I had been afraid of her for as long as I could remember.
She stood in a corner of my grandparent’s cellar, underneath the solitary window that sent beams of dust motes upon her raven hair.
A jagged, yet fine, crack meandered from her hairline to just beneath the cleft in her chin. Her clothes would have been at the height of fashion in the early 1960s, but in my young mind they were a calliope of faded colors lost to times I remembered from vague snapshots.
My grandpa knew I was afraid of her and, when his jokes fell flat (at my expense, of course), he decided to make her less frightening. He called her Maryanne and said she was my guardian angel.
“Maryanne will always look out for you,” he said with a wink.
The faux sparkle in the painted eyes seemed to confirm the name, carrying it to me on psychic winds up to the landing where I gazed into the cellar without actually entering it.
Grandpa walked down, passed Maryanne, and grabbed a homemade bottle of red wine. As he returned, he said, “I hear you’ll be spending the summer with us.” I nodded but didn’t take my wary eyes off of Maryanne. “It’s only two weeks away. You must be excited, eh?” I nodded again.
He chuckled to himself, patted my shoulder in passing, and shuffled upstairs. It took ages for me to take the first step down and, even then, my heart beat a convulsive tattoo that made my red race striped tee-shirt shudder. Screwing up my face to look tough, I gazed at her perpetual smile and looked past the thick eyelashes and into the green-blue eyes.
“I’m Chris,” I said. “I’m not afraid of you.” But I was. I was shaking in my Keds. Thankfully, Maryanne did nothing untoward and I relaxed and continued our one-sided conversation. All of this from a distance though, standing on the stairs ready to bolt should she wink or move her solitary plastic arm that thrust into the air like a slot machine handle.
Ten days later, sadness came to my grandparent’s home when grandpa died unexpectedly. In the days that followed, strangers came and went, comforting grandma, and I, left alone to wander the house, turned to Maryanne. She became my confidante. I told her my deepest secrets, my juvenile fantasies, and my simple childish absurdities.
All of this spoken to the deaf ears of a worn out fashion mannequin.
My summer vacation passed without event until, one day in early August, the doorbell rang. Grandma often still had visitors, so I ignored it. I told Maryanne about a pill bug I had found that morning under a stepping stone in the garden. I hushed when grandma shouted. Low voices and heavy footfalls rumbled through the foyer.
I called out to grandma. When she didn’t answer, I excused myself from Maryanne and walked upstairs to find a man riffling through the buffet and putting grandma’s silverware into a faded pillowcase.
He looked at me, his upper lip raising a corner of his mouth, and said, “Shut up!” even though I hadn’t said anything. Grandma’s voice wafted from the foyer in frightened undertones. I ran and found another man standing over her with his hand raised to deliver a blow.
“I know your old man died,” he said. “It was in the paper. Silverware’s good but you’re holding out on me.” A leer pulled at his face. “I heard you keep money in the house.”
“Leave her alone!” I yelled.
The man’s arm remained in the air as if caught in an invisible grasp and he looked down at me. A dull Class of ‘72 ring protruded from a finger on his clenched fist. “Come here, little boy,” he said with a smile that made my stomach quiver. “Do you know where the money is?”
Grandma interrupted before he could ask again. “In the cellar! Behind the furnace is a little cubby hole. It’s all there! Just take it and leave!” Grandma sobbed and opened her arms for me to run to her and I did. Her wet face smeared mine as she kissed my cheek.
The man looked us over as if we stank. “If you try anything, I’ll kill you.” From his shirt pocket he pulled out a black-handled knife. The steel blade snapped to attention. Grandma cried out, weeping harder, but still managed to nod her head. “How much is down there?” the man asked.
Grandma rolled into the sobs like a ship into a storm.
“How much!” the man screamed.
My grandparents had lived through the Great Depression and grandma had only recently, with the death of grandpa, felt comfortable keeping some of her money at the bank. But not all. I had overheard my mother say how bad it was to keep that amount of money around. I had just never realized what that amount was.
The man whistled approval, his eyes narrow and calculating. Mr. Pillowcase appeared and leaned against the dining room doorway. “The boy came from downstairs.” He gestured with his head. “This way.”
Mr. Class of ‘72 pointed the knife at us like a warning finger. “Don’t move. And no funny business either.” He ripped the foyer telephone cord out of the wall (it was the only phone in the house), pulling plaster with it and peppering the floor with white flecks like a Hollywood snowfall.
He glanced at his watch, then followed after Mr. Pillowcase.
Grandma rocked me. Between her sobs, I heard the rooster crow in the yard and the hens cluck their approval. A single engine airplane buzzed in the distance. For once, no cars came to the house, no visitors brought potato salad or freshly baked cinnamon bread. Grandma and I were truly alone.
Grandma began a soft, faltering rendition of some song I didn’t recognize, kissing my forehead from time to time and allowing tears to fall onto my hair in moist warmth. Her scent, a mixture of fresh linen and times long past, comforted me. All the while, we rocked.
Without warning, the screen door rattled as if wanting to burst open yet the old Elm tree that shaded the front yard stood undisturbed. Another gust whisked through the metal screen. My hair tickled into grandma’s face and we realized that the wind had come from inside.
“Are they gone?” I asked, thinking the men had left through the garage, leaving the door open.
“I don’t know. They’re awful quiet.” She sat up a little straighter, seeming to find the courage that had left her before. She looked at the door as if weighing our escape then squinted into the dining room. “Maybe they are gone.”
A man’s voice, Mr. Class of ‘72, called out angrily, “Who the hell are you!”
“Let’s go to the neighbor's,” I said, pulling from grandma’s arms and standing up. The nearest neighbor was a three-minute walk away.
“Help me up.” I pulled on one of her arms. Her body snapped and creaked as she rose to her full five feet. She advanced in uncertain movements as if she were checking for quicksand.
The rooster crowed.
“I’m warning you!” Mr. Class of ‘72 threatened.
“Use the knife!” Mr. Pillowcase said.
“Grandma!” I hissed.
“Shh. They’re not talking to us.”
Grandma pushed me behind her and we tiptoed into the dining room and stopped in front of the short stairwell that led to grandma’s sewing room, the garage, and the cellar. I peered around her thighs and looked down to see the spidery light from the small, high windows. Her sewing machine shone in light brown plastic splendor; a bolt of plaid polyester lay sideways on her work table waiting to be cut; her black handled steel scissors glared.
“Why, you’re just a kid!” Mr. Class of ‘72 said with a snicker.
“Let’s leave!” I said in an urgent whisper, wishing for anything but what she was doing.
“Hold on,” she said, her nose sniffing at the air. “Don’t you feel it? There’s something in the air.”
My voice came out as a hissing breeze. “Grandma!”
She took a step forward and stopped abruptly as high-pitched shrieks roared from below. Their suddenness caused me to yell and trip over my own feet and fall down. Grandma tripped over me and splayed onto the landing.
In that moment, it seemed as if the whole world held its breath. Finally, I stood and helped grandma to her feet; she seemed to regain her composure. “Let’s go, grandma!”
“Wait. There’s definitely something in the air.” She shuddered. “Like static.” She pushed me behind her again and peered down the stairs. She bit her lip and called out, “Hello?” She waited a few seconds, then said, “Are you boys all right?” She looked back at me, a fearful threat glistening in her eyes. “You stay right there!” She crept down the stairs and grabbed the scissors.
Grandma moved from my field of vision but I could imagine her looking into the dark cellar where one small window allowed Maryanne her few rays of the sun’s warmth. The men would have had to turn on the light in order to see where the furnace was, but I heard a repetitive snap of her flipping the switch up and down nonetheless.
“Sweet Jesus!” Grandma whispered just loud enough for me to hear. I rushed to her side.
The cellar lights were out. In the fine beams from the window I saw the red barn paint that grandpa had never cleared out, spilled all over the floor. He had sworn on a regular basis that he would get rid of the few cans that were left but his death had ensured that he never would.
“Look what those bad men did!” I said, scolding.
“Get back upstairs!” Grandma commanded.
As she moved to block my view, I glimpsed a man’s hand slowly quivering, alone and separate from its owner. The Class of ‘72 ring clicked almost imperceptibly against the hard, paint-moist floor.
Flashing lights soon made kaleidoscope patterns on the outside of grandma’s old clapboard house.
I sat with a deputy in the front seat of a cruiser while the sheriff talked to grandma. Countless other people in uniforms walked in and out of the house in a way that would have put me in dire straits with grandma. “Either you stay inside or out! Stop letting flies in!”
I watched as paramedics wheeled a stretcher through the garage and into the house. I saw them, with faces of poster glue, coming out empty handed a few minutes later. They smoked cigarettes one after the other, creating a mound of butts in the space between them. Another ambulance arrived and two new men took buckets and flat-headed shovels into the house.
The sheriff came out of the front door with grandma. Her face was ashen and disturbed, yet she put on a smile for me. The deputy got out of the car.
Grandma bent over and looked in at me. “Your mama and daddy are coming to pick you up, baby,” she said. “The sheriff just wants to ask you a few questions first. Okay?”
I nodded and the sheriff slid into the spot where the deputy had sat. “Chris, that was an awful thing those men did to you today. Pretty scary, huh?”
I nodded and made a noncommittal grunt.
He looked toward the house and seemed to vaguely focus on the car’s windscreen of insect death. “Did you and your grandma try to fight those guys at all?” He added quickly, “’Course, I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
I shook my head, my eyes wide, and made a louder, protesting grunt. “No, sir! We were too scared. Then we heard them scream. And they spilled grandpa’s old paint everywhere.”
He nodded knowingly, then said, “So you don’t know what really happened to them?”
“Oh, yeah, I do!”
His eyes came back to mine, sparkling in their intensity. “You do?”
I looked down and whispered, “I think Maryanne got them.”
“Maryanne. My grandpa said she’s my guardian angel. She’s in the cellar.”
“Mrs. Blanton?” He nodded his head to grandma who stood a few feet away. “Thanks, sonny,” the sheriff said, messing up my hair and scooting his portly frame out of the seat. He stood and leaned forward against the open car door. They spoke in murmurs. A few moments later, grandma came around the car door and the sheriff moved out of the way. She peered in at me.
“Who’s Maryanne, baby?”
“She’s the man-i-kin you got in the cellar.”
Grandma looked at the sheriff and he shrugged. Her eyes came back filled with emotion and confusion. “Baby, grandpa got rid of her the day before he passed. He knew you were afraid of her and I didn’t use her anymore, so he took her to the dump.” Her eyes glistened. “He didn’t want you to be afraid.”
Ten years later. I’m seventeen. Almost eighteen. Grandma died three days ago.
Our lives were never the same after the attempted robbery. While tabloids squeezed as much out of the tawdry details as they could, the mainstream media was much kinder and grandma even received offers to invest her money.
My mother encouraged grandma to invest with one bank in particular and grandma made a nice return that allowed her to travel and see places she had always dreamed of. As for the police investigation, they were never able to determine what had happened. A frail old woman and a skinny little boy could have never done what had happened to those men.
The police saw fit to leave my revelation out of their official reports and the case remains unsolved. I never saw Maryanne again.
And now all the family and friends have gathered in grandma’s strangely empty house. They remember her for her love and friendship as well as her enduring fondness for homemade wine.
I’ve been sent down to get the last few bottles that are left in the cellar. Laughter dances around the house in happy ebbs and flows. Memories are prodded and poked to relive some of grandma’s sillier moments. Even grandpa is resurrected, the remembrance of his wry smile and quick wit a point of laughter for all.
I step down into the sewing room.
The musty smell of old cloth that has sat a little too long meets my nose. It’s not unpleasant and makes me think of grandma. I walk to the landing above the six wooden steps. The top of the door frame obscures my view. I crouch down.
The dust motes dance in sunbeams from the window. Grandpa’s paint cans are long gone, although I figured out the truth years ago. The floor is now a dusty battleship gray. The yellow washing machine is a shadow in the far corner, but my anxiety is closer at hand. I feel a static presence, something unseen that urges me to see it.
My eyes follow the sunbeams back toward the window.
A board game sits in dust where Maryanne once stood. I walk down and rub my hand across its cardboard top. Faded words appear. Life. I remember playing it with grandma and grandpa. I remember how I always seemed to win.
The unseen presence fades, leaving me with a feeling of security and warmth. “Who am I kidding?” I say to myself and chuckle. I grab the last two wine bottles and take them upstairs.
Mike Gibb writes because he has to, picks AC/DC's "The Jack" and "Highway to Hell" on his electric guitar because he needs to, and plays like a fool with his two young sons because he wants to.
Mike Gibb grew up in South Carolina where the old family home had a rocking chair that rocked on its own. He frequented dilapidated colonial graveyards and even frolicked in a park where pirates were once hanged. He now lives in Ottawa, Canada, in the guise of a scary stay-at-home dad.
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