Whistlestop sits close to the top of a mountain, a little aloof from the rest of civilization. The winds of the world bend strangely around that mountainside and the people of Whistlestop don’t feel and see things quite like the rest of us. The residents of Whistlestop are part of that strange atmosphere from the day they are born; they breathe it in every day with every lungful of air; they take in the heady atmosphere like the Sherpas take the altitudes. If there’s one thing a person could say about Whistlestop, it’s that reality doesn’t do it justice (or maybe vice versa). Most of the tales that Whistlestoppers tell about themselves sound a lot like fairy tales and legends to outsiders. But what about an outsider’s perspective? You might expect such a story to come up against some sort of rift in reality and get pretty weird. Your expectations would be met. This story has a crack in it….a crack through which the light, what little there is, seeps in fitfully.
Now, I didn’t come by this story in the usual way. As a rule, the narratives of Whistlestop bubble up from the underground springs of the whispered gossip that is the main course of church potlucks and the “prayer requests” that are meant more to relay information to the other church goers than to the Lord Almighty. The tales grow up from dinner party conversations that start with “bless her heart” and the little talks at the grocery store when someone asks “did you hear about?” They start with a shake of the head by the all knowing bar maids at the Pop-A-Top on the wrong side of town, or from Edna Harrison Brooks, the seemingly telepathic former third grade teacher who somehow knows someone who knows someone who knows something about everyone. In this case though, I got the story right from the proverbial horse’s mouth. Or actually, from a friend of mine, a history professor named Mark. Mark called me up one stormy summer evening demanding to see me. He wanted to discuss an “incident.”
“An incident?” I asked. I was busy, deep in the middle of writing a story that had just started to move in the right direction. I didn’t need the distraction.
“An incident that occurred in Whistlestop,” he spat out the name of the town like a bad taste. “Didn’t you used to live there? I have to talk about it. To someone.” His voice was intense. He spoke quickly.
“What were you doing in Whistlestop?” I asked. Whistlestop is not exactly on most people’s must see list.
“Part of the story,” he said testily.
There was silence for a moment as the thunder splintered the darkness of the afternoon and the rain pelted the wavy panes of my office windows. I was intrigued but uneasy. The storm lashed the outside of my window like the furies torturing the damned.
“Sure,” I said. “I guess. You want to come over here?”
“I can’t,” he said. “I have a night class. You’re going to have to come my way.”
“Ummm…,” I looked out at the pounding rain.
“Seriously,” he said. “I need you to hear this.” Had his voice cracked a little?
I sighed. “How about the coffee shop by your office?”
“How about the bar on Fourth?” he said. “I’m going to need a drink.”
Mark was a reasonable person and a good teacher. I couldn’t imagine him drinking before class. After all, he taught history not English. Now I was interested. Seriously interested. Maybe I could get to the car without drowning or being torn asunder by a lightning bolt.
“I’ll be there when I get there,” I said. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a monsoon going on out there.”
“Ha!” he shouted into the phone. “Compared to what I’ve just been through? A monsoon is child’s play. Just meet me at four.” He hung up abruptly.
I met Mark at the bar. He already had a table and a whiskey. One storm had melted into another and my hair was plastered to my forehead in spite of my umbrella. I sloshed my way to a booth in the back and slid across a cracked leather seat opposite Mark.
“Really?” I asked, as I sat down. “You don’t drink whiskey.”
“I do now,” he took a long swallow and coughed and sputtered out the word, “Whistlestop.” He shook his head. He took another swallow and I noticed his eyes looked a little wild.
“How many does that make?” I said, indicating the whiskey.
He shrugged, “Just two…so far. I’ll probably need more.”
“I’ll drive you back to campus,” I said. Should be a happening class tonight, I thought.
“I’ll walk,” he looked absently into his whiskey.
I pointed toward the furious storm outside. He shrugged again. We sat in the strange noisy silence fashioned of other people’s conversations, the clinking of glasses, and the clamor of the storm outside while he struggled through a few sips of his drink. You have to be patient with Mark. He can’t or won’t just spit anything out no matter how you press him. So I ordered a beer and peered out through the slithering liquid, watching trees wave desperately in the parking lot until I heard him clear his throat.
He finally leaned back in his chair and began, “It…it was such an ordinary day. I was just going over to Middleton to read a paper, you know?”
I nodded. “And…”
“And…Jerry convinced me to take the scenic route up the mountain. Said there was this little village up at the top I could probably make by lunch time.”
“Whistlestop.” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Whistlestop.”
Mark said the first thing he saw as he drove into town was The Laughing Pink Elephant. It’s an antique/junk/oddities store located in a sprawling pink and yellow Victorian at the western edge of town, just a block or two from the town square. He noticed it largely because of the gigantic, aging wooden sign displaying a large pink elephant sitting in a claw foot tub and holding what appears to be a champagne glass. (Most people feel the expression on its face is more pensive than hilarious, but the owners of the place quite stubbornly cling to the idea that the elephant is laughing. The sign has been a target of the town beautification committee - whose members have refused to weigh in on the emotional condition of the elephant but have focused more on the fact that the sign doesn’t appropriately represent the aesthetics of the village as a whole. Or as Mary Edelson Brooks, the head of the village beautification committee told her friend Janet, it’s just plain tacky. Harold and Angel are the owners and they’ll never change it. Harold’s dad, who considered himself something of an artist, painted it.)
Anyway, as Mark tells it, the soft summer breezes had woken him early that morning and seduced him into following Jerry’s lunatic plan. He was somewhat frazzled by the time he reached the village due to having traveled behind a tractor at the speed of 5 mph for fifteen miles during which time his air conditioner had quit working. The open windows had triggered some sneezing and a stuffy nose. But the beauty of the postcard perfect village worked its magic on him and he relaxed as his car came through the last of the hairpin turns and drifted down the lane, through a series of beautiful houses, from turn of the century cottages to large Gothic mansions. He was impressed by the leafy green trees spreading their arms above the shrubs and flowering trees and roses. He noticed some drifting pink petals wafting through the windows. He even said the word wafting. He said he felt like he’d driven into a picture.
I broke in, “Whistlestop does that to people.”
“Don’t interrupt,” he frowned. “This is hard enough.”
I clammed up and watched him swirl some whiskey around on the table with his finger for a minute while I waited for him to continue. He finally looked up and began again.
He said as he drove up to The Laughing Pink Elephant, it occurred to him that he had forgotten to pick up a birthday gift for his mother. He thought he might stop, find a restroom, buy a gift and inquire as to the best place for lunch. As he made his way through the parking lot he took a moment (as most people do) to contemplate the emotionally ambiguous animal on the sign and decided that the elephant - which he thought was more of a salmon color than a true pink - appeared to be somewhat drunk but did not seem to be laughing about it.
When he got out of the car, he realized finding a restroom had become somewhat more mission critical than his other goals. So he walked into the foyer and politely asked the old hippie lady with big gray hair and glasses for directions.
“That’s Angel,” I said. “She’s actually not a hippie. She’s very religious. She just doesn’t like to put her hair up.” Mark gave me a look that made shut up.
Mark noted that Angel was looking at the account book and barely seemed to notice him. She just muttered the word “left” and pointed vaguely toward the hallway that opened perpendicular to the foyer.
As he walked away, Mark heard her say, “Make sure it’s that door in the little room before you get to the antique meat grinder, not the room after. That’s a closet.” Mark was mystified but thought he could probably figure it out as he went.
“You know,” he said looking pleadingly at me. “I figured it would have a sign with one of those annoying little proverbs about sprinkling and tinkling or maybe an elephant with its legs crossed looking desperate or something.” I didn’t quite comprehend the urgency with which he needed me understand and approve of the reasoning in his quest to find a toilet…but I nodded and let him press on.
Mark said he passed several rooms on the side until he came to an antique machine with a turn handle that looked as though it must be a grinder of some sort, so he brought himself up short and turned into the room just before it. The room was packed with oddities. He told me that he’d seen an old gnome sitting on a brass elephant planter, some eyeless wooden masks and an old ventriloquist’s dummy hanging from the walls, a few shelves with ancient and rusted metal objects and some old tin advertising signs. There was a stuffed raccoon with its tail broken so that it stuck out at a right angle halfway up. I sensed that he needed to stop here for a moment to linger on the details before he could bring himself to relate the dark heart of his story – whatever that was - so I let him describe the room in all its particulars.
He finally finished his list and looked at me, “I guess it was a store room. Didn’t look like anything was for sale.” He paused at the memory of the room and shuddered. I ordered him another whiskey. He only continued after he’d taken a sip.
He remembered that the only light in the room came from one large open window with an ancient and torn screen through which a small stream of flies were buzzing. In the back of the room to the left, there was a large Moose head with one antler at a slight list, under it there was a door. It was unmarked.
“The moose had a strange smell,” Mark said. His hands trembled as he brought the whiskey to his lips. “I should have known. I just…it felt like fate. I thought I was being silly. Just open the door, I said to myself.”
I leaned forward and patted his hand. I used my napkin to quietly soak up the amber liquid that threatened the cuff of his dress shirt.
He said that, although he had to push past the strange smell and a feeling of dread, he reached out and pulled on the door handle. A broom fell out and hit him on the head.
“I was like, crap, it’s the closet,” he pursed his lips and blew through them in an effort to relieve the remembered tension.
He caught the broom and attempted to simply stuff it back into the tightly packed closet, but in the next second he could feel the entire contents of the closet pressing heavily on the door. A mop flopped out of the gap and the broom fell back out after it. He braced the door with his left shoulder, pushing in the mop and broom with his right hand. Something heavy fell against the door and he reached in further to push it back into place too. He tried to shut the door on the avalanche. He heard the pinging and rattling of small things falling onto the closet floor. He started to sweat a little.
“I figured I would feel pretty stupid if someone found me there.” He looked into my eyes, imploring my sympathy again. I patted his hand.
Still pressing the door with his left shoulder he opened it a little further so he could reach in and push the mess into place, close the door and quietly leave the room. He would just have to find the restroom on his own. He craned his head around the edge of the door into the darkness and quickly pushed his right hand through the opening to hold back the wave of junk. The dusty light trickled through the dust and flies over his shoulder and fell on the objects inside.
He peered in to see what he was up against, and just under the heel of his hand he could see an oval of dewy, velvety white. On either side of his hand was a dark black marble like sphere.
“I couldn’t see it at first,” he said. “I just…it took a few minutes…you know?”
I didn’t know, but I tried to look wise and kept quiet. He stared intensely at the liquor bottles above the bar, as if he was staring through the past few days and into the closet.
The shapes resolved themselves slowly, he said, by degrees. They resolved into a face. It was a heart shaped face, pale, pointed and most absolutely…dead. Cold and dead. It was a dead woman. A corpse.
“I knew once I could process…you know…that I could see it was a woman…I knew she was dead. Of course…you feel it…I can’t say what it feels like. But you feel it all the way through.” He shivered and stared into space.
I gave an involuntary start. He took another sip.
“So I’m propping up this body and do you know what starts going through my head?” he stared at me, then gave a dry laugh. “Dead as a doornail. I mean the phrase ‘dead as a doornail.’ It just ran through my mind in a circle. Doornail? Doornail? Why doornail?” He laughed a hard laugh again. “My brain just shut the hell down.”
Whistlestop, I thought. You have outdone yourself this time.
Mark said he spent some amount of time searching his mental file cabinet for the provenance of the phrase. He couldn’t say how long he pondered why doornails had come to represent death. Then with a clang, the mental file slammed shut. His brain turned its attention back to the shocking fact that he was propping up a corpse with his hand. His brain wanted to know what he intended to do about it. He thought about this question. He wanted to pull back his hand but was unable to make his body do anything. He gazed into the glassy eyes. They gazed back, serene. The corpse was pinned against the mountain of junk in the closet with his hand. The moment settled uncomfortably into eternity. Not moving meant he was in contact with a dead body. Moving meant that it would fall forward and any animation seemed worse than the stillness. He asked his brain if it had an answer for that. It did not. He said he was wondering if there was a resolution or whether he himself might stay there until he was also a corpse, when a fly settled on his thumb. With a start, he jerked his hand backwards. The corpse toppled forward, caught in an avalanche of ancient cleaning supplies and oddities.
The sudden landslide flung itself on him and the whole mess hit him square on the chest. His feet, spinning in place in a pointless attempt at escape, slid out from under him. The thick solid weight fell on his chest while various wooden handles bonked him in the head.
He said he thought he screamed but didn’t feel any sound coming out, and then he pushed out from under the body and scrambled up and against the wall. Then he looked down. The brief skirmish had left the body rolled onto its back and her yellow flowered dress was stuck to her belly where there was a mass of blood that made a large stain that swallowed up the little blue flowers like the night coming on. One flat black shoe still clung to her right foot. He wondered if someone had taken the time to put it back on. The other foot was bare and he could see that her toes had been painted in bright pink nail polish. The eyes were open and staring and the mouth was agape as well. The stringy brown hair lay in tangled streamers around several mops and brooms. The head rested on a feather duster which flirtatiously stuck out from behind her ear.
Mark shook his head and swallowed a lot of whiskey at once. “A show girl for the damned,” he said quietly.
I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“At first, I just looked at her. I thought about it all rather calmly. There was blood on her hands. I thought that she must have tried to press the wound or fought with her killer as she was dying. There was blood spattered a little on her face too. But not as much as I would have thought,” he bent his head over his drink. “I thought someone must have cleaned her up a little and put shoes on her before moving her there. They couldn’t have killed her there. There would have been blood everywhere. I could see…at least I thought I saw…that her stomach was slashed nearly open. It was hard to tell because some old towels had fallen on her. It was her belly that was cut. And then I thought she must not have been dead very long or she would smell even worse. And I wondered why? Why would someone put her in the janitor’s closet?”
He took his head out of his hands and shook himself out of the memory and continued. He said he had finally realized that he had to do something. The contents of hell and a janitor’s closet had burst forth on top of him and his mind rooted for some appropriate reaction. The right thing to do.
He wanted, he said, to walk calmly out to the foyer and alert someone. He would have to step over the corpse to do it. His body failed him as some primitive awe for the dead overtook him. He decided then that he could at least call to someone. He opened his mouth and was surprised to hear an eerie and trembling sound force its way out of the depths of the his body. There seemed to be nothing more he could do.
Shortly after that, he saw some people come running into the room and stop short on the other side of the corpse in the pile of junk. The gray haired hippy woman…
“Angel,” I said.
He waved off my help, “A guy with a beard and big glasses, and some guy with wavy black and gray hair in a plaid shirt. I think they called him Dan.”
“Harold,” I said. “And Dan runs the garage. He’s never there I don’t know how he keeps it open.”
Mark glared at me, so I shut up again.
Mark said that by this point he was nearly insensible, panting and moaning and holding a dust mop between himself and the corpse.
“I don’t know, maybe I was trying to ward it off,” he said.
When he saw the other human beings enter the room, he leapt toward the comforting sight of the living, jumping nimbly over the body and landing with his left foot in the mop bucket. He slid gracelessly across the room and bounced off the far wall and fell flat on his back. His head hit the floor with a solid thunk.
He looked at me dead in the eye. “You might think that this worst part of this story is over,” he said. “But it’s not. It actually sort of got worse. In a way…it got weirder.”
I winced. I didn’t know where this was going. However, I knew where it was coming from – Whistlestop. I might be shocked but I wasn’t going to be surprised. I nodded my encouragement.
“So they’re all standing there staring at me, right?” he said. “So I’m thinking, okay Mark ol’ buddy keep your cool. You’ve already been through the shock of this. There’s going to be a little mass hysteria now.”
The three of them, Harold, Angel and Dan, stood over him for a minute Mark said, staring. Then Harold helped him up and plopped him on a stool in the corner.
He said Harold stared at him for a minute and looked at the pile of junk and said, “I thought I heard a commotion in here.”
Angel said, “I thought it was you, Harold. Dropping things again.”
Mark was uncertain for a moment if any of them even knew there was a body in all the junk that had fallen from the closet. He shakily pointed it out.
Mark said, “Dan – that’s the plaid shirt guy right?” I nodded. “He turned and looked down and shook his head and said “Damn…sure enough. It’s a dead woman.”
“What did Angel do,” I asked.
“She told Dan not to cuss. And then she and Harold looked at the body. Really casual. Harold had his hands in his pants pockets like he was talking about the weather at in front of the diner or something.” Mark said. “They all stand there looking and Harold starts shaking his head. And Angel says something about the Lord Almighty. They just stand there looking down.”
I nodded again.
“So, I’m waiting for the light bulb to go off, right?” said Mark. “Police to be called - maybe a little crying – a little scream from Angel. Something. And Dan turns and looks at me and says, ‘Why in the Hell would you come in here opening doors like that? What on God’s green earth were you thinking son?’”
“I bet Angel didn’t like that,” I said. “After she told Dan to quit cussing.”
Mark glared at me. “How did you…?” he said. Then he sighed, “Yeah..She told him that she had already said she didn’t want hear any cussing. Because, you know if there’s one thing that can make a murder worse than it already is, it would be saying a swear word.”
He went on, “So then they all look at me and Angel says, ‘Didn’t you say you had to use the restroom? This is a broom closet. Why were you opening up the broom closet?’
He paused dramatically, “Do you get it? They were upset because I had opened the door. Not that there was a corpse in the closet. There was a dead woman. And they wanted to know why I had opened the door.” I sincerely wished I could express more surprise.
“So what happened next?” I asked. “Did they call Constable Henry?”
“So first,” Mark said, “That Dan guy makes a joke that maybe I opened the closet because I wanted to help sweep up. Then...uh…Harold…he starts asking me how I got lost trying to find the bathroom. He was like ‘didn’t Angel tell you it was in the room right before the antique meat grinder’? And I said yes. I saw it right out in the hall, the meat grinder I mean. He’s asking me about a meat grinder and we’re still in this storage room with a dead lady. And I’m explaining how I got lost going to find a toilet. And all the while she’s still dead. Just laying there. And I’m talking about not being able to find my way to the toilet.”
He took a rather large swig of his whiskey. He paused dramatically. “So guess what?”
He waited for me to respond, frowning.
“Um what?” I played along.
He ran his fingers through his hair and then he suddenly giggled. I resolved to have the bartender cut him off.
“What I saw was a coffee grinder. It wasn’t a meat grinder at all.” He laughed helplessly. “They sold the meat grinder the day before. Angel forgot. So her directions were wrong.”
“I bet Harold explained the difference to you,” I said.
Mark nodded. “At length. He said he didn’t want me to get confused and get into this kind of a situation again.” Mark giggled again and a slight hiccup bubbled up and caught him by surprise. “A situation. With a corpse. Because I didn’t know the difference between a coffee grinder and a meat grinder.” He swallowed the last of his alcohol at once.
Then he frowned, “You don’t think I will do you?” he asked. “Get into another situation like this one?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of thing that happens twice,” I said, trying to comfort him. “Especially if you stay out of Whistlestop.”
“I can promise you that!” he said, thumping his fist on the table.
“So…?” I asked, gently reaching across the table and moving his arms out of danger of the spilled liquid. “What happened?”
Mark said someone must have finally called the constable. At the same time, the “situation” at The Laughing Pink Elephant somehow telegraphed itself through the clairvoyant atmosphere that envelops every small village. So by the time the constable showed up there was already a crowd out front. Constable Henry questioned Mark briefly without telling him whether or not he was free to go, leaving him standing in the hall outside the storage room so that he could go to the foyer to phone Mrs. Henry to tell her the bad news about dinner.
As soon as the constable had finished speaking with him, a reporter (actually the reporter) from the Whistlestop Gazette pushed through the crowd to ask if he knew the victim, what brought him to town and what made him open the wrong door. Mark ended up in the hall by the foyer where he was blocked from leaving by a knot of villagers who were eagerly discussing the case. He wanted to make his way over to Constable Henry to find out if he was free to go.
“I could still smell the body,” said Mark. “I don’t know if it was my imagination or if the smell had soaked into my clothes. I just needed to get out of there.” He shivered and wrinkled his nose. “I think I can still smell it. Sometimes I still smell it. Took four showers when I got home. I still smell it.” He inspected his empty glass and looked at me. I sighed and ordered him another.
“So,” Mark said, “I’m just standing there listening to them. Angel is complaining because they may have to close the store and someone has to clean up the mess and, of course, that someone is going to be her. She glared at me every time she made that point. And Harold is trying to explain the difference between a coffee grinder and a meat grinder to three other people, and this fancy looking blonde woman with perfect hair and expensive shoes…”
“Mary Brooks,” I say.
He shrugs, “Anyway, she’s going on about how embarrassing it is and wondering what it’s going to do to tourism. And some smelly guy with this weird hair that sticks up is patting my arm and telling me that the same thing happened to his old Dad. I think he smelled worse than the corpse.”
“Homeless Tom,” I say.
“And some priest is talking to some old ladies and they’re all cackling about what’s the world coming to and once upon a time things were safe,” he sighed.
I shook my head, “Not in Whistlestop they weren't…” I muttered to myself.
“And Dan keeps saying, ‘It’s a Hell of a thing’ and Angel is interrupting herself to tell him not to cuss and the constable is on the phone to his wife telling her that he’s going to be late to dinner and that he can’t help it she has popovers…” He trailed off and stared into space.
I could tell he was drifting away. The whiskey was getting to him.
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“At that point,” Mark yawned, “I realized that the dead woman was probably the most sensible person in town, even if it was damned hard to get over the way she smelled. So I walked back into the room where she was. There was no cop to stop me or anything.”
“There’s only Constable Henry,” I said. “If he was on the phone to his wife, I guess not.”
“Anyway,” said Mark, “I stared down at her, with her little feather duster next to her head, no one caring that she’d been murdered or anything and I said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I hope you weren’t from here.’”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
Mark tried to explain. “I wasn’t being flippant. I just didn’t know what else to say to her. It seemed like someone owed her an apology. I mean, the murderer sure, but an apology for all of them…us.”
He sighed. “I popped out the old screen, crawled out the back window and went to my car in the parking lot and left. That was it. I don’t know what happened.”
We sat quietly for a moment. Then Mark said, “So do you think they’ll come after me or something? Nobody told me I was free to go or anything.”
I thought about it for a minute. “No,” I said. They’ve probably already forgotten you. You’ll just end up being some stranger in town in one of the stories they tell themselves. You might be the villain or you might be the pawn in their story. But the real, actual you doesn’t matter a fig to them by now.”
He nodded. “Good,” he said.
I called the school and cancelled class and took him home and left him on his couch. As far as I know, no one from Whistlestop ever contacted him about the case and he never went back.
The story of the dead lady in the closet is another story for another time.