Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

Poems by Jessie Janeshek

 

A Guest In Narragansett

 

The big, old Victorian leaned a bit to one side, groaning under the weight of its roof, or under the tread of people who walked for a century on its creaky teak floors. It was perched on the tip of Swallow Hill, lording over the other smaller yet newer houses, each refurbished with a laminate countertop and fold-out ironing board, each stocked with an apron that was taken off the brass hook every afternoon and replaced every evening.

On the first floor, a big white farmer's porch wrapped around the house's wind-weathered shingles, with delicate steps that led down to the rocky beach. On the second floor, tall bay windows looked out across a glittering ocean. Sunlight reflecting off the harbor made tiny reflections in the layer of dust caked on the windowpanes. Inside, the house was a cavern of chestnut wood, its every surface now dull grey with lint.

When the couple arrived after a long drive from Allentown, they flung open the heavy double doors and a puff of dust escaped. Sheets were draped over the wing-backed chairs and plush footstools. They brought in their suitcases from the old gray Peugeot, their first purchase after their sunny marriage at the First Presbyterian Church on Springhouse Road, just down the street from the old tin-sided two-sleeper they'd shared for the year after.

When her rich East Coast grandmother fell to the floor clutching at the cracker lodged in her trachea, the couple had been drinking wine from Dixie cups and watching the Packers clobber the Chiefs on a grainy 13-inch black and white set. It wasn't until two weeks later, when the old lady was found, still in her bathrobe and slippers, by the paperboy who had come knocking on the door for his holiday bonus, that the couple received a call. The Narragansett City Hall phoned the woman's cousin's house, because the couple hadn't scraped enough together yet for a dial phone. When they finally got in touch with the couple, the woman couldn't explain why she had been chosen to assume responsibility for the big house with its creaking doors and vaulted ceilings. They packed everything into the Peugeot the next day and drove five hours northeast until they could smell the salty air.

At the same time, the man in the trench coat was getting out of his dull ebony Saab and setting out for a 12-hour drive from northern Maine. He lit up his first cigarette as he pulled out of the slick driveway, and was already on his third pack when he crossed the Massachusetts border. He stopped for a milkshake and a greasy burger in New Salem, at a diner where no one spoke to him and the waitress overcharged, thinking (rightfully so) that he was from out of town. He climbed back into the Saab, his ample belly spilling over the top of his belt, and pulled onto the wide flat Mass Pike. The naked skin on the top of his head brushed the fuzzy ceiling of the car and sent a visible wince across his face -- though there was no one there to witness it.

The couple had missed the funeral, but she hadn't seen her grandmother in over 20 years— since she was six, probably—and didn't mind much. Her memories were foggy—she only recalled a musky smell and chocolates wrapped in gold that looked like big shiny quarters.

They quickly set to work. In the daytime they would throw on old dungarees and cotton T-shirts and run around the house, she mopping the stained floors and painting the chipped trim; he replacing doorways and squeaky stairs. At night they'd go to the corner store for sandwiches and beer and then find driftwood on the beach. He'd throw it into the fire, where it crackled and spat as they writhed around in the pile of blankets they shared on the hard floor.

The couple put advertisements in the local paper -- "Relax at cozy beachside paradise, $30 per night per person.” It was a lot to ask, but the location was desirable --out of the way of the boardwalk and the popular tourist beaches, but close enough to drive there. The calls began coming in—honeymooners looking for a weekend alone on the warm sand and the delicate cotton sheets; wealthy businessmen en route to conferences in Boston and New York who were tired of the town's only hotel, which was known for its stained sheets and the charming Hispanic valet boy who smoked in the cars; boys with good manners and dull eyes from the Naval War College in Newport who persuaded co-eds from Roger Williams to steal away for a dreamy night on the shore. The house was never full, but usually about eight of the twelve rooms were occupied. It was all she could do just to keep up with cooking the meals and cleaning the linens, which sometimes had to be washed twice, especially after the Naval boys swept through with their uneasy charges.

The guest in the trench coat arrived on a sweltering night in the middle of August, when beads of moisture seemed to hang suspended in the air and everyone moved a bit more slowly, as if through sand. The man sat at his worn desk in the front room, where he sometimes stayed until midnight to receive guests. Reading a paperback, beads of sweat falling from his brow onto the curling pages, he sat and waited for the guest in the trench coat, who had called earlier to reserve a room.

I'm traveling through on the way to a business meeting in Boston, said the guest over the phone, in a husky tone that reminded the man of gravel. It was 11:30—the house was full of guests, mostly families driven out of the city by the oppressive heat that settled over the concrete sidewalks. Besides the occasional breeze that made its way through the window screen and the soft creak of the old desk, the house was still and silent, all of the guests were sleeping under the shingled eaves. The man kept the heavy oak front door locked and the porch light on. The neighborhood wasn't dangerous, but he had always been overly cautious with the house, his pride and joy.

,As another bead of sweat plummeted toward the open page of the man's book, two soft knocks were heard at the door. With a creak, the host rose to let the guest in, grateful that he would soon be joining the woman upstairs with her soft hair and her soft curves. He always retired to bed full of energy, groping in the darkness for the woman, his fingers sinking into her warm skin. During the day, she walked by with her arms wrapped around towering piles of towels, her long dark hair dusting the top of her belt. He would stare hungrily at her swinging hips and grip his pencil with his teeth, creating tiny grooves in the soft wood.

 

He turned the deadbolt and pulled back the door in one smooth motion, and looked out to see a stout, grizzled man standing on the porch before him, the yellow light reflecting off the brim of his hat. He was smaller and less impressive than the man had imagined. The guest in the trench coat had requested the master suite, which was $20 more expensive than the other rooms. On the porch, with his rounded shoulders and gray skin, the guest looked like he'd been dragged through all of the roughest patches of his life in just the past week. His body leaned slightly to one side, as if he couldn't quite keep it all up at once. Deep lines cut into the corners around his mouth, giving him the look of a Basset Hound on its last legs. But his eyes, unlike the rest of his appearance, were sharp and clear blue, with bleach-white around them, a striking contrast next to his leathered skin. His thin wisps of hair couldn't conceal the bright spot of light reflected off of the crown of his head, and he had deep creases around his ears.

The host stepped back and ushered the guest in out of the hot, dark night. Welcome to Narragansett, we're so glad you decided to stay with us, the man said. The guest grunted and looked around at the walls, turning in a full circle before stopping and settling his sharp eyes on the man. With a creak, the man settled behind the desk and pulled out his ledger book from a drawer. So, he said, staying just one night? In the master suite? Yes said the guest. It's a beautiful suite, said the man, the best we've got. It'll be $50 for the night then, he said as he pulled out the money tin from under the desk and drew his key ring from his pocket. The guest pulled out the cash and placed it carefully on the desk. His fingers were surprisingly thin and birdlike, considering the tremendous middle that bulged under his coat.

The host walked him up the creaking oak stairs, leading the guest to the last room on the first floor, which was complete with bay windows, bathroom and small porch—ideal for orange juice in the morning or champagne in the evening. The host pushed the brass doorknob and flicked the resistant light switch, revealing the pieces of square dark furniture and the woven tea cozies resting on them. The guest walked straight into the room, his coat swishing behind him, and promptly shut the door—it wasn't slammed, but closed with a resounding click that intimated the boarder's wish to be alone. The host trudged down the carpeted hallway, his fingers grazing the paneled walls for guidance until he reached the familiar white doorway and the familiar soft mattress and soft skin.

The next day, the man woke as the sun peeped under the house's eaves and left streaks of bright orange light below the slats of the blinds. He trudged downstairs, as he did every morning, and pushed the swinging door that led to the white sunny kitchen. His heart jumped when he stepped into the kitchen, met by the sight of a stranger standing in his house. But, in the split second it took for the man's heartbeat to regain normalcy, he caught sight of the guest's sharp blue eyes.

The guest was standing, still in his drooping trench coat, in the middle of the kitchen, one arm outstretched and resting on the handle of the refrigerator, a beautiful new teal model the hosts had picked up the month before during a housewares sale at Sears. The man sucked a breath of air in as the guest whirled around, pulling his arms in toward himself in a gesture of embarrassment. For the first time, he looked almost sheepish --his blue eyes, though still sharp, had the look of a puppy caught stealing a piece of beef from his distracted owner's plate. The host blushed, Oh I'm sorry, he said, a knee-jerk apology before he could stop it. The guest, snapping at once out of his embarrassment, issued a swift apology, mumbling something about getting hungry in the early morning, slamming the refrigerator door, and slinking off toward the stairs, which he noisily climbed.

Puzzled, the host opened the refrigerator, and let out an audible gasp. The block of cheese had a long bite mark down its side; the milk carton was decimated; the honeyed ham from last Sunday's supper had a wide borehole cut into it; and, inexplicably, there were eggshells on the butter shelf.

The host looked around, perplexed. The guest was odd, very odd; but there was something almost pitiful about him—a schoolboy bashfulness that was, frankly, endearing. The host thought to himself, The poor man, he must've been half starving! I should've offered him a meal last night, what a terrible host I've been. He wiped down some ham bits from the counter and collected the delicate eggshells, dumping it all into the wastebasket, and he began breaking more eggshells for the morning meal.

On that sweltering August day, many of the guests departed—some of them back to a respite in the northern New England cool, and others towards hellacious city apartments. Although they had expected him to leave the following morning, the guest in the trench coat remained. The host was wary of him after their kitchen encounter, but he didn't mind. The guest was not so bad, in fact. He took his suppers with the couple, and he was nothing if not painstakingly polite, even pleasant. Once he warmed up to the couple, he even shared a few stories of his past; he'd been traveling the country selling insurance for the past five years, and had met fascinating characters along the way, including one brief encounter with the ravishing Natalie Wood, with whom he spoke impeccable Russian for a few glorious exchanges.

As the days dragged on in humid stupor, the couple began to regard—and even enjoy—the guest as a regular at the big house; his balding, drooping face was non-threatening and comforting to her, and his slow, drawn-out aphorisms were entertaining for the man, who had a curiosity for life but whose brain had been atrophied from a lack of good schooling from the start.

Each day when the woman came home from the grocery store or the cleaners around four, she'd find the guest in the kitchen or on the adjoining porch, enjoying a tea and a healthy portion of pie or cake—the sugar of which surely settled around his midsection, which had the look of a car tire around his otherwise svelte frame. He was continuously wearing loose-hanging clothing to hide this bulge, and she thought to herself that it must be because he was self-conscious. It really was unsightly, she mused.

There were certain things about the guest that the couple noticed, but were hesitant to mention, because he had become something of a charge, if not a companion, to them both. He had an unusual way of mumbling under his breath in a strange high-pitched tone when he was with other people. If someone mentioned it, as the other guests sometimes did, his cheeks would glow magenta and he would excuse himself to his room, apologizing as he went. And at night, as the couple was lying in one another's heated arms, they would hear him speaking to himself or to some respondent whom he'd dreamed up, having long drawn-out conversations with his imagined adversary, muffled through the wooden walls of the old Victorian. But the woman, who had taken a familial liking to the guest, would turn to face the man next to her and ensure him that the guest was just an eccentric, an odd duck who simply needed an outlet for his expression. The man would nod and push his hands deeper into her flesh.

— 

The guest stayed longer than any of the others—much longer, in fact. Families and couples and businessmen came and went while the guest trudged around the house with his heavy shuffling steps, week after week. The guest would occasionally walk to the train station, en route to one of his business meetings in Boston. He would always return before supper though, and settle himself next to the woman, starving and elated to dig in to a rosemary turkey leg or thick slice of ham—the woman was an excellent cook, a fact that her boarders quickly learned. The guest was not eager to share details of his business meetings, but he was happy to learn about the other boarders' lives, asking question after question: where are you going, what have you seen, what are you looking for? He was eager to know, eager to soak up their experiences, though he was probably a man of at least forty-five by now.

Once, when she was frying wide slabs of eggplant on the gas burner, the woman heard a high, tinkling noise coming from the house's study, a musty room that no one entered unless they were having a hard time getting to sleep and needed a book to bore them into a stupor.

The woman heard this noise and turned down her burner, letting the grease settle in a slippery film onto the pan's bottom. She walked quietly towards the study, still unsure of whom or what she was hearing. She settled outside the study's thick mahogany door, and could still hear a voice from within, sharp and shrill. She had no clue as to whom it belonged, but suspected one of the young sons of a couple who was staying in the family suite. She wrenched the door open, expecting to castigate the boy, but was met with a shock in the form of the guest, who was standing half in shadow in the corner of the room, arched over a big dark bookcase, his nose almost touching one of the tomes. He started and swiveled his head to greet her, his coat swooshing around him as it always did. Oh I am so very sorry, he said. I was merely looking for a novel, he said, the skin around his ears turning pink. He brushed by her so quickly that she couldn't respond, but instead stood still with a perplexed look on her face. Why he should be so bashful for simply looking for a book was beyond her comprehension. She took a few steps into the study and found a few drawers ajar, as if he'd been searching for something. But she wasn't concerned. By that time he'd so gained her trust that she assumed he was looking for a scrap sheet of paper or something of the like.

The guest became a source of comfort for them, despite his eccentricities—he was never late for dinner, he was always interested and eager to talk, and even his loping gait, perpetually bent over on one side as if he was carrying a heavy bag, became recognizable and comfortable. His murmuring and his occasional late-night forays into the refrigerator - always immediately forgiven and never spoken of by the hosts—were commonplace by now. His blue eyes, so sharp and unfriendly, now were a source of warmth; their irises so light that they were eerie. They even asked him, occasionally, to join them on outings—invitations which he always politely declined.

And so the three of them coexisted, until the last truly hot day of the summer. It was the first Tuesday in September, a boiling thick day that wore on like a slow clock. The air was hotter inside the old Victorian, but the sun was too strong outside it. There was no escape except for the cool ocean, in whose waves the couple dipped every half hour, thrashing about in the pitching swell until their extremities were numb. The guest sat on the porch in the shade, sipping a sweating glass of iced tea that was no longer iced. They had called him to join, but he respectably declined, though the dark sweat stains on his heavy coat were growing by the minute. After he simply couldn't take the heat any more, he retired inside, calling to the hosts that he was going to take a nap. He trudged up the stairs, his left side heavy as always, weighing down his spine.

He entered his suite, which had all its curtains fastened back to let in the blazing light and any small trace of a breeze that might blow in. He took off his heavy jacket, rank with sweat and salty stench. He threw it on the wing-backed chaise and turned to look out the window, catching a glimpse of the man bobbing in the surf, diving under and surfacing. He couldn't see the woman, but he thought that she must have retired to the beach to slather on more baby oil.

When the woman arrived at the top of the stairs, dripping wet from the water and holding the novel the guest had left on the porch, thinking he might like it to help him fall asleep, she saw his suite's door ajar, and no one on the bed. Puzzled, she peeked around the open door to the bathroom, which was just as empty. She was about to leave the paperback on his nightstand, thinking he'd gone out for a walk, when she heard a soft voice, the same high tenor she'd heard the day she'd walked in on the guest in the study. This time, it was coming from the upstairs floor, near the door that led to her and her husband's bedroom. She took a step closer, and the voice continued, an audible yet incomprehensible string of mutterings. A few more steps, and it was clear that the noise was coming directly from her bedroom, the room she'd shared now with the man for over a year.

She hadn't the faintest clue why the guest would've entered her room, but maybe he was looking for the novel, she thought. Perhaps he thought she'd confused her own book, a light paperback with something of a similar cover, with his. Of course, she thought, and she took the rest of the steps down the hall to reach her bedroom door with its familiar brass doorknob.

She turned the knob and swung the door open, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the semi-darkness of the room. She didn't immediately see the guest, who stood squarely in front of her, his hands knuckle-deep in the jewelry box that contained her grandmother's diamond rings—valuable gems that she had told him about once over coffee and pineapple at breakfast. But her eyes landed elsewhere.

In fact, she didn't even notice the bashful expression in his blue eyes or what he was doing with his right hand. Instead, they rested on his lower left hip, where she'd always assumed there existed an ample protuberance of adipose, the fatty hill that gave him the appearance of an overturned vase. But there was nothing of the sort—in fact, he was quite trim, his abdominal muscles visible even in the shrouded light. As her eyes adjusted, her face contorted and stretched, reacting as her brain processed the horrific sight in front of it.

From the side of the guest's abdomen stretched a length of skin, somewhat darker and more wrinkled than the rest of his pale body. This protuberance formed a trunk that leaned up towards the spot where the wall met the high ceiling. The trunk was about a foot long, rounded into an oval at the end about the size of a honeydew melon. There were two deep cavernous holes in the oval, shaded so that they looked like the moon's craters on a foggy night. Below the holes was a lump, misshapen and confusing, and below that another gaping hole lined with purple, sickening flesh. From this hole a tiny but steady stream of mucous poured, catching a glint of light from between the blinds.

The thing—for that was the only word to describe it—was ghastly, an amalgamation of features that belonged among the Chimaera in Anatolia or the giants of Lamos. It was, the woman slowly realized, a face. It was a mangled, raw, disfigured face. But it was a face nonetheless. She managed to catch sight of two dark, black beads set into the two holes of the creature's countenance for just a moment, before the guest, aghast and drained of color, took two leaping strides toward her.

His momentum carried him swiftly across the room, faster than the woman imagined he could ever move. He took hold of her arm with surprising strength, and in one movement threw her to the ground, where she crumpled and whimpered. All the while she heard the high-pitched squeal that she'd heard before, amplified tenfold and now a hysterical scream that filled the house and leaked out of its windows.

Only now, lying on the floor and staring at the clawed foot of the armoire, did she realize that the noise was coming from the creature she'd seen. She heard the heavy thumps of the guest's frantic footsteps as he ran to his suite to gather what few belongings he kept, the parasite at his hip screeching as he did so. The woman raised her head slightly, and gasped at the drops of blood that fell from her lip, which she'd split on the claw foot. Her hands reached out before her and, through some superhuman source of strength, she raised herself onto all fours and crawled toward the bedroom door, unable to keep herself from peering around the edge. She saw the footsteps of the guest marching toward her, one always heavier than the other, but both alike in their frantic need to escape. He turned sharply to go down the stairs and it was then that she cocked her head to look up. As the man's unbuttoned trench coat billowed by, she caught sight of it for the last time—the parasite with its dark, wrinkled skin staring out at her from those cavernous holes bored deep into its trunk, two ebony beads that glared with menace into her aghast face. In that one moment, time slowed down while the creature swung toward her, spraying flecks of mucous that mixed with her blood and leaving an imprint on her vision of two coal-black orbs, hanging suspended in the dim light.

The woman heard the guest trundle down the stairs and slam the front door, followed by another slam from the door of his Saab. The gravel was kicked up in the driveway and the guest with the clear blue irises was already halfway down the street, hell bent for the Mass Pike.

 

 

Melissa Cronin writes words about animals every day at The Dodo. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post and Narratively. Sometimes, when she tries really hard, she finishes the Wednesday crossword.