Horror writer Jack Lehman stopped by the Coffee Spew crawlspace studio last night and videotaped what is either a chilling Edgar Allan Poe-inspired short story or else a deeply disturbing autobiographical confession.
“Tell-Tale Camera” by Jack Lehman
“We need one to keep a record of things. My garden, the cats…they are all changing and we don’t have photographs of them.”
“Yes,” I said, fumbling with the compact digital camera no larger than an old-fashioned metal cigarette case. The last camera we’d owned, I’d dropped in a shopping center parking lot. It had slipped right out of my pocket as I swung my sport coat out from the back seat of the car. Now I tend to keep a camera in my front shirt pocket. What are the chances of it falling out from there unless I really bend over? Anyway, I’d brought the broken camera to several places and they told me it would cost over a hundred dollars to repair, “You might as well get a new one for that amount.”
I hadn’t. But mother took the big step. Oh, it was to be a present for my birthday, but I knew better. This would be our camera. I would figure out how to use it and she would take all the pictures. But until I pressed the “on” button, I hadn’t realized, it talked.
I was struck by its soothing female voice. And as someone who was, or would soon be, a 55 year old man still living at home, I didn’t often hear soothing female voices, at least not young, sexy ones.
“You are in the narrow focus zone.” This was still better to hear than what Cynthia, owner of Cynthia’s bar down the street, said to me later that day, when she stopped her car as I was walking my dog.
“Robert, you must keep your mother away from karaoke nights at my place. She’s an embarrassment and actually driving away customers.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” was my sheepish reply. But I could do nothing. That, I thought, was why she bought a camera. She wanted pictures of herself on the bar’s deck, swaying with the microphone, a 300 pound woman in a miniskirt, with her hair piled on top of her head and sparkle around her eyes. She wouldn’t let me attend. Not that I wanted to. She would invite highway construction workers, UPS delivery men, even the guy who drove the big green garbage truck. She didn’t want them to know she had a son. Not that it mattered, I knew as I listened to the music from Cynthia’s Place down the street. These men never came anyway.
So what am I to do, I wondered. My Internet gift business was just getting started, I need a home and my computer. She owns this place outright, and will live forever. Plus she gets $400 each month in Social Security disability payments. I couldn’t live without that. I knew I could deposit the SSI checks in our joint account. I’d done this before. The bank didn’t care; after all I was the one who paid the bills. They didn’t want to deal with my mother any more than anyone else did.
She would steal the camera from my room and take it to Cynthia’s. The bartender reluctantly took photos of her. She forced him to somehow. Sometimes I clicked through the pictures. How disgusting. I could hear her toneless voice singing along to the recorded karaoke music. It was a bad Bob Dylan imitation: “But lately I see her ribbons and her bows have fall-en from her curls. She takes just like a wom-an, yes, she does. She makes love just like a wom-an, yes, she does. And she aches just like a wom-an. But she breaks like a little girl.”
To which my camera might add: “Low battery power.”
And then someone knocked at the front door. It was a miracle disguised as a man. He wore the orange vest of a highway worker. They had been widening County Hwy B, that went in front of our house, all summer. It was the main thoroughfare through the little village. In order to make the most of this the town board had allowed the state department of transportation not only to add curbs and gutters but also a sidewalk to the West side of the road. This cut into my mother’s hillside property by fifteen feet, but the result, I knew, would increase its value in the long run.
“My name is Ralph Switchgrass, I’m an engineer with DOT.” I stared at this strange little man. He looked like pictures I’d seen of the American author Edgar Allan Poe.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“Well,” Switchgrass replied, “I’m afraid we’ve made a little discovery in bulldozing part of your hill today. It’s near where we are going to put some new steps down to the street.”
“Yes, we’ve uncovered an abandoned well. As I said, close to the place the stairway will go. It’s quite interesting, actually. You can come out and see the top circle of yellow stones. There was a makeshift wooden cover, but…”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t meet legal requirements. You will have to get it sealed off and inspected by a license plumber before we can go any further.”
“Listen,” I replied angrily, pushing past the man and walking quickly twenty feet toward the excavation, “this construction wasn’t our idea. We’re not paying for anything. You want it sealed off and some plumber to certify that, then you’re the ones who are going to arrange it.”
Switchgrass caught up to me and stood by my side.
I mellowed a bit looking at the hole. “Why would they close up this well and drill another right by the house. Does that makes sense?” I asked.
Ralph Switchgrass simply took an apple-sized rock and dropped it down the old well. It made a clunk thirty or forty feet below, but not a splash.
“Let me see what we can do,” the engineer said, blinking over at me.
But I was already lost in the world of possibility. The hole was round enough and deep enough for my mother.
“What do you want?” she asked impatiently, early that evening. She was wearing her karaoke outfit ready for another night out. “Why do we have to go out there and look at this now!”
I will never hear that grating, whining, peevish voice again, I thought as I looked quickly both ways and then— twe were standing on the edge of the old well— swung the baby sledge hammer I’d been holding behind my back, and wacked mom on the top of the head. For a moment, nothing happened. She just stood there. And then as her knees started to buckle I dropped the sledge and gently guided her body so that she collapsed not to the ground but into the gaping black hole before us. It was ugly, I have to admit. How her head had smacked against the outer rim before gravity sucked her huge body into the abyss. And the sound of her hitting bottom was grotesque.
But I couldn’t think about that now. I had work to do before dark. I got the rusty wheelbarrow from around back, dumped the water that was sitting in it and with a spade went down the rear road to a spot where the highway crew had dumped some of the earth they’d scraped up from the expansion. I filled one load, wheeled back to the old well and dropped it down the hole. Then I did this four more times. It wouldn’t do much in terms of filling the well, but it would hide any sight of mother’s body. The highway people would cap this, put the appropriate ground cover on top and that would be that.
Who would ask about her? Neighbors might notice she wasn’t riding her old balloon-tired bike toward town anymore, but they would assume it had fallen apart, or that she was sick, or maybe she’d gone to visit a relative in Florida and never returned. Even the most polite of them would not hazard asking me, her son, about her. Better to imagine the best. Let sleeping dogs, or in her case, let a dead, overweight, obnoxious cat, lie.
That night I took a warm bath. I opened a bottle of cheap Australian red wine and even found an old leather-bound copy of Poe to read in the tub. Afterwards, for the first time in years, I slept peacefully. Not even dreaming of “Annabel Lee” in her “sepulcher there by the sea, in her tomb by the sounding sea.”
Late the next afternoon Ralph Switchgrass was back at my door. This time. with him he had a plumber, Jim Lean, and Switchgrass’s boss, Rich Benson. DOT would take care of the well. Take care of everything. Cementing it closed, getting the signed legal documents, finishing the steps and seeding that part of the hill they had excavated to make way for the steps. This of course they had to point out to him on the property, by the old well.
“It’s a shame to cover an antique well like this,” Benson felt compelled to say to the group, “but who knows, in another hundred years there might be reason to unearth it once again.”
“What was that?” Jim Lean asked.
None of the rest of us standing there in the late-August twilight heard anything.
“It was a woman’s voice,” he insisted. “Listen.”
There was the slight ruffling of leaves, some distant earth-moving equipment from farther down the road, and then… A soothing female voice. Young, sexy and damning, echoed up from deep within the old well.
“You are in the narrow focus zone.”
“We’ve got to go down there and find out what that voice is,” Benson demanded.
In the distance, the sound of karaoke music began.