A short story
by Chris Hibbard
The house sat sullenly, wedged uncomfortably amongst its fellows on the crowded street. Brick construction, peaked rood, double garage, small porch, crumbling columns, faded designs in peeling paint; all speak of aging beauty long lost to the art of architecture. In its prime, it would have been quite magnificent. Now it remains standing only through the direct intervention of sentiment – a cherished relic of a bygone era kept as a reminder of what once was and what may one day be again,
The owner of the house was an old woman, one Ruth Landow, who, since taking up an interest in high finance, had bought a ludicrously overpriced condo in the centre of town, better to hobnob with her new contemporaries from. The house stood vacant for several years, unwanted, but kept out of respect for tradition. Ruth was on the verge of selling it when she received an urgent letter from her grand-niece on the west coast, Jeanne Esbrook. Her brother (her niece’s grandfather) has been declared mentally incompetent and was in need of a caretaker. Jeanne, being the only nearby relative, had been asked to make arrangements.
Being no great fan of retirement homes and knowing that her grand-niece had been looking to move from her tiny apartment anyway, Ruth immediately sent a reply suggesting that they both come east and use the family homestead. Ruth would cover travel expenses and any medical costs until they were settled in, and Jeanne could have a nice change of pace, get a new job, perhaps find a husband, and in the meantime enjoy a large classic home in a nice neighborhood instead of a cramped apartment in Vancouver.
* * *
The old man glanced up irritably as the door swung open.
“Can’t it wait five minutes?” he snarled. “Simon and I were right in the middle of a poker game.” He gestured at the empty chair across the table. The young woman entered, bearing a tray of food.
“Using Simon’s deck were you?” she inquired lightly, gesturing at his empty hands.
“Of course. Simon thinks I use marked cards. Which,” he added, shooting a glare across the table at his invisible partner, “is absolutely untrue.”
“We’ll, I’ve brought you your lunch,” she said, setting down the tray. “Feel like taking a break?”
“Thank you Jeanne.” The old man eyeballed the food appreciatively, “Pastrami and Swiss on rye! That’s my favourite! How thoughtful of you. But what about Simon? After all, you can hardly expect the poor fellow to survive on starvation rations.”
Jeanne glanced at the empty chair. “Can’t you just, you know, share?” she asked plaintively, obviously not thrilled at the idea of fixing a second meal for the old man’s imaginary friend.
The old man pursed his lips. “Well, I suppose I could. This time. But mind you, don’t forget him again. Really, you’ve been quite rude to Simon ever since he arrived.”
Jeanne wisely suppressed her first inclination to retort. “I’ll try to make it up to him grandpa, but later all right? Brad’s picking me up in about fifteen minutes. We’re going to Julio’s for our six-week anniversary.”
The old man grunted sourly. “I wish you would stop seeing that man. You know I don’t like him, and –” he paused and cocked his head, appearing to listening intently. “And Simon says he has a bad feeling about the whole thing. I think you ought to stay home tonight, and so does Simon. Right?”
The empty chair made no response. “Absolutely. That’s very good advice Simon. You really ought to listen to Simon more often Jeanne.”
Jeanne rolled her eyes and heaved an exasperated sigh, leaving her grandfather to his lunch and his imaginary card games. As she left the room, her eyes were stinging with suppressed tears.
* * *
“Well Simon, you want some pastrami?”
Simon preferred roast beef.
The old man shrugged. “Your loss,” he said, digging in with relish.
Simon suggested another round.
“Wait ‘til I’m done eating will ya? Poker isn’t all there is in life.”
“What do you mean, ‘It is at your age.’? I’m not that old.”
“Well, all right, maybe I am. But I can still do more than play cards. Why don’t we go for a walk this afternoon? It’s been quite lovely outside this week.”
Simon’s leg had been giving him trouble all day.
“Oh, well, then the heat will do it good.”
Simon thought they had better just stay home.
“One of your premonitions? Well, that’s all right then. Whose deal is it?”
* * *
Jeanne glanced at herself in the mirror. A scrawny, mousy bookworm of a girl stared back at her. She sighed. Even a glamorous evening dress and fifty dollars worth of makeup couldn’t soften the hard lines of her prominent bones and put curves where none existed. She smoothed the front of her gown but, on catching sight of her reflection, quickly snatched her hands behind her back. The nervous gesture brought her hands into prominence, her big bony hands that seemed to be all knuckle.
She always felt so nervous just before a date with Brad. After a month and a half she ought to feel comfortable, yet every date found her to be a jumpy bundle of insecurities. Something about him made her terrified of his disapproval. It was probably the simple fact that he was a better catch than she had ever expected to land. Young, good-looking, from a prominent family in the community; he had every reason to ignore her and no apparent reason to be as devoted to her as he seemed to be.
They had met at a New Year’s Eve costume ball.
Aunt Ruth always insisted that she attend the yearly glitz and glitter-fest where the crème de la crème of the city could rub shoulders and congratulate each other on having made it through yet another year rich and successful. Jeanne always loathed the functions, having long ago concluded that high society meant those who had the means to succeed in the modern world, which in turn meant soulless scumbags who would cheerfully sell out their own mothers to clinch a lucrative deal. Of course, her aunt had been a natural, and spent every minute she could spare from playing the stock markets either attending massively overdone parties or planning the next one. The New Year’s Eve costume ball was the favoured setting for “husband catching”, Aunt Ruth would say, and refused to listen to a single excuse to avoid this.
This year Jeanne had gone as Cleopatra, and Brad just happened to be Caesar. They had both been in the restrooms as midnight struck and had literally collided with each other on the way back out to the party. After they had picked themselves and playfully complimented each other’s costumes, Brad had conducted her back to the ball. When the party finally broke up in the small hours of the morning, Brad had inquired about the possibility of seeing her again, later in the week.
And now it was their six-week anniversary. Not much of an occasion to be sure, but it was two weeks longer than the 33-year-old Jeanne had ever dated steadily before. And after all, he was her Caesar.
Perhaps Aunt Ruth would finally get a break from nagging Jeanne to get a “beau” as she called it in her old-fashioned way. Aunt Ruth was a determined as any fussy mother to see Jeanne happily married, preferably to someone with great deals of money lying around, waiting to be invested.
Slowly, hesitantly, and with many misgivings, Jeanne took one last look in the mirror, picked up her purse, and left the house.
* * *
Simon bet low and folded nearly every hand.
“All right, what’s going on?” demanded the old man; “Even I take a risk once in a while. You’re up to something aren’t you?
Simon allowed that that was possible.
“Care to let me in on it? No? Fine, have it your way, Mister Secretive.”
The door slammed so loudly that it shook the house, jolting the old man out of his doze.
“What was that?” he demanded. He received no answer. “Simon?” he said, sitting upright in his recliner. “Simon? Oh damn, he’s gone again.” The old man rose to his feet and shuffled out the door to the stairs. “Oh, there you are Simon. What are you doing out here? What? Keep my voice down? But why – oh, fine, all right already.”
In the now silent stairwell, voices could be heard downstairs raised in anger.
“…All you’ve wanted this whole time? Money? Well you can take you Prince Charming act and shove it up your…”
“That’s Jeanne!” whispered the old man hoarsely. “Is she talking to Brad? I thought – okay, okay, I’m shutting up.” The voices continued their echoing rebound up the stairwell.
“…Weeks! Six weeks of play-acting, of pretending to love me! For a lousy twenty grand! I can’t believe I let you dupe me like that! If you had simply asked me, I probably would’ve given it to you – money means that little to me. But this, this is absolutely unforgivable.”
If Brad replied, the two on the stairs couldn’t hear it.
“Just get out. Get out of my sight, get out of my house, and get out of my life. Just GET OUT!!” Jeanne was screaming now.
“Simon?” said the old man, “Simon, where are you going? Answer me! What’s going on? I thought she liked Brad? Why – all right, I’m hushing, I’m hushing. Just wait up; you’re going too fast for me!”
There was a crash, as of something fragile being thrown, then a slap that rang out across the entire house. The old man crept down the hall at the foot of the stairs to the kitchen. In the cold glow of the fluorescent ceiling lights, he saw Brad standing amongst shards of broken china with one hand on his cheek, where a red mark was brightly visible against his otherwise pallid skin. A few feet away, a furious Jeanne seethed, indignant outrage radiating from every inch of her petite body. The she noticed the old man in the hallway.
“Grandpa!” she cried, breaking the silence.
Brad seemed suddenly to remember himself. He turned and launched himself at the old man with a growl. The old man raised a feeble arm in a vain effort to protect himself, but Brad easily overpowered him. He locked one are around the old man’s neck, and turned to face Jeanne once more.
“Now can we talk business, sweet thing? I need that money if I’m to keep my family’s good name out of the mud, and I will kill this old timer to get it.” Brad gripped the old man’s scraggly thin hair in his free hand, preparing to snap his neck.
“Simon!” cried the old man, “Simon, help me!”
“Simon?” said Brad with amusement, “Who’s Simon? You got another feller around here somewhere? All that talk about me faking you out, and you’ve got a live-in boyfriend stashed here on the sly? You two-faced little slut. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“No, it’s just…he’s an old man. He talks to people who aren’t really there,” said Jeanne, sobbing between breaths, “Please, if you want the money, I’ll give it to you. Just let him go. Please.”
“No way, toots,” said Brad, tightening his grip. “First you got and get –” Brad’s voice stopped suddenly, as though he was choking, as though someone had grabbed his throat in a vice-like grip.
“Brad?” said Jeanne cautiously, “Brad, what’s…”
Jeanne’s words died in her throat, as Brad released his hold on her grandfather, who slumped the floor. Jeanne’s silence however, was quickly replaced with a rising scream, as Brad was lifted slowly into the air by the invisible force holding his throat in a choke hold. He made pitiful whimpering noises as he fought for breath. The old man recovered in time to see Brad being shaken like a naughty puppy, dangling from absolutely nothing three feet above the floor. Brad was fighting desperately, swinging his arms and legs, fighting for his life against his unseen assailant.
“Atta boy Simon! Give him what for!” shouted the old man from his prone position on the floor.
Brad was resisting more feebly now. His arms hung limply at his sides, his face purple from oxygen deprivation.
“Don’t kill him!” shouted Jeanne, her eyes wide open with terror. “Please. He’s a heartless bastard, but he doesn’t deserve…that.”
“Better put him down Simon,” said the old man as he rose unsteadily to his feet on arthritic joints.
“Outside, preferably, with the door locked. And make certain he’s all right first. I will not have anyone murdered in my house. What would Ruth say?” He paused. “Well, no I wasn’t suggesting that you would have. It was merely a general caution. I have faith in your morals my friend.”
Brad’s unconscious body, now cradled gently in invisible arms, floated from the room. The old man turned to Jeanne.
“Shall we have a snack when Simon gets back, do you think? I know where the pastrami is, but you’ll have to find the bread for me. My goodness, I think I bruised my backside. I haven’t seen this much excitement since the war.”
“You have a snack Grandpa, I think I need a drink,” said Jeanne.
“Oh splendid! I’ll have one too.”
Simon said he wasn’t having anything, thank you.