tied to the Ashburn School. The Ashburns were slave owners, and all indications are they were not particularly benevolent. Period accounts, letters, diaries, tell of them — both Mrs. And Mr. Ashburn — beating their slaves for trivial matters. Not that any matter deserved a beating. They loaned the slaves out, rented them to people in town, passed them back and forth among family members, used them any way they could to make money from them. I believe Ada was one of theirs. I read an accounting of their property from town records in the Hillsborough newspaper and they list a young mulato girl as belonging to them. They owned several other slaves as well, two men, and a woman of middle years, as she is described. I’m still reading the newspapers; you can access them online in the library and so far I haven’t found any reference to anyone dying, or any reference to moving the school building over to your property. If you’re interested you can look them up yourself. Just go to the Library of Congress’ website and put in the Hillsborough Record as your search term.” He stopped for a minute as if considering what he had just said. “Why don’t you do that, you could help me out; I’d appreciate it. As a matter of fact, if you really want to learn about this time in history and help me figure out why your house is involved, go to the local library and find an old guy named Aiden there. He sets up camp every day at a table on the second floor. Just ask anyone and they’ll point him out. He’s a retired history professor, taught at Duke for many years. Tell him I sent you.”

I fished my notebook out of my back pocket. “Aiden?” I asked, writing the name down. “Last name?”

“Mann, but you won’t need it. Everyone knows who he is.”

A train of thought suddenly occurred to me. “Do you think there’s anyone else buried underneath there? Besides Ada?”

“That’s a good point. That’s what I’ve been trying to ascertain.”

“That’s why there are two holes being dug”

He nodded. “The Hillsborough Record’s list of the Ashburn’s property was in the February 6, 1850 edition. I looked ahead to the same date one year later, and the list of their slave property has them down to one man and a woman. Ada is no longer there, and one of the men is missing.” He folded his hands on the table. The silence stretched between us. I didn’t really want to ask the question, but I saw no way around it.

“Do you think the man who disappeared might be buried there as well?”

“I need to find out.”

“Need?”

“I told you Ada is not a real danger, mostly just an annoyance. I need to relocate her for her own good. If there’s someone else under there, he needs to be dealt with as well. Because that’s my job, balancing your world with their world. If there’s someone else under there, I’m pretty certain he was a slave as well. The more I learn about those days, the more I understand how impossible these people’s lives were, the degradation, the hatred they felt, the misery, the shame and indignity, the terrible conditions they had to live with every moment of their lives.” Rafe leaned forward, toward me.

“If there are the remains of a grown man under there, and if that man died under unusual circumstances, and, really, what are normal circumstances to a slave, then maybe he’s going to come out of there just the way Ada has only more so. He’s going to be very very angry. And if he does, and if he is, I don’t think he’s going to be an annoyance. I think it’s going to be much worse than that. There’s a phrase people use: ‘Hell to pay.’ It fits. I think there will be Hell to pay. And you’re sitting right on top of it.”

 

 

 

Twenty

JAGERMIESTER

6 oz. Burger, Munster, Tomatoes, Pickled Onions, Dijon & Mayo

I’m at the Penny.

Last night after my 3:00 AM tussle under the house, Rafe handed me my cat and said, “Meet me tonight, at the Penny.” I stood there on the porch, dumbfounded, holding Sweetie, watching as he disappeared into the dark. Sweetie was purring, seemingly having forgotten her ordeal in the crawlspace. I sure as hell hadn’t forgotten it. I took her upstairs and tossed her on the bed where she began grooming herself. I hoped she was getting rid of the fleas and diseases she might have picked up on her adventure. I took off my crawlspace clothes, piled them in the laundry and went to bed where I spent several wide-awake hours, fruitlessly trying to figure out what the hell had happened.

I made it through the day, but even though I tried to read my Publishers Weekly review book, all I could think about was Rafe and if he was going to show up at the Penny, and if he did would he have any answers for my many questions. I walked down the hill shortly after five o’clock and snagged a table with no problem. It was pretty early, so I didn’t worry when I didn’t see Rafe anywhere in the bar. I ordered the cheeseburger of the day (excellent) and had just finished it when Rafe walked in, pulled out a chair and sat down opposite me. He looked up when the Big Guy came over to the table. “Hey, Raphael,” BG said, nodding at Rafe. He slid my glass toward me.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Jagermiester,” BG answered. “You’re going to have to start drinking out of your comfort zone if you’re ever going to finish the 69.” BG was in schoolmaster mode tonight, playing the role of coach to the lagging athlete.

“I’ve never tasted it.” I took a sip.

“It’s an herbal digestive drink that had a clever American distributor,” BG said. “He took what is essentially an after-dinner drink popular with elderly Germans and turned it into the preferred libation of Metalhead bands and their fans all over the world.”

It had an herby fennel taste. Not good, not bad.

“It’s only 35% alcohol, so you’re probably going to want another one when you finish that.”

“Thanks, Coach,” I said, as he went back behind the bar. I took another sip. He was correct; I was going to need something else to get the taste of this one out of my mouth. I looked at Rafe, who was observing me as if I were a mildly interesting scientific specimen.

“I’m doing the 69 drinks thing,” I said to him. He nodded. BG came back to the table and placed a shot glass in front of Rafe. It held a clear liquid. The glass had a faint mist on the outside, as if it had been chilled. I couldn’t think of any drinks that were served in a chilled shot glass.

I gestured to his glass. “They seem to know you here.”

“Yes. I have a room upstairs.”

This was surprising, though I’m not sure why. Everyone has to live somewhere, right? I had never seen him in the bar. “I’m pretty unobtrusive,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “I blend in with the woodwork.” He smiled to show he was making a joke, but it was true, his skin was the same color as the long pew I was sitting in and the wood of the walls and the plaques honoring the Club 69 drinkers. We each took a sip of our respective drinks.

“I imagine you want to know about Ada,” Rafe said. I frowned. “The little girl who made off with your cat last night,” he explained.

I was glad that we were keeping the small talk to a minimum. “Yes, I certainly do want to know about that little girl,” I said. “And a lot of other things as well. I don’t know where to start; maybe you could help me out. Do you know what’s going on underneath my house? Provided I’m not making it all up in my head. After what happened last night, it looks like maybe I’m not crazy after all. Unless I’m hallucinating you.” I took another sip of my drink. This Jagermiester was going to be hard to choke down.

“You’re not hallucinating me. Nor did you hallucinate Ada. That’s the girl’s name.” He stopped and seemed to be deciding how to approach the subject.

“There was a time when people believed more in spirit matters,” he went on. “People in your time are more skeptical.”

“My time? Spirit matters?”

“You call them ghosts.”

“And what would you call them, Rafe?” I couldn’t stop the sarcasm from creeping into my question. I don’t know about those of you who are reading this, but I was getting tired of not knowing what was going on.

“It’s as good a term as any, though I prefer spirits. Let me try to explain. And I realize this is going to sound as unbelievable as anything you’ve already experienced, but keep in mind you have seen things that are inexplicable in your world. And yet you believe them to be real. The fact is, there are bones buried beneath your house. Those spirits you see are the spirits of the real people who were once alive, then died and were buried under there. Or rather, and I’m beginning to think this is more likely, they were hidden in the ground and your house was dragged over the top of them.”

“So Ada’s bones are buried under my house. When did this happen?”

“She died around 1850. She was 16 years old. An enslaved child of mixed parentage. By all reports, a clever, independent child.”

“16 years old? Why do I see her as a mashup up of Raggedy Ann and an animated character from The Nightmare Before Christmas?” Do you know what those are? And what’s this talk of my world and your world?”

“I certainly know what a Raggedy Ann doll is. They were popularized around the turn of the last century by a man who wrote stories about the character. I’ve never seen this animated film you’re referring to, but I know what an animated film is. I don’t know what a ‘mash up’ is. You see Ada as something your mind can accept; it doesn’t matter what she looked like in real life, or that she was much older when she died than the doll you see. Her actual self in this world, her protoplasm, is an undefined shape, kind of a white, misty form. Your mind can’t except this mist as an entity, so your brain transforms this unformed material into something you can understand. The child/doll you see.”

“So is she real?”

“Oh yes, she’s real. But she shouldn’t be here. She should be at rest, not crawling around under your house tormenting your cat. She should not be intruding on your world.”

“And why is she intruding on my world?” I was trying my best to keep the level of sarcasm in my voice down to a low roar. Even after all that I had seen, it still sounded crazy to me. He sounded crazy.

“I’ve tried to piece it together but it’s still not yet clear. These things seldom are. It’s going to take me longer to put it all together.”

“Can you explain why you’ve been digging around under my house?”

“I’m here to giver her a grave. A proper grave. That is my job. I’m here to give her peace.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I looked down at my glass and found that it was empty. Thank God.

 

Continued…

 

 

Nineteen

PIKESVILLE RYE         RITTENHOUSE RYE

Chorizo Hash w/Over-Easy Egg, Lime Crema, Jalapeno Hot Sauce

 At this point I was just drinking. By now the Big Guy knew the drill. When he saw me come in through the door and find a seat at a table or the bar he’d be at my side. I’d hand him the list, and he’d go off and bring one of the drinks I hadn’t had yet. Pikesville Rye, he said when he set the drink on the table. I knocked that one back, raised a finger and we repeated the drill. Rittenhouse Rye, he said when he brought me the second one. Although I felt like blasting right through this one as well, I made myself slow down. Here are my tasting notes: both of them are fine, I guess. I didn’t really notice.

All right, let me back up.

Sherry left yesterday morning, which is when, I think, everything went to hell, though I didn’t know it at the time. Her sister Barbara is dealing with a beloved husband who is having health problems. Sherry is driving to Ohio to give her sister a hand with chores that need to be done. I’m glad she’s gone, this charade of me smiling through nights of interrupted sleep and mysterious creatures leaping around the back yard are beginning to wear on me.

“Are you feeling all right?” she asks.

“Yeah, sure. Just staying up at night figuring things out. No worries.” Feeble grin glued on my mug.

I spent yesterday reading my Publishers Weekly book to review. More Special Ops adventures in the mountains of Afghanistan. Yawn. Time for bed.

What to do? Where to sleep? Get up in the night and listen at the floor? Or go upstairs and huddle with the covers over my head and try to make it through the night? Ignore everything? Confront? Shadows from the crawl space lurk in the corners of my mind.

At three AM I woke up in bed. I heard the cat, Sweetie, somewhere in the house, yowling. YOWLING.

This is not particularly unusual. Sometimes she creeps around and gets trapped in the mudroom, or the screened-in porch, or even outside on the front porch if she’s slipped out the door when I’ve gone to retrieve the mail. Then I lock the door and go to bed and she finds herself trapped outside.

In any of these situations, eventually she sits down and YOWLS until I come find her and let her into the house. This is a cat that was rescued from a life of existing on food scraps and living in the shelter of a black plastic garbage bag. She does not like to be trapped anywhere, particularly outside. Though she does exhibit a fondness for black plastic trash bags. I climbed out of bed and put on my blue robe and slippers. You know the one; you’ve seen the picture.

I could have turned on all the lights since I was alone in the house, but I didn’t think about it. I can maneuver around well in the house at night; I’ve had plenty of experience.

Yowl. Definitely outside. Not on the front porch. Not on the side porch. Not in the mudroom. Now I was starting to worry. I went back to the front room and stood still.

Yowl. Coming from Sherry’s office. Trapped in the closet?

I stood in her office on the spot I knew so well, right over where the mysterious light shines through the floorboards. Yowl. I got down on my hands and knees.

She’s not in the house. She’s in the crawlspace.

My blood ran, as they say, cold. How the hell did she get under there?

When Sherry leaves on a trip, I always carry her bags out to the car for her. I go through the mudroom and for a few minutes the door between the mudroom and the kitchen and the door to the exterior of the house will both be open at the same time. Sweetie must have slipped out and gone exploring. I think hard. Did Mark and I leave the door to the crawlspace open after I was down there? The cat is quite good at opening doors that are only the slightest bit ajar. Now what am I going to do? I can’t leave her under there, she’ll yowl all night. Maybe I can go outside, open the door and entice her close enough for me to grab her and carry her inside. Yes, I’m going to get clawed to ribbons, but it’s my own fault for not watching the doors more carefully. There was a question nagging at me that I didn’t really want to think about: why didn’t she go back to the door to the crawlspace, push it open and come up on the front porch and yowl at the front door? She’s smart; she should be able to figure that out.

I knelt back down on the floor and, feeling extremely foolish, yelled, “Sweetie, I’m going to go put some clothes on! I’ll come get you! Just hang on!”

Yowl.

I went upstairs, pulled on my jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, snagged The World’s Most Powerful Flashlight and went outside. Sure enough, the low door to the crawlspace was slightly ajar. I pulled it open.

Of course I couldn’t see anything. As my eyes adjusted, it seemed as if there was a faint blue glow in the far corner of the crawlspace, beyond the furnace and the intervening ductwork. Sweetie yowled again, loud in the enclosed space. It sounded like she was off in the corner where the glow was pulsing. I switched on the flashlight. I knew I was going to be blinded, but I had to see what was happening.

YOWL!

My hand shook, my heart lurched. There was Sweetie. She was being held by the little ragdoll girl who was clutching her to her ragdoll chest. The look on the ragdoll’s round, sewn-up face with her missing nose was one of, what? Triumph? Amusement? Devilment.

“Mine,” the little girl said. Quite clearly.

“Mine!”

Sweetie yowled and writhed, but if her struggles and claws bothered the girl her ragdoll face didn’t show it.

“No, she’s mine,” I said. I was trying to sound firm but my voice was about as much squeak as it was voice.

“Let her go!”

She just smirked at me.

I could close the door, wait for daylight and call the animal rescue people to come extricate the cat from the crawlspace. Just one more feeble elderly man having to depend on the authorities to get him out of trouble. Or I could crawl in there and retrieve my cat from that apparition or whatever it was. Part of me was still convinced that all of this was some sort of figment born in my own brain, that the cat was simply afraid to come out, that I would make it to where she was and I would grab her and drag her out and there would be no little girl, that I was as nutty as the black walnut trees in the back yard. But another part of me was pretty sure that what I was seeing was real. Unexplainable but real, and that part had me so scared the flashlight trembled in my hand, causing the shadows of the water pipes, the dangling electrical wires, the shredded insulation, the gas lines, and the heater ducts to dance on the brick and cinderblock walls. The beam gleamed back at me from Sweetie’s fear-stricken eyes. The little girl’s eyes didn’t reflect because hers weren’t eyes, they were buttons, and why was I so afraid of a doll with buttons for eyes and a mouth sewn shut?

“Come and get her,” the little girl taunted in a low, lilting voice. The fact that she spoke so clearly was more menacing than if she had croaked the words. Then she laughed at me, and that was the worst thing, the most horrible thing yet.

“Sweetie, Sweetie,” she crooned, rocking back and forth, her cheek pressed against the cat’s head.

I began inching my way forward, dragging myself by my elbows and pushing with my knees underneath the large heating duct, my breath puffing up clouds of dirt that caught in my throat. The experience of crawling around under there the day before wasn’t particularly helpful. I was as near to tears as a grown man can be, but I was also pissed.

Give me my cat, bitch.

I switched the flashlight to my left hand and reached toward Sweetie. The doll inched back against one of the drunken pillars and pulled her closer. Sweetie yowled in pain and fear and at that moment I felt a hand close tightly around my ankle.

I was dragged violently backwards out of the crawlspace. It happened so quickly and so forcefully I sat up outside, stunned, looking at the moonlit sky. The silhouette of a man stood over me. I swung the flashlight around.

Rafe.

I had no idea why he was there.

“Get inside,” he ordered. “Go. Now. I’ll get the cat.”

I stood up and stumbled away as he dropped to the ground and swung under the house in a move so fluid I could only suppose that he had done it before. Many times before. He was gone before I could ask him if he needed the flashlight.

I walked shakily up the steps to the porch and inside. I went to Sherry’s office and sank down on the floor with my ear to the boards. I could hear Rafe murmuring though I couldn’t understand his words. Did the little girl answer?

Mine. Mine.

Then silence.

Then Sweetie.

No longer terrified.

Meow.

Picture Post Two

Last week I gave you a guided tour of the exterior of my house and some photos I took in the part of the crawlspace that is easy to access. And I promised photos and a tour of my foray into the more difficult area on the opposite side of the house. This expedition, last week and this week, came about in an attempt to locate the entry point the squirrels (as noted in last post) were using in their exploratory missions into my house. As far as I knew, the three that I caught were scouts sent ahead to reconnoiter my territory and probe for weak spots in my perimeter. Evidently they found at least one, otherwise I would not have had to catch them for three days running. Unless I located this breach and sealed it, it was possible that I would wake up some morning with a hundred marauding squirrels running amok in my house. Sort of like Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with outdoor tree rodents.

One of the curious things about the house is that when one is standing outside looking at it, it’s almost impossible to visualize the interior. Even if you live here. I can tell you, as I have in several posts, that there is an entire two room schoolhouse buried inside, but even I have a tough time figuring out exactly where it is when I’m outside the house. Even when I’m inside I have trouble figuring it out. The house is like one of those M. C. Escher drawings where stairs go up, or do they go down? Which is the ceiling? And which is the floor?

optical-illusion-art-1

Outside, on the opposite side of my house…

crawlspace exterior side

The window you see looks into the kitchen. The low door is the entrance to the crawlspace where I believe the squirrels are breaking into my domain. The pink insulation and pottery are my laughable attempts to block this door.

Open the door.

crawlspace side

Now I’m going to get down and crawl inside. From the ground to the joists I have about 24 inches of space. I have to drag myself forward by my elbows. I’m breathing dirt and 175 years of dust. I stopped and took this picture.

crawlspace pillars

This is the clearest picture of two of the pillars closest to me; I took it using the telephoto on the camera, so I’m not really as close as it looks like I am. Although my entire body is underneath the house. You can see how the house has settled and pushed the front pillar to one side. That’s four layers of brick and some old lumber holding up the house. Note the partially obscured white cinder block at the right side of the picture.

crawlspace 2

I have now hauled myself closer to the cinder block. I stop for a breather. Let me paint you a word picture…

You’ve seen those films on Nat Geo specials of faraway beaches where enormous sea lions are involved in frightening mating rituals? Where they drag their tons of blubber around the beach, thrashing, braying and snorting? That’s me underneath the house. At this point I realized I’m as far in as I’m going to get. I’m exhausted, and I really don’t like the looks of that roll of material that is tucked into one of the three openings in that cinderblock. It looks like metal sheathing, but I really don’t know what it is. All I know is, I’m done.

Slowly, slowly, I inch my way backward. “Ork! Ork!” (sound of floundering sea lion). I’m finally outside, lying on the ground, in the sun, gasping.

Mark is laughing at me.

Later on, at the Lead Penny, after a shower and a change of clothes, going through the pictures on my phone, I realized that I forgot to look for the holes where the squirrels were getting in. And I forgot to look for the freshly dug pits that the inspector said were there. The truth is, when you’re under there you forget about everything that’s not an inch under your nose or a few inches over your head. Maybe there’s something in the atmosphere that clouds the mind.

At any rate, I’m not going back under there again. At least not voluntarily.

Here’s my last picture of the night; well, almost the last picture.

doors

It’s the end of a long day under the house. I’ve showered and had dinner. We have watched television and now it’s time for bed. In this picture, the television set (unseen) is to my left. I am on the couch looking into Sherry’s office, which also opens into a bathroom that is attached to one of the two rooms of the old schoolhouse. Note the doors. I believe in one of my earlier blogs I pointed out that every door in the house, even the closet doors, had locks on them. The question being: were the locks there to keep something in? Or something out? If you were to go through these doors you see here you would be circling around the old schoolhouse rooms. It’s very confusing. Remember the Escher drawing at the beginning of this post?

Last week I promised you a picture of the ol’ Ghostbuster in his late-night exploring garb. I took this at three AM this morning in the upstairs bathroom before I headed down to see if the light was on beneath the floorboards.

ghostbuster 3-AM

While I’m there I intend to listen for sounds of digging. And to look around the rest of the downstairs. Here’s the thing, I’ve got this strange feeling that maybe the little girl has come into the house. Maybe she sent the squirrels in first to scout the way, or just to annoy me. Does she really need a hole to get through the floor? I don’t think so. OK, ready to go.

What’s that noise?

Picture Post One

It’s been an interesting week, but then every week is interesting around here. Sometimes I wish things were less interesting. I remained upstairs at night, ignoring the creatures that are living, if living is the right word, beneath my house. Since I didn’t go to them, they came to me. For three days I was under a squirrel attack.

I spotted the first one early in the week while walking through the TV room toward Sherry’s office. I glanced over at the gas-fired stove in the fireplace and there was a squirrel spread-eagled on the glass inside staring at me, tail twitching. I almost had a heart attack. It wasn’t that I particularly fear squirrels, but those of you who read these pages know I have a hell of a lot of them and they behave in very unusual ways. I believe I referred to them as Piranha squirrels, standing at attention in my backyard at night, eyes gleaming, waiting for me to step outside so they could strip the flesh from my bones.

I had no idea how this creature ended up in the heater, but the obvious answer was it came down the chimney, even though I thought the heater was self contained and only vented through a small pipe. One thing I did know was I needed to get it out of the house before Sherry saw it because she was definitely going to freak if she stumbled over it. I’m going to try and keep this squirrel saga short, so bear with me.

I went to the mudroom and got my heavy leather gloves and a broom. When I got back to the TV room the squirrel was sitting in the middle of the rug looking at me, tail still twitching. I gave it a whack with the broom, and it ran back under the heater and inside. I drove to Home Depot and bought a small Have-A-Heart trap, set it up in front of the heater and went to the kitchen to eat lunch. In five minutes I had caught a squirrel. I finished my sandwich then released it back out into the back yard and called a chimney sweep to come check the cap on the chimney. Let’s cut this thing short. The next morning I came downstairs and Sweetie, the cat, was sitting a foot away from a cute little baby squirrel. Neither of them seemed particularly frightened of each other. I got an old towel, threw it over the baby squirrel, carried it outside and turned it loose.

The next morning there was a full-grown squirrel sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor looking at me. After chasing the animal behind the refrigerator I got my trap and set it up. For three hours I could hear the squirrel banging around behind the stove, but no luck with the trap. After awhile, the squirrel came out and sat up on one of the stove burners, just looking at me. I got my towel and we went on a merry chase resulting in the breaking of a treasured tea pot. Eventually I got him/her in the towel and took him/her outside.

Clearly, I had to do something.

Aside from the chimney squirrel, I think they were coming in through a hole somewhere in the floor of the house, probably under the kitchen, maybe behind the stove. If I could find the hole, I could patch it; no more squirrels in the house. Unless these were spirit squirrels sent by the demon child, which was a possibility, but not one I wanted to entertain. At least not yet.

I was going to have to conquer my fears and make a foray under the house. I geared up like Rambo: long sleeve shirt, old jeans tucked into heavy socks, world’s brightest flashlight, cell phone to call for help on and take pictures with. (Because many of you have been writing asking to see some pictures, saying you were having trouble envisioning the scenes as I report them.) Fair enough. Two birds with one stone: look for squirrel entry points and snap some photos to put up here. Also I wanted to see if I could find the two dig sites the crawlspace inspector had been so snotty about last week.

I went and got Mark. His job was to drag me out from under the house if I got into trouble, or at least call the fire department to come rescue me. We briefly entertained the notion of tying a rope around my ankles so he could drag me out himself, but it seemed kind of crazy. After all, it was the middle of the afternoon, not three AM in the morning. The worst that could get me was the bugs. I sprayed myself with a heavy layer of bug repellent.

Rather than cut straight to the crawlspace scene, I’m going to start at the beginning and give you a tour of the various places I’ve been talking about. So gather around, children, pay close attention…

This is the Daisy Lynch house. house long view

It has a large front lawn and big back yard, almost a full acre. The smallish addition to the left of the front is the room where Sherry has her office, and the floor where I first saw the light through the floorboards and where I can hear the digging at night. Here’s a closer look at this feature.exterior Sherry's office

Note the chimney on the left of this room. I think this may be one of the keys to the mystery of the house. If you were to walk around the house on the side where the chimney is you would come to the main access to the crawlspace and the larger area where the furnace resides, beneath the house.

The thing about the chimney is, several months after we moved in I was looking out the window in the upstairs bedroom at the chimney when I realized that although there was a fireplace in almost every room of the house, there was none in Sherry’s office. The wall where the fireplace should have been was completely blank. What was the chimney there for?

If you go down the steps into the “basement” area…large door to crawlspace

The chimney should open up on the right of the floor around the corner, except it doesn’t. Whatever was originally there has been bricked up. steps into crawlspace

If you turn to the right at the bottom of the steps you are faced with this wall which I believe was the first room to be built and part of the foundation. It’s obvious that it’s very old. The (unseen) bricked up fireplace is to your right.crawlspace 4

If you look to the left of the last picture and climb under various joists and ductwork you will face another of the original stonework walls and this view into the actual crawlspace beneath the house. The pillar on the right is one of the oldest. It’s not a cinder block, those are very large stones that have been carved from, well, stone.crawlspace 3

If you were to (carefully) step backwards this is what you would see. More of the old wall built around this odd semi-underground room. You can stand upright with your head into the insulation in this area. This is the light that is turned on and off by some entity that I have not yet identified. I can see this light through the floorboards in Sherry’s office at night, when it is on.crawlspace light on

This is going on longer than I intended, so I’m going to break it up into two posts. Next week I’ll show you the pictures I took when I climbed into the crawlspace on the other side of the house, looking for squirrel entry sites.

Here a picture of the baby squirrel I caught.

baby squirrel

 

And here’s another picture I took. Just for fun.

pig

 

Any questions? I can take more pictures if there’s anything you want to see in particular. Make sure you tune in next week because I’m including a picture taken at 3:00AM of the old ghostbuster himself as he sets off in the night looking for trouble.