(A Bittersweet Darkly is a literary series that will be posted, in the tradition of The New Yorker, as an episodic literary contribution. As with all such examples, feedback, both for story and author, is deeply appreciated)
“One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.” — Robert J. Flaherty
One thing he kept coming back to was how much he hated everybody that shared his small town of King’s Rook, Quebec. One important thing he constantly settled on when these thoughts resurfaced – and believe it, they came frequently – was how he especially hated the old bitch that owned the duplex he lived in. His mind always seemed to bring him back to when he moved into this quaint, rather small townhouse with two floors separated only by the slimmest of ceilings.
It was 2009, he was 27 and for the most part still another happy individual. Joshua Sanders fit in, got along, and occasionally he smiled too. His cab had pulled up in front of the “For Rent” sign plastered poorly into the front lawn of 231 Alders Avenue.
“Thanks my man,” he said to the cabbie as he handed him a crisp $50 bill. The meter read $38.75 and he’d never been careless with his money but Josh was feeling great and the driver had been amazingly interactive. For Josh that meant he didn’t say a goddamn word outside hello and goodbye the whole 13 mile trip (Josh counted, being exact was a passion of his).
He got out of the cab and stretched his long swimmers arms across his chest before placing his hands in the back pockets of his freshly cleaned Levy’s. He stood in the walkway at the head of the front lawn for a minute taking it all in. This was where his new life would begin — and little did he know, where it would end as well. He closed his eyes a moment, opened his air holes and took in a massive breath, feeling rejuvenated, reborn. Josh wasn’t a tall man, in fact he fell just above average at around 5’10’’ and, though he didn’t consider himself a meathead, he understood what it meant to stay fit and healthy. He was a handsome man with a strong chin and the space between his ears constantly reassured him that he was the champ. He opened his eyes and glanced at the For Rent sign, briefly. His fixation with perfection came with a certain analytic quality that Josh applied to as much as he could. So it follows that he should have known something wasn’t right about the house from the way the sign was hanging. Usually Josh would be the first to react to his intuitions, however he was happy today and he wouldn’t enter his new life by being pessimistic about the first thing his judgmental eyes came upon.
Finally, he took his hands out of his pockets and closed them into fists in the way one does when about to step up to a new challenge with confidence and made his way to the front door of the Polish flat that stood erect on the corner of Alders and Green St. From across the street, Beverly Jonson watched as her new neighbor walked up towards the most miserable house in town and she pitied him for it. The whole town knew about the out-of-towner who would be taking up residency in the lower level of the Harrington home, owned by Agatha Harrington herself.
When Josh climbed the three wooden steps and was standing face to face with the front door he took another quick breath, raised one of his still closed fists and brought it down three times.
He spent the first minute waiting in eager anticipation. He spent the next minute trying to decide what he would do to pass the time if Ms. Harrington wasn’t home at the moment. He hadn’t gotten any real information from her aside from which day to arrive to move in and so when she didn’t answer his knock he was left confused. At first he didn’t want to knock again, Harrington was old (as far as he could tell from her hoarse voice during their brief phone conversation) and he didn’t want to pressure her into moving any faster than she needed to. She lived upstairs and from the look of the tall duplex, was probably about 20 stairs away from ground level.
He decided it was safe, after three minutes, to knock again, and so, bringing his fingers to the center of his palm and repeated his triple knock. He was on his way down for the third knock when he heard the familiarly ancient, creepy voice that belonged to Agatha Harrington.
“Help you with something?” she croaked. The sound seemed to come from immediately behind Josh, but that made no sense, right? How could this old lady creep up on him like that and from where?
Josh turned to face the lurking landlady behind him and was shocked at the way he’d been ninja’d by an elderly woman, especially one who looked as ragged and worn-down as her. As quickly as it happened, he managed to cleared his clogged throat and finally managed a reply.
“New tenant,” he said, still at a slight loss for words. He shook his head and cleared his throat again, apparently displeased with his answer. What’s more, the way Harrington had been just standing there observing him, judging him, made him feel uneasy. He needed to redeem himself.
“Sorry, let me restart…” and Josh did. “My name is Joshua Sanders, we spoke on the telephone 8 days ago about my taking up residency in the lower half of your home. You told me to be here today, and well, here I am.”
He forced a smile, but it didn’t seem to convince Agatha. She stood there in cool contemplation of the man standing on her front porch. She seemed to be sizing him up, and for Josh, things were getting uncomfortable. He didn’t like the way she just stood her ground, zero sounds escaping with her neck craned in the way dogs do when they hear a foreign sound. Across Alders Ave, Beverly continued to watch the events transpire, only now she was in her own home peering through the blinds. God how she hated Ms. Harrington. She suspected it wouldn’t be long before her new neighbour from across the street felt (as everyone else in King’s Rook) the same way.
The two of them kept their ground, both looking deep into the eyes of each other, only Agatha seemed to be dead, completely frozen while Josh wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on like this. It wasn’t just the awkward feel in the air, there was something about Agatha, something that seemed to glimmer — only momentarily, though Josh’s analytic eyes were keen enough to catch it — behind her eyes; suddenly Josh felt like running, running and never turning back. He buried the feeling as quick as it came. He wouldn’t let this old lady get the drop on him again, let alone a second time in such a short span of time.
A sudden and acute wind gusted between the two of them as they continued to stand facing each other in the traditional way two gunslingers would, right before the duel erupts. The skies were clear, and the sun was shining. It was a perfect Autumn afternoon. A yellowish-red leaf fell from the branch of the tree that stood on the front lawn shading the For Rent sign and joined its fallen compatriots on the healthy-green grass. Josh was about to break the silence, his threshold for staring had broken, when the old woman finally showed some further sign of life.
Agatha fixed her head straight, took her eyes off Josh (what a relief for him) and arched her neck backwards to look up at the sky.
“Gon’ rain tonight. Key’s under the matt. You’ll pay me in cash for the sum we discussed on the phone on the 26th of each month starting next month. Seeing as how we the 28th today, you get three free days lodging, lucky you.” She never took her eyes off the sky.
Did she say rain? Can’t be, Josh thought as he joined her in a study of the sky. It was beautiful. There wasn’t a single cloud to be seen. At some point in his observation of the sky, she had returned to staring him down, those cold eyes. What lay beyond them? Where had they been, what had they seen? These questions rushed Josh, though he figured he would never find an answer to them.
Josh broke his hypnosis again (damn, he thought, how does she keep doing that to me? More questions). He cleared his throat, again, without realizing it wasn’t the first time in the past three minutes.
“So I just–”
He was cut off by her lack of interest as she turned her back to him, shuffling away, looking almost broken but still emitting a powerful aura of lasting intentions. He couldn’t help thinking how much she reminded him of the original Phantom of the Opera, the ever eternal Lon Chaney and his gruesome and frightening appearance. It wasn’t that she was disfigured like the Phantom, it was just the creepy vibe that seemed to constantly funnel out of her. For a moment Josh stood there, still on the front porch, and considered what a shame the aging process was and what it did to the human complexion. He was sure, and could swear to God that once upon a time (probably very far back, given how it was impossible to tell if she was in her 70s or well passed 120) Agatha Harrington had been a sight for sore eyes, a true avatar of what it meant to be beautiful. It made Josh nervous and goose-flesh exploded over his skin. He shivered. Suddenly he felt very cold.
That night, around 6:30pm, about 6 hours after his very confusing and uncomfortable chat with his new landlady, the rain came and a storm followed. It raged on until the early morning of the next day.
(Chapter 2 can be read here)
(Edits : AL & NZ)