“Susan”

susan-curios-on-window-sillKids these days. They have it pretty easy, don’t they? The Internet is everywhere, there’s no shortage of cable channels to choose from, and videogames are so embedded into daily life we barely even notice them. A trip to Grandma’s involves an hour or two of backseat gaming, a few more hours of television, a hasty meal and a bored visit to the garden, followed by tantrums over the WiFi password and an angry drive home because the iPad is dead.

In my day… oh, here we go, “In my day!” Really. I hate to say it, but it’s true. There were no microwaves, no cable channels, no smartphones, and no wireless Internet. A visit to Grandma’s usually meant watching trees zip by, a black-and-white television that was never turned on, a ponderously slow dinner, and a tour of the garden that was actually a highlight.

Then, for real entertainment, there were the trinkets on the windowsill. I think every grandmother had them. These little glass baubles were found in every window in the house, and they came in every shape and color. Little red cups, blue vases, pink ballerinas, butterscotch birds, and they weren’t just on the sills. Grandma had placed them on top of every sash, and there were extras on shelves throughout the house. The sun beamed through them, throwing beads of color across the floor and walls. When the colors rose just so far up the back wall of the dining room, we knew it was time to hit the road.

Those days eventually end, as they must for everyone, and the houses are sold, boxes are packed, and the trinkets are forever lost, to remain only in memory. Once in a while a cellar is cleared, and boxes of these glass curios are discovered, wrapped in old newsprint: a local sports team wins a trophy in 1954; Jackie Kennedy’s recipe for a noodle casserole; Comics lampooning Nixon. And inside, glass junk, fads from a bygone era, suitable only for a dumpster.

And that brings me to the Wakefield house.

———-
The house was a flip. I’d say it was a failed one, though most of the work was top notch. The failure was in the previous owner’s timing. Bought at the peak of the market, and unsuccessfuly sold at the bottom. They’d had the place for a year or so, and the bank had it for three. My wife Lisa and I bought it in a dusty, neglected condition, but with good ‘bones’, new walls and ceilings and updated heating and electrical. A steal, with only some cleaning to do.

‘Only’ can be a loaded word. The basement of this house was still packed with boxes and old furniture. We found stuff in the attic, too. The houseflippers gave all this stuff up, or maybe it was there before. Of course we determined that this was the end of the line for most of it.

While clearing out the junk, it was apparent that this house had been lived in for a long time by someone. What we could glean from the collection was that an older couple had accumulated clothes, books, old board games, tools, toys from every era. We figured out how to give a lot of it away.

For the old furniture and anything we couldn’t donate, dumpsters were hauled in, and out. Two twenty-yarders. I tried to keep anything worthwhile. Tools! A model railroad set (that has yet to be built). And there was one box of these glass trinkets that so closely matched the ones I remember, I couldn’t quite toss it. It stayed.

The house was interesting. It had a quirky sideways floor plan with a huge living room, an open kitchen with a dining area, a weird little den in between, and a short corridor that formed a loop. The main bedroom was double the size of a normal one, with its own full bathroom. Most, if not all, of the walls were new.

———–
Before long, Lisa started complaining about a feeling she was getting about the place. She was always into this kind of hocus-pocus, paranormal bullcrap, so when she said she felt a presence in the house, I treated it like so much nonsense. Her sister would visit, and, completely independently, mentioned a weirdness about the place. I was sure they were collaborating on some kind of practical joke.

The gist of it was that there was something going on at the bottom of the stairs. A chill, or a tingling, which they felt every time they walked past the spot. We rearranged the living room furniture so we were never sitting back-to the stairway. Before long, even I became a little anxious looking down the stairs after dark.

My dubiousness about the situation began to unravel after a number of strange incidents. One involved a friend who was having trouble with his family, and needed a place to stay. We were quick to offer up the couch, since we had two extra bedrooms but no beds. We left him stretched out on the couch with a sleeping bag, but the next morning, he emerged from an empty bedroom. As he told it, something down there spooked him. He wound up running right through it to get upstairs, and felt a cold spot.

Any concerns we had about taking in a new resident went out the window, but we gained a name for the phenomenon: the cold spot.

It was our first Thanksgiving in the house, when my mom, sitting at the table, looked toward the living room and asked us what was up in there. She’d felt something. A presence. I gave my wife and her sister a glance and dug back into my turkey and stuffing.

———-
Finally, on a severely cold evening less than a week before Christmas, there was a knock on the door. A woman about our age stood on the steps. Her name was Ashley, and she was visiting from Pennsylvania. Apparently she’d grown up in the area, and visited her grandmother in this house. She just wondered if she could see what’s become of the old place.

I don’t know if it was wise. I wouldn’t advise anyone do this, but we let her in. We believed her, and I think we were thinking the same thing: that maybe, just maybe, she held an answer to our shared question.

Lisa started a pot of coffee. While it brewed, Ashley gave us a tour of the house. My hunch about the upstairs was true; the master suite used to be two bedrooms. Downstairs, the renovators had made a ton of changes. The fireplace wasn’t always surrounded by ornate woodwork, the kitchen was originally closed off from the dining area, and the living room was now larger.

As we sat in the living room with our coffee, Ashley told us how there used to be a corridor leading to the stairs, where a rank of shelves opened to the living room. On these shelves, her grandmother kept a bunch of colorful little glass trinkets, and she’d often stand at the bottom of the stairs, contentedly arranging them.

Lisa and I shared a look. “Guess what?” I said. “We have something for you.”

I bounded down the cellar stairs and returned with the box. I placed it on the coffee table and opened it. Ashley saw exactly what was in there, and if it can be said that I’ve ever seen someone positively beam, it was then.

She pulled out several of the curios. She had a little story about them, and where they came from. Most of them, as far as she knew, her grandmother had always had on the shelves, but there were some that were bought at a county fair, a few at local yard sales. A blue seahorse that was given as a gift. A green teacup that she bought in Maine.

“You should have these,” I told her. “They belong to you. They’re your family’s.”

Ashley looked at me like I’d just told a hideous joke.

“Oh, no. No,” she said. “These could never leave here. They belong in this house.”

I will swear that I felt the presence then, standing just over Ashley’s shoulder. I’m sure my wife felt it. If Ashley did, too, she never let on. After a few more minutes talking about the house and her grandmother, we bid Ashley goodbye, and she left to brave the freezing night.

———-
I closed the door, and instantly knew what she meant about where the trinkets belonged. They couldn’t just be in a box. They stayed on the table another day or two, until I dug out a spice rack we kept in the basement (having never found a place for it). I installed the spice rack on the wall near the bottom of the stairs, and we arranged the colorful little glass things on it.

It was a nice addition to the Christmas junk we’d hung all over the house. Maybe it was a little tacky, but if it served a purpose, then so be it. For the rest of the holidays, we didn’t feel a presence, but it was likely because the house was in a state of constant noise as parties were held and family and friends were entertained. People asked about the trinkets on the shelves, and we said we’d found them in a box and put them up. Nobody ever mentioned feeling anything near the stairway.

Sometime in January, I noticed something about the glassware; they had been rearranged. Lisa swore she never touched them, and I believed her.

You see, we didn’t know how to arrange them. Should it be by color, by size, by type? This arrangement was seemingly random, but also had a kind of feel to it that was incomprehensible. An artistic intuition had been applied that neither of us had. We’d never heard any of them move, and certainly hadn’t seen it happen, but it was undeniable; they had been.

As time went on, we didn’t feel the presence any more, or at least I didn’t. Maybe I was imagining it, but occasionally, I could swear one of the trinkets would move.

We only lived there another year. When it came time to sell the place, I made sure to tell the new owners they’d be better off leaving the shelves of curios exactly as is. I’m pretty sure they weren’t about to do so.

I do know this: on the last night we spent in the house, we’d sat on the couch with a pizza, and Lisa went upstairs to pack the last few boxes of clothes. I poked at the embers in the fireplace, and suddenly felt the glare of eyes behind me. I turned to the stairs. No, I did not see anything, but I felt the old woman standing at the shelves looking at me. She wasn’t angry, wasn’t sad. It wasn’t happiness either, but I felt, almost imperceptibly, that she gave me a little nod.

I nodded back, and the presence was gone.

———-
Some time later that year I looked into the history of the house. The people who owned it, before the people who tried to flip it, had lived there sixty years. Adam and Susan Drexler. They were married for fifty-two of those years. Susan had outlived her husband by eight more.

We never heard from Ashley again, but I was able to find her grandmother’s obituary. She was found by her middle-aged son sitting peacefully, eyes closed, at the bottom of the stairs. She hadn’t fallen there, but it seemed she had been standing in the hallway, felt something, and simply sat down to rest.

May she rest well.

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