The Room Upstairs
by Dylan Henderson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
When I first moved my office into the old hotel on Radium Street and word began to circulate through the small town of Claremont that I published supernatural horror for a living, strangers would, the moment we were introduced, invariably ask me to recite my favorite ghost story or weird tale.
I could hardly blame them, but the stories that interested me rarely impressed dinner guests eager for stories of witches and goblins. To be honest, though I do believe in the mysteries of the faith, I am by no means crudely superstitious, and much of the genre seems as puerile to me as it does to the most devout materialist.
With that said, however, I tried to please my listeners, for the local folklore fascinated me, and I fancied that I knew more tales than anyone else in that ancient and ill-favored town.
When the mood, or a strong drink, roused me from my indifference, I would tell of the pack of coyotes that in 1935 killed a young woman on the banks of Dog Creek or the special jail cell that the sheriff constructed for John McIntosh in the old boathouse on Claremont Lake, or any one of the seemingly infinite number of tales about Radium Street, the decaying neighborhood northeast of town where my offices were located.
Little evidence of its past glory remains, aside from a few weed-infested lots but, at the turn of the century, wealthy men and women from all over the world visited the bathhouses along Radium Street, seeking the so-called “radium water,” which George Eaton had discovered in a field near Ninth and Dorothy.
From where I sit at my desk, I can actually see the crumbling foundation, which more than a century ago, supported Eaton’s offspring: the Sanitarium Bathhouse. If I turn, I can see the remains of the old Bennett Bathhouse across the street, and from the roof, I can even spot the rubbish-filled lot where the lecherous Mendenhall Bathhouse once leered.
But my listeners always expected more. Seeing that I was surrounded by local history, they wanted to know if I had any personal experience with horror. During the first two years of my new life in Claremont, I could honestly say that, as much as I admired its aesthetics, I knew nothing of real horror, but after the second year, I talked less openly about such things.
* * *
You see, the truth of the matter is that I find my own story tragic rather than horrific; and my involvement in it, shameful. Because, if I’m honest, I never particularly liked Dorothy Goldman.
I’m certain that part of my aversion stemmed from the circumstances at the time of our meeting. That winter I had written an article on H.P. Lovecraft and his controversial theory that Celtic folklore had been inspired by racist encounters with non-European peoples.
His views are not easy to defend, and I would just as soon not discuss them here. But I will say that the subject demanded tact and, subconsciously apprehensive, I felt relieved when the Journal of European Folklore, speaking highly of the article, agreed to publish it in their upcoming issue.
Unfortunately, an exposé, crafted by a disgruntled student of mine, appeared in the college paper and generated so much outrage among the student body that I lost my position at the University of Tulsa and, two weeks later, my chairmanship at the Tulsa City Library Commission.
After moving back home to Claremont, a town not far from where I was born, I began searching for inexpensive office space and, after a lengthy negotiation with the aged landlord, rented the old hotel across the street from the Bennett Bathhouse and next door to Dorothy Goldman’s decaying mansion.
* * *
The Goldman Home warrants some description, for little else along Radium Street still stands. After the horror, I read as much about the house and the Goldman family as I could, often spending hours at the Will Rogers Library, sifting through old copies of the Claremont Progress. Exactly what I hoped to gain, I do not know, but at least I learned the basic history of the house and family.
Originally from St. Louis, Walter Goldman arrived in Claremont in 1942 in the hopes of finding a cure for his wife’s depression. Incredibly enough, the water appeared to have a positive effect, and the two decided to stay. Walter Goldman purchased a lot on Radium Street, and over the course of the next five years, the entrepreneur added the Bennett Bathhouse, the Sanitarium, and the Mendenhall to his list of properties.
After the war, the country’s tastes adapted to its newfound prosperity, and the miraculous growth that had characterized Claremont for half a century began to slow. The city’s long decline would span decades, and it would end only when the world-famous resort was reduced to a few acres of boarded-up hotels and bathhouses along Radium Street.
For the Goldman family, however, the future appeared as an extension of the past, and construction on the new home, which was destined to become one of the largest in a neighborhood known for its splendor, began in earnest in 1943.
Nominally an American Foursquare, the house consisted of a boxy, two-and-one-half story structure crowned by a hip roof and flanked by numerous wings that Walter Goldman added later in the decade.
In the back, a sunroom faced the extensive gardens, which stretched all the way to Eighth Street and provided the family with fresh flowers and vegetables. But the most impressive addition was the oddly proportioned east wing.
Built on a foundation several feet higher than the original structure, the east wing projected away from the house, and its high-pitched gable roof reached almost as high as the hip roof on the main building.
* * *
I couldn’t help staring at the structure as I carried box after box of books into my new office. Nor could I miss the police car that was parked outside the house. By the time I had unpacked my books, however, the patrol car was gone, and I wondered what service the police could have performed that took so little time.
Later that spring, I was introduced to the chief of police, and I learned that Dorothy Goldman called the department several times a week, each time complaining of an intruder in her house. She claimed that she heard a scratching sound, sometimes described as a shuffling or scraping, coming from upstairs, and she hinted that she sometimes heard footsteps and the unmistakable sound of furniture being dragged across hardwood floors.
The police, of course, were obligated to investigate, but they never found any evidence of burglary. The upstairs, which the chief seemed to think would interest me, showed no signs of disturbance, and he suspected that the old lady, like so many others, mistook the clawing of mice for the fumbling of a burglar.
I saw little of Mrs. Goldman that first summer. She rarely went outside, and her enormous lot, almost two acres in extent, was overgrown with dandelions, thistles, and wilted flowers. Her husband had died decades ago, and how she could maintain such a house, I could scarcely fathom, but she seemed reluctant or unwilling to hire help.
When she did appear, she never spoke to me or, truthfully, even looked in my direction. Noticing that the old woman didn’t even possess a single cat for companionship, I soon developed a conception of her, whether just or unjust, as a bitter, misanthropic spinster.
* * *
I was loath to admit it at the time, but my new offices sometimes depressed me. The neighborhood consisted of little more than two rows of boarded-up storefronts along Ninth Street, and our own office, its red brick crumbling with age, was no less dilapidated. Frightening cracks streaked the sides of the building, and the massive brick columns that supported the upstairs leaned at impossible angles.
In the evenings, the atmosphere of the place was almost oppressive, and I often sat at my desk upstairs, too apathetic to leave, and listened to the sound of the printing press below or the hum of servers across the hall.
The Goldmans’ rotting mansion leered at me through the window, and I couldn’t help but wonder if, at that exact moment, Dorothy Goldman was lying in her bed, wide awake with fear, as she listened for footsteps on the floor above.
Of course, my own financial problems, aggravated by the cost of remodeling the old hotel, exacerbated the situation, leaving me exhausted and prone to strange fancies. So to keep me company, I adopted a cat, a rather lazy tabby named Howard, and he would sit on my lap, purring, as I worked late into the night. I felt less gloomy knowing he was there. To this day, I still use the outline of a cat as the company’s logo.
If the animal had a flaw, it was that he would run away. Thoughtless, a visitor would leave the door open a moment too long, and the cat would slip out, and I would spend hours walking up and down the Byzantine maze of alleys that runs between Dorothy and Seminole, calling his name, and asking neighbors if they had seen any sign of my beloved pet.
One day that fall, I believe it was in October, Howard disappeared. My searches yielded nothing, nor did the flyers that I stapled to telephone poles and taped on the inside of shop windows. He was gone, and what was left of my new life on Radium Street seemed more forlorn than ever.
But about two weeks later, I was carrying our garbage to the dumpster behind the building, and I saw something in Mrs. Goldman’s yard. Ignoring propriety, I climbed over the fence, and I knelt down beside a strip of fur lying in the tall grass. Devoid of fat or muscle or even skin, the furry thing disintegrated in my hands the moment I picked it up. I searched and searched through the fallen leaves, but there was nothing else to bury.
* * *
Looking back, that was a difficult year for Radium Street. The West Elementary School was torn down, and the old gymnasium converted into an annex for the First Baptist Church. Demolition crews continued to gut the old houses along Will Rogers Boulevard, and more and more empty lots pockmarked the once prosperous neighborhood.
Even the nearby Richardson mansion at Twelfth and Dorothy was destroyed. I had hoped to see the inside and had even tried to locate the owners, but lacking the funds to renovate the structure, they had abandoned it years ago, and I lost the opportunity to inspect the tiled fireplaces and parquet floors that rumor ascribed to the building.
But the greatest loss for antiquarians occurred when the Mendenhall Bathhouse caught fire in November. Working late, I heard the fire engines, though I had no sense of where they were going in that mad jumble of narrow streets. The next morning, however, I saw the damage on my way to work. A hideous black stain poured from the windows, and the delicate brickwork was burned to papery ash.
I hoped that the owners, who had converted the historic property into apartments, would repair the damage, but a few days later, the building was simply gone. In a few hours, a bulldozer had destroyed the whole structure, and the filigree ironwork, the brick arabesques, and the crumbled verandas were piled in a contorted heap. Not even the foundation remained.
Much later, I learned that an arsonist had broken into the office at night and set the fire but, to my knowledge, he was never apprehended. The police assumed he was one of the many junkies who rented cheap quarters in the old bathhouses, and if they made any attempt to find the vandal, it was brief and perfunctory.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Dylan Henderson