A Little Fiction and Fun
Just Hanging Around on Halloween
“Are you Jennifer?” a voice called from behind the closed door. I was Jennifer and this place was getting stranger and stranger.
The sound of unlocking hasps and disengaged chains echoed throughout the hallway. The heavy metal door swung open to reveal both my new roommate and my new apartment.
I had answered the ad encouraging “any and all” to apply to share a “bed, bath and whatever” in a “happening area of Baltimore, Md.” I needed a place to live and I needed it cheap.
“So what do you think?” Mary asked, as she spread her robed-arms to indicate the apartment we would ostensibly share.
It was strange. The entire apartment consisted of a living room, a galley kitchen, a small bedroom and a tiny bathroom. No wonder the monthly price was less than $200.
I set my pocketbook on the couch, hefted off my windbreaker, and laid it on top. In less than a minute I had given the entire apartment the once-over. It was now required that I give this potential roommate the once-over.
She wore a long black robe. It was constructed of a heavy felt, had a hood that hung down the back and huge “batwing” sleeves. On her feet, Mary wore simple black shower shoes. Her nails were painted jet black and matched the color of her long hair. I was just beginning to peg her as a witch, when she said:
“You don’t got anything against witches do you?”
Mary’s appearance coupled with this question caused me to be wary. “No. Why do you ask?”
And I really didn’t have anything against witches not that I ever thought about it.
Mary flopped down on the couch, pulled up an ashtray, and lit a cigarette with theatrical flourish.
“Cause I’m a witch,” she said, exhaling a plume of smoke with the reply.
Okay…my mind acquiesced. I sat down adjacent to Mary and lit my own cigarette. Apartments, even those with roommates, going for less that $200 per month and with smoking encouraged, were rare indeed. So I had to share it with a witch? I informed Mary that I had no cause against witches.
The woman positively cackled. I exhaled my own plume of smoke and settled back into the bowels of the couch. I could handle this, I told myself. Even if I didn’t get the bedroom.
Mary wasn’t really a witch, of course, and I was glad of this in spite of my cavalier attitude. She was a painter and her paintings were definitely dark. Well, dark is the word I would use to describe them. One of Mary’s paintings take the entire width of the small bedroom wall (yes, I got the bedroom…Mary likes to entertain sometimes late into the night). It has the same texture as one of those velvet Elvis paintings, only there isn’t any Elvis in this picture.
Rats. There are thousands of rats in this Mary-painted picture. All sizes and all in various shades of grey. The many rats run along a ten foot long frame towards a head, now falling with spattering blood, from a guillotine which has just removed it from its body.
Then there is the picture in the living room. This one is not quite as wide as the one in the bedroom. It is, instead, very tall. It is a painting, again in black velvet, of a skeleton. Entwined throughout, over and under the rib bones and hanging lazily from the pelvic bones, are many kinds of snakes.
While Mary would definitely be considered strange by most, she was fairly normal, if one overlooked her constantly black attire, hair and fingernails. She was polite, considerate and not near as wacky as I would have thought. In fact, other than her appearance and paintings, she could be your girl next store. Complete with man problems.
“His name is Perry,” Mary told me one night as we sipped cognac and rested our work-weary bones. “He’s quite a good painter and he seems interested in me. If only I knew where I was going in my life.”
So far as I knew, Mary had no boyfriends. There were plenty of male voices on the other end of the calls I inadvertently intercepted for Mary. And she went out several nights a week to various functions that she would describe as “doing the art world”. But no males showed up in our tiny apartment that described themselves as Mary’s boyfriend.
So there was none other more surprised than me when Mary committed suicide because of a broken heart.
It was Perry Robson that broke the news to me. I had been gone for almost two weeks. One week was spent attending a conference on computers for my government employer, and the other was spent visiting my mother who lived in the same state of the conference. I had just walked into the apartment and wearily placed my suitcases on the floor when Perry appeared from the galley kitchen.
“Hi,” he said softly, but I still almost jumped out of my skin and spent ten minutes trying to calm down my heart.
Perry spent the entire ten minutes apologizing for the startle.
“Please, I am so sorry I scared you. My name is Perry Robson and I am in Mary’s art class. I knew that Mary had a roommate and I knew you would want to know.”
My heart was beating now roughly 300 beats per minutes and I gasped…”know…what?”
Perry placed his hand in the small of my back and guided me gently to the couch. He sat down next to me, clasped his hands between his knees and allowed his head to hang down from his haunch.
“Mary took an overdose of barbiturates yesterday afternoon. She is going to be buried tomorrow.”
This revelation caused me to start again.
I had just spoken to Mary five days ago when I phoned in to remind her to water my African Violet. I remembered the conversation well, because Mary laughed and told me that African Violets ought to be black.
“Her parents came in from DC to claim the body. She didn’t leave a suicide note, but friends say she was depressed.”
What friends, I wondered? I was most certainly her friend and no one asked me. She didn’t seem depressed at all and I lived with her.
I remained quiet with my thoughts for several moments, then noticed the new painting on the wall. This one was definitely not Mary’s painting. It was a painting of a gaudy clown, bent over at the waist and limbs akimbo. The clown’s face had large sad eyes and crystal tears spilled down his face.
I walked over to the painting in wonder.
“I gave it to her. She liked it so much that I let her have it.”
I turned at the sound of the voice behind me. I had almost forgot that Perry Robson was still here. I remembered the name as the fellow Mary spoke of before I left on my trip.
“I’m very sorry. If you can afford it, I guess you can keep the apartment. Here is the times for viewings and the location of the funeral home,” Perry said softly to my back. I still gazed at the painting as he approached me from behind and handed me a card with the scribbled information.
I can’t name one specific thing that made me decide to play amateur detective, but it was no doubt a decision mostly made by the ordinariness of the apartment. I had gathered together all of Mary’s belongings for packing and return to her family. Nowhere did I see any evidence of depression or intention to commit suicide. Not that I was any expert on such things, but there was always that nag that something wasn’t quite right about all this. I decided to do some investigating.
I began with Perry.
“Jen, you only have to look at the woman’s paintings to see she was weird inside,” Perry shouted when I complained for the thousandth time that Mary didn’t seem suicidal. In the week’s following Mary’s death, Perry assisted me with packing and shipping Mary’s things. We had become friends from our mutual and sad task. I also wanted to investigate this guy. I read somewhere that in cases like this to always suspect the boyfriend. Not that Perry was her boyfriend or anything. Or so he says. He was the last male in her life and he liked her enough to give her his painting.
“I don’t know anything about painting, Perry. Yeah, I know the rats and snake-skeleton are weird, but Mary was kind of weird like that. The first time I met her she told me she was a witch. And the way she always wore black. All I do know about painting is that painters are usually weird.”
I started to light up a cigarette after this invective but thought better as Perry shot me a dirty look. It was no mind that this was now MY apartment, to smoke a cigarette in the company of Perry was torture worse than nicotine withdrawal. He panted and fanned and in general made an ostentatious nuisance of himself.
“Jen, Mary’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about it. You need to just get on with your life. What say we go get a pizza?”
We did go get a pizza that evening. We shared many more over the next few months. And also dinners and walks in the park and afternoons in my bed. I fell hopelessly in love with the artistic Perry and former love-interest of my deceased roommate. Mary’s paintings had been packed and returned to her family. I kept the clown painting done by Perry because, really, he was my boyfriend now and Mary’s family had no attachment to it. I forgot all about my investigation and assumed Mary’s death to be a bona fide suicide. It was Perry that resurrected the issue and this time he seemed convinced that Mary’s death was now suspect.
“It’s Pete Broons. I think he might know something about Mary,” Perry said one night as we watched Dragnet re-runs and munched on Chinese.
“Pete Broons? Isn’t that your art teacher? Mary always talked about him. She adored that guy…was always going on about how wonderful an artist he was and how….” I stopped mid-sentence and waved my chopsticks in the air. “Wait! You don’t think she may have been involved with him? Or…what…he may have killed her?”
Perry reached into the air and pulled my chopsticks down to a level that might save his eyesight.
“He talks about her a lot in class, is all. Might not mean anything. Then, the other day I had to go into his office and guess what was on his wall? The rat picture.”
“No kidding,” I said to Perry who wasn’t kidding. “Well, I guess her family gave it to him. She was his student after all, and to hear her tell it, one of his favorites. He probably asked the family for it as a memento.”
“Guy’s had thousands of students through the years. Probably everyone of them has painted something. Then, I guess not that many of them committed suicide. Tell you what….he is having a Halloween party next week. Supposed to be a big shindig…biggest party of the year in the art world. Let’s you and I go. Get inside his house. See if we can find anything. I been thinking about the things you said about Mary and wonder if maybe it isn’t worth checking out. I’d hate to see a murderer go free.”
My eyes opened wide with the mention of the word “murderer”. While early on I had been convinced that Mary’s death was strange, I hadn’t exactly thought of murder. Then again, what else could I have been thinking of? An accident? I agreed with Perry. It was worth checking out. He was invited to the party as one of Pete Broons’ students and it would be logical for me to go as his date.
The house was the perfect locale for a Halloween party. It sat large and foreboding at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac. The party was in full force when Perry and I arrived even though we were only a half-hour late. A werewolf greeted us at the door and Dracula offered us some punch. I was dressed as a witch, a decision based on cheap costume rental and in memory of Mary. Perry was dressed in an interesting outfit. One half of him was a man in a proper tuxedo and cumberbund. The other half was a Jean Harlow blonde, complete with spiked heels and false eyelashes. He picked out the costume just this afternoon, and even though it looked complicated, the outfit was constructed cleverly and as one piece. I artfully applied makeup on half of Perry’s face, and added some extra slick to the hair of his male-half.
Pete Broons’ house was amazing and decorated throughout for the party. Huge cobwebs hung from the entryway to all rooms necessitating screams and giggles to all who would enter. Bats crawled the walls and some would occasionally fly across the room to entangle in an unsuspecting victim’s hair. Perry told me they were mechanical but quite realistic.
Jack-o-lanterns grinned flickering grins from every nook and cranny. Skeletons hung from rafters and rats, assumed to be mechanical, scurried across the floors. Occasionally, a closet door would be open to have a very human-like body fall to the victim’s feet as if dead.
The house and party existed in Halloween pandemonium and there seemed to be no agenda. I lost count at ten rooms in the rambling house, all filled with costumed celebrants, newspaper-stuffed bodies and a cornucopia of scary stuff guaranteed to keep the thrills coming the entire party. There was a real scare for some moments when a body was found floating in the pool. The 911 call was barely squelched when the “body” was discovered to be a dummy.
Since Perry and I were “investigating” we had split apart to perform our covert activities. And there was no problem in the snooping as the party attendees drank, talked, sang, danced and screamed. I looked in every drawer I came across but found nothing pertaining to Mary. I also did not, in the entire evening, see the host anywhere.
That’s to say I never saw him alive. When I finally laid eyes on Pete Broons, he was very dead and hanging from a chandelier in the center of the basement clubroom.
“My God, Perry, I hit that body my own self several times. In fact, I was annoyed that someone would place a dummy right in the middle of the room with people dancing and all that.”
Perry held me tight in his arms as the coroner’s team lowered the body from where it hung. We both should have been long gone, but Perry said he found something and needed time. So we were both in the house when one of the celebrants, at a very wee hour in the morning, flipped on the light switch of the gloomy room to find a dance-dislodged contact lens. And even then everyone laughed and pointed to the dummy to remark at the resemblance to the host, Pete Broons, darling of the local art world. I was two rooms away when I heard the screams and this time the 911 call was for real.
“Okay, when was the last time any of you folks saw your host alive?” Detective Pigeon of the Baltimore Homicide division asked to the now sober group of vampires, werewolves and witches. The assemblage responded by looking to their partner adjacent and shrugging their collective shoulders. I shrugged my shoulders in tandem. I hadn’t seen the man all night. I just assumed he was in the house somewhere.
It was 9:00 am the next morning before the police let us out of there. In the harsh sunlight of an autumn day, werewolves look a bit like mangy dogs. Detective Pigeon warned that we would all be interviewed individually.
I had long ago ripped that long witch wig from my head, but it was not until I finally entered my small but comfortable apartment that I was able to get out from under the hot costume.
“Jen, I found some stuff up in Broons’ room, but all I could do was grab it. Some real interesting stuff here, Jen. Come on in.”
I was wiping mascara and black lipstick from my face when Perry called me thus. I slipped on a nightgown and a robe and went to see.
“Jen, this is a letter, and it’s from Mary!” Perry exclaimed, holding out a piece of paper presumably for me to read. With all the excitement of the hanging dummy that was real, I had completely forgot about my investigation into the death of Mary. I took the paper from Perry’s outstretched hand and was shocked silent before I read even one word.
Mary loved calligraphy. Almost everything she wrote to include her grocery list was written in this handsome font that she had perfected to an art in itself. The letter handed to me by Perry was written in Mary’s calligraphy.
I cannot wait until we are united again. As you know, there is no place for me on this earth and as you promised, you will join me soon. Please take care of my personal effects and make sure my paintings are protected. I will see you soon in the next life my love.
I read the note and looked at Perry with furrowed brows. Shaking the note for emphasis, I paced the floor.
“You mean she and Pete Broons made some sort of suicide pact? You mean he committed suicide?”
“*I* don’t mean anything, Jen. I’m just showing you the note. Is that Mary’s calligraphy? Sure looks like it to me.”
I glanced at the note again. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that this note was penned by Mary. I had seen it enough to know the sharp points of the “N’s” and the straight line of the script. Yet, there was something different about this calligraphy, but I didn’t know what. While I could not deny it to be Mary’s, there was something not quite right. I studied the note in more silence then handed it back to Perry.
Only Perry wasn’t paying attention because he was reading yet another letter.
He handed the letter to me silently. His face was ashen.
The note was written in a penmanship I did not recognize.
” I regret this action I feel I must take. My demise has been planned to be discovered during the Halloween party and as a grand joke. I am due to meet someone else in a better life.
“My God, Perry. Where did you find this?”
“It was in this pile of papers I found on his dresser. I grabbed them just as I heard all the screaming. I didn’t want to turn them over to the cops until I read them.”
“Perry! Do you know this is evidence? You could get into all kind of trouble.”
Perry shrugged. “When the cops get here, I’ll give them the papers. Heck, I’ll just tell them the truth. Pete Broons and Mary each killed themselves as part of a strange suicide pact. Case closed, I guess.” Perry shrugged his shoulders again.
I sat down next to Perry and helped look through the papers. I found nothing more beside the suicide notes from Mary and Pete. The rest of the papers were business stuff, cancelled checks, notes, lists, the bureaucracy of life. Toward the bottom of the pile, I pulled out a snapshot of Pete Broons.
He had to be much younger in the picture. According to Perry, the art teacher was almost sixty years old. The fellow in this picture was no more than 35. It was definitely identifiable as a younger Pete Broons. For the second time that evening, something caught my eye. As I regarded the calligraphy of Mary, I also gazed at the picture of her dead art teacher. And for the second time that evening, I set down the source, the puzzlement unsatisfied.
I don’t know where Perry is now. He is gone forever from my life, but never from my heart. I loved him dearly.
A few hours after Perry left, Detective Pigeon stopped by.
“Miss Salford, do you recognize this?” the Detective said, as he held up two of my bobbypins. I told him that they were my bobbypins and used to hold on my witch wig.
“Interesting. We found them in the cuff of the dead man’s pants.”
In the hour after Perry left, I renewed my investigation. This time, I found some results.
The calligraphy note. I studied if for five minutes when I realized what was wrong. It was the letter “U”. In the style of old-time calligraphy, Mary always carefully penned a calligraphic “V”. So that the word UNION should look like VNION. I had often argued with Mary over this strange habit and especially when she left me a note to plug in the air conditioner unit that had me wondering for hours what the heck was an air conditioner vnit. The “U’s” in Mary’s suicide note were plain “U’s”, as in not “V’s”. And they were placed so prominently at the beginning of the note, I had no doubt that she intended for such a slip to be noticed.
Then there was the picture of Pete Broons. It was his eyes. While I had never met the art teacher when he lived, I felt as if he were someone that I had seen many times before. And he was. The face in that picture of the young Pete Broons was the same face that sadly regarded me every day from my living room wall. It was the face of the clown.
I walked over to the painting that early morning of my investigation. As I stared thoughtfully into the face of the clown, I noticed the tiny scribble signature of the painter in the lower right-hand corner of the painting. I had to scout down a magnifying glass to see it clearly, but upon inspection, it very clearly read “Perry Broons”.
Still in investigative mode, I silently mouthed the words…”PERRY Broons?” Why Perry Broons, I wondered.
I stared into the eyes of the clown for some more moments and I remembered then two more places I have seen those eyes. One person was none other then Perry. The other person existed in my memory as a faded newspaper picture.
“Father suspected in abuse slaying of 5 year old daughter. Peter Broons of Riviera Beach has been arrested by Baltimore County police for the death of his daughter, Amanda Broons, who died in the emergency room of Arundel Hospital from suspicious injuries…..”
I found the article in the library just an hour later. There was a picture of Amanda Broons. She had the same eyes as the clown.
Amanda Broons had a younger brother. He couldn’t have been more than two at the time. His name was Perry.
So I claimed ownership of the two bobbypins found in Pete Broons pants cuffs and also turned over the papers Perry found to Detective Pigeon. I have heard no more from the police. I assume that have accepted the dual suicide pact theory.
It’s been two years. I receive letters from Perry at least once a month. Yes, Pete Broons was his father and yes, he “assisted” him in his hanging. Yes, Perry knows I could turn him over to the police, even with just the letters of admission. But I haven’t yet, have I? I must still love him, no? And I must understand why he did what he did. And he is still sorry about Mary, but she provided the perfect motive. Would I ever forgive him? Do I still love him?
I sit quiet in my small living room. The clown painting has been taken down. For some time, I thought the sad clown only added to my loneliness. But even with it gone, my heart aches for Perry Robson. With a little rearrangement of the letters, it becomes Perry Broons.
Even if I could mount some sort of defense of the actions taken by Perry, I am stopped by the thought of Mary’s calligraphy.
Was Mary’s death assisted also? Was she sending a message in the suicide note she may have been forced to write as Pete Broons was forced to write his? If justification for the death of Pete Broons could be made, what justification was there for the innocent Mary?
I encourage the letters from Perry, both because I still love him with all my heart and because I am waiting for him to acknowledge any culpability in the death of Mary.
Then I shall go to the police.
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