The last house on Elm held a special place in the hearts of its Kalb neighbors. In 75 years four families occupied the seven bedroom, three-story frame Queen Anne, and each, in their own way, contributed to late evening and weekend gossip folks told to twiddle away idle hours.
Four families produced two divorces, one a brutal affair; a runaway, an unsolved disappearance of a house guest, two murders, three stabbings during a Christmas Eve party, a backyard drowning, and the last family left behind a bizarre account involving their garage, a chain saw and two missing hands.
Told individually, none of the stories provoked much controversy, unless the story teller knew about how the hands disappeared from the hospital after surgery failed to reattach them. An intern probably mislaid those hands or threw them away accidentally or some such other plausable explanation. Or maybe even a college student walked off with them as part of a horrible fraternity stunt. Who knows? But the truth is, in the minds of dozens of 12 and 13-year-olds in Kalb, telling stories after midnight by a summer bonfire, no one can actually prove those hands didn’t crawl off by themselves.
So with not much to tell about other households on the street, and so much activity on one single plot, a feeling emerged about a sort of smirch the house held – like the place had a wicked sense of humor. One account suggested there was maybe a curse on the property and that to live there was like signing your own death certificate, or at least, like planning in advance to screw up your life or those of your loved ones. Property values, in this case, meant nothing. Neighbors joked about the place and how it now sat empty since poor Mr. Patire, the pianist, lost his livelihood in that garage accident. Parents used the tales to threaten rowdy children at bedtime. Drive-by teenagers scared each other with the stories on Halloween and on other dark nights. But no taxpaying Kalb adult with respectable home equity dared invest in a move up to the finest picture of turn-of-the-century architecture in a dozen blocks.
Why move into a place that invited trouble? The family next door, to the east, for example, was considering that very month the house went empty, of expanding their little castle to provide space for twin girls born two months earlier and who were straining the environment of the home’s other six members.
The house next door to theirs, the fancy Queen Anne, was cheap compared to other homes on the street, all inferior by most standards. Yet the Dickersons would sweat and toil and borrow and strain their budget, adding two rooms on the north side of their brick bungalow, a rather common addition compared with what lay next door.
Real estate was a seller’s market as no fewer than 18 homes were ever on the multiple listings at any given time. That is based on thirty or forty buyers looking for property at the same given time, an agent’s dream or nightmare, depending on how you looked at it.
Mr. Dickerson would have only had to put his house on the same market and apply a small deposit on what had been the Patire estate. He could have picked up two acres, nine rooms, three of them bedrooms, and come out ahead on the deal. Mr. Patire must have known the plight of the home because he wasn’t asking much for the place, based on other home values, and his neighbor could even have cut a bargain on that asking price. But Mr. Patire left town for a psychiatric hospital three hundred miles west and set his family up in a Chicago condo while he recovered. The Dickersons weren’t interested in moving next door and the house sat empty for three seasons with no attention to household detail except for small favors the selling agent paid on four or five spring visits.
Aside from its major tales, other stories appeared on demand, especially when one neighbor or another wanted to stretch the official account or rearrange the published facts to include his family or his property or any way to somehow claim a stake to a piece of the old home’s notoriety.
“Claire and I were driving by the place late, on our way home from a movie, when Mrs. Patire ran screaming from the garage that rainy night.”
It probably wasn’t raining and it was more than likely daylight and poor Mrs. Patire wasn’t running and screaming at all. Instead the neighbor probably swerved to miss the woman as she took the garbage out. But prying reality loose from its historical setting is one way to get close to stardom, even if you really remember it that way.
Take the case of Ginny Fryer. A nice woman in the right setting. But Ginny was the talk of Kalb late in her high school senior year when she was the bunt of a cruel practical joke. A young humorist somehow got into the yearbook office, after hours, fumbling with page galleys so the type under Ginny’s senior picture, after her name, read “most boring person in the senior class.”
Now it was true that Ginny Fryer’s father was dead ten years and her mother worked third shift at Kalb’s only all-night laundromat. And with five siblings in the rented Fifth Street flat above Keyster’s Barber Shop, and not much money, Ginny, by the end of her senior year, had never traveled further than the Indiana state line.
One Saturday night, after Frank Gumble dumped her for an Illinois State freshman, Ginny stole a taxi idling at Main and Pearl streets, and on a dare, drove herself, four girlfriends, and Brenda Lee’s kid brother, Daryl, to the state line. They never even crossed over to Indiana, a subject debated and regretted for weeks by Ginny and half the senior class. They rode back to town the next morning in three of five vehicles heading that direction and occupied by the Church of Christ’s Evangelical Debate Team returning from a lost evolutionist vs. creationist match in Evanston.
Rev. George phoned Mrs. Fryer and reported her daughter’s indiscretion and subsequent conversion, but the stolen cab part of the story kind of died down with Ginny’s newfound occupation with a religious bent. For a girl known to have kept boundaries mainly in town and rarely out of the very county she lived in, and as close to the state line as she was and not crossing over it, small town talk was bound to label her a perfect nomination for the hall of boredom.
If history was recorded correctly, as it rarely is, someone would step forward and tell that it was Frank Gumble who switched type on that yearbook galley. And if all the pieces of a mean joke could be told, you’d see that Ginny changed after that publication and set out to prove she was not a perfectly boring Midwestern daughter of an overworked, underpaid laundry woman.
Ginny was not really boring. No creature who rises on Saturday mornings before the sun to be first in line at Cheney Library’s used book sale is not boring. We can question their long-term motives, but we cannot say they are boring. Ginny’s passion for reading carried her away to foreign ports and Third World alleyways, a trait she imitated watching her mother get lost in quarter novels she bought from a back table at Ann’s Antiques along Church Street. Fantasies were precise for Ginny. Things would go exactly this way or that way in her mind. Sometimes she tried very hard to believe that the lower Church Street Bridge over the Hoosick River was a meeting place for spies. In one play out of the story, three men and a dog drew plans in the dirt with sticks that told about how they would rob Kalb’s only bank, under the bell tower, at noon on a Thursday. That story fell apart when Mrs. Kiski called Mark junior home for lunch and the Welty twins went off for a game of foosball at Helen’s Pizza on Main. The dog ran off to sit in the shade under a bench in front of Keyster’s Barber Shop. The more books Ginny read, the more fantasies she could create in Kalb. And since reading was personal, so were her fantasies.
When the ad appeared, Ginny was the first reader to match the address in town with the Patire property. It was a classified under help wanted in the weekly tabloid that advertised itself as the official village newspaper. The official part was for legal notices from village government and because no other newspaper published in Kalb. The only other news gatherer and disseminator was the counter at Will’s Alley Cafe between seven and eight-fifteen any morning of the week. The breakfast clientele seemed to make up a piece of most village governing bodies that counted, at least during election time, and stories traded there, beat out the newspaper by three or four days. During a thunderstorm once, at dead-line on Tuesday morning, just for fun, the cafe sent a messenger over to the paper with news that the old Bradley Street hat factory burned to the ground over night and two horses were dead. The old factory grounds were downwind of the newspaper’s Main Street office in the old Friedman Bank building. And besides, two members of the village board, sitting at the counter that morning, wanted to see what the newspaper would print about a decision pending on turning the property into a municipal parking lot.
Frank Warner, a village trustee who backed the parking lot project, went down to the fire and stood for four-and-a-half hours just in case someone from the newspaper showed up and he could retell his side of the project. When no one showed, Frank’s wife telephoned the village reporter’s wife and found out that the reporter, Tom Wilder, went off to see a sick relative in Ohio. The trip from the cafe in the morning was a last ditch effort to offer the newspaper a scoop about some structural tragedy that could turn itself around in the village’s favor.
When Ginny saw the advertisement for a live-in house attendant, she sat down and wrote out a response. The ad read simply: Wanted, full time, live-in house attendant, for number 30 Elm Street. Write P.O. Box 1X, Boston.”
Ten days later a telegram, no less, arrived in Ginny’s name with the abbreviated message: Hired. Stop. Report number 30 Elm Street. Stop. Saturday, October 31, midnight. Stop.
Ginny’s reputation may have been boring, but she was the first creature in Kalb, Illnois, aside from the selling agent, to find out that number 30 Elm would be occupied again.
Information on small town matters, especially in a small town, made for a favorable position in just about every circle, considering the nature of number 30’s former tenants. The date and time of day mentioned in the message was savored by Ginny for ten or fifteen minutes before she let loose with the story during the third shift at Henriatta’s All Night Laundry. Ginny’s mother listened with the others; Carla Dalton, a 50-year-old seamstress, Maggie Stearns, a school teacher, and Betty White, a barmaid at Lou’s Third Base. Her mother spoke first, saying she objected to the meeting time, but that work was scarce in Kalb and that she probably ought to go. Betty offered to go along and help Ginny work out the details, but Carla advised Ginny to decline the offer unless Betty sobered up for the trip.
No one heard Ginny’s answer as she snatched up the telegram and threw open the side door, an October wind gutting the humid dryer area, and she disappeared into the unlit alleyway between the laundry and Third Street Hotel.
Further up Third Street Todd Barnes was puffing on a Winston and trying to blow smoke rings as he leaned against his new car, a ’68 Mercury Colony Park station wagon, parked along the street in front of Lou’s Third Base. Stuart Kline, one long year below the legal driving age, was sitting behind the wheel pretending he was driving. Actually Stuart was imagining he was driving something sportier and flashier, but the steering wheel and control knobs of a ’68 Mercury did the job this weekend night. And Stuart, doing a fine job of keeping his imaginary car on the road, and in good condition, caught Ginny in the rear view mirror, as she approached from behind. Todd was two years older than Stuart and both boys favored the company of any Midwest female on a Saturday night, to the lonesome hours they spent with each other. When Ginny seemed like she might slow down long enough to spend some time, Todd stamped out his smoke in the street and Stuart ended his foreign spy chase and climbed out through the passenger window.
The three teens sat along Third Street, on the curb behind the Mercury, and studied the Boston telegram for clues.
The job offer was officially a mystery, the newest pulp on Number 30 to hit Kalb’s population since 70-year-old Ida Mae Holloway claimed last month that her great grandfather, Col. Edward Stark, was the first person murdered in the house. The news of Ida Mae’s ancestry shot up into all but seven households in Kalb, and those seven were out of town. A job offer would bring a regular person off the street into the new families’ household and would most certainly provoke two murders this time and surely the town would suffer. That’s what everyone would say.
In the next ten hours, the same ten it would take for a story of this sort to get through Kalb, Ginny would become a celebrity, as absolutely everyone wanted a new piece of information on the event that no one else had so as to add to the rampant conversation with something new on the subject that everyone else didn’t already know.
Two business establishments on Church Street posted a copy of the telegram, keeping their patrons properly informed, and seven others on Main kept one behind the counter in case the subject came up. In other words, if Margaret Shaw, fondling a top of the line rake at Lou’s Mercantile, asked about the Ginny affair and said “I might buy one of these” in the same breath, Lou got the copy of the telegram out.
Ginny went home that night and slept on the living room couch and dreamed about the adventure the house would bring. Most of Kalb went to bed that evening thinking she’d get murdered or tortured or maybe scarred up pretty bad in some kitchen accident.
On Halloween Eve, five neighbors stood a quarter-block west of the Patire house while their combined eight children tricked or treated the street behind them. The subject of the Patire’s and the three previous homeowners came up and one of the group wondered out loud if the house would ever sell, considering its background.
In the distance, well beyond their Halloweener’s, a pinging sound grew louder and louder, until a grey shape appeared on the horizon, turning all their heads in that direction, and there appeared a 1956 Oldsmobile, a fine specimen of vintage automobiling, in need of a tune-up, trudging along the street, passing them in a slow pan, a single male figure behind the wheel, and turning the curb ahead of them, tooled up the short drive to the Patire home.
The engine went dead at the top of the drive, and heads cranked in that direction, a small man emerged and stood next to his aging General Motors product, and stared at the dark Queen Anne hulk 50 yards ahead.
Martain Crosby Van Buren saw the advertisement for number 10 Elm in the classified section of the Sunday New York Times, a hunch appeal the selling agent reserved to speed up a sale. Martain bought the house Monday at 11 a.m. on a whim shortly after Bob Stiles phoned to say the Cunningham deal went through.
Cunningham Fruits opted to buy Martain’s services in a move that would triple his output. The time had finally come where Martain could move out of New York and operate from a foreign port if he so chose.
The idea of a Queen Anne that occupied one corner of a shady Kalb cul-de-sac, maybe a library on the second floor, some stained glass and enough land to holler and scream late Sunday night in the back yard of and no one would hear, amused Martain. The town itself was a mystery to the salesman, but searching for its controls was a decision-making reason for moving there. Driving along Route 80 crossing Michigan in his 1953 Pontiac to take ownership, Martain thought about where he might fit in and who was mayor and what’s the zoning board of appeals like and where should he drink with the boys late at night and who were the boys?
He wanted to get there and put the house in order again so bad he ordered the entire staff, one housekeeper, to assemble shortly after his intended arrival at the end of a long road trip from the city that would put him home before midnight Halloween.
In the city he was out of place, collecting his idea of vintage anything from old books to a Brattleboro, Vermont pump organ. In the country, as he thought of Huntersville, the surroundings would give him room to control more of his environment and maybe give him a greater say so in control of those surroundings.
There was no socializing with New York’s Mayor Koch, but he imagined lunching with the Kalb mayor or having a beer with the Republican socialite during a political rally.
At an art gallery party once, the night before he left for Kalb, and on a bet with two patrons he’d met five minutes earlier, Martain made a fuss over a peculiar water color and offered to bid on it. That particular piece was purchased, coincidentally, 10 minutes later by Rev. George Archibald to fulfill the minister’s annual relic-collecting hunt, for a figure several dollars higher than Martain’s fraud bid attempt. The three, for a couple more dollars bet, moved on to a second work of art, two rooms over and at ransom, made a fuss and offered to bid on the piece within next hour. Fifty minutes later the painting, the next to sell since the reverend’s buy, sold 10 percent higher than Martain’s rumored bid.
By this time the three had consumed two more intoxicating drinks
Daffney Coleman concocted in a pinch, and offered to buy all five of the Stahlman artist’s ink drawings. Ten minutes later they were gone when the C.E.O. of a western hotel chain doubled Martain’s offer. If these three boys had only known Martain was wearing the wrong identification pin, one that should have been attached to art critic Jack Dalphin, they surely would not have tried their luck a fourth time. And on the fourth run of their drunken wager, no one bid against Martain’s $400,000 offer for a French artist’s Duck Soup.
Martain walked out the back door two minutes later to avoid actually paying out against the painting or the $225 he would have lost on a bet gone sour.