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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Elena Callahan's Very Big Day

This is a long post. Very long. Longer than a blog post should be. It's also part one of four.

Here's the plan: Attempting a Halloween story, because I love reading creepy things during October. Thought I'd try to write a creepy thing as well:

Part 1: Maxwell House

Elena lived in Inwood in a five-floor walkup overlooking Inwood Hill Park, and had been in the same apartment for fifty years. Because of bad knees and worse hips, she never went out anymore, and because she missed strolling through the park, she seldom took a sad glance out her lone window.

She spent her days reading, squinting through a magnifying glass like a private eye searching for clues in the blurry black squiggled lines of the pages of yellowed books--one of the benefits of a failing memory, she told her grandson Cobble, was that she could reread the same book over and over and have it be new to her each time. Cobble laughed at this. Cobble was a good grandson.

When he lived in Inwood just a few blocks away, Cobble had collected her groceries each week. Elena would call in her order to the C-Town (formerly a privately-owned grocery store owned for decades by the Haddrick family, recently sold to the C-Town chain), and a stock boy gathered her order in small plastic bags, and Cobble would bring them to her. She unpacked the items and placed them on the shelves and into the refrigerator and freezer herself--she was at least capable of maintaining her own kitchen, despite the sharpness of the pains in her joints as she stretched and stooped and extended.

Cobble moved some years ago. Downtown. Maybe the Village, she didn’t know. He called often, visited regularly. Before he moved, he’d arranged for one of the neighborhood kids to retrieve her groceries or drop off or pick up her laundry, and to check in with her every few days for any other errands she might need done. The neighborhood boy turned into a series of boys, each handing the job over to the next, from generation to generation. Inadvertently, assisting Elena Callahan became as much a part of a neighborhood boys' rite of passage as smoking a first cigarette in the caves of Inwood Hill Park.

One day in late March, Elena creaked her way into the kitchen. It was an interior room--no windows to let in the soft spring morning sunlight--so she turned on the overhead light. Harsh florescent made none the less harsh even though her eyes were growing worse by the day. Cobble had promised to take her to her eye doctor soon. In his car, thank goodness, not on his spindly bike. She feared for his life riding that thing around town the way he did, even if it was “environmentally responsible,” as he kept telling her.

She moved to one of her shelves and took down a can of Maxwell House, scooped a healthy helping of the ground black coffee into the coffee maker’s basket, filled the glass carafe with water from the faucet (the water was a deep, almost urine-colored yellow, but Elena didn’t see this), poured the water into the reservoir (her hands shaking, and Elena did see this), flicked the tiny black button.

The kitchen was neat. Some dust about, a few scattered crumbs of meals past, but to Elena’s eyes the kitchen was immaculate. The off-white tiled floor, stained in places with spilled tea, scuffed in places with the shoes of a succession of neighborhood helpers, appeared just as clean to Elena now as when it was installed two decades ago. If some of the tiles were coming up, Elena didn’t notice.

As her coffee brewed, Elena crossed the kitchen to where a canister of sugar sat next to the oven. She reached out with one of her bony, knotty hands, pulled the canister towards her across the counter, and plucked up the lid.


She squinted into the mouth of the canister, then lifted it up to the light.

No, it wasn’t her eyes. The canister was definitely--

She looked up, struck by a thought. Returned the canister, then returned the lid, turned around slowly, and walked back across the kitchen to the harvest-yellow phone screwed into the wall next to the kitchen door. With some difficulty, she poked at a series of numbers, placed the receiver to her ear. Waited.

The sound of connection. And soon, a voice, muddled. Her hearing wasn’t what it used to be, either, but she didn’t realize it had gotten that bad.

“Cobble?” she said, too loudly. Elena’s voice had once been reassuring and kind, but age had robbed her even of that. Now, even when she tried to make it otherwise, her voice sounded like that of an evil crone, brittle and jagged. She heard her voice, and thought of a craggy mountain range. “Cobble? That you?”

She thought she heard breathing. She wasn’t sure. “Speak up!”



“Grandma, you’re...” and then his voice went out again, or else her hearing went out. Who the hell knew anymore.

“Listen, Cobble, the Carter kid hasn’t been by this week. I’m out of sugar.”

“What? Sugar?” Cobble sounded surprised. So was she, frankly. The Carter kid was as reliable as a Swiss clock.

“The Carter kid. He hasn’t been here. I called in my groceries two days ago. The things are probably sitting there rotting.”

“Rotting? Grandmother--I.” Silence. Breathing. She knew she heard breathing.

“Cobble, what is the matter with you? Are you failing to complete sentences, or am I going intermittently deaf?”

“I’ve got to come get you, Grandma. Christ. The Carter kid.” Cobble laughed, and his laugh sounded as jagged as Elena’s voice.

“No need to be angry with him, Cobble. He’s a good kid. Maybe he’s just sick.”

“You’re probably right. Christ--I’ve got to come get you.”

“And you’re supposed to take me to the eye doctor anyway. I’ll call them up and see if they’ve got something available, how’s that? No need to waste a trip on just getting my groceries. Might as well make a day out of it.”

“Grandma.” Silence again. Breathing again. Maybe it was the phone.

“I didn’t hear you,” Elena said, holding the phone from her head and shouting into it as hard as she could. “My phone is... I think I need a new one.”

“Stay. Stay where you are. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Okay. Good. Thank you, Cobble.”

“I love you, Grandma.”

“I love you too, dear.”

With some effort, she managed to get the phone back onto the cradle, her hands shaking. The more she tried to steady them, the worse they shook, so she’d given up concentrating on keeping them steady years ago. Best to just be patient and let them find their own way. Eventually, she hung up.

The coffee was ready. But, set in her routine, she insisted on enjoying it with sugar (Cobble once pointed out perhaps the coffee and the sugar exacerbated her shaking, and she’d told him to mind his own damn business. “Few joys left to me, dear. They’re not going to take that away from me.”)

She considered walking down the hall to the Guzmans, ask to borrow a cup of sugar like people used to do in an emergency. But her joints were aching, so instead Elena decided to experiment. “Live life on the wild side,” she said to herself. She got a coffee cup down from a shelf, set it on the counter, and poured, filling the cup (spilling some on the counter). There was steam. Black liquid. Black splotches beside the cup.

The coffee didn’t smell like coffee. Each day for most of her adult life, she’d poured coffee into a cup--or a thermos, of course, back when Gordon was alive, for him to take off to work (Gordon hated coffee; each morning before work, Elena handed him a thermos of coffee, and Gordon, because he loved her, took it, then poured it out on the curb on his way to the train. Elena did not know this). Elena loved the smell of coffee--always Maxwell House, for decades, with its sharp earthy smell, slightly antiseptic, biting into her nostrils. This coffee, on this late March morning, smelled different. Not bad, really. Just different. More bitter. Less iron, more copper.

Perhaps it was the lack of sugar.

Elena stood at the counter. She brought the cup up to her mottled lips, blew across the surface of the coffee a few times, thin, weak exhalations of air meant to cool. Then she placed the cup to her lips, took a sip.

Recoiled. The taste was unclean. Dreadful in fact. Well, that proved it. She needed sugar.

Resigned to this, she set the cup down, turned once more, and carefully walked out of the kitchen. She was still in her robe which rustled faintly as she moved, and her house shoes which shuffled along against the linoleum of the kitchen floor, then against the varnished wood of her hallway floor. Using one hand to steady herself, she made slow progress down the dim hallway to the apartment door.

Once opened, the door revealed nothing unusual. There was the stair landing, lined on one side with five other doors, and a short-shag carpet with an obnoxious cheerful pattern. Sunlight flooded the landing from a large window over the stairs. There was a smear of red paint along the wall leading down to the forth floor--from time to time, the kids in the building fancied him or herself a vandal of sorts. Mindy, the sturdy building superintendent, usually was quick to paint over whatever genitals or crude words the kids scrawled on the walls, and was pretty good at working out which kid had done it so as to inform the parents, so Elena paid the red smear no mind.

The Guzmans lived in the apartment to the right of her own, 5D. With some difficulty, Elena stepped out of her apartment, turned, and moved along the wall to the Guzmans door. More red paint--the kid must’ve been busy last night!--was splashed on the pale white door. Which, Elena noted with some surprise, was half-way open.

From where she stood just outside the Guzman apartment, Elena could see the bright burst of sunlight rushing down the long hallway from the living room window (she couldn’t see that the window was broken out, a sharp glass tooth the only remains, a glass tooth jutting upwards from the base of the window. What she could see was the way the sunlight turned the shined wood floor to a welcoming yellow, and the eggshell walls a comforting beige).

“Mrs. Guzman!” Elena called out. “Hello! Can I borrow some sugar?”

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