Under the Clay Pots
by Howard Vogl
Sarah and I were cleaning out the old homestead after my mom died. The house, a small one-story ranch on the east side of Buffalo that had been my parents’ home for forty years.
“Look, Kevin. The price of bread went up to twenty-seven cents a loaf,” Sarah said as she handed me the small brown ledger she retrieved from the desk.
“Dad sure kept track of his pennies,” I said.
The desk was an antique fold-down passed along generations of my family. The outside of the desk was unremarkable, but the inside was full of treasures from the past: cancelled checks, grocery lists, and yellowed recipes clipped from newspapers.
Sarah pulled up the sleeve of her sweater, reached into the back, and came out with a thick stack of papers secured by a string. She undid the knot and shuffled through the pile of old birthday cards and remembrances.
Hidden in the middle were a few sheets of notebook paper. Sarah unfolded the papers and said, “This looks like your handwriting.”
For a moment I was speechless, then I said, “It was a long time ago. Just a story I wrote when I was a kid,” feeling my face turned red. “I always had an imagination.”
“Never knew you went in for that kind of stuff,” she said going through the pages. Sarah put the papers down on the desk and said, “I’m going down to the basement to look for the teapot your mom promised me.”
I took off my glasses and stared out the window at the backyard but, in my mind, I stared back in time. Should I tell Sarah the story? When she came back up empty-handed, I slid a kitchen chair over to her and said, “I’ll tell you about the story I wrote.” She sat down on the edge of the chair and waited for me to speak.
“When I was fourteen the backyard was different. The trellis was full of grape vines and, under it there were dozens of clay pots.” I took off my glasses. “It was summer break, and I was in the back, digging up weeds because my father wanted to add a small porch for us to sit on during warm summer nights. I remember stopping to pick a grape. The seeds were large, and they rolled around in my mouth like marbles. I spat the seeds to the ground and dragged my tools back to the garage.
“I grabbed the handle of the sagging door and dragged it over the gravel enough to enter. The air inside was musty, and the shadows of things that had lost their useful life were all around. I felt along the wall and found the switch that turned on the bare bulb overhead.
“I first saw it when I put the shovel back on the hook. An old radio was wedged behind a decayed leather suitcase. I picked up the radio and blew off the dust. It was a beige box with a large dial in the center and horizontal slats on its face that made it look like some art deco masterpiece. The inside was full of vacuum tubes with swirls on top like glass ice cream cones.”
I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “Let’s go.” I took the notes off the desk and led her through the kitchen to my old bedroom. Pointing to the wall under a small casement window, I said, “The bed was over there, and the night table was next to it on the left. That’s where I put the radio.” I waited while Sarah reconstructed the scene in her mind.
“I turned the radio on, and the tubes inside glowed with an amber light. I remember adjusting the dial, waiting for someone to speak. I was rewarded with the daily hog prices and how the commies were going to take over the world.” Sarah giggled.
“While the radio played, my mind began to wander, and I started to write the story,” I said, trying to avoid her gaze. “At first the words were hard to come by, but after a few moments they became clear.” I held the papers in my hand and started to read.
“It’s time for Mystery of the Week brought to you by OXO Soap. OXO, the soap that softens your skin while it cleans your dishes. OXO available at your local grocery store. That’s OXO, O-X-O. Tonight, ‘Under the Clay Pots’, Chapter One.
“Near the patio in back of the house, where the purple grapes grew, and under the clay pots that sat upturned on the ground lay a body. The body of Edith Millner, sixteen. On a warm summer night, Edith had been walking home alone from the theatre. A man hiding in the alley had watched as her blonde hair and pleated skirt danced with each step. He had stepped out from the shadows, and—
“The story frightened me. I turned the dial on the radio until there was only a faint hiss and put my pencil down.”
Sarah said, “I’m not surprised. You still have to cover your eyes when we watch a horror movie.”
“The following morning my mother came into the kitchen with a dust rag in her hand and said, ‘The notes on your night table?’
“‘Just writing a radio story about a murder’, I said.
“‘The only murder that’s going to happen is to you, if you don’t finish digging up those weeds like your father asked’.”
Sarah smiled until she saw my fingers move to adjust the dial of a nonexistent radio.
“That night, I sat on the edge of the bed with pencil and paper and turned the radio on.”
“‘Tonight’s program is brought to you by OXO the soap. “Under the Clay Pots. Chapter Two.” When it was dark, he went out back and moved the pots aside. Two of them tumbled to the ground and shattered. He turned and thought he saw someone in the back window, but the figure didn’t move, and he realized it was only a shadow.
“‘The ground was hard, and he wiped the sweat from his brow. The soil yielded to his shovel, inch by inch. Finally, the hole was deep enough to bury the body, and he dragged it from the garage.’
“I dropped the pencil from my shaking hand and turned the dial. I felt the radio was telling me the story, and I was only transcribing it.”
“Are we sitting around the campfire?” Sarah asked.
“There’s more, just listen,” I said. “The following night, I turned the radio on and watched the tubes glow, now not as a comforting light but as a demonic presence.
“‘It’s time for Mystery of the Week brought to you by OXO Soap. Tonight, Chapter Three of “Under the Clay Pots.” He covered the body and tamped the ground with his shovel. The ground was level, but the color was wrong. He moved the pots to make sure no one would notice. Then, he climbed over the fence and snuck away. As time went by the rain came and the ground darkened. Roots surrounded the body, and the insects had their feast—’”
I squeezed Sarah’s hand. “Stop, you’re hurting me,” she said.
“I didn’t want to listen to the next chapter. I struggled to turn the radio off, but I knew it was beyond my power to stop. I ran to the kitchen and blurted out to my mother that someone had killed a girl and buried her in the backyard. She told me I was taking the radio program too seriously and asked me if anything else was wrong. I whispered, ‘Nothing’, and hung my head. Then, she put her arm around me, and told me to wash up for dinner.”
“You were just an impressionable kid,” Sarah said as I leaned against the bedroom doorway.
“My father listened to my story about the radio program and the body buried under the pots. He said our backyard wasn’t uncommon, and it was only natural for me to write about familiar things. He explained that sometimes our mind played tricks on us, and I needed to separate fact from fiction. He told me to put the radio away for a while and everything would be better. But it wasn’t.”
Sarah watched me as if I were going too fast around a dangerous curve.
“My parents did their best to convince me it was only a fantasy, but the thought of the girl buried under the pots wouldn’t leave my mind. I did my best to avoid the backyard, convinced some skeletal hand would reach out from the grave and pull me under. Day by day I grew more agitated and, by the end of the week, I wouldn’t go outside.
“My self-confinement went unnoticed until my mother asked me to go out to the garage to get the shears. I pretended I didn’t hear her. She asked again. I told her I couldn’t go out there. She was in the ground, and she’d get me. My mother watched silently as I grew ever more hysterical. Finally, she said, ‘Enough!’ She went into my bedroom and came out with the notes. I never saw them again, until now.
“Kevin, you never told me,” Sarah said.
“I know, but at the time it was embarrassing, and I put the incident out of my mind. Finding those notes in the desk brought back memories. You needed to understand.”
“Of course I do. You’ve been nothing short of wonderful all these years, don’t let the past haunt you.”
Sarah hugged me and I gave her a weak smile. She pretended to get back to work as a sign it was okay to move on.
I went through a few more papers in the desk but stopped and wondered if Sarah believed me. I had concealed the truth from my parents, but I didn’t know they had hidden my story in the desk. Memories filled my mind like a raging flood, and I’d had to tell Sarah the same lie.
There was a girl at our school named Edith. I watched as the male teachers leered at her. I listened as my classmates told stories about the things she did. I followed her wherever she went. Then, one day, the opportunity came. On a warm summer night, I saw her walking home alone from the theatre. I hid in the shadow cast by the old hardware store and watched her skirt move as she passed through the yellow sodium light. Desire for her pushed me out of the shadows and I grabbed her. She broke free and slapped me.
Then she saw my face and said, “I know you, don’t I?” and she laughed.
Her laughter rang like a bell in my head saying, I’ll tell, I’ll tell. I knew she would, so I picked up a rock and hit her and hit her until the bell in my head stopped. No one was surprised when she disappeared, because she had run away before. Everyone said she had gone to the city, but she never went farther than our garage. Eventually someone would have discovered her body, so I buried it under the clay pots.
The truth that I killed her haunted me night and day. I started to scribble a confession, but then my mother found the notes. I couldn’t go through with it, so I made up the story about writing a radio program. My secret was safe.
“Kevin, look at this. I found an envelope in a compartment in the desk, your name is on it.”
Sarah handed me the envelope. It was small and had the acrid smell of paper yellowed with age. I held the envelope in my hand for a moment, then pulled out my pocket knife and opened it. I put my glasses on to read the letter inside and quickly shoved it into my pocket.
“What’s in it?”
“Something, from my mother.”
“Can I see?”
“I’d rather keep it to myself.”
But inside my pocket was a letter. It read: Kevin, I saw what you did. May God forgive you. Love, your mother.
Copyright © 2020 by Howard Vogl