Issue No. 13 – September 2016
Martin recognized her immediately. He’d gone to the library to check his email, see if any of the fancy Culinary Institute chefs had deigned to reply to his job applications, but he forgot all that at the sight of her. She was in the periodicals section, flipping through an old National Geographic. Someone called her name—a boy around her age—and she put the magazine down on the table, still open to the page she’d been reading. When he picked it up, Martin imagined her skin cells rubbing off onto him.
These were the things he knew about her. Her name was June. She was 23. There wasn’t much about her online, just old articles about her mother, and one 2008 story about a team of Dutchess Community College kids cleaning up the Hudson. There was a group photo, but June was identified—smiling, apple-cheeked, red hair and freckles, looking straight at the camera.
She did not know him. They had never met. But they were connected, a red line of fate drawn between them. It was her murdered mother, and the thing that lived in the house where she’d died.
When he returned from the library, the house lurked among the turning leaves like a tumor. Martin’s head throbbed. It was the house that drove him to drink. Just the house. He told himself this as he rummaged through the whiskey bottles in his kitchen for one that wasn’t bone-dry.
Martin began renting the house several years ago because he could afford it. He could afford it because one of the previous tenants, Felix Giroux, had murdered eight women and stashed their corpses under the porch. Though more than a decade had passed since the murders, the stain hadn’t faded. The rent was so low, the landlord was practically giving the house away.
It was a little bit off the main drag in Poughkeepsie, a town where the only people who stuck around were the ones who didn’t have any place to go. And Martin. He’d lived in the house for seven years without incident until July when he went away for a while. The night he came back, that was when the dreams started. Or were they dreams? Martin would wake to sounds from the walls like something inside them was coming alive.
Martin kept his box of memories in the back of the bedroom closet, where he’d thought it would be out of sight, out of mind. There wasn’t anything bad in the box, not really, and besides—nothing he brought into this house could ever compare to what Felix Giroux aka the Grave Maker had done. Martin liked women and women liked him, and over the years he’d collected a handful of tokens—an earring here, a note there, mementoes of brief affairs. But in the summer he’d gotten some news from the owner of the pearl earring, and he had flown across the Atlantic Ocean for a chance at fatherhood. She had found him unfit. When he came back, a few thousands dollars and a child poorer (although he had never had the child to lose, so really it was the idea that she had taken from him), he found that something had taken up residence in the house in his absence, something that rattled the pipes and filled the walls with wordless wails.
The sounds kept him up late and woke him early. They invaded his dreams. Sometimes it was a woman screaming in fear, sometimes an inhuman yowl, sometimes it was the Grave Maker hollering all of his hurt and anger at the world.
Martin yelled back. He turned on all the lights and searched every square inch, he checked closets and crawlspaces with flashlights that flickered and died. He knocked on the wall in the bedroom. Sometimes it knocked back.
“Knock once if you understand me.”
Bam. Bam. Bam. BamBamBamBam.
It was cold too, whatever it was. It filled the house with an inescapable chill no matter how much Martin cranked up the thermostat. He’d lost his job at the deli—after a few weeks of sleepless nights and trying to drown out the loss in booze, his boss had called him and told him not to come back—and he was spending his severance pay on heat, hot water, and his preferred form of self-medication. This couldn’t go on forever. He had applied to jobs at various restaurants in the area, but they had yet to call him back.
Now, Martin sat on his porch and laughed. If only his old man could see him. Martin’s father had never rested a day in his life, had worked until he couldn’t. He’d been working the day Martin’s mother died. She slipped on a sheet of ice one morning in their driveway and fell and cracked her skull open. Martin’s father had stood up at her funeral and looked at the mourners and his teenage son in the front row and he’d said, “She always shoveled the walk,” and then it was like all the other words had seeped out of him and he had nothing left. The two of them never talked about her or anything of importance ever again. Now his father was languishing in a nursing home in western Pennsylvania and Martin was sitting on his porch—right there on the wood because he didn’t have any patio furniture—and drinking before noon. He raised the bottle in a toast to the old man. His dad had been a moonshine man, but whiskey would do in a pinch. It was rude to drink alone, so Martin laughed and poured a finger full on the porch.
“To Dad,” he said, then looking at the amber liquid running along the wood that had once hidden dead women, poured out a second finger. “To the Grave Maker too, you sick bastard.”
All the women he took had been married. Martin had had his share of married women too, like the mother of his child who was raising his baby with her husband. Everyone had a type.
The sun felt good, and the alcohol chased away the cold, made it bearable. He could never get warm in this house. Martin shucked off his coat and lay down on the porch, the bottle cradled against his side. He pressed his cheek to the wood. In the Grave Maker’s day, the TV had run this one clip, over and over—a widower on the steps in front of his house, asking for anyone who had seen his wife—anyone who had taken her—to come forward. And in the clip, the little girl appeared at the screen door behind her daddy, and she didn’t say anything, just looked straight into the camera. That was June. Her mother’s name was May. Someone must have thought it was very clever. Martin laughed. His laugh startled a squirrel that had been perched on the porch railing. Martin watched it scamper away. He hadn’t meant to scare the thing. The squirrel had as much right to the place as he did. Hell, maybe it lived in the walls and wailed all night at him the intruder.
Huh. A screaming squirrel. He shook his head and lay back down. He’d been a young man when her mother died. Around the same age June was now.
After she left the library, he’d turned over the magazine to see what she’d been looking at. It was an old black-and-white photograph of a gorge and a rope suspended across it. A man and a horse hung in mid-air below the rope, with a river far below them. The man gripped the rope with both hands, his legs wrapped around the horse. The horse was fastened to the rope, dangling below the man as he hauled them arm-over-arm across the gorge. Martin had looked up and around, but he couldn’t see where she’d gone. He’d wanted to ask what she thought of the picture.
Martin opened his eyes. He was still lying on the porch, above where Felix the Grave Maker had buried the bodies. The squirrel was back, just inches away.
“It’s just you and me,” Martin said. He reached out one arm but the squirrel was farther away than he’d thought.
Sometimes he found himself talking to Felix. Not about anything real, just about food and drink and those Culinary Institute assholes who thought they were better than him, but fancy schooling couldn’t teach you the pleasure of a good grape or the scent and sizzle of pork browning in butter. When he woke up to the strange sounds in the middle of the night, sometimes he yelled, “Pipe the fuck down, Felix!” He never talked to the women. He was frightened of what they would have to say.
A thought tickled the back of his mind. A thought about the dead. He fumbled for the Scotch, but found it empty. A new itch grew, a need. The kitchen was full of bottles that rattled and clanked, hollow. He sometimes squirreled liquor away in cupboards, closets, drawers. Martin searched his hiding places in the living room, the study that he never used as he had never understood what one was supposed to do in a study, the dining room—all empty. He swore he’d had more.
“Got a taste for whiskey, huh?” he muttered. The house was quiet. “You don’t want to talk to me, fine, don’t talk.” Martin was plenty good at talking to women, although he’d failed with the Pearl Earring. But there was that idea again—he wasn’t the one who should speak to them. He laughed at himself. He needed a drink.
Poughkeepsie was a depressed former industrial town, and it did not want for liquor stores. Martin twisted off the top before he was even out the door, and in the bright sunlight he stood and stared down the streets towards home and took another drink. He leaned against the glass storefront next to the liquor store. A bakery called Good Bread. Though the name was unimaginative, the bread was anything but. The display cases were filled with dark loaves, dusted with flour or pocked with nuts and berries. And on a shelf above the counter, a cornucopia and a golden loaf in the shape of a teddy bear, its round stomach rising skyward. Martin’s mother, before she’d died, used to bake bread on Sundays, honey bear bread she called it, though it didn’t look like a bear. As a child, Martin would watch the honey drip from the bottle, and the whole house felt warm and sweet. He wanted to bottle that feeling. He wanted to give it to her. Martin pushed inside.
A few women looked at him, but he was an attractive man with reasonably defined arms, so he was used to that. One woman edged away. Martin rubbed his jaw; perhaps he should shave. There was a tall man behind the counter, dressed in black with a white apron, and flour dusting his arms. It was hot, and Martin felt an ache behind his eyes. He took another pull from the bottle.
“You need something?”
Martin turned toward the man. The other customers had left. The man stood with his arms crossed so Martin couldn’t miss the muscles or the good foot of height the baker had on him. Martin straightened his shoulders and stepped up to the counter. “The bear,” he said.
The baker sliced open a loaf with dark whorls inside. “This is a dry establishment.” His voice was a low rumble as he nodded to the paper bag.
Martin contemplated the bottle, still three quarters full, then tipped it up. He got in a few swallows before the baker protested.
“Hey, hey! Don’t do that.” He grabbed the bottle out of Martin’s hands and slammed it against the counter. The big man looked upset.
“I need the bear,” Martin said. No wait, that wasn’t right. “June needs the bear. I need to give it to her.” Yes, that was it. That feeling—the warm honey feel of his mother’s kitchen—he could give that to her. He could do that much.
The baker went back to slicing the bread, though his grip on the knife seemed to wobble. Or perhaps that was Martin’s gaze. “Bear’s not for sale,” the baker said. “You can buy the fruit, though. Or how about a good sourdough?” He pointed the knife at the now half-empty bottle. “Something to soak all that up.”
Martin steadied himself on the counter. “I need the bear.”
The baker slid one slice onto a plate. “You need some water, maybe a cup of coffee.” He sniffed. “A bath too.”
Martin pulled back, affronted. Who was this guy? He didn’t know him. He didn’t know what he needed. What he needed when he lay awake all night listening to the sounds of that wretched house where he could never get warm. He needed to make things right. For her. “Aren’t you supposed to be nice?” he said. “After all she’s been through…after all we’ve been through! Don’t you want to help?”
The baker set down the knife and squared his shoulders. “I am an artist. I worked very hard on that bear. Now why should I sell it to someone who comes in here stinking like a distillery, scaring off my customers, going on about some girl, and who probably doesn’t even have the money for it in the first place, and if he did he would just puke it up?”
The baker wasn’t that much bigger than him. Martin stepped around the counter and reached for the bear.
“Hey, hey, hey!” The baker knocked his arms away but Martin was fueled by desperation and he reached again for the bear and again, the baker batted his hands away. Martin stumbled into the counter and knocked the loaf of bread and the knife onto the floor. There was a distended moment where both men halted and looked at the knife flat on the ground between them. The baker’s eyes were wide and he seemed to have shrunk, his hands on the wall and the counter like they were holding him up. A bell chimed and a pimple-faced young man rushed in, apologizing for being late, then stopped.
“Is everything okay, Izaak?”
Izaak the baker looked at Martin and at the young man. “Yes, it’s all right.” There were a couple of other people gathering in the doorway. Izaak picked up the knife and put it in a drawer behind him, keeping his eyes on Martin. Then, low, he said, “You really need this bear?”
Martin nodded. The ache behind his eyes pulsed like a beating heart. “It will help me sleep at night.”
“And if I give it to you, you will go away? And stay away?”
Martin nodded again.
“You can have the bear. After you drink a cup of coffee.”
Martin shrugged. Izaak lifted the bear from the shelf. It was golden brown, with wrinkled raisin eyes that looked up at nothing. It was perfect. She would love it. For a moment, before he set it down on the counter, Izaak held it in his arms like an infant. He wrapped parchment paper around the bear’s legs and belly like swaddling cloth and tied it with twine thrice over so only the round face peeked out of the paper and then that too was wrapped and hidden away.
The pimply young man took Izaak’s place behind the counter and the baker carried the bear over to a small table in the corner. Martin followed like a fish on a hook, and sat down as the baker poured coffee into a chipped ceramic mug. He set the bear on the table and sat down on the other side. Martin took a small sip of coffee and looked out the window.
The baker was saying something. Martin scowled at the weak coffee.
“I said, how long have you been drinking?”
“Not long enough,” Martin muttered. He should just take the bear and go, but the afternoon sun and the warm bakery was making him tired.
The baker began rearranging sugar packets. “You got a problem, my friend.”
The smell of the bread was making Martin’s stomach churn. He raised his eyebrows. “Do I know you?”
“No, but I know you.”
Martin snorted. “Are we going to sing Kumbaya?”
The baker ignored him. “I have a son, and when my son was born, he was very small. He could not breathe. And so I drank. I can’t remember the day we brought him home. I can’t remember the first time he smiled or opened his eyes. My wife has forgiven me. But what they don’t tell you is that’s the easy part. Other people’s forgiveness.” He twisted a sugar packet between two fingers.
Martin gripped the bottle by the neck. Oh to have the luxury of forgetting, he thought. You cannot forget the child you will never know.
The baker was still talking. “You got someone in your life? Someone you’re going to give that bear to?”
Martin took a long gulp of coffee. He had his buddies, he could pick up a woman whenever he wanted, and he had a dead serial killer he talked to. He didn’t need this know-it-all baker. “Thanks for the chat,” he said. He pulled some bills from his wallet and dropped them on the table. He picked up the bear and the bottle and left the baker sitting there.
It hadn’t been hard to find her. She was in the phonebook. He hadn’t gone before because he wasn’t sure what to say. Maybe she would cry. Maybe she would yell. Maybe she would invite him in. Maybe she would tell him about her mother, her father, her life. Maybe she would open the door and he would show her that National Geographic photo of the man holding on to the rope over the chasm, and the horse hanging below him. The horse dangled from the rope bridge by a cable, but the man still gripped the beast with his thighs and hauled both of their weight arm over arm across the river. Maybe she would say nothing, and he would tell her what he saw in the photograph.
“The man in the photo is me,” he would say. “Maybe he’s you too. The Grave Maker is the horse dragging us down.”
“Are you sure it isn’t the other way around?” she would reply, with her piercing eyes. “Are you sure you aren’t the horse, clinging to the man?”
But now he had the bear—something to give her, an offering to lay at her altar. He would show her the bear and she would feel its love and whatever had taken up residence in his walls would be eased.
The Scotch sent heat through him, but it was the bear cradled close to him that carried a mother’s warmth. He could smell the rich fragrance of the bread with every breath and it hollowed him out and made him hunger. He opened the paper at the top and ripped off a piece, small, she wouldn’t notice, and closed his eyes as he chewed, the crust suffused with something sweet, the bread inside feeling moist and expansive. He washed it down with another drink.
The sun was roosting on the edge of her roof when he arrived. She lived in a townhouse, cream-colored with pale blue trim around the windows and a small patch of grass out front. There was a car parked in front of the house—she was home. Martin’s breath began to quicken. He took another swig to calm his nerves.
Leaves crunched under his feet as he weaved his way up the sidewalk. He stepped on a crack. Broke his mother’s back.
“Oops,” Martin said to the bear. To be fair, he stepped on a line to break his father’s spine. A sound from inside the house made him look up guiltily. “Sorry,” he said. Martin rang the doorbell. He clutched the bear closer to his chest. The door opened.
“Hello?” She was short and a bit round, in a blue polo shirt that had some corporate logo on it. She blinked at him from behind thick plastic frames, her red hair in a messy ponytail over one shoulder.
His mouth was dry. He lifted the bottle, then thought better of it. “Hello,” he said, “my name is Martin.”
“Are you here to fix the washer?”
She put one hand on her hip. “You’re not selling something, are you?”
“I’m not selling anything. I’m—here.” He pushed the bread bear wrapped in parchment paper towards her. She didn’t take it.
“What is that?”
“It’s for you. Please, take it.”
She opened the screen door just enough to reach through and grab the bear. She peeled the paper away but her lip curled slightly when she saw the bear’s face.
“Oh, um, sorry about the ear, I was—”
“What the hell is this?”
This wasn’t going as he’d planned. “Listen, I, I wanted to say sorry. Sorry. You see, I live in the Grave Maker’s house, and—”
“You what?” Her face was pale, and she looked not angry so much as lost. Could she not know?
“In Felix Giroux’s house.”
“I know who he is,” she said. She pushed the bear back at him and for a strange moment they engaged in reverse tug-of-war until she let go and his arms came up automatically to catch the bear.
Martin tried again. “What he did to you…”
“What in the name of—you’re not one of those fans are you?” Her eyes had gone wide and round, and he thought he could count the flecks of her irises.
“No, I just wanted to give you something, and—”
She slammed the door. He heard the deadbolt hit home, and then nothing. No footsteps. She was just there on the other side. He touched the tips of his fingers to the wood, then he slid down with his back against the wall. He looked at the one-eared bear. He ripped the other ear off and ate that one too. He put the bear down on the welcome mat and patted its belly, there there. He raised the bottle to his lips and drank, and drank, then sputtered and hurled it at the sidewalk. The bottle didn’t even smash, just rolled a little and dribbled drink on the cement.
“Damn you,” Martin said, and he didn’t know if he was talking to the whiskey or to himself. He looked at his hands. Damn you sorry son of a bitch. She still hadn’t moved on the other side of the door. He wondered if she were sitting like he was, like his mirror image. Look at the two of us, he thought. A motherless girl and a drunk.
The house was waiting for him. It loomed through the sparse trees, yellow-brown leaves seeming to wither around it. He tromped up the steps and let the door bang shut behind him. Let it know he was here.
Besides the strange sounds and the unshakeable chill, the house greeted him with dusty curtains and cheap furniture, ugly upholstery he ought to rip to shreds—that would be an improvement. A few pictures on the wall: framed paintings of trees, mountains, rivers. A piece of abstract art that supposedly captured the relentless chaos of living. He went straight for the kitchen where he threw up in the sink. He turned on the tap and drank water from his cupped hands before spitting in the sink and watching the water clear the mess away. “You’re fucked up,” he said aloud. The kid was better off without him. He tried to picture it: himself, a father. All he could see was that baker who couldn’t remember his son’s first smile. He could go back to the bakery. It was getting late, so the doors to Good Bread would be locked. The chairs would be up on the tables, but a single light would be burning in the back when Martin hammered on the door. The baker would let him in. He would be grudging at first, but then he would unfold his arms and step back. In the kitchen, the sourdough smell would wrap around them like an embrace.
Izaak would empty a sack of flour on the table, the powder rising up like mist around his face. In the steam and the fire, Izaak would bend his whole body into the rolling pin, and Martin would tell him about June, and the Grave Maker, the Pearl Earring and the child he would never know. “Other people’s forgiveness,” Martin would say. “I can’t even ask for that.”
Izaak would say nothing. He would push the rolling pin into Martin’s hands and set a fresh mound of dough before him. Martin would shove the rolling pin into the dough. Sweat would drip from his brow in the heat of the kitchen. The room would grow rich with the sounds of the ovens humming and hissing, and with the pounding of his head and his heart.
His head did ache, but Martin’s own kitchen was chilly and slightly rank. There were empty bottles on the counter, the table, one or two on the floor—he chucked them one by one into the bin. Then he heard it.
Bam. Bam. Upstairs. The bottle he was holding slipped from limp fingers.
“God damn,” he said. This goddamn house. The pulsing in his head matched the pounding from the walls as he walked up the stairs to the bedroom.
It was cold; he slammed the window shut. He didn’t think he’d left it open. Then he smelled it: the stench of rotting meat, coming from the closet. He dug through the piles of clothes and shoes, and there it was, his box of memories. His trophies. He upended it on the floor in the middle of the room. The leather-bound diary, the flower pin she’d worn in her hair, the pearl earring, the feather, all detritus of past lovers, and the gold ring that fell on its side and rolled away under the bed.
He swore and stretched one arm under the bed to retrieve it. His hand grasped only dust and for a moment he thought the mattress above him sagged under an invisible weight. The house creaked and groaned around him. Something was crying out from inside the walls. Something was dying. He abandoned the ring to the darkness and slammed his fist against the wall. He kept tearing at cracks in the plaster until his skin split and then he kept going. It sounded like a woman wailing, and he felt the specter of the Grave Maker breathing down his neck and lifting his arm as he kept hitting and tearing until a chunk came apart in his hands and he stumbled back from the force of it.
In the moment of silence, of release, Martin shivered. He dropped the broken plaster on the floor and approached the hole in the wall.
Pipes. Insulation. He stretched a hand through. There had to be something there. Someone. Someone had been making him crazy all these cold nights. He sobbed. He began to rip at the edges of the hole, tearing it wider, but what he saw inside didn’t change. A moan echoed through one of the pipes. But it had to be a trick, it had to be, and he tore at the hole in the wall with bloody fingers. He wanted to destroy the house. He wanted to crawl inside and see if anyone would hear him.
Julia Mascioli is the winner of the Readers’ Choice Award from District Lit. Her fiction has appeared in District Lit and Orange Quarterly, and is forthcoming from the Bellingham Review. She has an MFA in Fiction from Emerson College, and is a proud member of the Pug Squad.