Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Old Man

The Old Man was a tree that sat like a bad tooth in the middle of nowhere. It was bigger than any tree had a right to be, alone in a place bare of other trees. Little dogwood saplings struggled at the edge of his territory, but the Old Man sat kingly in the middle of everything.

No one knew why it was called the Old Man, only that the name stuck. It was like an artifact left over from another time. A forest so tall and deep it sent man’s progenitors screaming for the open country. It only had green leaves way high up in the crown. It didn’t have proper climbing branches, just a bunch of knots from where limbs had broken off boiling over the surface. No one would want to climb this tree, anyway. No telling what lived in the hollows.

The town grew up near the tree, not the other way around. There wasn’t enough of anything to make much of a town. Not enough land to farm. No metals, no minerals, not even a salt flat. The only reason you lived in the town was because you had been born there, and the only reason you had been born there was that you were going to die there.

There was a saying in the town: “go tell it to the Old Man.” The implication being that no-one cared. No one actually told the Old Man anything. No one stuffed screwed-up pieces of paper in his knotholes to wish or ward away bad things. The Old Man didn’t care.

As these things do, something rankled enough that some of the men got a mind to pull the Old Man down. They would stay up long nights in the town’s only alehouse, drawing diagrams in the dirt so as not to waste paper. No one told them off because everyone knew that they would never do anything about it. It was only when the men lined up at the edge of town with chains and hooks that the panic started.

Everyone in the town had an unspoken belief that the Old Man was alive. Not in the dim way of animals, or even the blind way of other plants. The Old Man knew and tolerated the town only so much as they left him alone. Now this would be breaking the rules, which lay unwritten in their simple hearts.

The men were young and strong, otherwise they might have been pulled into the swamp and had their mouths filled with peat by their fearful neighbors. Instead, the townsfolk watched as they went whistling on their way.

They had laid out a careful plan, priding themselves on hours of thought. The ground was too swampy to be a proper foundation for anything. They decided to scoop out a trench next to the tree and pull from the safety of a far bank. In a show of fun, one of the younger men decided to shimmy up to the top of the tree with the help of a hook and chain. He came back quickly and altogether sombre, reporting the green at the top was not leaves but a hearty moss. This made the men feel they were intruding on something beyond them, so they set to quickly making it recognizable with work.

When their shovel-holes began to fill with water, when the sun showed red on the lip of the valley, the men knew they were done. They looped long, thick chains around the trunk and relayed them to the closest, firmest bank they could. They had a coal cart and a team of oxen besides. They hitched the chains to the cart and whipped the beasts, who strained and pulled as hard as the loam beneath their hooves would let them.

The cart pulled in half.

They hitched the chains to the yoke and whipped the animals again.

The yoke broke in half.

By braiding the chains, the men were able to make a makeshift harness for the beasts. They also pulled with their own sinewy limbs. Their curses could be heard from the town, where many an obediently fearful man would rush for the safety of his hovel. Every little superstition they had ever invented swelled in a tide of abstention. They broke straws, turned cats out-of-doors, made foul concoctions to set out in bowls so the evil would hover around it rather than enter homes.

As the last sunlight died, something finally happened. The crack could be heard as far away as the next town.

Seeing as it was dark, folk were reluctant to investigate. But the few remaining able-bodied men in town gathered lanterns and set out, shaking, into the swamp.

None of them knew what to expect in the dark. They imagined the Old Man moving, writhing like an angry polyp, a thousand devils churning out of a broken stump.

They came upon the bank and the men and the chains and the oxen, all laid out in a state of disrepair. There was no sign of the Old Man. He was not in his roost on the opposite bank, nor was his waterlogged trunk in the swamp.

The oxen were dead. The chains pulled apart by mighty stress. Some men lay floating the dark water, some sprawled out where they had fallen. All dead, all with a terrible strain on their faces.

All but one.

Like the wind sawing through a broken plank, one man was breathing his last half-in, half-out of the water. They fished him out and held the lantern close to his face as if that might revive him.

His eyes rolled in his head, his mouth babbled inconsistently. They could only extract a little from his ranting before he expired as well.

The tree—” he gasped, “hateful—it ain’t a tree, you hear me? Whatever’s beneath the ground—that thing is the root!”

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Choices

“…there,” he said, “it’s out. Almost a relief to have it out in the open.”

She did not reply. She stared down the hood of the car as it ate up the road.

“I think I actually wanted to get caught. You can’t imagine the stress I’ve been under.”

She sat ramrod straight against the back of the passenger seat. Her magenta nails dimpled her skirt.

“I never wanted to hurt anyone. You’re both so wonderful. In fact, you’re really a lot alike—”

“What did she say?” his passenger interrupted, “when you told her?”

“To choose, of course,” he replied in cautiously level tones, “between the two of you.”

She said, “I see.”

The car traveled over a graded section of the road. The tires complained over the ruts.

“And what did you say?”

He fiddled with the steering wheel cover. “I said I would make that choice.”

She may have asked something then, or it may have been a simple warning shout. He jerked the wheel sharply to the right, aiming for the cement barrier on the side of the road.

He did not mean to roll the car. As they tumbled, the passenger side belt gave way and she fell, shrieking, into the tumult. They came to rest with a crunch.

 

“How was it?” she asked.

She stood in their bedroom doorway. Her hair was loose, rather than up in a topknot. Her clothing comprised of casual sweats instead of attention-grabbing skirts and camisoles. But for these things, he could not have told them apart.

He indicated his arm in a sling.

“The car?”

“Totaled.”

“And her?”

He stretched out on the bed. “You won’t have anything to worry about.”

She stood near the floor-to-ceiling lamp. It cast a halo around her head that made his eyes ache.

“Yes I do.”

He covered his face with his free hand. “Look, you gave me a chance. I made the best of it.”

“You don’t get it.”

He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Apparently not.”

“You don’t,” she insisted, “that wasn’t why I gave you a chance.”

Her voice had an odd dullness to it. He wriggled his pinky in his ear.

“—make amends for it. Own up. That kind of thing.”

He had to laugh.

“Look, it’s done, all right? The problem no longer exists, and now I think I have to lie down for a while.”

Her voice was crisp and cold. “Yes, you do.”

“I mean it.” He squirmed, trying to get comfortable. “I really did a number on my spine.”

His back ached, and he couldn’t find a soft place on their mattress. His head felt full, too, and he wished she would go so he could close his eyes but she stood in the doorway with her face obscured by the light that made his vision blur painfully. He slid over the side of the bed until his head dangled. Changing angles just made her face darker, harder to see her expression.

 

“—not responsible.”

He opened his eyes. This was hard, because he was working against gravity. “What did you say?”

His vision was cracked. No, the windshield was cracked. He was in the car and he was upside-down because his seat belt had held.

“I was waiting for you to claim responsibility for what you did. That’s worse than anything else.”

His wife was standing with the lamp behind her.

No.

It was the other woman, and the sun set behind her.

No.

It was both of them.

He couldn’t make his mind work against the blood pressing into his head. His arms didn’t want to respond, or maybe it was just that he had forgotten how to use them.

“I gave you a chance. Remember that. I gave you a chance.”

He couldn’t tell who was talking, they sounded so alike.

In one motion, both women turned and began walking away.

The idea that this was probably bad and he should do something about it trickled in a bit too late.

“Wait,” he called feebly.

As the women grew further away, the light overpowered them. It made them harder to see individually, until their shadows united into one dark figure who walked steadily away from him.

And as his eyes closed of their own accord, he had time to marvel at how alike they really were before the darkness ate him too.

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Antonia Gilchrist

image (1)

The actress herself

Antonia Gilchrist was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1899 to a theatrical family. There was aristocracy in her blood, which manifested itself in her cold and proud screen presence. She was educated in a finishing school in France before emigrating to the U.S. in 1918. She worked as a typist before being discovered by a passing movie executive who nearly swooned when she locked eyes with him.

…This is what the official press packet reads.

In reality, Anna Soames was born in Lincoln, Nevada in 1888 and simply migrated south, rather than trans-Atlantically, with her family to reach Hollywood. Anna had always had her eyes set on actresshood, going straight from her parent’s shanty to the casting couch.

She found more success in the infant motion picture industry than in theatre, where her odd delivery and mannerisms failed to impress critics. It was signing on to Paramount that made her career. The studio was looking for a low-rate Theda Bara and they got one in Antonia/Anna. She could project “willful menace…tempered with wounded chastity” according to one gushing critic. Lack of sound meant that her moody countenance could dominate scenes without her delivery ruining the effect.

Gilchrist’s catalog is extensive, even for the rapidly-paced silent film industry, weighing in at 150 films (not counting her earlier bit-parts and background scenes.) She played temptresses, sorceresses, ingenues, historical and allegorical alike. Her Salome was said to set the screen alight. Her Akasha raised the ire of religious watchdogs because of her boldly exposed navel. Realizing that an interview would probably undermine the image of an unreachable temptress, the studio communicated with star magazines solely through press packets, claiming Antonia’s presence so potent any interviewer would fall into a stupor. The press swallowed it eagerly, providing a few embellishments of their own: that Antonia had seen a fortune-teller who told her to go into acting, that she had been born during an eclipse, that she drank bat’s milk as part of her beauty regiment, and other such flourishes.

Despite this fever-pitch of admiration, none of her films are known to survive to this day. The only extant pieces of her career are a few stills of Dinner For Sinners(1925) her last film, unreleased, and a studio catalog dating prior to 1924.

This is not due to the regular errors of storage that plague so many other silent films, rather, this is said to be deliberate destruction on the part of the studio.

A publicity still from Dinner For Sinners

A publicity still from Dinner For Sinners

Information on the scandal that led to the studio severing ties with their odd star are likewise scanty. Peek, a gossip zine, reported Gilchrist’s presence at a “blue party” on April 14, 1923. The article merely hinted at a deeper story, promising a multi-issue expose. But when the March issue rolled around, no mention was made of Gilchrist or anything surrounding the party.

What little details can be gathered from the periphery of the industry at the time paint a picture of something far beyond the usual sex&drugs scandal. It seemed to involve the child of a film crew member that disappeared during the filming of her latest movie, but in what capacity we can only speculate. What Gilchrist did was said to be unforgivable, and unspeakable. For this reason, any record of her career with the studio was completely destroyed. The only surviving memorabilia languished in the hands of private collectors, most of that did not survive long enough to be transferred to digital format.

Gilchrist herself never made another movie, and for all intents and purposes vanished off the face of the earth. A marriage certificate, signed with her given name and not her stage name, surfaced in a collection of Hollywood paperwork being auctioned off by the studio. It was dated the day of the child’s disappearance. The groom’s name was blank.

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Ghost Stop

So, there’s this corner right by my house. It’s all overgrown with pecan trees and pokeberries, and it has a bus stop. Had a bus stop. The sign fell down, but it’s still a designated stop.

I kinda liked that about it. Like it’s a secret only a few people know about. A ghost stop.

Frank, the guy who drives the 92, always swings by to pick me up. I can bike to just about anywhere but the specialty store where I get my gear. So I go out there at promptly 9:25. Frank stops and lets me on. I get whatever I need done and I wait at the city stop by 11:45. Frank drives that time, too, so he brings me home again. Kinda like my own bus service.

Frank and me got on really well. I liked to joke, and he liked me better than the riffraff that he normally toted from the train station to downtown. I liked to think we had a pretty good thing going. So I never really tried to get on the bus when other drivers were operating.

Flash to two months ago.

I have this special thing on my right pedal because my foot’s all messed up. Childhood accident. Well it went out right as I got home from work. This was the middle of the week, so I had work the next morning and couldn’t go on the 9:25 bus with my buddy.

It was five in the evening. The store closed at six. I had a decision to make and I made it.

I was already rehearsing what I would say to the driver as the silver bus careened around the corner. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe it was a joke to test the waters. Maybe it was an apology. All I could think of as that bus turned and didn’t correct itself in time was that I had work in the morning, and they wouldn’t have time to find a replacement.

I woke up in the hospital.

That’s not entirely true. I woke up in the ditch first. Everything was black, so I thought I was dead. I passed out again.

I had fallen in a weedy area, so no one saw my body for a few hours. It turned out to be the old German guy who always walks his dog past my place n the evening. He called the ambulance while his excited papillon nibbled my fingers.

When I woke up, they explained to me that I’d had a bad accident. I said I knew. A bus hit me.

The two guys who broke the news(I think one was an insurance rep) looked at each other.

They said I had bruises from the impact. Where I had hit the bricks and bounced. Where I had landed. But the wounds I had were inconsistent with a car grille impact.

I said I didn’t want to sue anyone. A bus had hit me. I was waiting at the stop and the stupid thing turned to wide and went too fast.

The guy I thought might be the rep cleared his throat. There was no stop on that corner.

No pole, I said, but there was still a stop.

More exchanged looks. The rep rose first, tucked a card in my pocket.

We’ll talk when you’re feeling better, he said.

Later, a nurse popped her head in and asked if I felt well enough to take a call. Well, at least one of my hands was okay, so I agreed and she wheeled in this old cord-phone.

Man oh man, I am so sorry were the first words on the line. It was Frank.

He said I should have told him I was going out. He would have driven in his old truck to pick me up.

You are the high point of my day, he told me, if it wasn’t for you, I’d probably go nuts on the job.

He begged me not to say anything about the stop.

I asked why.

The line crackled. It was probably just the old cord, but it made me feel like someone was listening in.

He said that nobody was supposed to know about the stop. Yes, legally, there had to be a stop every X-amount of feet in the city, but the bus line told drivers never to stop at that corner. He had taken a huge risk even picking me up, but he liked me and didn’t care.

I asked him why all the secrecy.

He paused again. I could hear TV on his end, some king of boxing match.

He said that the stop had been taken out the same way I had. He sounded apologetic. But the same thing had happened. A driver, too much of a hurry, a turn not corrected, and the pole was bye-bye.

Why didn’t they just build another one?

He paused again. It was getting annoying, like he was teasing me, but the poor guy probably didn’t even realize he was doing it.

They did, he said.

And again, after that one got knocked down.

And another one after that.

And another one after that.

Did I get it?

So it’s a bad traffic spot, I said, so what? Why not just put it further back from the road or something?

Because that wouldn’t have stopped the driver, he said.

The same driver, every time? Why didn’t they just fire him?

Frank was quiet again. I’d have thought he hung up, but I could still hear the match in the background.

He died, Frank said. He died in that first crash. He took all the passengers with him.

But even after he died, the sign would get knocked down. The same time, every day, by a bus that no one could find afterwards. That was why they called it the ghost stop.

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