The old man had told Frankie he remembered the first time he saw her: she was so young. His first reaction was to feel guilt and a sadness he could not explain. She walked along the dirt road between Chester and Washingtonville. It was a hot, dry summer day in 1913, the kind of day a guy can taste the salt of his sweat on his skin and all he can breathe is dust from the road. A blue sky hovered overhead with hardly a cloud, just a relentless sun.
The grandfather, Artie, sat on the front porch of the house of a friend and watched her, without blinking, as she got closer. He continued to stare as she walked away. He watched the dust kick up from her shoes. “She is so young and beautiful” was all he could think. For the first time in his 29 years, he felt himself an old man, and was ashamed. How could he lust after someone so young, so much younger than he was? He knew he had nothing to offer her, his was a drunken life of misery. How could he want to spoil one so young and beautiful and not yet ruined by this world?
She was never far from his thoughts. He went about his life. He went to war. In the fall of 1919, on a crisp, late September day, he was at the farm of a friend, up the road from his house in Craigville. A crew of local laborers was harvesting the last of the early Macintosh apples. A girl drove by him in a new Model-T Ford. He laughed at the way the truck jerked, the vehicle almost gasping as she tried to work the clutch.
He thought to himself that the money made from the harvest would surely have to go into fixing the truck when that girl got done with it. She backed the truck around in a long, sweeping arc, being careful not to have to shift again, then came to a stop, ground some gears before finally finding reverse and backing up to where the baskets of harvest apples were crated and waiting.
The door opened. It was as if someone had punched him in the chest. It was her, the girl from the road.
How long had it been? Four, five, or six years? She was the young girl with the dusty shoes who had haunted his thoughts and his dreams. She was no longer a child, now a woman, a beautiful woman, with her dark, long hair pulled back.
He watched the muscles of her thin arms as she lifted the baskets of apples onto the flatbed. He watched every movement of her body, watched her breasts as she took in deep breaths, and watched the sweat form on her brow.
Their eyes met, finally, and he could not speak. He felt himself drown in the deepest, darkest, most perfect and soulful Irish eyes he had ever seen. They were black and haunting and warm and kind and, for a reason he could not explain, they scared him to death.
Too shy to speak, he rushed to her side and helped her load the last of the baskets onto the truck. She smiled at him and climbed back into the cab. She started the truck and drove it jerkily away.
He slept fitfully that night, awakening what seemed like every five or ten minutes. He knew that day he had met his future.
He had just seen the most unintentionally, uncannily beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on.
She was so young, and he so old; she was so perfect, and he a busted-up mess. At that moment, he knew he loved her, yet he had no idea in the world how to proceed.
His house was not really much of a house at all. It was more of a shack built in a field off Hulsetown Road, just before it gets really hilly, down in the swampy flat where the creek runs through. He never understood why he stayed there. He worked in the village at the Borden Creamery as a carpenter, a good carpenter and a good hand on most days. He called his place his “home in the middle of nowhere.”
Between the tiny villages of Chester and Washingtonville, it was a lot like nowhere, only more desolate, so quiet even he had to admit it suddenly seemed lonely. Why had he never noticed how goddamned lonely it was out there?
Why had he never noticed the dirt floor or the broken side boards or how cold it got in there at night? On a cold fall night, he could lie on his bed and look out between the cracks in the sideboards. He would lay there and close one eye and try to name the stars that he saw peeking through. He would fall asleep listening to the crackling fire dying in the woodstove in the corner. Trying to name stars and thinking of nothing but her, he would close his eyes, but all he could see was that beautiful thin girl with the muscular arms and the black eyes and the long dark hair.
He loved the fall, but soon it would be cold and winter and would stay cold for too long. He missed the sounds of the summer, the heat of the summer, the way that daylight in June seems to fade, at the end of the day, but never really goes away.
He missed the way the days were before he first saw her, some five or six years ago, when his thoughts were his own. At times, he would pray in the darkness for God to pull these thoughts of her from his mind. He would pray to be free of her. When that didn’t work, he’d try to bargain with the Devil, offering one day to sell Him his soul. The Devil was apparently not interested, and when all that failed, he would simply weep. Suddenly he hated the dark and became almost afraid of it. He hated his dirt-floored, tar-papered shack with its cracked walls and leaky roof.
Mostly, at night, he hated how it felt in there.
There was a time when this desolate shack was a good place for a man to be alone, a good place to get drunk and be drunk and not have to worry about anyone bothering him in the middle of a good drunk. That time and those days had somehow and suddenly vanished. Now the loneliness screamed at him and tortured him and begged for the girl, the girl with the black, black hair and the Irish eyes.
The September days rolled on into October. The summer that he loved so dearly had ended. The autumn cold had come upon Orange County and upon him, and he took that impersonal assault as an insult, a personal attack. He thought of summer’s end as an old and dear friend who boarded a train and left him behind.
He spent his days at the creamery building things and fixing things. He spent his nights in the bar. He didn’t have many friends. His best, and at times his only, friend was Ben. Since that day in September at the farm, Ben had driven him home from the bar on more and more occasions, taking off his muddy boots, stinking of cow shit and rotten milk, and pushing his drunken ass back onto the bed, shutting the door behind him and somehow navigating himself home.
Ben, as good a drinking buddy as he was a friend, never asked why. Neither one of them ever needed a very long list of reasons to get drunk. Almost any reason would do. Ben also had a car, not all that common in 1919, and Artie was in need of a friend with a car. They got along like brothers, when drunk on Saturday night or when sober in church on Sunday morning. Their friendship was perfect.
He would awaken alone, dirty, sweating, still in his clothes, stinking from the day and the night and the whiskey and the beer. He felt alone and afraid in a way he never knew before. Solitude used to be a friend, a place to go, a quiet place away from Ben and the bar and the boss at the creamery. Solitude was a place to be, just be, to sit and breathe and be. A place to watch the sun rise or set, to watch the wind blow across the long blades of grass of the fields around his shack, moving like the invisible hand of God wiped across them, creating swirling patterns he only pretended to comprehend; a place to go down by the swamp, in back of the shack, and look for will-o’-the-wisp and recall the ancient Gaelic tales he learned from his grandmother so long ago.
That was all gone now. Solitude was no longer his friend, his confidant, his companion. Solitude had become his enemy. He could not hide anymore under its cover. Though he was alone, in every waking moment, every sleeping moment, every drunken moment, she was there.
One day, one perfect October day, a day colored with deep blue skies and golden and red leaves, and the glowing orange of pumpkins, such a beautiful day, Artie realized how completely alone he was. He was walking along the road, listening to the dried and dead leaves crunching under his every step. It saddened him that the colors of the ones that remained on the trees had faded into ugly, dry, brown. That was how he felt inside: ugly, dry, brown. Out of nowhere, he felt a pain in his gut, like someone had driven a pole through his belly. It wasn’t a physical pain, it was emptiness, a hollowness that he had never before experienced and he never wanted to feel again.
He sat down along the road, sweating in the cool autumn breeze. He heard a car coming down the road. Ben pulled the car to a stop, kicking up the dead leaves and dust, choking his friend for a second on the dust as he stopped. Artie was relieved. The taste of the dead leaves and dust made him realize he was not dead.
Ben suggested they go to town and get drunk. It was, after all, Saturday, and they needed no better reason. Artie shook his head as he climbed in the car. Today was not the day for that. He asked Ben to drive him to the home of the pretty Irish girl. That is where the story ended and began.
Artie had great dreams, dreams to fly, dreams to write his poetry. He settled for a life of none of that. He settled for a life of building things of wood and getting drunk with Ben. He married the girl of his dreams, and they raised a family in poverty during the 1920s and 1930s and the lead-up to the Second World War. He watched his life fade from great dreams to the mundane, then the sad.
He watched his sons go off to war and endured the death of one. The old woman had hoped that Frankie could write the dead son’s poems, fly for Artie. The old woman had such high hopes and expectations for the bright young man who had held such promise as a child.
After the letter arrived and he was told his son was dead in the war, something in Artie changed. It was a sea change. You could see it in his face and in how he spoke and in how he walked and in his eyes. He looked around at his poverty. He looked around at what little he had and realized one more thing has been taken from him. But this was a big thing. This was his son, his oldest son.
Artie had himself served in the Great War; he found no romance in it. He hated every minute of it. He was scared, petrified constantly, vomited often. Trench warfare was something he never spoke of. He considered it a miracle that he survived. His patriotism was always questionable. He never touted it, often questioning those who didn’t question it, those who blindly followed the flag. He was not proud when his sons were drafted. His oldest, the one now dead, had volunteered. He was scared. Now his fear turned to anger.
Artie recalled that he had come home from his war more disillusioned than when he left. He studied the early Communist Party movement, joining it, fighting to be a part of what he believed was the only freedom from tyranny he could find. Then beatings by the cops, almost daily, until he’d submit. He never submitted. Drinking heavily. Accepting his life as it was. He lost his game, lost his drive. The only thing he took away from his war was rage and sorrow. Now another man’s war had destroyed what little he had.
He’d long known his wife was a witch. Not a bad witch, but not a good witch either. He had long resisted the knowledge he carried in his heart that his marriage was not a love story, nor a coincidence. It had a purpose. When he first saw her along that dusty, dry dirt road, he knew she was the one. Not for some great romantic love; rather they were two of a kind. For some reason the grave letter in his hand, an insultingly curt letter, changed his views on everyone and everything. He saw no victory in war, felt no honor or pride. The only thing he could see was his dead son and innocent children sleeping in the rubble of some bombed-out village, across an ocean, 5000 miles away.
He read stories of the attack that killed his son, read the word “hero” over and over again. He never wanted to be a hero or have a hero for a son. He thought back to his early days, his days as a union recruiter and enforcer, beating guys senseless, feeling it was all justified, doing whatever was required for the cause. He saw now the danger in this mentality, fighting for another man’s cause, a rich man’s cause. He felt now he was a pawn, as were his sons and every other man’s sons who went off to war.
He had settled, and all he wanted to do was hide, but then he met the beautiful young witch. She inspired him. Things began to matter again. He wanted to be part of this life again. He found love. He found family. All of these things defined him, made him whole, and made him strong.
Artie never recovered from the moment he read that letter from the government. Any and all of the good and positive movement he’d made in his life since he met the young witch was gone. Artie went dark. His heart turned cold. His soul turned black.
Frankie’s grandfather remembered that the old woman always told Frankie that Frankie was her favorite because he reminded her so much of his grandfather. It was almost spooky: he looked like him, acted, thought, and even spoke like him.
Artie secretly embraced the black arts, even kept this from his wife or tried to. She knew. She saw them growing apart. Rapidly, like two poles of a magnet, just an invisible force pushing them away from each other. The force grew stronger. Artie was dying on the inside. His anger and evil grew. He began to frighten people. Neighbors stopped speaking to them.
As the other children left and the house grew more and more empty, rumors around the small town began to speak of the haunted house on Route 94. People said they could sense an evil presence all up and down the road. The children never came back, the only visitor was the mailman, and he did not linger. The postman told the police one day that some days it just felt too dangerous even to leave the mail.
All Artie wanted was to get his son back. He turned cold and silent, even to the remaining children, even his wife. He died soon after. The first time I encountered his spirit was the moment I actually came to believe that spirits of the departed can and do walk among us.
The old woman thought at first she could control his spirit. She would sit outside on the big front porch where the two of them used to watch summer evenings fade away. She’d sit on the ancient steel outdoor furniture, uncomfortable as hell, the rusty springs and metal bands and round metal tubes painted way too many times. She’d rock back and forth and sing him songs in her old-church-lady voice.
You could hear moaning and howls from deep inside the old dilapidated house, on the verge of collapse. It had been built before the Revolutionary War. The moaning and the howls were real; they’d raise goosebumps on your skin.
Artie’s spirit approached the old woman one night, and her blood ran cold. No one was going to scare the old witch. Not that day, not any day, and not in her own house. She said something no one could understand, spoke some words across that void between the living and the dead, and he went silent. Artie’s spirit never reentered the old house. He spent his days in an old, crumbling tool shed that sat between the ancient house and the asparagus patch.
The power of the old woman was measurable. We all felt it and we could all sense it. While I was never a member of Frankie’s clan, the times when I met the old woman were enough to scare me to death. Frankie always spoke of her like his sweet old grandma, but to almost anyone else she was Hell on Earth. I was always intrigued when I’d hear these stories. How fragile this life was, not that thin line that separated life from death, but the thinner line that separated a once-placid, sane, functional life from insanity.
It seemed that thinner line could be crossed and even erased with a simple, or not so simple, series of events. Some events passed as unnoticeably as a whisper, some as violent, malicious, and soul-raping as war. One day, Artie was a simple carpenter: raising a family, being a citizen, paying taxes, worrying about money, raising kids, buying bread and pencils and shoes. The next day, he was gone. Still physically here, but just gone.
Artie died many years before his spirit crossed that invisible line, where life just turns out the light and darkness rushes in like the ocean through a broken sea wall. That darkness would color the world and all of the players who dared go near that old house and garage and Artie’s tool shed. The old shed that held Artie’s spirit was eventually destroyed by a fire that raged so fiercely that some said it was as if Hell had broken through the crust of the Earth, right there on Route 94, in quiet little Orange County, NY.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish