Nocturne, Part 3 of 4

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NOCTURNE
Part Three

My dream came back to me as I lay on the floor, trying to make sense of my suddenly crazy world. I remembered every detail. Every feeling. I didn’t know the man from Adam. Didn’t know his name; hadn’t seen him before as far as I could recall. But I had known him. I had . . . loved him. And he loved me. The feeling, when he held me, had been indescribably beautiful and perfect.

And completely, totally foreign to me. No one had ever loved me, other than my parents. And their love had been nothing like what I had felt last night. Felt in a dream. The unfairness of it hit me like a freight train and I found myself doing something I hadn’t done in over a decade. I wasn’t crying, I was sobbing. Lying on the floor of my bedroom in a nightgown, bawling my heart out.

The need to stop my stupid phone’s noise finally galvanized me to get off the floor. My phone was on the desk. It hadn’t occurred to me before that the purpose of the weird mirror behind the desk was to allow it to be used as . . . what was the term? A vanity? A place where a woman would do her makeup. I had a sudden recollection of the desktop covered with tubes and pots and atomizers, none of which meant anything to me at all.

My image in the mirror stopped me cold. I should have looked ridiculous, but somehow I didn’t. For once, I didn’t look “skinny” or “scrawny” or any of those other terms people had used over the years. I looked slender. My narrow shoulders looked attractive rather than absurd; my long neck was graceful rather than geeky.

What?

My face was still very much my face, and my sandy brown hair was short and unkempt. But even so, dressed as I was, I looked more like a woman than a man. I’d never seen myself that way before; now, I wasn’t sure how I’d missed it. I noticed a bulge where one did not belong and felt a crazy desire to tuck it away, to hide it, so that the long, silky nightgown hung properly.

Okay, Philip. Get a goddamned grip! I stopped the phone alarm and turned purposefully away from the mirror. I had a dream. It was vivid. And I . . . what? Sleepwalked? Downstairs to retrieve the nightgown from the trash bag. All of which was . . . just super weird. Freaking, super, weird.

I slipped the straps of the nightie off my shoulders, and the fabric slid down my body, causing me to shiver, before it pooled at my feet. Why do I feel such regret?

I took refuge in habit. Routine. I marched into the bathroom, took my five-minute shower, brushed my teeth and got dressed. Leaving the nightie in its liquid state on the floor of the bedroom – I was afraid to touch it – I went downstairs and had my bran flakes and skim milk.

Mentally, I pulled up my fixit list and thought about what needed doing, resolving to keep myself fully occupied. I gave a call to the number Mr. Cartwright provided for his son-in-law.

“This is Dave,” the man answered after a single ring.

“Good morning, Mr. Micklewaithe,” I responded. My name is Beauchamp. Philip Beauchamp. Mr. Cartwright at Donegal’s Hardware said you did some handyman work?”

“Pays to marry right,” he responded, sounding jovial. “I sure do. You're the guy that bought the Kelly place, right?”

I sighed. Small towns. “Yes, that’s me. I’ve got some creaking stairs – really just one that’s bad, but a couple could use some help. And it looks harder than I’m comfortable trying.”

“Yeah, that job’s a lot harder’n most people think, for sure. I can come by, have a look and give you a price. That suit?”

“Yes. Absolutely. What time works for you?

“I might be able to stop by the end of the day, or maybe tomorrow morning. Either of those work for you?”

“Either would be fine,” I replied. “I can be here whenever.”

“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll shoot you a text if I can make it today, maybe a half hour in advance. You let me know then whether it works.”

We agreed on that and ended the call. I sat for a bit longer, trying to settle my nerves and figure out how to spend the rest of the day. It was pleasant out, so I decided to clear some of the deadwood and brambles from the wild area between my house and Sue’s.

I put on work gloves, thick canvass things that I hoped would provide some protection from brambles and thorns, and plunged into the task. It was hot work, and occasionally nasty. There were plenty of things growing up there that looked ratty, not to mention deadfall from some of the trees. I had to watch for poison ivy while I was at it, checking my phone to make sure I had identified it properly. I had bought some special pesticide to kill the harmless looking vines.

Sometime in the early afternoon, I heard Sue calling my name from next door. “Hey, neighbor!” she said, walking over. “A fine day’s work you’ve been putting in. I brought you a Gatorade.”

She couldn’t have picked a better time, or a better present. “Thank you, you’re a life saver,” I said. I took down the entire bottle of Gatorade in one go, and I don’t think I’d ever tasted anything so good before.

“If food’s fuel, that there must be rocket propellant,” she joked.

“That’s the truth,” I replied. A smile seemed appropriate, so I did that. “Thanks so much. I, ah . . . .” I stopped, embarrassed. “I was just about to invite you to come over for some lunch, but I realized that I only have the makings for PBJs.”

She returned my smile. I expect hers looked more natural; I could never trust my own not to look gruesome. She said, “That’s so sweet of you. But listen, I actually made up some meatloaf just this morning. Why don’t you come over to my place instead, and we can share it?”

“I don’t want to impose, really!” I was still embarrassed; I should be able to entertain people, I guess. Pick up some stuff at the store, just in case. It was a foreign concept, but I could suddenly see the utility of it.

“No imposition. Pa doesn’t eat much, and I don’t need half of what I made. Besides, it’ll be nice to have this area cleaned up like you’re doing. I didn’t want to say anything, your being new and all, but Mr. Kelly kind of let it grow wild.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” I said hesitantly. When she nodded with apparent enthusiasm, I said, “Let me just tidy up. I’ll be over in maybe twenty minutes?”

I brought the tools and the yard waste back to my garage, dropped off my gloves, and went upstairs to get cleaned up. It took a lot of scrubbing to get the dirt off of my hands, and I felt so gritty that I popped into the shower for a minute afterwards. As I toweled off, I noticed the nightgown on the door peg.

I had not moved it. I had very deliberately left it on the floor of the bedroom when I went downstairs. If I moved it after that, I had zero recollection of doing so. Either my mind was going, or it moved itself. I snorted. Or else someone snuck into the house while I was gardening to tidy up my lingerie.

My lingerie? Seriously?

But I said I would join Sue, and I do what I say I’ll do. Cursing at my crazy brain, I stormed into the bedroom and grabbed some clean things from my nearly bare closet and bureau. Shorts. Socks. Jeans. Hoodie. Sneakers. I ran a comb through my short hair as I tore down the stairs and out the front door.

Sue noticed my flustered state right away. “Philip? Is everything all right?”

“It’s fine. I mean, I’m fine. Just, well . . . .” I couldn’t think of a way to end the sentence without sounding like a dangerous lunatic. Lamely, I added. “Fine. Just fine.”

She had a peculiar expression on her face. A searching look, maybe? I couldn’t be certain. But she reached out, touched my arm lightly, and said, “Well, that’s great then. Come on in, let’s eat.”

I managed to restrain my impulse to flinch when she touched me. I’m really not good with touching; never had been. But as I followed her back to the kitchen table, I thought, I didn’t have any trouble when HE touched me, did I? But, was that me?

The meatloaf was fine. I liked the fact that it was easy to chew. Mostly I don’t have meat very often because it takes so long to get it to a state where I’m comfortable swallowing. Which isn’t very efficient, and I’ve always thought food shouldn’t be complicated.

She pressed me to take a second portion and I did, mostly to be polite. She was still working on her first slice.

“Sue,” I asked, feeling a bit reckless, “do you believe in ghosts?”

She laughed. “No. I figure all that’s for the tourists.” I must have given her a blank look; she patted my hand.

I flinched.

“You know, they organize “haunted happenings” tours all over the place. Especially this time of year.” She shook her head at my still-blank expression. “You know, Halloween? Anyway, they get old timers to take the tourists around graveyards and big ol’ houses, and tell tall tales. Down in the city, they charge ten, maybe twenty bucks a head. A good hustle, you ask me.”

“I wasn’t thinking about that sort of thing,” I said uncomfortably.

“You mean, like, for real?” Her tone was registering as incredulous. Unbelieving. Maybe even . . . scornful? Maybe? I seriously wasn’t sure.

“It’s nothing,” I assured her. “Just saw . . . um . . . a light out towards the water, late at night.” It was the first thing that came into my head, and I immediately flushed, both at the lie and at the clumsiness of it. Lights . . . that would be UFO’s, right? Not ghosts.

She didn’t seem to notice. “Prob’ly just a neighbor on the path after dark. Mostly folks stay in at night, but some people don’t have the brains of a newborn kitten.”

“I’m sure you're right,” I assured her. “Some things are really strange to me, coming from the city.”

“I’d think you would be used to lights at all hours!” She smiled in a way that seemed kind of friendly. Inviting? Something nice, anyway.

“Lights? Absolutely. It’s the dark that surprises me. I had no idea that anyplace could be as dark as this place, when there’s no moon. So when I saw lights — like back home — they spooked me.”

“Literally!” she snorted.

“Yeah,” I said, embarrassed. I started to get up. “Let me take care of clean up.”

She was about to answer when there was a loud “thump” from upstairs. She jumped up, her face suddenly white. “I’ll get that later. Don’t you worry none. Let . . . let me go look after Pa.”

I should do something, right? Say something? “Can I help?”

“No!!! No! Pa — Pa’s not good with strangers now. I’ll see you later, okay?” She started herding me to the front door, an expression on her face I had not seen before. I couldn’t place it.

Before I knew it, I was back outside, feeling more than a bit unsettled. I couldn’t say that Sue’s behavior had been strange, exactly. It didn’t seem to fit with what I had experienced of her to date, though. I decided it wasn’t unreasonable to describe that as odd.

But I’d never had to deal with an aging parent, and never would. Never had any personal experience with dementia of any kind. What little I did know suggested that it was hard – very hard – for the people who took on the job of caregivers.

I made my way back to the house, changed back into my work clothes, and went back into the garden, having no desire to sit with my thoughts. For similar reasons, I stayed out of the bathroom, not wanting to encounter the confounding nightgown.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t think about it.

Sue did not re-emerge. I kept working until around 4:30, when I got a text from Dave Micklewaithe asking if this was still a good time for him to come around. I responded affirmatively and he said he’d be by around five.

I tidied up my work area, put the tools back in the garage, and bagged up all of the yard waste. I had to figure out what to do with all the deadfall branches – since I didn’t have a chainsaw – but for now I just made a neatish pile on the far side of the house from Sue’s place. No reason she should have to look at them while I worked out disposal options.

At 5:00 on the button (which button? I’ve always wondered), a big, beat-up F-350 bounced up the driveway. It probably was red, once upon a time, but between the sun bleaching, the effects of winter road salt and a liberal amount of mud, it was hard to be sure. It seemed to me like the suspension had seen better days, but it wasn’t my truck.

The driver bounced as well. At least, he kind of bounced out of the truck, then bounced up to the garage door where I was standing. “You must be . . . .” he checked himself, then finished, “Mr. Beauchamp. I’m Dave Micklewaithe.”

I looked him in the eye and met his hand firmly. I always did that when I met someone. Always.

Good habits, Philip. My mother’s voice.

“Good to meet you, Mr. Micklewaithe,” I responded. I guess I sounded kind of formal. I wasn’t sure how to do this without sounding formal. “Thanks for coming out so late.”

“No worries, no worries at all!” He was standing still – perfectly still – but managed, somehow, to give the impression that he was still bouncing. “Been a while since I was here last. Do you like my patio?”

“You did the slate patio out back?”

He smiled, big, happy and almost dog-like. “Yup. Sure did. Hot work, hauling that rock!”

“You did a great job,” I said, meaning every word. “I spend a lot of time out there.”

His smile just got bigger. “Wonderful! Well, I won’t take much of your time, Mr. Beauchamp. Let me see what you’ve got.”

“Of course.” I brought him in through the front door, which was just steps from the base of the staircase. I walked up to the fourth stair and tread on the center of the step, eliciting the usual loud creak. “That’s the bad one.” I walked up the rest of the way, noting the other three that made some noise.

Dave bounced up the stairs, taking a closer look at the problem areas, and chuckling a bit at my efforts with nails and screws. “Ayup, that seems logical, but it don’t always work.” He stood on the step, shifting his weight back and forth and side to side. “Loose at the front riser, not the stringers,” he concluded. “Is it open underneath?”

“Uh . . . yeah. There’s a closet under the stairs. Kind of tight in there.”

“Oh, like Harry Potter, right? Let me see.” He popped down the stairs and into the closet. It didn’t have a light, and I had to confess that I hadn’t acquired a flashlight. He gave me a look. “No worries, I got my phone. But . . . you should get a real flashlight, you know? We get some monster storms boiling up from the south, knock out power four, five times a year. Safety first, know what I mean?”

He spent a bit of time in the closet before emerging and dusting himself off. “Yeah, I can do it. Couple hour job, tops. Maybe the end of next week? How’s ninety-five dollars sound? The work’s guaranteed.”

“That would be fine.” Truth is, I thought it would be more. In Manhattan, it would have been a lot more, and the estimate probably wouldn’t have been free. But I wasn’t going to say anything about that. In fact . . . . “You know, if you have a day open, there are a few other projects I could use some help with. I could pay you for the day, and we could get as much done as time permits?”

“Yeah, I can make that work. Get it done before winter, whatever it is.” He looked around with curious eyes. “Looks like you haven’t made many changes. Any chance I can have a look at that patio? I’d like to see if it settled okay.”

“Sure,” I said, and led him out through the kitchen.

He looked closely at the patio, bending down to run his hands over a few of the rocks, getting a feel for how even it all was. “I like the moss that’s grown up between the slabs. Makes it look like it’s been here forever.”

“When did you install it?”

He thought for a minute. “Must be fourteen, fifteen years back. It was after Carson was born, but before Stacy, I think.” He suddenly smiled, a funny kind of smile. Maybe . . . mischievous? “Tell you a story? Probably shouldn’t, but the old man’s gone now, so no harm, right?”

Normally I had no patience for anything that smacks of gossip. It’s . . . unproductive. But after the weird experiences I’d had in this house, I was uncharacteristically curious about its prior owner. “Of course.”

“Well,” he said, drawing the word out. “I finished the job up on a Wednesday, and Dick — that’s Mr. Kelly, you understand — he paid me straight off. Cash, like always; he knew what’s what. Anyhow, I’m off at a job Friday morning, and I realize that I left my four-foot level here. Seeing as how I was close, I figured I’d just drop by and grab it — no need to bother Dick again. So I park the truck and walk around the side. I hear them talking just as I come ‘round the corner here, and there they are sitting in these same Adirondacks — Big Bill Gallagher and Dick. But — here’s the funny part — Dick’s all dressed up like a girl!”

Somehow, I knew what he was about to say before he said it. I could picture it, too, just like I was standing where Micklewaithe had been. Gallagher, in a work shirt with an open collar; Kelly in a pale yellow sundress with a scooping neckline, covered in a floral pattern of greens, pinks and roses.

“Dick now, he just stopped talking and blushed deep, like my little girl does when I catch her out. But Bill! You’d have to have known him to really get the picture. He lowered those big ol’ bushy brows of his, and fixed me with them fiery black eyes. And he growls out, “boy, you want to go on living’ you just forget you were ever here today. You got that straight?”

I could picture that, too. And something about the image gave me a warm feeling inside. A feeling I couldn’t quite place.

“Anyhow . . . I’d done plenty of work for Bill — been in and out of his place a dozen times, fixing this and that around that big house of his. He paid well and on time, and besides, Gallaghers go way back ‘round here. I knew if he said my name was mud I could kiss off half my business. So I hides my smile an’ I apologize like crazy, and never say a word to nobody. But it was something to see, I’ll tell you that. Dick — he didn’t actually look half bad.”

“You’re not worried about Gallagher anymore?”

He shrugged. “You know how it is. He’s got dementia now, I hear. Been a couple years since I seen him, about the time Susan came back from Boston. She’d been gone so long, she wanted to pay with a credit card!” He shook his head, bemused. “I mean, I took it, right? But I charged her more, acting all like an outsider or something. Local girl like Susan? Went to high school with my older sister Becky! Shoulda known better.” He remembered who he was talking to, quirked a smile, and added, “No offense.”

“That’s alright,” I assured him, though my mind was far from his concerns. “I’ll stop by the bank next week before you come.”

“Ah, you’re alright for a New Yorker, Mr. Beauchamp!” He gave me a smile that showed lots of even teeth.

He took off, but I stayed on the patio, the fine stone patio he had built. I had a lot to think about, sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs, watching the last rays of the setting sun turn the undersides of the clouds a boiling blood red.

To be continued



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