I don’t know what I was doing, living in that old duplex. I shouldn’t be here, not at my age. But there I was, living in the type of place you get for your first home once you move out on your own. Like Dash, the young woman who was living here, now, with me.
I don’t know her. I don’t know where she came from. And I could tell she was wet behind the ears.
Because when thunder cracked and the rain pounded the roof and soon after, water streamed out of the ceiling, between us, she stared at it with a sick look on her face.
I’ve been here long enough to know the landlord isn’t going to get his butt out here and fix it anytime soon.
“I’ll get a pot,” Dash said. And she headed into the kitchen.
“Going to need more than I pot,” I said. She doesn’t answer me, but that’s nothing new. We need a five gallon bucket and the most likely place the landlord would have one lying around would be in the basement.
Dash was not going to go down there.
No one goes down there.
It’s up to me to go down there.
It’s an old house. The steps are wood, the paint long worn off in the middle. There’s a window in the door at the top of the stairs, but the sky is dark and it makes the basement look black. I flip on the switch. Florescent lights buzz and I can see my way down into the gray blocks and cement. I walk slowly down, holding onto the railing, descending into the dark, dank world.
This is where discarded things go. Like that old oak table in the corner used as a work bench, all scraped and full of divots and splashes of paint. Small tools lay scattered across the top. A mop rests against the wall, but no bucket. Dash has come to stand at the top and is looking down to where I stand. I head toward a bunch of boxes and old furniture near the furnace.
I poke around, brushing my fingers across dust and cobwebs. Basement must; the air is heavy and cold and uncomfortable to inhale. I bend down to look under the old kitchen chairs stacked on top of each other. Water splashes behind me and I turn to see the rain coming through the floor from the living room. I turn back to my search and then something strange catches my eye.
Three busts of women, from the neck up, sit in a triangle on the floor, below and beyond the chairs. All face the same direction with their profiles turned toward me, chins tilted up, eyes closed. The one closest to me has been painted gold, an Egyptian hat angled back so my eyes follow the slant down to the hair, then forehead, nose, chin and neck. A queen’s head, I think. It should be in a museum. The one next to it radiates beauty but is not stately. And the one in the back is blurry but still beautiful. They rest on their necks on the concrete floor, without stands.
As I stare, three chins drop in unison and the faces turn toward me. Their eyes open and stare back. Their mouths began to speak. One word.
“Help. Help. Help.” It is not a desperate plea.
I stand up.
They were stone before.
I don’t know what they want.
I feel strangely quiet as I stand listening to them repeating the same word, over and over, out of sinc.
Thunder cracks overhead and the light goes off. I hear a door open and close and Dash leaves the stairs to go to the front door.
I race back upstairs. The lights are on again.
“Thank god you’re here!” she said to Calvin. Calvin is the other person that moved in when she did. They sleep in the same room, the big room, of which she stripped the wallpaper and painted a pale yellow. I like Calvin. He’s sensitive and most times he stops to listen when I’m talking or singing.
Dash points to the water filling the pot. “I’ve emptied it twice already”, she said. She’s upset and fights back tears but I can tell she’s about to lose it.
Calvin is patient as he listens and puts an arm around her.
“I’ll go get a bucket. There has to be one in the basement,” he said.
I’ve been quiet, letting them have their private moment until now.
“I did look,” I said. “But there’s something else down there you should see.” I say this but Calvin is already heading down the stairs and I follow him.
He starts looking all around, seeing if he can find a bucket.
“You’ve got to see this,” I said. “You’re an artist, you’ll appreciate it.” I motion to where the busts are, behind the chairs, but he’s still looking around where the mop is. I wait until he walks toward me and looks around the chairs.
“See!” I said. Then I stop. The busts are gone. All three. The cement where they sat is swirly and ripped, but no sign of the busts. Like they’d bent their heads and dipped under water.
I stare at the empty spot. “I think they’re under the cement.”
Calvin finally notices and bends down to run his hand over the surface.
“That cement doesn’t look right,” he said.
He stands up and stares a bit longer then notices a bucket in the corner.
“I found one,” he calls, loud enough for Dash to hear.
He grabs the bucket and heads upstairs.
I remain staring a bit longer. I reach out to touch the cement, then pull back. It’s soft enough to put my hand through. I back away, keeping a safe distance.
Upstairs I hear Calvin and Dash talking again. She’s telling him a coffee cup got knocked off the table and hairbrush turned up in the kitchen. The radio on while she was watching TV. She’s careful not to mention my name, but we all know she’s talking about me.
I look down and see a puddle forming under my feet. It looks like blood in the dim light and my legs begin to shake as the puddle gets bigger. I can’t feel my feet. I sit down, light headed, dropping my head until my cheek rests against the floor. Mannequin arms push out of the cement where the heads were and I move my saddle shoes away from them. It’s hard to move. This time I know they want to pull me down there with them. The hands begin to move slowly, gracefully, in unison, like prairie grass in the breeze. I start to relax and close my eyes. I’m too tired now. It feels so good to sleep.
My eyes snap open. I suck in my breath, sit up and turn around. I don’t know how long I laid there; it must have been a long time because I see Calvin standing there, bent over the hole in the floor, a sledgehammer at his side. He is brushing the dirt away with one hand, then quickly pulls back.
I look down into the hole and see a fragmented plastic bag that tore open from the hammer. I see clothes, stiff and torn, embedded with dirt and disintegrating.
He moves more dirt. A ring appears, my ring, the one my grandmother gave me, peaking out of the dirt. Calvin and I reach for it at the same time and we pick it up.
A thin bone slides off it.
My mouth drops open and I turn to speak to Calvin, but can’t. My breath exhales and it ripple against his shirt. He drops the ring like he touched a hot muffler. It clangs on the cement, bouncing and rolling, then spinning like a dying top, wobbling on it’s side till it stops under the chairs.
Calvin jumps up and races up the stairs.
I stare at the ring.
It’s on my finger and it’s on the floor.
That’s my skirt in the dirt, same as I’m wearing.
I don’t understand.
I wait for Calvin to come back.
Then I feel like something is missing only I don’t know what it is. I head up to my room and open the closets and drawers and dump out my purse. Nothing. I push my hands under the mattress and move the bed across the floor. It isn’t there, what I’m looking for. I sit back on my heels and look around. The room looks strange. A panic starts to grow in my chest.
I stand up. I need to find Calvin.
I start wandering through the kitchen and living room, looking for him. Strange voices come up from the basement along with Calvin’s. I join them.
There are two policemen standing around the hole in the floor.
The big one who is older and in charge rubs the back of his neck then turns toward Calvin.
“How long ago did you say you bought this house?” he asked.
“Four months ago,” Calvin said.
The younger one is a woman and she’s poking around in the dirt. “I think there’s more than one down here.” The big one stops rubbing his neck. “You know who you bought it from?”
Calvin shrugs. “Some old guy had it for years, lived in one side and rented the other out.”
“Any chance you remember the name?”
Dash is sitting on the steps. “Cleary was the last name,” she said.
I suddenly remember. “Clarence Cleary” pops out of my mouth. The lazy landlord, always watching us girls from behind the kitchen curtain. The name spreads through my mind like poison and I want to wash it away.
“Young woman disappeared. Lived in your duplex with two other girls,” the older one said. “Looks like we might have found her.”
“Are you thinking of the old Grant case?” the woman cop said.
Grant? That’s my name.
The older one nods. “Francine Grant.” My name swells in my ears.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “I’m standing right here. See? See?” I start waving my arms. I knock a wrench off the bench and it clangs to the floor.
It’s all quiet as everyone turns to stare at the wrench. They look at each other then back at the hole.
And then I remember. Mr. Cleary standing at the kitchen door, asking if I’d help him for a second.
I’m all sick with remembering. My eyes are wide with panic. I sit down in one of the chairs away from the others, bending forward till my chest is on my knees.
I stay that way till everyone leaves.
Except Calvin. He comes up to where I’m sitting.
He speaks softly, so I’m the only one who hears. “It’s time to go.”
It could be him he means or me. I’m not sure. I don’t wait to find out.
Copyrighted All Rights Reserved Shelley Maasch