The Man Who Had Lived Here
by David J. Rank
part 1 of 2
“Is this a closet?” Clery asked, rattling the loose knob of a locked, ill-fitted door.
An odd silence hung in the air before the landlady answered. “Yes... and no.” She kneaded long, bony fingers, a manila envelope tucked in her armpit.
Clery stood in the doorway of what looked like a truncated vestibule barely an arm’s reach long. Behind him carpeted stairs descended to the apartment’s first floor with the usual utilitarian rooms. To his right a hallway introduced two tiny bedrooms. At its end a door provided access to the narrow landing and staircase that separated his apartment from the two in front, useful only as a fire escape. An old-fashioned key was imbedded in the lock.
Affronting him was the ill-fitted door in what Clery thought would be a simple hall closet.
“That’s just access to the building’s attic. Nothing up there.” In just these few minutes inspecting the apartment, Clery decided he disliked this provincial woman. Her voice was an octave too shrill, eyes beady like a reptile’s, mannerisms abrupt and graceless.
“And since the attic goes the length of the building, it’s not really part of this apartment. That’s why that door’s always locked. Don’t worry. We’d only go up there if we need to check the roof — which is in beautiful shape, by the way — or if there’s an emergency, of course.”
She waved a harpy hand. “It’s all God’s will, you know.” The woman’s smile resembled a crack in an astringent alabaster vase. “Well then.” She cleared her throat. “What do you think? I have others wanting to see the place.”
Her crude attempt to pressure a quick decision was clumsy, transparent, and contemptible. Clery kept a snide but amusing retort to himself.
The apartment had its quirks, even beyond the extra door in the closet. It took up the entire rear of the boxlike building, behind two side-by-sides, like a lean-to nailed to the backside of a duplex. There was nothing at all commendable about the building. But then, this was Wisconsin and not New York. Clery really did not expect better.
He did like the private entrance facing the driveway, close to the three-car shed. He would not dignify that structure’s existence by calling it a garage. The apartment’s isolation on a short dead-end street not far from the city’s downtown suited his needs. And the location on the bluff, a good long leap above the sluggish brown Manitowoc River, intrigued him. Besides, it came furnished and was the least expensive of the apartments he had looked at.
“I believe I’ll take it.”
His landlady grinned, a wider crack in the vase.
A single, slow creak overhead caught their attention.
“The wind — this is an old building — solid, though,” the landlady said, following it with a short and brittle chuckle.
Her reaction seemed forced and insincere. But Clery decided to overlook it. “I will move in next week, if you find that appropriate.”
She agreed and held out a one-page lease taken from the manila envelope. “Next week will be fine. The last tenant left in the middle of the month. Didn’t even give notice and forfeited his deposit. Left everything, the place was a mess. But we cleaned it up nice.”
“Nice” was not the word Clery would have chosen but he remained mute. He glanced at the lease, a simply worded document, quite boilerplate.
The former tenant vanished. Was that why the apartment came furnished? Normally, Clery’s curiosity would have been piqued. But the woman’s voice!
He did not ask the question, wishing only to get away from her as quickly as possible.
Grinding his teeth, Clery signed the lease.
* * *
The weekend move from cheap motel to inexpensive apartment went smoothly.
Clery’s first day at his new place of employment the following Monday was as dull and uncomfortable as he anticipated. He was wire editor for the Manitowoc Reporter, a small town daily with all the usual deficiencies: talent, leadership, creativity, and these days suffering from dwindling resources and public apathy.
He found his co-workers without sophistication, editors unimaginative, the pay paltry. His duties were easily dealt with and beneath his talents. Management expected only routine compliance, which suited Clery. He wished for nothing more.
Following the disaster of his last employment out east — a certain managing editor incapable of understanding his true abilities — Clery felt it wise to retreat and regroup. This little backwater newspaper in the nether regions of Wisconsin was a perfect place for the time being to contemplate his future — plan his rebirth, so to speak.
* * *
Clery’s first evenings in the apartment were uneventful except for an inability to sleep. He blamed that on the unfamiliar smell of the place, a wobbly bed he knew had been slept in by another, and the wind-shoved groans and creaks of the building. Each night, Clery’s mind rambled with thoughts of past events and an uncomfortable present. He could not help it.
Sometime after another midnight, Clery swung his legs off the bed. A hot cup of herbal tea might help him sleep. Rubbing his face, Clery let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Enough gray light seeped into the room he did not need to turn on a lamp.
As he stood, something stirred above his head, a soft noise, stealthy in its cadence. Clery did not move. He listened. Another carefully placed footstep, a board creaked.
Clery tried to stare through the ceiling. His breathing hurried as his mind crosschecked options. What could make such a discernible noise from a supposedly empty attic? He heard it again... and again... definitely footsteps, barely perceptible.
Outside, it began to rain: large plopping drops.
Clery strained against the needs of his own muscles and listened. Instinctively, his eyes scanned the dark ceiling. He stood for many minutes and heard nothing more.
* * *
Exhausted, Clery managed to fulfill his duties at work the next day, even eliciting praise from his bumbling managing editor. He hurried through his responsibilities and left early in the afternoon intending to nap before dinner.
As he turned his old Volvo into the driveway, Clery noticed a man dressed like a common laborer sitting on the stoop of one of the front apartments. A neighbor, Clery thought with some amusement.
After parking in a shed stall and pulling closed the bulky door, he turned and found himself face to face with a man in clean but permanently stained work clothes. There was an aroma of grease and hot metal about him. His hand was extended. “My name’s Gil. Gil Othmar.”
With reluctance, Clery gripped the hard hand. He noticed dirt beneath the nails and pebble-like calluses. Minor scars crosshatched the back of the man’s hand. He smiled, showing surprisingly white teeth. Clery had expected some to be missing.
“Live up front with the wife and kids. Saw you drive in so I thought I’d introduce myself.”
Clery released the man’s hand and surreptitiously wiped his soft palm with a handkerchief. “My name is Douglas Clery.”
“Doug. Nice meeting you.”
“Douglas. Douglas Clery.” He cleared his throat to give himself time to think of something else to say. “I noticed you on your front porch.”
“Yeah, waiting for my ride. Work second shift at the shipyards. I’m a welder. We got a lot of defense contracts going on right now. Business is good. Three shifts good.”
“Fascinating.” Clery sensed the man was waiting for something more. “I just started work at the Manitowoc Reporter. I’m the new editor.”
“Really? At the old rag?” Gil laughed and soft-punched Clery’s shoulder, to Clery’s surprise. “Say, Doug, I’d love to gab more but my ride’s due so I got to go. But, hey, maybe we could get together for a couple of beers sometime. How about it?”
“Douglas. I’m not much for drinking, really. Maybe.”
“Yeah, sounds good. Nice meeting you.” His neighbor soft-punched Clery’s bicep and turned to head back down the driveway, much to Clery’s relief as he rubbed his shoulder.
A thought occurred to him. “Wait, Mr. Gil, excuse me.”
“Before I moved in — I mean, the previous occupant of the apartment I lease — did you know him?”
Gil smiled and stepped back toward Clery. “Sure. We talked once in a while. He kept to himself mostly, though. He was a little guy, shorter than you even. Don’t know much about him. He was only here a few months, a year, maybe. Then he was gone, skipped out. I think he lost his job.”
“And what job was that?”
Gil shrugged. “Don’t know. Like I said, he kept to himself. Owed Mrs. O’Donnell a month’s rent, too.”
A pickup truck pulled into the driveway and backed out. Gil looked over his shoulder. “I really got to go. My ride’s here.” He hurried up the driveway. “See you around, Doug.”
“It’s Douglas, if you don’t mind.”
* * *
That night Clery lay in bed thinking, the shadowy dark a comforting wrap. Distant city sounds, what little there were, a soothing white noise.
Clery did not like mysteries. He liked things up front and clearly defined. The Man Who Had Lived Here, for that was how Clery now thought of him, was an annoying mystery keeping him awake yet again.
Sometime after midnight Clery heard footfalls in the attic, subtle sounds, nearly silent, as if whatever was moving had learned from past mistakes and now avoided loose boards.
His eyes followed each step, marking their path across the ceiling. Gauging the length of stride, Clery judged the size of the perpetrator to be fairly small.
The steps were slow, sometimes ten or twenty seconds apart, but their path was fairly straight, from above a corner of his room toward the back of the house.
Clery did not move from his bed that night, only falling asleep long after the last of the footsteps was heard.
Later that morning he realized the steps had headed for the attic’s access stairs. A thrill shot up his spine. Clery nearly cut himself shaving. He smiled.
Tired though he was, Clery dawdled at work until he was sure his neighbor had left for his job before he finally went home.
* * *
For a long time he stood in the second floor hallway staring at the closet door that hid the attic access. Finally, he swung open the door and confronted the locked one inside. The heavy wooden door hung crookedly in the doorframe, creating an unbalanced black seam along its edges. Clery wanted to reach out and straighten it like an off-centered painting.
He finally crept closer to the door and leaned forward, his eye almost touching the black seam, and peered into the darkness held at bay by the door. Warm air seeped out smelling of dust and old wood. He saw nothing, heard nothing but felt he was being watched.
The stillness unnerved Clery. He backed away from the door and closet, backed away so far he nearly lost his balance on the stairs. Hands splaying out against the walls, Clery righted himself. His line of sight never left the locked door in front of him. Fear like vomit rose within him. A fear the door would burst open freeing whatever was behind it to swallow him like some Jonah.
He already knew what it was like to be in the belly of a beast.
Slowly, step by step, he backed down the stairs. Outside, wind huffed against the house. The attic door rattled, taunting him.
He slept fitfully that night on the too-short couch downstairs.
* * *
At work he felt foolish and berated himself for letting his all-too-eager imagination run afoul of a few random creaks and an oddly placed locked door.
His managing editor noticed him yawning and after deadline called Clery into his office. He asked how things were going, if Clery had any concerns about his new duties or the community itself, for that matter. “It must be a difficult adjustment for an East Coast boy like you.”
Clery lied and said he had no problem beyond a penchant to watch too many late movies. The comment made the managing editor laugh and Clery was able to leave shortly after.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by David J. Rank