The Simmons public library was a melting pot of the haves and have-nots. In terms of adults, it was a mixture of homeless people and the wealthy older residents of the nearby neighborhood.
Just west of the library, the houses were old, large, full of history and retirees. The one on the corner was a Victorian, with gingerbread trim and a wrap-around porch, blooming hostas planted along the sidewalk. The house next to it was a craftsman style, smaller, but elegant and beautifully maintained. There was a large wooden swing under the maple in the craftsman’s front yard, empty at this moment, but clearly begging for grandchildren to fall asleep there come the late summer heat. Another few blocks down and the houses were simpler, if not much smaller, and the age bracket shifted a bit younger. They were old farmhouses, sometimes inherited, sometimes picked up by the slighter younger folk who wanted the experience of living in a small midwestern town. There were occasionally kids’ bikes, canoes, and kayaks on roof racks. It wasn’t until you reached the east side, where the Simmons River had been used for canning factories in the late 19th century, that things became really run down. Even there, the land was mostly left to fill itself in with second growth that covered the remnants of the abandoned, moldering buildings. Between the East and the West ends were low-income apartments and senior living cottages and a bridge trestle for teenagers to gather under. Geographical intimacy made for an interesting social and economic mix in Simmons.
In the fall of 2005, the library met the needs of very dissimilar patrons. It was a font of educational resources, connectivity, context for the city, and of course the joys of storytelling. To the wealthy this meant free courses offered through the local community college on “Investment in Retirement”, while the folks without homes (let alone something financial to invest) were able to get impromptu training on “How to Apply for Food Stamps” and lists of local medical support for those without insurance or a stable address. The library offered free phone calls to local shelters, as well. There were movie nights and book clubs, and of course children’s Saturday morning rec classes involving popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue.
The library was liberal for a small midwestern city. Homeless patrons used the restrooms to wash, utilizing the free soap and paper towels, as well as a climate-controlled venue for their necessities. The wealthy residents came for LPs (the library retained a collection), DVDs, and librarians who would occasionally be called on to help them negotiate emailed attachments from their college-aged grandchildren. If the Homeless occasionally offered advice (either on investment or IT) the Boomers seemed open to it. It helped that the midwestern nice still thrived here.
Thus, when a homeless bather held a conversation with another itinerant library patron on a chill October afternoon, it so happened that a stall was occupied by the owner of one of those substantial houses a few blocks away.
“It’s getting down to the 40’s tonight, Sam,” one man said.
“St. Vincent Shelter in town is full, I checked,” Sam replied.
“Have you tried Rock City? Reedsburg?” the first man asked.
“Nothing local and I can’t hitch to Reedsburg,” Sam said, soaping his armpits and gathering more water for a rinse.
“Where are you going to go?” the other man asked.
“It looks like The Hospital,” Sam replied and sighed, working the machine for more paper towels.
While it was not his intention to eavesdrop, the building they called “The Hospital” was quite close to the home of the man in the stall. There was a momentary silence from the man talking to Sam and the man in stall chose to flush, establishing that this was, indeed, a three-way conversation.
“Skip The Hospital,” he said, leaving the stall, settling his belt, and reaching for the soap container. He met Sam’s eyes in the mirror, “It really isn’t safe.” Sam took in the man’s clothing, expensive golf shirt under the Izod sweater and expensive shoes peeked out of freshly pressed khakis. “What, do you live close and not want to see ‘this’ in your backyard?” Sam gestured to the dirty jeans he was wearing, and the soiled t-shirt and the sweatshirt carefully laid upon his backpack.
The man from the stall paused. “This isn’t about your clothes,” he turned to face the man who had just bathed in a library restroom. “It isn’t about being dirty or clean or rich or poor,” he said as his eyes swept the other man’s meagre property. “The Hospital isn’t safe, especially in the fall,” he stated, simply and with absolute certainty.
Sam said nothing, only slipped on his shirt and gathered his backpack. He wasn’t looking Mr. Khaki in the eye, and he was determined to slip out without an argument. He hadn’t been in town for long; he might like to stay a bit longer. The library was a privilege, and he did not intend to lose it. Sam heard the older man sigh as the door closed and he was halfway down the hall when the man’s voice trailed after him. “Not there.”
The Hospital in question was, indeed less than a block east of Mr. Khakis’ Victorian, practically in his backyard. Not as old as most of the houses in the rest of what Sam or his friend would have called “the good neighborhood”, it was a remnant of the 1920’s. People from both sides of town still called it “The Hospital”, although that was only one of its incarnations. For two decades it served the community as a sort of sanitarium, a place for TB patients and people in iron lungs, a compassionate establishment run by nuns who were nurses. A needlepointed GOD WATCHES AFTER HIS CHILDREN hung in reception. Unofficially, it was a place to go for palliative care, in effect, a place to die. After World War II it changed hands and became what they called an “old folks’ home”, in today’s parlance it was a care-giving retirement home that functioned much as it had before, often as a kind of hospice. Mr. Khaki could remember kids calling it a “roach motel” for both the supposed lack of cleanliness and the fact that old folks checked in, but they didn’t check out. It was actually quite antiseptic, but no child would ever actually enter the place unless dragged by their parents, usually to wish a grandparent goodbye. Children remembered the smells and a sense of death, although they might not have been able to articulate what made it so disturbing to them. Its christening as “the roach motel” was accurate to their experience and its history.
Sometime in the 1970s it had been permanently shut down, and thirty years later it was slowly going to rot. The windows were mostly boarded, and the cracked concrete of the drive was host to some decent size saplings, although the real greenery were the massive oaks, evergreens, and buckthorn lining the sidewalk. They made for a veritable wall of green wood that probably saved the site from any attempt at community improvement. It was effectively shrouded from prying eyes on the sidewalk, while the back offered its own cadre of prairie vegetation facing the old Victorian. The sumac was beautiful in the fall and the trees facing the sidewalk were old timber. It was almost perfect for the small, variable number of people sleeping rough in town these days. The porch kept most of the rain off, the overgrowth dissuaded bystanders, and for whatever reason, local kids left it alone. It became a summer way station for the homeless, by fall it was a back-up to the real shelters in town.
Mr. Khaki, real name Arthur Rutgers, had been one of those parents dragging children into the place back in the early 1960s. As a lifelong resident of the town, a veteran of Korea, and a good son, he didn’t think twice about dragging his children into one of the small rooms to say goodbye to their Mamaw. She was there less than a week and the children only visited once. His own sense of loss had blocked out what his son and daughter experienced. To be fair, he hadn’t really listened to their fuss about not wanting to go back there. Before his mother went there, if he thought of it at all, The Hospital meant polio. In his own mind the place was synonymous with what he imagined was the sound of an iron lung. He had known a boy, a classmate, who had not made it through the polio epidemic of the 1940s. The Hospital was where he made his exit, although Arthur had never gone to visit. Leonard had checked in, but he had never walked out.
When Arthur and his wife bought the shabby Victorian in the 1990s it was their dream restoration and the start of their retirement. Sandy had lived to see almost all of it restored; he swore the woodwork still smelled of her sweat mixed with lemon oil and Bengay, although these days he barely dusted. In the fall of their first year in that house, he and Sandy had come to what they occasionally referred to as a “negotiation” with the neighboring, abandoned building. Sandy loved Halloween and Arthur had teased her that were spending as much on decorations as they were on the new kitchen. But he still brought out the coping saw and cut life size shapes to be painted by Sandy and placed in their yard. The ghost, the witch with a broomstick, the Frankenstein Monster fit in with the rough look of the Victorian, one window boarded on the top floor and odd bits of gingerbread missing from half the porch. Sandy painted the wooden figures and together they made their front yard a gothic showpiece. They hung shredded gauze and rubber bats from the porch and put candles in paper bags leading around back to the kitchen door where an enormous jack-o’-lantern glowed. This was practical in that the front door was currently stuck closed until Arthur rehung it. It was made even more spooky because the back door looked out on The Hospital, abandoned, and cloaked in fading undergrowth, revealed bit by bit as the leaves fell. Occasionally a shiny bit of window glass reflected car headlights, and cats, or perhaps raccoons, made small sounds that carried into the Rutgers’ yard.
The first neighborhood children to come trick or treating that year arrived before full dark, clutching their parents’ hands as they walked by the cutouts. They followed the path and paused at the size of the jack-o’-lantern, clearly impressed by its spooky/friendly grin. Sandy was all done up as a witch that first year, teeth blackened and a pointy hat. Some old black dress that Arthur vaguely remembered from a New Year’s Eve party. She really did look like something out of “Hansel and Gretel”. He was wearing farmer’s overalls (the real ones he wore to do roof work) and a straw hat from the thrift store. They both said hello to their neighbors, she shoveled candy into the little kid’s baskets and later made the older kids pick no more than two pieces. It was a great way to meet folks who lived around them. By about 9pm it was full dark, and the children were older, sometimes teenagers almost too cool for trick or treating and coming in groups without parents. That was when they noticed the change. The older kids were hesitating to walk through the cutouts. They passed the porch with no problem, but when they started down the path to the back yard every single one stopped just shy of the jack-o’-lantern and faced the back yard. They faced The Hospital and hesitated. A couple of kids told them how good their decorations were. These were the older kids and one of them asked how they did it. He stood by the last cutout a long time, facing the back of the lot and not turning towards the door with the candy. This was a teenager who was genuinely impressed and maybe a little spooked. He asked about their special effects and Arthur started talking about plywood and the coping saw. “Okay man, but your haunted house rocks,” the teenager said, took his two pieces of candy and jogged off into the night. He was one of the last and they started closing shop around 9.30. They safely put out the candles with sand and doused the jack-o’-lantern. It was after that Arthur called Sandy to stand where that older kid had stood and look across their yard at The Hospital. Arthur and Sandy stood together, holding hands for quite a long time. Arthur thought about his mom and Leonard. They both thought about their own children’s complaints after visiting their grandmother, the kids’ nightmares, and the bed wetting incident.
Arthur and Sandy never used the back door for giving out Halloween candy after that and found themselves a bit shy of that side of the house from the times the leaves started to fall until almost Christmas. If anyone had asked, Sandy and Arthur would have explained that the path to the back door was especially slippery when it iced. Once the snow fell, they said, it wasn’t too bad. A few years in and they simply stopped using the back door from October 15 until approximately Thanksgiving. They rarely talked about it after that first night, after comparing notes, so to speak. They never put up Halloween decorations again. It seemed best not to draw the neighborhood children into their back yard. Their grandkids come-to-visit invitations were always in the summer and as long as the leaves were up, they even grilled in the backyard. Once they understood the house, they could not have sold in good conscience. As for the shifting homeless population overnighting at The Hospital, both Sandy and Arthur contributed time and money to the St. Vincent shelter. They were as civically involved as any two retirees could be, with a focus on safe beds for transients, the homeless, anyone who, in their private estimation, might wander into The Hospital, especially in the fall months.
Now Arthur was faced with the probability that some young homeless man with little or no context for what The Hospital was, or had been, was going to try to stay there tonight, some three days before Halloween. He wished Sandy was still here. He wished he could catch the young man and explain about The Hospital. He wished for the ten thousandth time that his house did not back onto The Hospital’s land. But it was his house, his neighborhood, and his city. Arthur went home to find a flashlight, a jacket, and his nerve.
Sam was wary of the places he slept. He had not been homeless for very long in comparison to some he had met on the road. For him it was coming up on a year. It had been a year of keeping in motion, avoiding police who sometimes meant well and sometimes did not. Part of him recognized that he was running from the death of his lover, the loss of his job and their small apartment. Somewhere along the way he had also lost 30 pounds, most of his clothing, and a tooth. Sam knew his life was spiraling downward, but he was neither happy on the road nor ready to try to settle into a new place. Limbo seemed to still fit him for now, so he swept leaves off The Hospital’s porch with his foot, laid down plastic to keep out the damp, and shook out his bedroll.
If Sam had bothered to look at the notice board in the Simmons Library, he would have seen the ad for Ghost Tours of Simmons. Had he called the number or gone to their website, he would have found that The Hospital was on that tour, second in line. It was the stop after the Ash Street Murder House (1930s itinerant handyman kills the couple who hired him the day before), and the stop before the supposedly Haunted Photography Studio two blocks east (the studio had done memorial photography of the dead well into the 20th century). Had Sam thought about it, he might have noticed that the tour was set up so that The Hospital was always so early on the walk that there was still a bit of light in the sky. This was not an accident, but a modification of the original plan. Initially the tour had ended with The Hospital, well after darkness had fallen. Tour guides requested the change and had already changed their routes before the official word came down to do so. Apparently, some tour goers had called in and complained. They suggested that the special effects were tacky and disturbing to the younger children, although they themselves recognized the hoax.
Sam knew none of this, although he had heard that there were tours in the early evening. People stayed on the sidewalk on the other side of the trees, no one could see the porch he was currently bedded on unless they came up the drive and walked up the steps to the front door. No one did that unless they were sleeping rough and the shelters were full. Unless they were Arthur.
Arthur waited until the tour had passed and approached the building by the sidewalk and the overgrown drive. He turned on his flashlight and spoke clearly as he walked down the overgrown entrance, “Young man, this is Arthur Rutger and I am a neighbor”. Privately he hoped that the young man would not see him as a threat. Arthur swung his flashlight, sweeping the area immediately in front of him and kept talking, although his skin had started to crawl. “Arthur Rutger here and I’d like to offer you my guest room for the night, just come away from this place for now.” There was a quaver in his voice and truly he was more frightened than when the polio epidemic had seared through the town, or when he fought in Korea, or when Sandy had gotten that test back from the doctor. This was worse because he only partially understood what he was walking into. Arthur was not entirely sure he wanted any kind of deep, experiential knowledge about what was going on in the abandoned building. He had not set foot on The Hospital property since he moved in next door.
Sam saw the flashlight and his first thought, “I’m busted, vagrancy,” was erased when he recognized Arthur’s voice. He was wary of the man walking toward him, regardless of what he was saying, but when Arthur reached the porch, Sam saw that the old guy from the bathroom was shaking. Whatever was going on, Sam thought, this guy was probably not here to harm him. The hair on Sam’s arms had started to come up and he had that sense that had he really looked back at the building, he would have found he was not alone.
“Please get up, young man. Come away from here and sleep the night safe. I have a guest room, just COME WITH ME NOW!” This last was a shout and Arthur’s color was not good. He was pale, his lips bluish, and he had started to sweat. Sam stood up and started to gather his bedding. Arthur’s voice froze him. This time it wasn’t a shout; it wasn’t a cry; it wasn’t words. Arthur had begun to whimper, and he was staring at the windows behind Sam. Backpack in hand, bedroll abandoned, Sam came down the stairs fast and joined Arthur, who had turned on his heel the moment Sam moved to join him. The old man was ploughing through the saplings and shrubs of the driveway, the flashlight jerking crazily as he made for the sidewalk. There was a hitch to Arthur’s breathing as Sam caught up to him and he found himself almost as worried for the old guy as he was frightened by what he thought he had started to feel on the porch.
Arthur slowed as he reached the sidewalk in front of his
house. He bent over, hands on knees, his breath still ragged. “What”
Sam began, and Arthur waved his question away, pointing to his own porch.
Sam took Arthur’s arm, helping him up the steps and they both
collapsed on the swing, setting it off in a jerky, chaotic motion.
“What,” Sam swallowed and began again. “What was behind me? I could feel it. I felt something, but”, Sam faltered and stopped talking. Arthur nodded and stood up. “This way. You can see it from here” he said, leading Sam to the path by the back door. “Look,” he said, pointing through his back yard to the abandoned building beyond the sumac and the trees. “But, best not to look too long though. Don’t make eye contact; stirs them up.”
There were faces. Dozens, perhaps a hundred faces scrolling
along the glass, where there was glass, and continuing to crawl along
the boards where the windows were gone. The trees made it mercifully
harder to see, but the brick and even the chimney was covered with the
faces of dead men, women, and children. They skittered and overlapped
one another like multiple images projected on the same wall. Young,
old, some wasted by disease, and some who seemed to have only fallen
asleep. Just as that teenager had, long ago, Sam looked back at the
Victorian, hoping to see a projector, hoping for a rational explanation.
When his focus returned to The Hospital, he saw a subtle and horrific
change. Their eyes were starting to open. Blinking, searching eyes,
rolling in their sockets, squinting. And then one of them saw him, saw
Sam, safe in the Rutgers’ yard. It made eye contact and Sam began
to whimper. After the first eyes had found his, others shifted to him.
They could somehow sense him watching and turned their focus, their
combined focus on Sam. At first the homeless man was gripped
by shivers and nausea but then things changed. Their mouths opened,
contracted, writhed; some screamed. Some were shouting to him, and others
appeared to whisper, all blessedly silent. As bad as the eye contact
was, he knew if he ever heard their words he would go mad or worse.
Arthur took his arm and led Sam through the back door, “Neighbors
got to watch out for one another. The spare room is in in the front”.
“No windows,” Arthur added.
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