Once upon a time there was a little boy who had both a dog and a monster.
This boy spent his summer days with the dog traveling out with him in the morning and returning each afternoon in the hottest part of the day to cool in the shade of the back porch with the glass of lemonade provided by the woman known to the adults as The Girl and to the boy as Maya. Maya was unique among the Girls of the neighborhood in that she agreed with her boy on two subjects. One, that the grey dog, called Roy, was the best dog in the neighborhood and deserved his spot at the north end of the boy’s bed every night. Two, that the monster that took its days in the cool dirt under the back porch stairs and its nights with the dust and stray dog bones under the south end of the boy’s bed was just the right sort of monster for a 10 year-old boy to have. Of course, this also meant that Maya believed in the monster. She was the only adult in Grifter’s Bend who did not subscribe to the views of Dr. September, the child psychologist. She knew that the monsters were as real as the dogs, and the sister’s cats, and the hamsters in dirty aquariums that also existed in the boys’ worlds. Our boy, whose name is Duffy Jackson, is particularly lucky to have Maya in his house from 9 to 6 Monday through Saturday excepting Wednesday afternoons, when she goes to see her own mama and get ready for church.
This Wednesday, at noon, Maya had left Duffy a plate with a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, half a cut up apple, and two chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen table, as well as a large glass of milk covered with a square of Saran Wrap in the wheezing Frigidaire. It was almost too hot for drinking milk, but cookies require a glass of milk. So he got the glass of milk off of the middle shelf of the fridge and carried it to the kitchen table where he peeled off the Saran Wrap. He wadded the wrap up and tucked it underneath the edge of the plate. He took the napkin off the plate and laid it down on the chair next to the one he sat in. It never occurred to him to put the napkin on his lap. Napkins on laps were for dinner when reminded by mothers.
Roy whined at the back door. Duffy got up from his lunch, and went to the back door. The screen door didn’t fit exactly, and his father hadn’t had a chance to fix it, so it scratched on its way across the kitchen linoleum.
Roy came in and took up his favorite spot next to the door, under the little telephone table that was Duffy’s mother’s special place.
Duffy’s mom came into the kitchen, her long legs bare under a pair of pink capris.
She sat down at the telephone table and used her sandal clad toe to nudge Roy out from under it. “Go outside” she said, but made no move to open the back door for the dog.
Duffy finished his sandwich and started to pick the chocolate chips out of the first cookie, laying them carefully in a row. Taking two bites of the now plain cookie, followed by a sip of milk, followed by the chips, one at time, taken from the row on the plate right to left.
“Don’t go too far from home this afternoon. Your father is coming back from Chicago and will want to see you when he gets home.”
“We’ll go for ice cream at the Dairy Bar after dinner.”
Duffy continued to carefully deconstruct and eat his cookie.
His mother consulted a calendar on the table.
“You have a baseball game tomorrow night.”
“Your dad will be home for that. That’ll be nice.” She looked back down at the calendar. “And we’ll still have time to stop at the Brown’s afterwards.” She tapped her little gold pen on the calendar in satisfaction.
Mrs. Jackson picked up the phone and dialed. She waited a moment, staring off into the space above the refrigerator.
“Celia!” she blurted when the line picked up “Are you ready for this?”
Duffy looked at the last three chocolate chips laid carefully on the rim of his plate and ate the last bite of the cookie. There was one more swallow of milk. It always made him happy when it worked out so well. He picked up the chips and called Roy away from his second favorite place at the bottom of the back stairs. Heedless of his mother’s admonition he allowed the screen door to slam behind him as he went back out into the June heat.
Once on the porch he went to the furthest corner and laid the three chips in a tidy row behind a stack of empty flower pots.
“Here you go, Stinker.” Duffy’s monster rumbled lightly from under the porch and considered that three chocolate chips was a nice offering. But he missed the days of sandwich crusts. Duffy had grown tall enough and hungry enough to eat all of his sandwiches over the winter.
Duffy took his new catcher’s mitt and a nearly new baseball from the bench box by the back door and whistled for Roy. His mother called out from inside the house. “Remember, be home in plenty of time for dinner.”
Stinker watched Duffy head out, waiting to see which way he was going to walk. Duffy headed toward the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac rather than up the road toward Mike Ruffolo’s house. So Mike wouldn’t be playing today. A stroll through the woods would be nice on a hot day like this. Stinker enjoyed watching Duffy play baseball. When they played at the county park Stinker could sit comfortably in a shade tree in the woods and watch all afternoon.
He wriggled himself past the large pier block that held up the south end of the porch and shambled out across the yard towards the woods.
The afternoon wore on. A dry, but not yet arid, warm thing without much to distinguish it from all the other long afternoons that make up a 10 year-old boy’s summer when the days stretch out ahead in a ribbon of endless, hopeful haze.
Duffy spent most of this particular June afternoon crouched behind home plate working at the crease in his new catcher’s mitt. The left-hander’s mitt had been a birthday present from his father, brought back from Chicago two days late, Duffy willingly forgave its tardiness. Not that Duffy got to make much use of it. He spent most of the afternoon chasing after mis-thrown balls — pitching being an art beyond most preteen boys.
The cicadas buzzed softly on the edge of the woods. Stinker drowsed perched in the big maple that dominated the far end of the left field foul line. It was nearly three o’clock when Duffy came to bat late in the seventh inning. He’d had a bad day at bat, two strike-outs and a series of foul balls that had left him without a single turn on base.
Much of that was due to the presence of Tim Scroggins. Tim was 12 and almost ready to move all the way back down the alley to the real pitcher’s mound that the high school kids used. Tim was the only pitcher that Duffy had any use for. Duffy might not be able to make many hits off of Tim; but at least with Tim pitching there was something to do behind the plate other than leaping up and running down balls that landed far to the side of the batter, or falling on the ones that landed out front and then dribbled through the batter’s legs.
Duffy squared up and took a long look up the infield toward Tim and watched as he pulled the ball and his gloved hand into his chest, hiked his leg up–bending his back away from the plate–and then hurled the ball with all the intention and the beginning of the control that he would later demonstrate in the minor leagues. Duffy swung. Just a hair late but in good enough time to catch the edge of the ball as it flew past. The ball took off far to the left. Duffy prepared to sigh — another foul ball. But something happened. The wind shifted, the earth rotated, Duffy’s luck decided that a change would do him good. The ball sailed down the foul line trailing its own little tail of breeze and remained inside, fair. And bounced finally near the edge of the woods, snapping the tops off three dandelions and leaving a puff of dust in the air. Then slowly rolled down the side of the drainage ditch and came to rest near the little trickle of muddy water that was all that remained of the creek. Grinning, Duffy made his circuit of the bases.
Stinker looked down from his perch in the maple. He could see the ball almost directly beneath the longest branches of his tree. It was still mostly bright white and the red stitching hadn’t faded to purply-pink from exposure to sun and glove oil and the rough handling of boys. He slid from his place in the crotch of the tree and slumped toward the drainage ditch. The grass on the side of the ditch was cool and green and it tickled his feet between the calluses.
He really had meant to toss the ball back up to the edge of the ditch so that the boys would be able to find it when they came out toward the woods to look for it. Really. But it had been so round, and smooth, and white. He’d taken one big bite before he was even aware of what he was doing. Then the ball had a sad broken look about it. A big gash around the middle and the leather torn on one side and the stitches coming unraveled and the horse hair spilling out and the littlest bit of the cork center crumbling. In a flash of guilt and hunger he took three more big bites and the ball disappeared. Gone forever.
Duffy and Tim and the rest of the boys had spent 15 minutes, an eternity in the middle of a sunny Wednesday afternoon, looking for the ball before giving up and declaring it Lost-for-Good. Duffy wasn’t looking forward to telling his dad about it. Maybe he wouldn’t have to for a while. They went back to playing with the balls that Tim’s older brother gave them. Tom Scroggins played for the college team and regularly brought a handful of cut balls home for his brother. They weren’t pretty and some of them flew a little funny when you hit them but they were balls and the boys could play most of an afternoon without having to go out to the farthest edges of the outfield to collect foul balls more than two or three times.
There were no baseball games on Fridays; the field was used by the county for the firefighters’ and sheriff’s softball team practices. Duffy spent this long August Friday afternoon at home down by the creek just beyond the end of the cul-de-sac.
By three o’clock Duffy was dusty, dirty, and thirsty. He went back to the house, carrying a bucket of brackish water holding two juvenile frogs and, unknown to Duffy, a large crawfish that had been hiding in the mud at the bottom of the creek and had been inadvertently scooped up.
Maya met him at the back porch door.
“Not ’til you take off your shoes and pants,” she said, looking at his filthy shoes and the muddy bottom six inches of his rolled-up pants.
Duffy shrugged. “Don’t wanna come in.”
“Then just what do you want?” Maya asked, with a very good idea of what the answer was going to be.
“I, ah. Dunno,” Duffy mumbled. “Something to drink?”
“That a question or do you want to say ‘Please’?,” Maya teased him.
Duffy shrugged again. Maya shrugged back at him. Duffy’s mouth twisted a little to the right as he thought.
“Can I have a Popsicle?”
Maya stood with her hand on her hip and an expectant look on her face.
“Please,” Duffy added.
“Cherry, grape, or orange?”
“Grape.” This time Duffy only missed two beats. “Please.”
Maya smiled at him. “Be right back.” She disappeared into the dim cool of the kitchen.
Duffy sat on the porch steps and took off his muddy shoes. His socks were red with the silt that had sifted through the canvas of his sneakers. He shoved the socks deep into the shoes and wriggled his toes in the breeze.
Stinker appeared next to the back gate equally muddy and equally pleased with the day’s activities. He ambled across the yard and tucked himself into the shadows next to the east side of the porch. Stretched and prepared to settle in for a nap.
Maya returned with two Popsicles.
“What flavor is yours?” Duffy asked.
“I don’t like the orange ones.”
“Sure is a good thing I do,” Maya said.
She sat on the bench beside the kitchen door, unwrapped the Popsicles, and handed Duffy his grape one. They sat quietly sucking on their treats for a few minutes.
“Will you tell me a story?” Duffy asked.
“What kind of a story?”
“One of your ghost stories.”
“A ghost story, on an August afternoon?”
“That’s a good time to tell ghost stories.”
Maya snorted, “Hardly. But whatever you want. Which one do you want to hear?”
“I’ve told you all the ones I know.”
“All of them?”
“All of them. There won’t be any new ones until there are new ghosts.”
Duffy considered that for a moment. He believed Maya was lying about there not being any other stories, but she was clearly not going to tell him a new story. So he had to decide which story he wanted to hear.
“Tell me about the drowned girl.”
“Yeah, the girl who lives in your house,” Duffy said. “Stinker likes that one.”
Maya looked at the end of the porch where Stinker has settled. “I didn’t know he had a preference.”
Duffy nodded. Maya insisted that she could see Stinker, but Duffy had his doubts. Still, it was nice to have someone who didn’t use that pretend voice when they talked to Stinker.
Abruptly Duffy asked, “What’s it like to live in a haunted house?”
“Like living in any other house.”
“How come my house isn’t haunted?”
“It’s too new.”
“How old does it have to be before it’s haunted?”
“Why do you want to live in a haunted house?”
“Dunno, I just think it would be neat.” He shrugged. She shrugged back at him.
“In the late summer of 1915 there was a big hurricane that came in from the gulf and blew for three days. It was the biggest hurricane in a hundred years. The wind blew for days, the rain fell until it filled every pool and puddle. There was lightning and thunder and dark rolling clouds and everyone was frightened.”
“Like the storm last September?”
Duffy wasn’t sure that he could imagine anything worse than last year’s hurricane. He and his parents had spent two days huddled in the little room at the bottom of the stairs, listening to the wind tear the roof off their neighbor’s house and trees crash to the ground. One had crushed the shed in the back yard that held his father’s boat.
“Wow.” It came out as a soft whistle.
“Out on Oak Shot Road, the Lesterham family had just built a pretty little house. It had three bedrooms, an indoor bathroom, and a parlor and a dining room for special. Lily’s parents got one bedroom, her two older brothers shared another and Lily got one of the bedrooms all to herself.”
Duffy nodded. The story was just the way he remembered it.
“The slough was just across the street and there was a dock for her brothers to fish and swim.”
“Did they have a boat?”
“Yes, they had a little shrimper.”
“On August 16th of 1915, a hurricane began in the ocean near Haiti. There were reports of a ferocious storm heading west. All along the Gulf, people prepared as best they could. Some bought extra food, some put up storm shutters, some packed up and moved to family inland.”
“Lily’s daddy, Deacon Lesterham, went to church to pray with the congregation, and Lily’s mama stayed home and built an altar to the Slim Man.”
“Have you ever seen the Slim Man?” Duffy interrupted.
“Of course.” Maya grinned. Duffy wasn’t sure if she was kidding. He hoped that she wasn’t. “You shouldn’t ask so many questions. I won’t get the story finished before it’s time to start supper.”
“Okay.” Duffy mimed zipping his lips together.
“Lily wasn’t afraid of the storm. There hadn’t been any bad hurricanes since she was old enough to remember.
“So when the wind started and the rain began, she sat on the front porch and waited for it to stop so that she could go back out into the yard to play.”
Maya stuck out her lower lip in a perfect imitation of a six year-old girl kept from her games by unsettled weather. Duffy nodded along with her. He’d also been kept on the porch by his mother’s insistence that playing in the rain at the front edge of a hurricane was dangerous.
“The rain got heavier and the wind blew harder and the sky grew darker. Still, Lily wasn’t afraid. Just before dark her oldest brother came out onto the porch with something the size of a large book in his hand and headed down the steps.
‘You can’t go out,’ Lily said to him.
‘Yes, I can. I’m not a little baby. It’s not dangerous for me,’ he told her.
“He was wrong, of course, and their father would have told him to stay home but Father wasn’t home so her brother went out.
“An hour later, Lily was called into the house for supper. Her brother was still out in the storm somewhere.
“Lily went to bed right after supper. Mother wouldn’t light the lamps in a storm. Lily couldn’t understand why.
“In the middle of the night she woke up to the sound of her brother hollering from the front yard. He was calling, ‘Come with me. Come to the slough.’ She got up and wrapped a blanket around herself. Then she walked down the stairs to the front room. Her mother wasn’t up. Why wasn’t her mother up? She heard her brother again.
“‘Hurry!’ he was calling.
“She opened the heavy front door and went out onto the porch. It was strangely quiet outside. The moon shone directly down from overhead, and the wind had stopped blowing. There was no rain, but there were heavy clouds to both the east and the west.
“She walked across the front porch and down the steps into the yard. She couldn’t see anything across the street under the willows by the slough. But she was sure that she could hear her brother’s voice coming from that direction.
“‘Benji,’ she called to him. There was no answer. ‘Benji? Should I go get Daddy?’ Still no answer. Just the sound of a boy calling for help. Benji, she was sure of it. Hadn’t he gone out to the slough just before supper and then not been back when she’d gone to bed? She’d heard her Daddy come home an hour or so later, but hadn’t ever heard Benji come home.
“Lily crossed the street, still calling for her brother. The willows were bent and creaking under the weight of all the rain that had fallen on them. As she walked under them their long stringy leaves brushed against her face and her shoulders, making her blanket wet.
“She walked down the path toward the dock. She still couldn’t see anything. ‘Benji? Are you there?’ The wind started to blow again, stirring the tops of the willows but nothing moved underneath them.
“Lily stood at the head of the dock and looked down it. It was covered with slippery weeds and reeds, but there at the end there was something tall and slender. About the size of her oldest brother Benjamin. She waved. Nothing. She jumped up and down, hollered and waved some more. Something waved back. ‘Come back here, Benji.’ The boy didn’t move. Lily waved again. The figure waved back. Lily wished that her Daddy would come. He’d be able to help Benji.
“But Daddy wasn’t here. Lily made up her mind and stepped out onto the dock. It swayed under her in the rapid current. The water was high and muddy. There was slippery grass piled up on the upstream side, and some had flowed over the surface and was stuck between the boards. Lily stepped carefully.
“The dock bucked. Lily reached for the railing, but it swayed away from her hand and she stumbled. Her face flew out over the churning water. She caught her footing at the last second and tumbled herself back onto the dock, slipped on a pile of greasy reeds and fell backwards onto her bottom. She lost her grip on her blanket and it tumbled off of her shoulders and fell into the water. She turned over and watched it swirl away off down the slough.
“The boy at the end of the dock swayed and dipped. Benji wasn’t having any better luck with his footing than she was. She hurried out further.
“There was a shout from behind her. Her father! She turned and waved to him. ‘Hurry Daddy, Benji needs help!’ The big man on the shore began to come down the ramp to the dock and Lily turned back around and walked toward her brother.
“The dock continued to bump and rock under her feet. She didn’t try the railing again.
“When she was almost to the end of the dock, she could see the slim figure of her brother. From behind her, she heard her father’s pounding footsteps. ‘Lily, stop! Stand still.’ But she couldn’t. She needed to reach her brother; he needed help. She was only a few steps from him at the end of the dock.
“There was a scream. Lily looked upstream. Something large and black was in the water, coming toward her. She reached out for her brother and grabbed. A broken piece of wood swiveled in her hand, and the remains of the davit her brothers used to lower their little shrimping boat into the water swung around to face her.
“From the middle of the dock, her father watched the huge black tree trunk slide silently down the stream. It groaned to a stop against the piling; then crashed through, taking the end of the dock, the davit, and his only daughter with it. Benji stood on the opposite shore holding the rope that secured his boat to the dock of his fiancé’s parents, his mouth open and his voice gone.”
Duffy shivered happily. Maya got up and held out her hand. Duffy put his own hand in it and let her pull him up from the step.
“Time for me to make your supper.”
Maya inhaled the damp air of home. Her mother’s house sat at the back of a dust and sparse grass front yard, all in the shade of a massive oak tree. The patch out back of her mother’s house was never quite dry even at the height of summer and here at the end of spring it was at its green moist lushest. The house always carried the faint musk of the wet ground and the rotting greenery.
Maya could see the familiar outline of a little girl sitting on the front steps. The little girl had always been there. The little girl never moved from her place two steps up on the right side just beside the hydrangea. Right now she was wearing the bright blue blossoms as a crown.
To most of the folks on Oak Shot Street she was just a legend, something to frighten younger siblings with on dark October nights. Her older brother had done just that to Maya in the weeks before he had left for basic training. Three weeks later, after yet another spanking for slamming the front door in haste, she had confessed to her Aunt Tilly that she was frightened of the ghost she could now see, and had been hurrying to get inside before the ghost could catch up with her and take her to the slough to be drowned. Tilly had been sympathetic but firm. Door slamming would stop. The little girl on the steps wouldn’t do anything to her if Maya was just respectful and kind.
Now there was another shadow at the side of the porch, Aunt Tilly. She had died four years ago of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53. Aunt Tilly preferred the big glider at the east end of the porch, it gave her the best view of the street and the corner but it also was the windiest part of the porch when the weather turned.
The screen door creaked and the return spring sang a high, twitchy song as she opened it and went in. Her mama was in the kitchen sitting at the Formica topped table.
“Afternoon Mama,” Maya said. “Ready for church?”
Mama was already in her church dress. The light blue one with the white collar. A broad yellow checked apron covered her from neck to hemline and wrapped generously around her middle. Her hat was on the little table in the hall beside the front door along with a pair of white gloves and a small black patent leather handbag. Inside there’d be a lipstick, two dollars, and four quarters. The dollars were for the collection plate and the quarters for ice cream sodas afterwards. Some folks didn’t hold with ice cream after church, but Maya’s mother figured that a little refreshment for the body was a good thing right after the refreshment for the soul.
Maya kissed her mama on the cheek and took a seat across from her at the table. Her mother handed her a bowl and a small paring knife. Maya picked up a bean from the pile in the middle of the table and nipped off each end. She dropped the bean into the bowl, letting the ends to drop onto the table in front of her.
“How are you doing?” her mama asked her. “How’s work?”
“Doing well, Mama; work’s good. The boy is growing.”
Mama nodded. “Seen your brother?”
“No Mama.” Maya hadn’t seen her younger brother in several months. Her mother hadn’t seen her brother in two years. Maya’s younger brother had gone off to join the Army when he turned 18 and never really come back. He drifted by every couple of months to look in on his sister, and then went back to Texas where he worked on the oil rigs and made lots of money and had lots of friends and had nothing to do with old-fashioned ideas. His mother worried; his sister worried. But about different things.
They sat and cut the ends off of beans for another few minutes. Not talking, just snipping the ends off of the vegetables and listening to the whirr of the kitchen fan and the buzz of the insects outside.
“Pastor Smith has a guest preacher for us tonight,” Mama said quietly. “Someone from over up Gatling.”
“Oh.” Maya was noncommittal, she never could tell what kind of response Mama wanted to these out of the blue statements of fact.
“Preaching on the evils of the New Age.”
“Uh huh.” Still not sure what her mother was looking for.
“Suppose he’s going to go on about false idols and otherworldly influences and all those celebrities and what not.”
“I suppose,” Maya said and couldn’t help glancing into the front room.
“This fellow from Gatling, he’s not one of ours?”
“No,” mama replied. “He’s a Northern boy.” Meaning, from somewhere that wasn’t here. “Very well educated, I hear.”
“Ah, so he doesn’t understand how things are around here?”
“No,” Mama said. “No, I expect that he wouldn’t. I expect that he confuses our old ways with a lot of Northern things.”
Maya considered this turn of phrase. The stories were certainly older than any northern-educated preacher could be.
They finished the beans and Maya got up to put the bowl in the fridge.
“While you’re up, get me a lemonade,” her mother said. “One for yourself, too.”
Maya got the cold pitcher out of the fridge.
“We’ve got the Lewises and the Walters and maybe the Sizemore boy coming to supper tonight. Do you want to make your special cornbread?”
Maya didn’t need a roadmap to that subtext. There’s two big, happy families and a single boy–a nice boy–coming. Why don’t you show him what a good wife you’d be?
Maya smiled at her mama. “I’ll do that if you’d like.”
Her mama nodded back at her. “We’ll leave for church after you’ve visited the front room.”
This was Maya’s cue to get up and go into the front room and pay her respects to her family’s dead.
She had seldom visited the front room when she was a child, but there had sometimes been adults in there. Not every day, but once or twice a week, she’d come home to find a snack on the kitchen counter and the door between the kitchen and the front room closed. Quiet adult voices would come from under the door, for perhaps 15 minutes. Then she’d hear her mother say “It will all be for the best. I’m sure.” The front door would open and someone would go out, and then her mother would come into the kitchen and ask her about her day at school and start cooking supper. The smell of perfume and herbs would drift out of the front room for the rest of the evening.
She brushed two fingertips across the case that held her father’s service flag. The one her mother had gotten on a very cold February afternoon in 1943. The day the world had changed, she thought. A day she couldn’t even remember clearly. Next to it was her older brother’s flag. Delivered on another cold February afternoon. Eight years later. That one she remembered.
Like all the rest of the things on the table at the far end of the living room they were carefully dusted and had fresh flowers and fruit in front of them. There were pictures of parents, sisters, and sons; the most recent addition being a big, black-and-white photo of a good looking woman wearing a fox stole over a stylish suit. Her hair was perfectly done and she smiled a knowing, contented smile. Maya’s Aunt Tilly. There was also an icon of a Black Virgin and two small vases with sand in them, one milky green and the other slightly oxidized brass.
Maya found a candle in the drawer in the little table that held all of these things and lit it. She stuck its base in the sand of the milky green vase and whispered. “Protect me, Lady.” Then kissed her fingers and touched the icon.
That done, she returned to the kitchen and washed the lemonade glasses.
On Saturday, just after dark, Maya came back to the house. Duffy’s mom and dad put on going out clothes and got ready to leave for the evening.
“We’ll be up at the VanderPloeg’s. The number is by the phone.” Though Maya and Duffy both knew that there would be all sorts of hell to pay if that phone call was ever made.
The storm started an hour later. One of those big masculine storms that begins with the sky first turning a twilight blue, and then olive-green. The rain started in big drops. One by one. Plummeting hard out of the sky and bashing through the leaves of the tree onto the porch roof where Duffy and Maya were sitting looking for the little bit of cool breeze, and for Duffy to enjoy the ice cream that was his treat when his parents went out at night. Maya sat drinking lemonade out of a tall glass ringed with drops of condensation, her slim, dark hand holding it carefully with just her fingertips to keep the heat of her hands from melting the ice too quickly and warming the liquid. Stinker lay under the porch enjoying the last of his dinner, three potato chips and a big dill pickle slice. He loved the crisp, salty tang of the pickles. As they sat, the wind began to rattle the tall, stiff pampas grass.
Duffy finished his ice cream and put the bowl down on the table beside the bench. He picked up his glove and went back to the soft, methodical rubbing that he believed would encourage a perfect crease across its palm. The rain fell a little harder. The wind changed direction, now blowing directly across the porch, making the potted geraniums swing.
“Time we got inside, Duffy,” Maya said.
“Yeah,” Duffy agreed, picking up his ice cream dish in one hand and his glove in the other.
Inside they stood side by side at the sink, Maya washing Duffy’s bowl and her glass, Duffy carefully drying them.
“All done,” Maya said as she put the glass into the cupboard next to the refrigerator. “TV or radio?”
“‘Adventures of Robin Hood’ is on tonight.”
“Oh. TV it will be, then.”
Duffy’s parents had a new TV, bought last year. A year that his father had referred to as ‘very good, all things considered” more than once. The big RCA was the grandest, most modern set in the neighborhood, and Duffy loved it.
Maya sat on the sofa and Duffy sat on the floor in front of the set.
“Not so close, ‘tater. You’ll ruin your eyes.” Maya’s tone teased a little.
The storm picked up steam. The rain drops began pelting through the leaves on the trees and smashing into the flowers of Mrs. Jackson’s hydrangeas.
Suddenly, just as Robin Hood was winding up to deliver his moral lesson to the greedy baron before riding off into the woods with his band of merry men, there was a pop and the light bulb in the table lamp to Maya’s left went out. The TV set went dark. In fact, the whole house went dark.
Maya yelped. “Oh, my.” And patted her chest a few times in a gesture meant to slow her heartbeat. Duffy just sat looking at the now blank TV screen
“Aw, I wanted to see how it ended,” Duffy protested.
“Sorry Sugar. The weather says ‘No’.”
The house was strangely silent. No hum from the refrigerator, no gentle whoosh from the fan in the window of his parent’s bedroom.
The lightning started just about then. And the thunder. Big roiling, shaking thunder. Roy scratched at the back door, his bed on the porch no longer feeling secure enough for weathering the storm.
Maya got up and walked to the kitchen. “You stay right there, Duffy.” Her steps made reassuring clicks on the linoleum. “I’ll find a candle and some matches.”
In the kitchen, Maya opened the back door and Roy came in. He stopped halfway through the door and, though he’d been protected from the rain, shook himself as if he were wet.
“Shaking off the storm? Sensible fellow,” Maya said to him as she held the door.
Just before the back door closed, Stinker slipped into the kitchen. He’d usually rather spend summer nights outside. That’s why kids sleep so much better in the summer. Winter is the time for slinking about under beds. Summer is for laying out in the cool, moist dirt, watching stars and listening to cicadas and frogs peep. But not on a night like tonight.
Stinker crept across the kitchen floor and found a spot between the refrigerator and the wall. He didn’t relish going upstairs to Duffy’s empty and overly dark bedroom any more than Duffy would.
Maya came back into the living room with two candle stubs, a saucer, and the big box of kitchen matches. She took the ashtray from beside Duffy’s dad’s recliner and put it, along with the saucer, on top of the TV. She lit a white candle and dripped a bit of wax into the ashtray, then squashed the bottom of the candle into the little puddle of wax. She did the same thing with a green candle stub and the saucer.
“There,” she said, “a little light makes everything better.”
Duffy didn’t want to agree out loud, but the light did make him feel a little better.
Maya sighed and sat back further into the recliner, rocking slowly.
“You don’t like storms, Maya?” Duffy asked.
“Rain and wind are fine, but this thunder has evil on its mind.”
Duffy drifted in and out of sleep on the floor in front of the sofa. Maya didn’t think the boy should have to go upstairs to his room in the dark during such a storm.
Duffy rolled over onto his stomach and draped an arm across Roy’s neck. Roy hadn’t woken up. The wind was getting stronger. The tree outside the living room window had started making little creaking noises above the sound of the wind. Maya got up to shut all of the windows.
“Bring me a glass of lemonade?” he asked.
“In a minute, Sugar. Let me get the back door shut first.”
There was a tremendous crash of thunder. Roy woke, lifted his head and whined.
Maya stood in the kitchen, looking out across the porch. There was a shadow out at the edge of the lawn by the woods. A tall, slender shadow. A shadow that looked like something she remembered from long ago. It wore a hat.
“We need to make an offering to the Slim Man,” she said to Duffy as she handed him a glass of lemonade.
“Offering?” Duffy mumbled.
“Yes, an offering to the storm. A meal for the Slim Man.”
“To keep the house safe from the winds.”
“Okay,” Duffy said without any real understanding of what Maya intended to do, but he was game for anything that Maya suggested.
Maya went to the kitchen opened the fridge and took out a leftover chicken leg and a dish of strawberries. She poured a glass of milk. Stinker watched her as she put these on a tray and then added the good silver sugar bowl from the dining room table. Maya took the tray into the living room and put everything on the top of the TV — right on Duffy’s grandmother’s special doily. She got the Little Bopeep and her sheep salt and pepper set from the breakfast table. Also a pack of Duffy’s dad’s cigarettes and a deck of playing cards from the table beside the recliner.
She laid the food out around one of the candles and the cigarettes and playing cards around the other. Then she stepped back. The wind was still howling, though Duffy thought that maybe the trees were groaning just a little less.
“Almost. What’s missing, Sugar?”
Duffy looked up curiously. How could he know what was missing?
“Dunno. It looks like you’re making supper for dad and his friends when everyone comes over to play cards.”
“I am, but for the Slim Man and his friends.”
“So where’s the drinks?” Duffy asked, a bit too smartly.
“What a clever boy,” Maya said. “Drinks.”
Maya walked to the Jacksons’ liquor cabinet.
“You can’t do that,” Duffy said in a hurry as Maya reached for the little key that locked the door shut.
“It won’t hurt anyone. I’m not going to drink anything.”
“But we’re not allowed to go in the cabinet,” Duffy answered. “Not even for just pretend.”
Maya smiled at him in the flickering light. It was a little spooky.
Maya opened the cabinet and stood looking for a minute. No rum. There was whiskey, gin, vermouth, vodka, but no rum. Gin would have to do. Though she’d have to put out an extra serving of rum up next time she asked for a favor, she was sure of that. She poured a good two shots worth of gin into a shot glass and added it to the offering on top of the TV. She was satisfied. Duffy laid back down on the floor in front of the couch and curled up with Roy under a blanket. There was nothing to do but watch the candle flicker and think about not going to sleep.
“I’ll be just a minute, Duffy,” Maya whispered to Duffy’s unmoving back. She went out to the front porch to check for street lights in the next block.
Stinker walked carefully across the living room. He could see Duffy in a sleepy lump in front of the TV — just as if it were on and playing the late show, and his parents had let him stay up on a Saturday when his aunt and uncle were over for drinks and a game of pinochle.
The candles lit Maya’s small altar. The milk glass was dimpled with sweat. That would have been for Duffy’s contribution. There might have been a cookie, too, if he hadn’t eaten the last one for dessert. The chicken looked good. A nice fat drumstick. The skin wouldn’t be as deliciously crispy and crunchy as it had been when Maya had made it for dinner yesterday, but the meat would still be moist and slippery-good on the way down. Stinker wrapped the four fingers of his right hand around the chicken and got a good grasp on the shadow of it. Its shadow came away from the meat on the plate and Stinker lifted it to his mouth and ate it in three big bites. Bone and all. Yes, Maya’s chicken was wonderful stuff. And a glass of milk to wash it down wasn’t bad. He’d have preferred a Coca-Cola but when you’re eating someone else’s dinner you can’t be too picky. He’d pass on the post-dinner cigarette, they made him dizzy. But he wished that Maya hadn’t put the cards on the TV, he’d rather that she and Duffy had sat down to play Old Maid, or Go Fish. He could have helped Duffy win. Maya was tender-hearted toward the boy, but not so tender-hearted that she’d let Duffy win at cards. Stinker did a bit of cheating on his behalf. Seemed only fair — he was just a kid.
Maya came back in from the porch. “No lights for blocks around,” she said softly to Duffy, who wasn’t really asleep, just bored and listless. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for the power company to send someone around to fix the lights.”
“How long do you think that’s going to take?” Duffy asked.
“I’m hungry,” Duffy said, because he knew it was rude to say that he was bored but he needed to say something.
“Peanut butter and jelly?”
“Sure, and milk?”
Maya walked toward the kitchen asking over her shoulder “Do you want me to cut the crusts off?”
“No, no thank you,” Duffy said. “You can stop asking me that,” he added shyly. “I’m not a baby anymore. I don’t need the crusts cut offa my sandwiches.”
“I just thought that maybe you’d like to give them to Stinker. It being a stormy night and him being maybe a little scared of the dark and a little bored with nothing to do and all.”
“Stinker’s okay. He can eat the chicken if he’s hungry,” Duffy waved a hand toward the TV where Stinker was standing considering the glass of clear liquid.
“That chicken isn’t for him.”
“Then who’s going to eat it. There’s no one else here.”
“It’s for the Slim Man. Once it’s been given to him it can’t be taken back.”
“Stinker’s going to eat it,” Duffy said with all the assurance of a ten year-old.
“Maybe if we cut the crusts off for him, he’ll leave the chicken alone?” Duffy suggested.
Maya sighed. “He’s probably already eaten it.”
“I hope no one minds,” she added softly.
Maya got a candle stub from the kitchen and lit it from one of the candles burning on the TV set and carried it back into the kitchen. Duffy followed her.
She put the candle in a saucer and put it by the sink across the room from where Duffy was standing. The storm had exhausted itself against the windows and doors. The trees were no longer moaned in the wind. The thunder had moved off far to the east, small dull rumbles were the most that could be heard anymore. The lightning no longer lit the house, only brightened the sky in the distance above the trees and under the clouds.
“I wonder where your folks are?” Maya mused. She lifted the receiver from the phone. Dead. “Well, they’ll be here when they get here, no doubt.”
In the living room, Stinker sniffed the glass. The liquid was clear and oily looking and smelled sharply of juniper and muddy river bottom. His nose wrinkled and his eyebrows curled a little further up toward his forehead. This was something that the Slim Man would like? It was something that Duffy’s mother liked. His father preferred the brown liquor that he drank on card nights.
Stinker smiled again. His nose itched. He lifted the glass and stuck his long tongue down into the liquid. His hair stood up. He licked again. The taste made him feel like his hair was trying to leave his head. He took a tiny sip. His teeth wanted to wiggle in his gums. He didn’t know if he liked the sensation or not. He took a bigger sip.
A half an hour later, by little sips and tiny tastes, Stinker had drunk most of the glass.
After finishing his sandwich Duffy helped Maya wash up. Then they sat at the kitchen table and looked out at the world beyond the porch.
Stinker was woozy. The world was a little unsteady, or maybe he was a little unsteady. One way or the other, his legs weren’t doing a very good job of getting him from the living room back into the kitchen. He kept hearing a little ringing noise in his head, like a buzzer in another room. He wanted a nap. He found his space between the refrigerator and the wall and slumped down into it. The dog snuffled a little by the back door. Stinker didn’t care. Someone else could notice that the dog wanted out.
Duffy went to the back door and let Roy out. He stared out the door over the porch railing. Small twigs and leaf litter had swirled up onto the porch floor.
The calm, still air smelled deep and earthy.
“Smells like worms,” Duffy said.
Maya laughed a little.
Duffy could see a shadow on the edge of the lawn. It looked like a man, wearing a hat. He was leaning on the tall post that held up the lamp by the gate. The lamp was dark. Duffy couldn’t figure out where the light that lit the man from behind was coming from. But he could see a silhouette.
“What are you looking at, Sugar?”
“There’s a man over there,” Duffy said, pointing to the edge of the yard.
Maya came out onto the porch and looked over Duffy’s shoulder. The Slim Man was leaning against the lamp post like a lazy cowboy in one of Duffy’s western shows.
“You can see him?”
Duffy hesitated. “Is there really someone there?” He had been willing to play along with Maya’s offering. It only seemed fair since Maya always agreed with him about Stinker’s need for a cool place to sleep and the last three chocolate chips from his cookies.
“There is. The Slim Man. He was looking after us during the storm.”
“Oh,” Duffy fiddled with his belt loop. “Is he safe?”
“Safe?” Maya asked.
“Safe, not dangerous.”
“Tonight he’s safe.”
Duffy considered this. “Tonight,” he stated finally.
“Tonight,” Maya agreed with him.
Duffy looked at the shadow a little longer. “Is he always here?”
“No, only sometimes. When we call for him.”
Duffy considered this. “Stinker wouldn’t like him here all the time.”
“No he wouldn’t,” Maya agreed.
“Only sometimes,” Duffy repeated and shrugged.
Maya put a hand on Duffy’s shoulder and guided him back into the kitchen.
“Would you like to lie down on the sofa? I could get you a blanket.”
Duffy nodded, he was tired. The house was very quiet, and he was a little cold. A blanket on the sofa sounded good.
Duffy drowsed quietly for half an hour, Maya sat beside him and read. Roy wandered restlessly in and out of the kitchen. Eventually Maya’s patience with the pacing dog reached it’s end.
“Roy, buddy, it’s time for you to go outside,” She got up and headed to the kitchen with Roy padding along.
Duffy half woke up when Maya got up from her end of the couch, reached out to pet Roy and sleepily noted his absence.
From the kitchen he heard Maya say “Oh brother.”
Duffy got up and went to the kitchen door; Roy came over to his side.
The dog scratched his left ear. Then stopped and directed his nose at the silent refrigerator. Duffy’s sleepy gaze followed as Roy walked over to the turquoise bulk.
“Stinker,” Maya said, in the tone of voice that Duffy knew from that rainy October afternoon when he hadn’t remembered to take his muddy shoes off on the porch and had tracked sticky, red creek-ooze all over her kitchen floor. There was reproach and resignation and a sense of the inevitable in it.
Stinker was stuck in the cavity between the fridge and the wall, a bit of a tight squeeze for a chunky monster. But Stinker had always found it a comforting spot, just at the edge of whatever was going on in the kitchen.
The woozy monster wavered a little in the candle light. Gin was a heady experience.
“Well, you’re going to feel awful in the morning.” Maya told Stinker.
Stinker blubbed a little. He felt pretty awful right now.
“I’d send you outside to sleep, but the storm hasn’t let up enough to be sure that you won’t get wet under the porch. And the tree is still swaying too much for a tipsy monster to sleep in its branches. You’ll have to spend the night next to the back door. The lino should be cool enough to keep you from overheating.”
Duffy wasn’t quite sure what or who Maya was talking to, it sounded like it was someone she knew well. “Maya?”
“Never you mind, Duffy, it’s just that old Stinker.”
“Stinker? He’s in the house?” Duffy asked. “He’s not supposed to be in the house. Not now.” Why not now Duffy wasn’t sure. Stinker was often in the house, under his bed or quietly sleeping in the toy box next to his dresser. But right now Duffy knew for sure that Stinker being in the house was not a good thing. Not with whatever it was the Maya was doing on top of the TV. It was going to be bad enough when Dad found out about that. But if Stinker had gotten mixed up in it something worse was bound to happen.
Duffy walked over to the refrigerator. He stopped. He looked. There was something large and lumpy beside it. Hunched and snuffling. And familiar.
“Stinker?” Duffy asked the lump. Duffy didn’t think the monster look too good. His green face was pale and his lips stuck to his teeth when he tried to smile. There were leaves in the fur on his belly and his arms were wrapped tightly around his middle.
He looked at Maya. “What’s wrong with him?” he asked.
“He drank something that didn’t agree with him.”
That’s what Duffy’s dad sometimes said when his mom didn’t come down for breakfast on Sunday morning.
“He doesn’t look so good,” she continued. “But I think he’ll be alright by supper time tomorrow.”
“No, he doesn’t look too good,” Duffy sighed.
Maya giggled, “His right ear has turned inside out.”
Duffy looked closely. Yes, the little flap on the side of Stinker’s head was flopped over his head with the rosy-pink underside showing. “That’s his left ear.”
Maya turned half way around and waved her right hand in the air. “It’s your left,” she emphasized, “it’s his right.”
Duffy turned around as well and looked at his hands. “Oh, it is.”
Maya smiled slightly. “His spines aren’t looking too perky either. See how they’ve gone yellow at the tips.”
On Stinker’s dorsal spines, the two that Duffy could see rising over his shoulders, the blue had receded from the tips leaving only the ivory color of the horn.
“And his eyes are red and streaky,” Duffy said, trying to keep his face from betraying the fib.
“Stinker’s eyes are black,” Maya stated calmly, “Besides, they’re closed.”
There was silence for several moments.
“Maya?” Duffy whispered.
“Yes?” Maya answered just as quietly.
“You can really…”
“You’re not pretending like my dad?
“I’m not pretending.”
“And the Slim Man… I really saw him?”
“Yes, I wasn’t sure that you would, but you did.
“Can he see me?”
Duffy wondered if this made him feel better or worse, then decided that it was creepy but not scary.
“Can he see Stinker?”
“Is Stinker safe?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“He ate the Slim Man’s chicken.”
“You saw that?”
“No, I just, I just know that he would.”
“He shouldn’t have done it,” Maya said, “but I don’t think the Slim Man is going to hurt him for it. He’s going to think that Stinker has done himself enough harm drinking that gin.”
Duffy looked at the bedraggled monster and pondered.
“Are you going to get into trouble?” he asked Maya.
“Maybe. A little.”
There was another silence.
“Time to clean up,” Maya announced and walked toward the living room where she began to clear off the top of the TV. She handed Duffy the plate of chicken and the glass of milk and she took the dish of strawberries and the glass of gin.
They walked into the kitchen with Roy following closely. Duffy gave in to his curiosity.
“So I can see the Slim Man?”
“And you can see Stinker?”
Duffy thought a little longer.
“Could I see Lily?” he asked eagerly.
“The ghost at your house.”
“She’s not your ghost,” Maya told him.
“Will I ever get to see a ghost?”
“We all have ghosts, sooner or later.”