Monday, October 27, 2008

The Empty Space, Part 1

Short Story Monday. I've still not decided what the right length for a a story should be on a blogspot. Nor have I decided whether it is best to build the setup and link to the rest of the story elsewhere. This morning I will evade making a permanent decision and set down for you here the intro to something of a haunted house story, except it is a haunted apartment. Enjoy...

The Empty Space

I heard this story from Stuart M----, caretaker of an apartment complex on Stevens Square in South Minneapolis in the early 80's when I made my living as a painting contractor. After a fire in one of the buildings Dennis, my painting partner, and I spent quite a few of weeks there painting walls, ceilings, stairwells and doors. On the surface the likeable and loquacious Stu appears eager to engage in the typical banter one expects from those elaborately involved with a public. I soon perceived that this was all an act and thereafter I determined to respect his privacy.

At the end of a particularly busy week I was washing out paint rollers and brushes in the laundry room when Stu came in. "You got plans for dinner?" he asked. It surprised me, though I appreciated his thoughtfulness. I assumed it was because he was lonely. His wife was out of town. Having no other plans I felt inclined to accept the offer. Dennis had taken off early to go camping with his family or something like that.

At some point during the meal Stu told me his wife had taken a one year journalism position in St. Louis in order to get newspaper experience. He made contradictory remarks about her absence, saying that it felt good to be alone, and then again saying that he missed her terribly.

Over dinner we shared a bottle of wine, and through the course of the evening a second. It was late when I realized the evening had fled. He asked me not to leave. I reminded him that it was almost midnight and made a lame joke about turning into a pumpkin. He said he had something he needed to talk about.

Evidently he had wanted to be certain about me before he could share what was really on his heart. Perhaps the wine added to his courage. As near as I can reproduce it, this is the story Stuart told that night. To my shame I pretended to believe every word.

Stuart's story:

I owe the discovery of the 'empty space' to the death of my father. Within a week after the funeral I began searching for an apartment in South Minneapolis to be near my ailing mom and came upon an available efficiency just off Hennepin in the Uptown district.

While the manager was showing the room I asked questions. He spoke in short, dramatic bursts in a manner I found unsettling, so I probed more deeply and learned that the apartment had been let to at least four tenants in the previous year. When he asked me to sign a year's lease, I was surprised that four successive tenants would break that kind of a contract. You can tell how badly I wanted the place since I went ahead anyways. Later I learned that as many as six tenants had occupied the apartment that year.

The efficiency was located in one of those old-fashioned buildings built in the 1890's with exaggerated baseboards, a murphy bed, and ten layers of wallpaper. While moving in I learned from a woman across the hallway that the room was haunted. When I asked in what way, the lady couldn't explain.

"Is it ghosts? Was someone murdered here?"

She said that wasn't it, but didn't offer any more than that.

The very first night I became aware of it but didn't know what it was. After all the commotion of moving in I put the radio on till late, pulled the bed out of the wall and turned in. It's a downtown apartment complex, so one expects a certain amount of noise. While lying in bed I kept hearing the sound of a breeze blowing, crickets, and the rustling of leaves. What was strange about all this is that the windows were closed. Furthermore, there were no trees alongside the apartment building. The nearest tree is across the square. The noise seemed as if it were right there in the room.

I was too exhausted to investigate the source of the sound and fell off into a deep sleep. The following morning I was awakened by the singing of birds and the loud cawing of a crow. I sat up with alarm, again noting that the windows were closed. The birdsongs came from somewhere within the room. It was as if there were a speaker in the room playing one of those nature recordings. I was confused, walking about from here to there in my small space, unable to see anything, but clearly recognizing that the noises were vividly present. Upon more serious investigation I was able to determine that the sound was most prominent in a region approximately two feet from the ceiling and three feet
from the corner furthest from the bed.

Throughout the day I told myself it was not too late to break the contract and find another place, but I demurred. A week passed. Occasionally I heard the lowing of cattle. On other occasions the voice of a woman. Once I heard children playing a game. Several times the distant barking of a dog. Most of the time it was the wind, and a few birds. Early evenings, the cattle. After nightfall, the crickets.

I consulted with a friend who believes in all kinds of strange phenomenon. He was an avid sci fi fan and had all those Frank Edwards books like Stranger Than Science, things like that. I told him it seemed as if there were a microphone somewhere picking up sounds and projecting them into my room. He found it 'interesting.'

I wouldn't tell my mother about the room. She doesn't like things she can't control or explain.

Occasionally I would catch my neighbor across the hall studying me. She was watching to see when I would start acting funny. The old man next door also asked how I felt about the room. I got that fishbowl feeling about my neighbors and it made me want to withdraw.

While doing laundry, a white-haired lady from the third floor said that she heard I had the room with the empty space in it. I asked what an 'empty space' was and she said she didn't know. That's just what she was told it was called.

I consulted with my friend again -- Michael Tucci is his name -- and asked what an 'empty space' is. He said he'd talk to a woman who works at the food co-op. 'She's into all that occult stuff,' he said. 'If it's weird she's into it.'

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK ON SHORT STORY MONDAY

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