Nocturne, Part 1 of 4



Part One

The house was perfect. Perfect for me, anyway; I don’t need a lot of space. The single bedroom and full bath were upstairs; The downstairs held only a small kitchen, a half bath and an all-purpose room. The old guy who had owned it before — Richard Kelly, according to the tax records — had allowed trees and shrubs to grow between the house and its nearest neighbor, so it had the privacy I craved.

What really sold the house was the view. The back of the house faced the Atlantic, and a narrow path wound through massive slabs of lichen-encumbered granite to a narrow and rocky beach, some fifty yards below the ridge where the house was located.

The day I went to see the house was perfect, too. Brilliant white clouds scattered across a cobalt blue sky; crispness in the air that would not last long into the summer morning. From the ridge, I could see whitecaps stretching far out into the Gulf of Maine.

“You won’t find many places like this,” the guy from Century 21 said. Bill Davis. That was his name. For some reason I had trouble remembering it. Or him, really. Might have something to do with his penchant for stating the obvious, the completely obvious, and nothing but the obvious.

Blah, blah, blah. It was just a conversation about value, about offer and acceptance. I understood those. How they worked; the rhythm of them. The dynamics. “It’s a tear-down,” I countered without having to give it any thought. I had no intention of taking a wrecking ball to the house, of course, but any other buyer almost certainly would. In an age of McMansions, a modest structure would not long survive on such a perfect piece of property.

“Location, location,” chided Bill. “You can’t beat it — or even match it.”

I was eager to be rid of Boring Bill. “Look. You said the family wants a quick sale, no fuss no muss. Fine. Four seventy-five, cash, no Hubbard, no inspection, if we close by the end of the month. They can take whatever’s inside, or leave it. I don’t care which.”

“That’s way below what they’re asking,” he warned, precisely as if I was unaware of that fact despite having looked at the listing online.

“That’s my offer. Tell them it’s a last best, too.”

“I don’t know how well that’ll go down, Phil.”

I was annoyed at his use of my first name. I hadn’t asked him to call me that, and it irked me that he just presumed. Everyone just assumes you’re good with it, and I’m not. I’m afraid my response was a bit sharper than usual. “Then why don’t you find out for me?”

* * * * *
Ten years, I’d lived in New York. Ten years. And I was able to take all my worldly possessions with me in a rented SUV. My rented furniture went back to the company.

There were no tearful goodbyes. No stops at a favorite watering hole, buying one last round for my buds. I didn’t have any of that — watering holes, friends, whatever. I was a workaholic, completely useless in any environment that required skills that were social rather than technical. I’d done well, financially, but when I was offered the big step up on the ladder, I decided it was time to walk away instead.

My life sucked, and I couldn’t even say why. I just needed to figure myself out, and a tiny, secluded house on the rocky New England coast seemed like as good a place as any, and better than most.

After three days, it was almost habitable. The family that I’d bought it from lived down in Georgia; near as I could tell, they had no use for old man Kelly and even less for his stuff. No one came up to sort through it. So I’d taken a lot of trips to the local dump, clearing out his oddities. He’d died at home, in his own bed, so I did feel compelled to get a new mattress. The rest of his furniture was fine, though. Worn and dated, but I didn’t care about that.

I thought the old man must have been a lot like me. He hadn’t had a lot of things. Not even a lot of clothes; the closet and bureau were almost empty, and what was there wasn’t even worth giving to the Goodwill. The kitchen was spartan, and I didn’t need much more than what he had. It was fine.

But he’d passed away half a year ago or so, and everything needed a thorough cleaning. It felt good, really. Simple tasks that I could perform, that gave immediate results. And I was making a running list of the things I would need to take care of. Electric outlets that didn’t work; a bit of a leak in the toilet; a few warped boards on the stairs that creaked excessively. That sort of thing.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when the doorbell jangled. I hadn’t expected any visitors and honestly didn’t want any. Probably some salesman. I made my way to the front door from the kitchen, drying my hands.

The door was solid, with no peephole, so I had to open it to find out who rang the bell. Something to add to my “fixit list,” I thought. With a sigh, I school my features not to scowl — no use getting off on the wrong foot — and swung the door inward.

A middle-aged woman with a plump figure and a pleasant smile stood on the stoop holding some sort of baking dish. “Good afternoon!” she said. “I’m Sue Gallagher, from next door. Welcome to the neighborhood!”

“Uh, thank you.” I was about to extend a hand in greeting, but realized she didn’t have a free one. My mind momentarily froze. What am I supposed to say to strangers who show up unexpectedly, being friendly? “I’m, uh, Philip Beauchamp.” Something more, right? “Won’t you come in?”

The pleasant smile never left her face; if anything, it got deeper. “Maybe just for a minute. Pa’s sleeping, but I don’t like to leave him alone very long. Alzheimer’s, you know.”

I stepped aside to let her in, thinking of what she had said. “No, I didn’t know. I’m . . . sorry?” I should be sorry about something like that, right?

“That’s all right,” she said. “We get on. Here, I baked you a pie — my apple’s the best in the whole county. People say it’s to die for!”

I took the pie from her, uncertain whether I was supposed to offer her some. The whole “neighbors dropping by” thing was not part of my experience, and I was feeling tense. “Well, thank you again,” I said, figuring that was always safe. “I’m afraid I haven’t really gotten settled yet, or I’d, ah, offer you something.”

“Don’t you fuss about that. I’m just glad to have someone living here again— and it’s a big plus that it’s someone closer to my age.”

She looked like she was in her mid forties, give or take. “I’m thirty-two,” I said, maybe a bit abruptly.

The smile never wavered. “That’s great,” she said cheerfully. “Though you might find it’s a bit dull in this neck of the woods! Now listen. You need anything — cup of sugar, whatever — I’m just next door, and I’m home most of the time.” She looked around. “Nice cleaning job you’re doing!”

Something about the way she said it made me ask, “You’ve been over before?”

“Me? No. Old man Kelly, he kept to himself.”

“Okay. Well . . . thanks again,” I said, unsure where to go with the conversation. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Right. Philip, then? See you around.”

Philip! But . . . neighbors, right? Neighbors call each other by their first names. Be stupid for her to call me “Mr. Beauchamp,” wouldn’t it? I saw her to the door and breathed a sigh of relief when I’d closed it behind her.

I brought the pie into the kitchen, set it on the counter top and stared at it. Do you keep pies in the refrigerator? On the counter? Do you cover them? There were easily six slices in the pie. I could push it to eight. What would I do with all that pie?

I googled it. Pie dome? Yeah, no. Didn’t have anything like that. Who am I, Martha Stewart? Fridge, then. Fine. Plenty of room there.

I’d gotten some supplies at the Wal-Mart in Portland when I passed through and it was just about dinner time. A can of Manhattan Clam Chowder and some saltines. Afterward, I hemmed and hawed, but figured I ought to have a slice of pie, too. It was just sitting there.

By 9:00 pm I was tired enough from the day that I decided I could go to bed a bit early. I went upstairs and brushed my teeth, making sure that my electric toothbrush ran the full four minutes, and I hit each quadrant front and back. “Keep good habits,” Mom used to say to me, when I was small. “You keep them, they’ll keep you.” That’s me, a kept man.

When I turned to go back to the bedroom, I noticed something hanging from a hook on the back of the bathroom door. I examined it closely, but there was no doubt at all what it was, and a very expensive specimen of the type: a woman’s nightgown. Ivory, plain except for lace at the bust and the hem, long, narrow shoulder straps like that pasta dish I liked at Olive Garden. Linguine, I thought. How had I missed it before?

I ran my finger down the fabric. It was smooth, silky smooth, cool to the touch. I couldn’t imagine what it was doing here. The old guy had lived alone, and everything about the place had screamed “bachelor.” My apartment in New York had the same feel to it. Sue Gallagher said he kept to himself.

Well . . . Nothing I needed to figure out. I would just have to toss it, along with his clothes, when I made the next dump run. To ensure that I didn’t forget about it — or forget again, since this wasn’t the first time I’d used the bathroom — I took it off the hook, folded it over, and set it on top of the narrow desk with the weird mirror that faced the big picture window in the bedroom. I was surprised at how heavy the fabric was, especially since it had looked so insubstantial.

The moon was low on the horizon, but bright enough to cast shadows in the room when I shut off the lights. In the quiet, I could hear the Atlantic thrusting against the boulders, down on the strand below the house. It was a soothing sound, and I floated down into a deep sleep.

My eyes fluttered open sometime later; I could tell because the moon was now higher in the sky, seemingly smaller and much, much brighter. Its silver light illuminated the room, allowing me to see everything clear and sharp.

I was not alone in the room!

A woman was sitting at the desk, her back to me, rhythmically brushing her long, black hair. I could only see the back of her head and her shoulders, pale and white in the moonlight, a very recognizable set of linguine-shaped straps bisecting each shoulder blade.

“What are you doing here!” I intended it as a bark, but it came out more like a frightened squeak.

She ignored me. The rise and fall of her hand as she guided the brush through her thick mane was hypnotic. I stared at it for twenty strokes, then thirty, my heart pounding, trying to work up the courage to confront her again. To say something— anything— to break the spell.

My eyelids felt heavy and I fought to keep my eyes open. Despite my best efforts, I blinked, and blinked again. It was harder to get them open the second time, and harder still the third. But with a supreme effort of will, I managed it.

The morning sunlight was streaming into the room, and I was alone. I had always been alone. I lay still for a moment, shaking off the strange dream. Then I checked my phone and found it was already 7:45.

Time to be up and doing. I got dressed, grabbed the inexplicable nightgown from the back of the chair by the desk, went downstairs and put it with the rest of the old man’s clothes.

To be continued

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