The Room Upstairs
by Dylan Henderson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The Goldman House, of course, remained, and it was that winter, my first in Claremont, that I climbed its sagging steps and, following Mrs. Goldman, walked through its ice-encrusted doors.
Looking back, I doubt we would have met if it had not been for the great ice storm. The night it struck I was working late. I was being sued by the Clark Ashton Smith estate over the copyright to his works, and I had stayed to look over some legal documents my lawyer had sent me. Sitting there with the papers spread out before me, I had no idea of the ice forming silently outside.
By midnight, the trees — with a mighty crack — were beginning to split. I remember hearing the ancient pin oak in Mrs. Goldman’s yard shudder. A sharp crack followed and then a muffled thump, and I knew that the stately tree had been broken by the storm.
Truthfully, few escaped unharmed, and even now, most of the mature trees in the eastern half of the state show some signs of damage. The electricity was out for more than three weeks, and most of the phone lines were down, too.
At some point that night, I fell asleep, but early the next morning I was awoken by a hammering on the front door. Still half asleep, I staggered downstairs and opened the door to find Mrs. Goldman, bundled up in a moldy fur coat, standing on the stoop. She said that someone was moving around upstairs. She could hear his footsteps on the hardwood floors and the creak of a door swinging open on rusty hinges. I should have known what to expect, but even so, her story unnerved me.
Standing in the doorway, I saw for the first time the extent of the damage. I saw how every yard and lot was blanketed with the splintered remains of felled trees, and what was left, sparkling otherworldly in the morning light, was coated with a thick layer of slowly spreading ice.
But, for some unknown reason, I followed her back to her house, passing for the first time through her front gate and assisting her up the steps to her own front door. I think I held my breath when she pushed open the paneled door, but my fears were groundless.
Once inside, I heard nothing. If anything, the house was unusually silent, for, with the electricity shut off, no appliances were running, and the only sound was the steady tick of a grandfather clock buried in one of the musty, dust-strewn bedrooms.
With trepidation, I climbed the stairs — Mrs. Goldman had lived downstairs ever since her husband’s death — and pushed open the door. It was precisely because I was so anxious that I was taken aback by what I saw.
Old Walter Goldman had converted the entire top floor into his own private library. Rows of custom-built barrister bookcases enclosed the massive room, which was crowned by a hip roof and a pair of skylights.
The books were ancient, and though I recognized some of the titles, including Townshend’s History of the First Baptist Church and Morrison’s Oral Accounts of Clem Vann Rogers. Others were wholly unfamiliar: Rites of the Cherokee Nation, The Practice of Witchcraft in Indian Territory, Irregularities in the Early Mormon Church, and countless other volumes, all yellowed with age.
The room itself, however, was far from pristine, for leaks from around the chimney had warped the floor and ruined the now moldy desk. As I walked around the room, examining the rows of books, I could feel the floorboards, spongy with rot, sag under my weight. Even the pictures on the walls were streaked and warped. But, as for intruders, I saw no sign of anyone.
I realized then, for the first time really, how helpless Dorothy Goldman had become. I stayed for more than two hours that morning, listening to her stories of the old town as I built a fire in the fireplace, and I returned every morning and every night as long as the electricity remained off.
I won’t say that I treated her well, but I did trim the broken and splintered trees in her yard and pile the limbs by the road for pickup. Two months later, they would still be there, waiting for the overwhelmed city to collect and dispose of all the wreckage.
* * *
That winter I spent a great deal of time with Mrs. Goldman, and even after the phone lines were repaired, she still called me rather than the police whenever she heard something upstairs or noticed something missing from her cupboards. And, perhaps because I was so depressed over my failures at the college, I would walk next door and, indulging her like a spoilt child, climb the stairs to the top floor and, turning on the lights, scan the old library for burglars or intruders, real or ghostly.
Afterwards she would always ask me to stay, and I would peruse the library upstairs while she prepared the coffee or hot cocoa. Over the next few months, I actually reprinted several of Walter Goldman’s books, and my company even began to attract some attention for its commitment to antiquarianism.
But Mrs. Goldman, who was almost deaf, couldn’t follow the thread of a conversation, and I would just listen as she told me stories about Radium Street as it had once been, with balls at the Windsor Opera House and tea with Princess Stephanie who had taken the radium cure one season at the world-famous Sequoyah Hotel.
That whole spring, nothing strange happened, certainly nothing bizarre or ominous, but things began to change that summer. It began with a foul smell, which when the wind blew from the east, wafted across the neighborhood. As the summer progressed, it only grew worse, and one day an intern mentioned that it was coming from the Goldman place.
The landlord at the Bennett Bathhouse complained and threatened legal action against Mrs. Goldman. Not knowing what to do, I arranged for exterminators to check the house for dead vermin in the walls and chimneys.
Disinfectants and chemicals did nothing. In an attempt to ventilate the old house, I even brought in several fans, which I placed throughout the building. Mrs. Goldman, her senses dulled by age, couldn’t smell the noxious odor. By July, it had obtained truly grotesque proportions, and I finally rented an augur from a local hardware store and augured the pipes all the way to the sewer beneath Ninth Street but with no results.
Exploring underneath the house, I discovered a whitish fungus grown fat on the damp and rotting earth, but the foul thing was odorless. Disgusted, I left it to feed on whatever nourishment it had found buried beneath the soil. Somehow I had become responsible for Mrs. Goldman, but I didn’t know what else I could do.
I don’t know exactly when the flies appeared. They swarmed through the house, more than I had ever seen before, but they seemed to cluster around Mrs. Goldman’s bedroom in the east wing of the house. I set traps and sprayed insecticide around every door and window, but nothing seemed to help. Eating there became impossible, and with temperatures reaching record levels, I began to avoid the house for the first time since the previous winter.
Fortunately, when fall came, the flies slowly began to die off, but even in November a stray fly would sometimes appear downstairs. By that time, bits of fly shit speckled the walls, and the house took on a more unwholesome air than ever before.
* * *
By then, business was beginning to improve. The lawsuit had been settled out of court, and I was free to devote myself to the work that I loved. My Collected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith had been postponed indefinitely, and I resumed the task of editing with relish. For the first time since I had left the university, I was busy again, and I had no time for Mrs. Goldman.
Truthfully, I was annoyed with her, irritated that I had been tricked into spending more time with her than I had ever intended. Why I had wasted so much time on her, I didn’t know. I couldn’t even say that I had been much help, for much of the time I had spent with her was devoted to doing needless chores like adjusting the antenna on her television or resetting the time on her microwave.
And I must admit that her company was beginning to wear on me. Her stories were becoming grim: tales of balls and dances had been replaced by rumors of bootleggers hiding in the woods along the river and opium dens leering from behind the façade of old houses and prostitutes slaving in the basements of all the major bathhouses and hotels.
Her fear of an imaginary intruder upstairs was getting worse, too. I thought her anxiety had improved somewhat over the course of the summer, but now I feared for her sanity. She swore that she could hear him on the top floor and, worse, could hear his footsteps on the stairs. Once she claimed that she heard him opening cabinets and drawers in the kitchen and then the unmistakable sound of someone rattling the doorknob to her bedroom.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Dylan Henderson