Stirring : A Literary Collection

Edward C. Lynskey

The Dutchman's Razors

Unpacking the raspberry yogurt, canned pineapple, and liverwurst sandwiches on the tailgate of their 1990 Ford pickup, Opal Kilroy was telling her husband, Bix, why she didn't like their real estate agent. 

"His eyes, don't they seem squinty?"  After scooping crushed ice into their Styrofoam cups, she poured the Mountain Dew.  "Plus, he's too short."

"So, you wanna scratch the rowhouse, too?" Bix asked, his voice gruff and annoyed.  Smiling, he waved back to his co-workers clustered at a yellow picnic table shaded by a mulberry tree.  

Opal didn't respond right off the bat.  Instead, she recalled the rowhouse's two bedrooms and three full baths, its glossy white oak hardwood floors and cabinets, and its electric sconces displaying quetzal shades -- all features she adored.  Earlier, their real estate agent -- of all things, matching an orange necktie with a pastel green blazer! -- had droned on and on about both spinster sisters, the previous and original owners.

"Alice Shuttleworth passed away at 102, Francis at 104," the real estate agent informed them in a raspy baritone.  Easing the attic door shut, Opal glanced down to find him sawing back and forth in his tasseled snakeskin loafers, his Old Spice irritatingly pungent to her allergies.

"Whoa now, that's old as dirt," she pronounced, making a mental note on how those toad brown mahogany panels practically screamed for a good whitewashing.

"So aptly put," the real estate agent agreed.  With a flourish, he drew aside the muslin curtains.  "By the way, Mrs. Kilroy, did you catch this swell waterfront view?  Catamarans and the whole shebang."

"Last time I checked, mountain sunsets still do it for me." Arms folded, a smirking Opal snapped her Clark's Teabury gum. Wrapped in pink harlequin sunglasses, she revealed little a real cool cat to the real estate agent floundering on how to slant his patter.

The real estate agent, to his credit, was quick on his feet. "This end unit is fresh, repainted within and without.  The floral wallpaper is new.  The floors are re-varnished. Offstreet parking is a nice bonus, particularly right here in the District."  He furtively swept up the other agents' business cards off the gas range.

"Ugh, jalousie windows."  Scowling, Bix had pointed to the gloomy foyer.  "They leak like a frigging sieve."

"Did I mention the sellers have lowered their price twice?" the real estate agent gamely interjected.  "Otherwise, boarded up soon, this unit will deteriorate into a cocaine squatters' haven."

Now with her yogurt stirred, Opal hitched the sunglasses to her blonde flat top, blinked at Bix.  "Well, sugar, the rowhouse does bear definite charms," she admitted.

Bix's spoon scraped the bottom of the tin cup.  "With one in the oven, you'll soon be squawking for more space," he argued. "Oh, and I want a separate bath.  There's that, too."

Opal sharply sighed.  Wiping the utensils clean on a paper towel, she nodded.  "You're right, like always.  I'll telephone the shrimpy agent tomorrow."

"Offer him ten percent less," suggested Bix.  "I bet he'll bite."

* * *

Purple-faced with exasperation, Francis Shuttleworth cascaded on another split apple-wood log, refusing to look at her rebellious sister Alice, pale and set-faced from the admission she had
imparted a short while before.

"Imagine, helling around with every Squid the Sailor skulking into Georgetown," Francis at last fumed.  "Something cataclysmic was bound to happen, sooner or later.  Don't you dare breathe a
word of this to a single soul, either." 

"What will I do?" Alice meekly wondered.

"Yes, what will you do?" snorted Francis.  "I'm on thorns about it.  By God Above, I've shed myself of anything male.  If a clever girl, you'll do likewise, especially after muddling
through this sore fettle."

"Might I for a time visit Uncle Ezra?" Alice eagerly suggested.

"Come August, you'll die amid the swelter of those pinewoods. Serves you right.  Possibly for the advantage of its isolation, though, you should train south," reasoned Francis.  The rowhouse's parlor had grown  snug and warm as a Moravian love feast.

                      * * *

Once the four Atlas Transport movers trundled inside the last stack of the crated books, Bix almost extravagantly tipped them. After tearing off the yellow copy to present Bix, the foreman
warned about the skittish, often unpredictable quirks historic homes posed.  Falling masonry, rickety balconies, exploding stovepipes.  Bix wearily listened, even nodding once or twice,
then gratefully waved at their van's red taillights bleeding back to northern Virginia.  The local union prohibited them from making deliveries in Washington, D.C.'s neighborhoods after 6PM.

Her forehead smudged, Opal was squatting hunched on her knees, skinning her knuckles to yank open the sooty flue.  "Bix, how does this chimney gizmo work?" she demanded as he slowly walked into the room studying the Atlas receipt.

"Jiminy Christmas, save it for tomorrow," he replied.  "Let's tally up the light bulbs we need.  I bet every frigging socket is empty."

Through the French doors into the study the Shuttleworth sisters had adapted for a quaint sitting room, Opal peculiarly enough smelled tuberose.  From inside the cedar trousseau, she produced
two Lysol cans, and foisting both at arm's length, sprayed as they went.  Ducking through angled archways, she was piqued to near hysteria when confronted with the fluted glass windows
overlooking the clawfoot bathtubs.

Bix rubbed her banged up knuckles.  "Aw, try to relax, honey. They're impervious to any intrusion except natural sunlight." 

When Bix went to grasp the pewter doorknob to the attic, it clattered to the floor.  Oddly, the thirteen steps underfoot felt uneven to climb as if gin-struck, jackleg carpenters had
erected them.  Bix forged ahead to the top, his flashlight beam etching a shaft of illumination on three dormer windows sealed with patchy oilcloth.  Sneezing, Bix shredded away the taut
oilcloth in crumbling strips and hoisted the window sashes. Streetlight -- dim and ineffectual -- filtered into the eerie vacant chill.  Outdoors, fish crows were flinging a fit, a squad
of madcap Cossacks freewheeling through the purple beeches. Breeze blown switches scratched the rowhouse's steep slate roof.

An ancient patina of pistachio-green smut had encrusted the attic contents.  Any cleanup, Bix cringed to realize, involved a superstar undertaking.  Opal, who'd scrambled back downstairs to
fetch the Coleman lantern, in her excitement and haste tripped and nearly fell flat on her face.  Her addition of light threw out a fierce clarity affording a step back into time.

Bix's amazed whistle startled Opal.  "Holy crap, no one's laid eyes on this stuff since Daniel Boone and Mingo," he uttered.

Demijohns filled a witch cauldron that Opal pegged as an antique. Bix didn't dispute her.  The attic booty, by all rights, was his cash cow for, say, purchasing a bass boat. Behind a steamer trunk, he salvaged a bag of staggy golf clubs and a grappling iron, one he hefted in each hand as fodder for the next neighborhood yard sale.  Behind a gramophone and chipped Jazz records, a recumbent mannequin slept in a black, fringed dressing gown.  Straining, Opal couldn't dislodge the rust-scaled zax embedded in the attic's central column, but hurried to flop down in a chair built entirely of grayish pieces of driftwood.  Cupping a handkerchief to his nostrils and lips, Bix rummaged among the battered pill-hat boxes and signed paintings to finger the catgut strings to a guitar he dared not pluck.  Spitting and burnishing, he bared its luster, a blindingly blue gleam.  Engaging a Luxembourg music box, Opal giggled at how the carousel of frozen swans and tigers still gyrated and played a Mother Goose nursery rhyme.
All of a sudden, the lantern's sputtering mantle threatening to extinguish alerted the Kilroys to beat a hasty retreat down the gothic stairs before darkness dense as India ink engulfed them.

Right after dinner, pinned by Bix to the candlelit mattress that a trice before was towed to the clammy floor, Opal between shallow gasps scanned the pressed tin ceiling for her zodiac
sign, Capricorn.  Images of Halloweens past in her girlhood Connecticut aided in distracting her.  One year for a juvenile prank, she'd borrowed a cosmetology head from Edna's Curlicue
Hair Design University.  Using plastic roller balls cannibalized from Head & Shoulders deodorant containers with hot pink Glow Sticks inside, she had cradled it in her hands as some
necromancer's enchanted skull.   It had sent her kid sister squealing into the broom closet.  On cue, Bix grunted and rolled to his side.  Casting her eyes up past the spider chandelier,
Opal rubbed her stomach and smiled to picture the attic's trove of memories.

                       * * *

That year, it was 1922, the arch and coy flappers, the ever gushing bathtub gin, and the petting parties never reached the turpentine camps in toil-worn Florida.  Even Francis -- amid the
sweet, happy times with Georgetown's high society ladies and most eligible bachelors -- neglected to write Alice back. 

It makes a soul go plumb empty and forlorn waiting for letters, Alice reflected.   She was lying awake in bed, an orange couch shoved into a corner and concealed by a counterpane pinned to
stovepipe wire.
Worse yet, Uncle Ezra had her barred like the Prisoner of Zenda inside his cypress cabin.  You couldn't be too careful, he rationalized, what with famished gators, swamp puma, and
carnival shills gallivanting all about the countryside.  On the 78-rpm gramophone, her sole reminder of home, Alice wore out the records of Joe King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and the New
Orleans Rhythm Kings.  The newfangled Jazz riffs sure knocked those sassy mockingbirds for a loop.  And hot?  Lord yes, it was -- an encephalitic fever that charred your brain and smelted
your bones.  No matter what else lay in store for her, Alice would never forget that contemptible heat. 

At breakfast the first morning after her arrival, Uncle Ezra had mysteriously warned Alice to  watch out for the Dutchman's razors when sweeping under the pie safe.  The Dutchman, an
ever-fattening Siamese cat cute as a bug's ear, squeezed out from beneath the pie safe, purring to be let outdoors.  From then on, Alice had no heart for cleaning that alien corner of
the cabin.  Fact was, she pretty much stayed to herself, learning a few things about the world along the way.  Like the cutting, open wounds inflicted by playing with The Dutchman's

At the start of August, Alice, by now puzzled and disdainful of her captivity, in the midst of another crying spasm fit to beat Jesus clearly understood two things:

One, she carried a kicking, growing miracle inside her.

Two, she was irrevocably homesick.

So, too many miles down sandy, rutted lanes from any jerk town and without a pot to piss in, Alice hit on the outlandish notion she could march any distance, great or small, to reach home. 

Just after moonrise, leaving Uncle Ezra to snore on the collars of his mule team, Alice tiptoed out on her own and, pausing at the crossroads, chose the quieter road.  Hours later, resting
along the starlit lime grove, she hailed the music man who shambled past in a Tin Lizzie.  Front teeth missing, he cottoned far better to singing and picking his blue guitar glittering in
the rumble-seat than to chitchatting.  What's more, he was headed to Baltimore where his common-law wife had made him a goshdang proud daddy.  Through Georgia and the Carolinas, he instructed Alice on how to croon the Ante-bellum levee songs and to sip elderberry wine like a gandy dancer.       
In due course, Alice would come to relish that flight from Florida's sorrow-ridden swamps as the happiest days in her interminably long life.

                     * * *

Opal had hoped to make their inaugural night under the new roof one for the books.  However, they were both asleep before midnight, joss sticks smoldering and several sandalwood candles
flickering.  An as-yet-uncorked bottle of Cold Duck, a Christmas cheer from Bix's foreman, chilled inside an umbrella stand crammed with crushed ice.

A piercing whimper jarred Opal awake, her heart thumped against her spine bone.  Again, the cry shattered overhead.  Feral tomcats were scrapping along the gutters.   She struggled to
compose herself, grasping at the most obvious and ordinary to explain its origin.

"Great God, did you hear that ruckus?" Bix roughly hissed.  The perfect whites of his saucer eyes glowed back at her.  Sweat ringed his collar.

Opal prodded him, the flashlight switched on.  "Here, hon. Sounded from up yonder.  Leastwise, I think it did."

Schlepping in Flip-Flops through the second-story rooms, Bix's shifty beam detected nothing of consequence to arouse his suspicion.  While he stretched and scratched on the landing, a
still shriller cry jerked up his shaggy head to focus somewhere along the attic.  Numbly doing an about-face to the attic door, he clamped onto the pewter knob and tugged.  The ectoplasmic,
frigid air spewing down unleashed a powerful shudder through him, dazing his senses.

Clutching the glaring Coleman lantern, Opal was crouched behind him.  Gingerly mounting the squeak-happy steps one by one, they ascended into their home's uppermost airy space. 

The agonizing screech next erupted, it seemed, beneath the knotty planks behind the witch cauldron.  In astonishment, Bix stared at the spot, uncertain whether to turn tail and run or
simply faint from fright. 

"Follow me."  Opal hiked up the Coleman lantern a mite higher, propelled them behind the witch cauldron, and tapped with her big toe painted coral red.  "Pry up these boards, honey."  Her
tone while gentle remained calmly firm.  "Wait, use the zax," she directed him.

Wedging the zax's tapered blade right into the floor seam, Bix heaved, chiseling and loosening the warped and wizened planks. Snooping with the flashlight after handing Bix the Coleman
lantern, Opal stooped low inside and reverently drew up a green baize bundle as if it were a Communion chalice.  Unsecuring the waxed cord to unfold tidy wraps, she exposed a pile of
delicately tiny bones, none much larger than a Q-tip.  On the bottom, she nudged over a partially burned 1922 Ten-Cent Special Delivery postage stamp.

Bix swallowed, twice and hard.  "What is it?  A roof rat's skeleton?  A ferret, possibly," he cryptically wondered.  His dry chuckle was forced.

"No sir, I suspect not," Opal dissented, arising with the retied bundle cradled in her palms.

                      * * *

"Okay, put me in the picture," wheezed Dr. Briggs, his gloved thumbs bagging the green baize bundle in the Kilroy's new bassinet for his assistant to tag and label.  A burly, serious,
and balding bureaucrat, he was the chief forensic anthropologist responding to Bix's telephone call to the District of Columbia police earlier that morning.

"It's exactly like I described it to the detectives," Bix responded, aggravation slurring his voice. 

"Fine.  Okay.  I can digest their report later."  Yawning, Dr. Briggs flipped apart his satchel.

Curious, Bix sidled to the doctor's shoulder to peer over.

"Tell me, are they human?" he asked.

"Oh, most definitely."  Pondering one twiggy bone held by forceps to the sunlight, he half-squinted over his black metal frame reading glasses.  "Offhand, I'd say a baby girl carried to
full term.  Might even suppose she died at birth.  Lab work will put a few questions to bed, raise a passel more, I'm afraid."

"My wife thought as much," Bix muttered.

"Mmm, tell you something else" -- Dr. Briggs stopped mid-sentence to glance at Bix's surprised face -- "I see more than one set of bones here."

Location: Annandale, Virginia

Stirring : A Literary Collection

| Current | Previous | Submit | Editors | Join | Links | Contact | Sundress |