A Short Story – Fiction!
by Charlie Leck
Going where you are not supposed to go is one of the great adventures of bored little boys. There are only so many times you can throw a hard rubber ball against the side of your house before your mother comes rushing out the door to scream at you.
“Would you stop throwing that thing against the house? It’s driving me crazy! If you can’t find something else to do, I’ll find something for you!”
So, I went off looking for an adventure – just something to do on a summer day to make the time move by. The ball field was empty. Buddy was at camp. Mack only wanted me to steal my old man’s cigarettes so he could go sit in the outhouse and smoke. I walked up to Alan’s house. His mom said he wasn’t at home – that he’d gone into the city with his dad. I walked back to his family’s barn and looked at the horses. It would be a great day for a ride out through the honeysuckle patch that led to the open fields of Pleasant Hill Farm. Cleo ambled over to me to see if I might have a carrot hidden from her view. I softly rubbed her nose and felt guilty that I hadn’t grabbed a sugar lump before I left home. I gave her a hard pat on the neck and headed back out toward Main Street and the walk toward home.
I was just passing the town library when I saw Toby standing out in front of the boarded up old hotel across from my house. I got pretty excited. He was more fun than any kid in town, even though he was a couple of years younger than I. He was always ready for an adventure.
From more than a block away, I threw the rubber ball towards him. It hit the sidewalk and bounded wildly up and beyond Toby. He drifted back gracefully and caught the small ball over his shoulder in an effortless sort of way. He fired it back to me and it came into my glove chest high and with a solid smack. The guy was a solid athlete and very dexterous. He was great at complicated sports and at basement games, too. His old man had an ice cream store down the street behind him and part of it was set up as a pool hall. Toby was a shark and, even though he was just a little kid, he could make a pool stick tantalize the cue ball into doing some pretty amazing things.
“You wanna do something?” I shouted down the sidewalk toward Toby as I kept closing the gap between us. He sat down on the steps of the closed-down hotel. He shouted back to me as I crossed the old gravel driveway that led back to the abandoned hotel parking lot.
“I don’t know! What’a you wanna to do?”
“I don’t know! You?”
“We could play catch.”
“You wanna go up to the cemetery and hang around there?”
“Ping pong? We could go up to the church and play ping-pong.”
“Nope! I see there’s a funeral or something going on up there. We’d make too much noise.”
I sat down on the steps next to him and looked across the way, to the other side of Main Street. My old man was outside, sweeping the front porch of his general store. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew he was singing some kind of song, like he always did when he worked – something like the Blue Bird of Happiness, or something!
“How come you don’t have to work?”
“Slow today,” I answered. “Nothing going on much. My old man told me to get out and get some air and sunshine.”
“Yeh. My old man shut the shop down and went across the street to the firehouse to work on one of the trucks or something.”
“It’ll get busier around lunch time.”
Toby took the rubber ball out of my glove and fired it across the street toward the porch where my old man stood. The ball took a couple of bounces before reaching the porch and then softly rolled up against the broom my old man held in his hands. He looked at the ball and then across to us. We were both laughing. He waved across to us and bent to pick up the ball. He checked for any traffic on the street and then threw it back towards us. I had to scramble away to catch his wild throw, but Toby cheered for him anyway.
Everybody liked Toby. He had that graceful confidence that makes one easy to like. There are, you know, thoroughbreds and then there are just plain nags. You can always tell the difference.
I thought about throwing the ball back across the street, but when I looked over there, my dad was sliding back in and through the door in the front of the store. I turned to Toby and flipped the ball to him. He caught it up high in the tips of his fingers. He spun it around slowly, examining it.
“So, what’a you wanna do?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. You wanna ride bikes?”
“Dang. Mine’s got a flat. My brother is supposed to fix it tonight.”
“Well, we could go down to the coal yard and see if there’s any coal cars sitting there we could play around on.”
“Naw. I get my clothes too dirty and my ma has a fit.”
Toby looked over his shoulder and nodded his head toward the big, vacant building behind us. He didn’t have to say anything. I knew what he meant.
The building was off-limits. My parents had made that very clear to me and so had Toby’s to him.
He flipped the ball to me. I bounced it on the side walk a couple of times, thinking.
“We gotta be careful,” I said. “We better look like we’re going somewhere else.”
He knew what I meant. We’d done the routine before. He nodded and rose to his feet. Together, we headed up toward the ball field. From there we knew we could circle around, through the woods, and come up behind the hotel without anyone seeing us. We knew about a window that could be jimmied up and through which we could crawl. It led into the old kitchen.
Once we were in, I put my glove and ball down in a corner of the kitchen and followed Toby as he slid out into the hallway that led past the old bar room and toward the front of the hotel. Enough light leaked through the boarded up windows that we could see pretty well. We climbed the grand staircase that led to the upper floors where the windows were not shuttered and there was much more light.
“Stay clear of the windows,” Toby reminded me as we got to the second floor landing.
We wandered from room to room – some grand and large, while others were cramped and ordinary. The furniture had all been removed, but here and there a framed photograph or painting or mirror remained hanging on the wall. The old floor boards creaked beneath our weight and we’d often stop and look at each other, expecting some evaluation about the noise we’d just made. Was it too much? Could it be heard outside on the street?
It took only ten minutes or so before we were bored with the adventure. It would have been more fun it we could have made noise and run from room to room shooting imaginary guns at one another. We quietly went back down the stair case, I one step at a time while Toby slid smoothly down the big, fancy banister. He landed gracefully and silently on his feet, more like a butterfly would land than a nine year old kid.
We went into the old saloon. There were no windows to the outside, but only an open door that led out to the dining room with its expansive picture windows looking over Main Street. A little light squeezed in through the opening between boards that covered the view of the street. Toby went behind the bar and pantomimed pouring me a shot of whiskey and one for himself, too. We threw them down our gullets, like the bad guys in the cowboy movies did, and then wiped our lips on our sleeveless arms.
“Hot damn!” Toby whispered and I chuckled at him. He poured two more whiskeys and made a proposal just before he threw his shot down his throat.
“Let’s try the basement!”
I looked at Toby as if he was crazy. There were no windows down there and no light whatsoever. We’d stood at the top of the stairs a number of times and looked down there, into the dark abyss. I’d always shuddered at the thought of what might be down there in the darkened dampness.
“Nope,” I said, “no way. Too dark. You know that.”
As if he was a magician, Toby pulled a small flashlight from some pocket or hidden place.
“I found this in my brother’s room,” he said. “Look how small it is.”
I’d never seen a flashlight like it. Toby turned it on to show me how much light it gave. It wasn’t enough to satisfy me.
“That’s not enough light,” I sputtered out. “We won’t be able to see enough.”
“You a scared chicken?”
Well, there was nothing worse than being called a chicken. Toby had done this to me before about things like jumping on a moving coal car as it was leaving the yard and heading down toward Long Valley.
“Naw,” I said. “I just want to be able to see something in case we get into some kind of trouble down there.”
“What kind of trouble could there be. Maybe there’s something nifty down there. Maybe some kind of treasure.”
“So what? We can’t touch nothing!”
Toby was moving toward the hallway near the kitchen and toward the door that we knew opened at the top of the dark stairway to the basement.
With more courage and will, Toby led the way and I followed reluctantly. One slow and cautious step at a time, we began our descent into the darkness. Toby played the little stream of light out in front of us. I could feel a wobble in my legs and an urge to piss that was strong as heck. I knew that we had now gone beyond the bounds of things we weren’t supposed to do and all hell would break loose if our parents ever knew.
And, Jesus, I was terrified as we stepped off the bottom step on to the hard, cold floor. Toby played the light around. Old, broken-down shelves lined the walls. There were plenty of cob webs on them and thick layers of dust, but they were all empty and held no treasure. Some broken glass made a crushing sound beneath my feet.
“Let’s get out of here,” I pleaded.
“No, wait a minute. Just another quick look.”
Toby advanced toward what looked like a big storage area enclosed by chicken pen wire, tacked on a wooden frame. The stream of light played on a rickety door that stood open. I stayed mighty close to Toby as he moved toward the portal. I wanted to be as close to the tiny stream of light as I could. I followed Toby as he squeezed by the door and into the pen. I noticed that the door was hanging just from the bottom hinge and it was strangely askew.
I bumped hard into Toby as he stopped suddenly in front of me. He played the light out ahead of him and then suddenly turned and slid by me in a flash, running for the stairway. Before he had pulled the light away, I caught the quickest, short glimpse of what he had seen. It was a human foot, housed in an old shoe, and there was a leg above the shoe, with a pant leg shoved up a ways. It was part of a human body, laying there on the floor. The rest of its upper torso was under some kind of deep shelving that protruded from the wall.
Toby was thundering up the stairs, showing no caution about making too much noise. He left me in the dark and I called up to him.
“Hey! I can’t see. Give me some light.”
Toby played the small rivulet of light on the stairs for me. It flickered as I got to the bottom step and then it went dead and dark. I had my hands and feet on the stairway, though, and I scrambled up at a half crawl and part run. I crashed into Toby at the top of the staircase as he was turning to head for our point of egress. He was out the window in a flash and I was diving to follow him. He put out his hand and stopped me as I began crawling toward the sunshine.
“Your glove and ball, you dumb shit. Don’t forget them.”
I lowered myself back into the kitchen and found the evidence I had almost left behind. Then I dove outside the window into the clear, fresh air. Toby carefully closed the window and we headed together back into the sheltering woods and then turned east toward the ball park
The old Brick Tavern was built 50 years before the start of the Civil War by Zephaniah and Jacob Drake. They had purchased the land from Isaiah Fairclo. It must have been a very elegant establishment for the time and certainly for the little town of Chester. The stagecoach stopped there and the passengers could seek refreshment in the big hotel while the horses were changed for the trip to New York or west to Philadelphia. During the great war against the South, Daniel Budd bought the building and reopened it as a hotel and tavern. The Fleming family purchased the building in 1916 and changed the name to the Chester House. They operated it through the 40s and its dining room became quite famous in the area.
But, when I was ten years old the building was closed down and boarded up. Only old Joe Ammerman, the town cop maintained a room there. It was over on the west side, in a new section of the building. Joe had an immediate access to the street and he didn’t have to go through the old building. In return for his room, he was to be the watchman who took care of it and protected it from youthful adventurers and vandalism.
Now there was a dead body in the basement and only Toby and I knew about it. It posed too difficult a question for kids our age. We sat up there at the ball field, on the first baseline bench, and mulled over the conundrum.
“Dang, no,” Toby barked, “we can’t tell or my mom and dad will know I been in there. I’ll get tanned good. And so will you. Your old man will take a broom after you.”
He was correct, of course, but the alternatives didn’t seem very smart either. We couldn’t say nothing; and just let that body down there decompose and rot away.
“Didn’t smell bad,” I threw into the conversation. “I don’t think it’s been down there long.”
“Cool and dark down there,” Toby said. “I think it keeps better like that.”
“You know, you’d think Joe, the cop, would find it pretty soon.”
“Probably will, and then no one has to know we found it first.”
“What do you think if I told my brother, Frank. He’d cover for me. Maybe he could figure out what to do.”
“Yeh, I think so.”
“I don’t know. Pete, my brother wouldn’t cover for me. I think he’d just whack me around for being such a dumb turd.”
“Well, Frank won’t,” I said, “and I’m gonna tell him when he gets home tonight.”
“Where is he?”
“Working somewhere. He’s goin’ off to Rutgers this fall, to college.”
“Geez, really? To Rutgers?”
“And he won’t tell on us?”
“Don’t know, but I don’t think so. I’ll probably have to be awful good to him for awhile, though, and he’ll probably ask for lots of favors.”
“Be worth it if he keeps us out of it, but how’s he gonna do that?”
“I don’t know, but he’s smart and figures stuff like that out. Better I tell him than my old man.”
So, that’s what I did. I told my brother and he talked to Joe Ammerman and explained what the problem was. That night Joe went down there and took a look and they found him just like I told my brother they would. That night when they hauled him out, I sat up on the roof of the store, just outside my bedroom window and watched the guys struggling with the body.
“No foul play involved,” Joe announced to everyone. Just old Rummy Coughlin – a drunk – who’d found a place to sleep. Went down there to sleep and died on his own, by himself. Only been there a day or two. The body was put in the back of the hearse that had come up from Gladstone and off it went.”
I didn’t sleep very well that night. I kept looking out my window and across the street at the big white, abandoned building. I was afraid to close my eyes for fear of what I might see in my dreams. It was a long night, but I was pretty sure my brother would keep his mouth shut and my secret would be safe up to now.