Rusty Baimbridge was still settling into his newly rented bungalow on West Clay Street. The place was weathered, and the smell of fresh paint and carpet shampoo still lingered in the air. The place was well kept and the street, like most streets in the Little Gray Town, was pretty quiet. The black walnut tree at the end of the block made him feel like the neighborhood was guarded by a giant sentry, though he feared before long the branches would grow up into the power lines and the tree would have to be severely trimmed back or cut down altogether.
The bungalow was Rusty’s first bachelor pad. It was the place he’d yearned to have most of his life he just never knew it. Ask folks, and they’ll tell you Rusty was a very mild and subdued kind of guy, but upon finally being completely and utterly on his own the young man damn near screamed his lungs bloody with joy. While hanging his shirts in his new closet or placing books on his new shelf he found himself looking over his shoulder at the slightest sound—and Lord knows there was a whole chorus of odd sounds in his new place, but upon discovering there was no one there he’d just let go with a wide, cheek splitting smile and turn back to his task.
Rusty never saw the shadow of the little girl as she watched him from the corner of the kitchen, but on occasion he felt something–a cool draft up the back of his neck and over his scalp, an odd tickle in his recollection like he’d forgotten to close a cabinet door or twist the tap all the way off. And sometimes there was a half-flicker of movement at the tail of his eye, but nothing worth lingering on.
After dropping out of high school at 18, Rusty lived at home until he earned his GED and took night classes in auto mechanics at the community college. The classes were a joke to him. Since the age of 12 he’d known how to disassemble the front end of his old man’s ’72 Ford pickup with an eight inch adjustable wrench and a Phillips head, but the law said he needed the cert if he wanted to work at the family garage alongside his uncle and his old man, so he jumped through that hoop like most others in life: with a half smirk and a quarter sigh.
Rusty had always been a bit of a loner and never one for hanging with the other guys. He never ran track or played on a ball team. It just wasn’t his thing, and sitting around watching a ball game and drinking beer on a Sunday afternoon sounded like the most ungodly waste of a perfectly good day. Even Rusty’s old man and uncle would admit that though they loved the boy, he just wasn’t much good at being a guy and sometimes that worried them.
Rusty approached everything on his own terms and at his own pace and when he tried something new, it was only after weeks and weeks of cautious analysis. Take the old guitar he now balanced on his right thigh. Always good with his hands, he knew he didn’t have the musical aptitude God gave a brick, but he liked the notion of teaching himself to play and trusted that if he kept at it, learned a chord or three he could finally take all those little snatches and clever phrases he’d been saving in an old notebook at put them to music.
And honestly, that was a key reason he decided he wanted to move out on his own. When his mother asked after the sounds of awkward strumming coming from his bedroom, he blushed as if she’d walked in on him with his hands down his pants. That was when he knew he needed to leave home.
Strumming a chord and then leveling his voice to match the note, he intoned a few lyrics and then jotted down the letter “A” over a string of words scribbled across his blue-lined paper.
He never sang in the church choir or in high school swing-jazz. Hell, he barely sang in the shower above a whisper, but he knew he could carry a tune. He knew because his Granny could sing out and sing long and he inherited that gift from her. The Baimbridges weren’t a musical family, but there were times on a Saturday afternoon when little Rusty sat on the back porch while his Granny tended her garden and between pulling weeds and scattering fertilizer taught her grandson the words to “Miss Mary Mack” and “The Streets of Laredo.” Once Rusty mastered the words and matched the melody of his Granny’s voice, she would smile and nod and then teach him another song.
After Granny passed on there wasn’t much singing going on in the Baimbridge house, save for late at night, when Rusty played with clever phrases and pressed his pencil hard against the little blue lines in his notebook…
If I told you, you were the only one…
If I told you, that you outshine the sun…
If I told you, for a thousand miles I would run…
Would you be (Would you be) would you be
Would you be my girl?
If I told you, you were the only one…
If I told you, you’re loved by this mother’s son,
If I told you, that I want to be your Superman,
Would you be (Would you be) would you be
Would you be my girl?
Rusty didn’t have the typical fantasy life of your semi-rural, white post-adolescent male. Unlike a thousand and one other young men who took up the guitar, he didn’t harbor the rock star dream. He just wanted to get the words in his head down on paper, mingle them with music and set them free in the open air because when that happened you couldn’t find a happier person around. Especially in the Little Gray Town. In those moments Rusty was as happy as the little shadow girl was sad.
With nothing to do and no one to talk to, Dawn’s existence became a circular Limbo. She spent her days and nights padding along the same path through the one level bungalow; a route that took her from front room past dining room through kitchen to bathroom into her old bedroom to her mother’s old room to the front room again.
Were she a creature of more substance, she would have worn a path clear through the carpet nap to the foam underpads. As it was, she’d spent the last decade passing through chairs and ottomans, dining tables and lamps, pausing on occasion to plea for help from a stranger sleeping in a bed across her path or cry into the face of someone seated on the sofa reading the paper or just scream in rage and frustration until the lights flickered but never went out.
Dawn kept to this same path when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and Evangelist preacher Jim Baker wept himself out of all sin in the eyes of his lord on live television. It was the path she kept during a silent morning over Lockerbie Scotland when a bomb exploded on Pan Am Flight 103 making ghosts of 259 passengers and a dozen more of the people below still asleep in their beds. While Bill Clinton was elected president, played his saxophone on election night and was almost impeached due to an indiscretion with a Cuban cigar and a blue velvet dress, Dawn kept walking her same circle. It was the same path she took when Princess Diana was crushed in a car crash and a madman in Oklahoma felt entitled to change his country’s belief system by blowing up 100 of his own people, including little children.
It was the same path she kept until the young man with the guitar appeared and started singing. Now Dawn actually stopped and stood in the corner by the window and watched him.
Mostly, it was he fumbling a lot; struggling with the strings to figure out just the right amount of finger pressure to make the notes sound clear, other times it was he trying to match mumbled words to the stumbled notes, but it all fascinated Dawn. And there was something that came out of this young man. Something that she could see sometimes when he let his voice out and let it soar; a light, a warmth, almost a fire—a fire that reminded her of what it was like when she wasn’t stuck in this house and people could see and hear her.
I am, I am the lion man.
I am, I am the lying man.
Did you hear one word that I have said…
I was born and raised on a dead sea bed…
I am, I am the lion man,
Got those Leo’s claws
These used to be gentleman’s hands…
I am, I am the lying man
I am, I am the lion man…
Rusty liked to play with words when he wrote songs, though he, like most in his family, thought puns and wordplay was a most effective way to clear a room and never get invited over to the neighbors for dinner again. Clever words in songs, now, that was another story. Sometimes even the silliest turn of phrase sounded just right when put to music.
So many nights Rusty would lose all time in practicing his guitar and in so doing worked up a healthy crop of calluses on the grease-stained fingertips of his left hand. It was late on a Saturday night, engrossed in this favorite pastime that Rusty had his head so wrapped up in the complexity of forming a bar chord that he didn’t hear the thunderstorm roll up.
The first clap of thunder rattled the front windows and a gust of wind hurled out of the east with enough gusto to slam up against the back of the house and rip the flimsy aluminum screen door from its hinges. Rusty swore when he heard the crash and clatter and jumped up from where he sat cross-legged on the floor. When he reached the back door he could see the skies above the Little Gray Town had gone nearly black and the cold winter night was about to get colder and darker and wetter.
When Rusty ducked onto the back deck the planks were already slick from the downpour. The wind was blowing the rain nearly horizontal and Rusty had to squint to see through the pelting gusts. Rusty glanced to his left. Sure enough, the flimsy metal screen door had torn free and was hanging from a single bent hinge. Rusty’s choices were to fix it or pry the thing off otherwise the dangling door would cause a ruckus all night long. Already soaked clean through, Rusty surveyed the damage and opted to prize the door free. Just a couple of twists of a Philips head and he’d have that bent up hunk of metal leaning safe against the fence until morning. Dripping up and down, he made for the tool shed along the back fence.
Lightning lit up the sky. Rusty flinched and bit down hard. Electrical storms weren’t as common in the Pacific Northwest as in other parts of the country and their arrival was unnerving as they could be so damned Godlike in their wrath.
As Rusty padded barefoot through the marshy back yard, he started mumbling the words he’d spent the entire afternoon putting to music…
Would you be (Would you be) would you be
Would you be my girl?
Would you be (Would you be) would you be
Would you be my girl?
Smiling through the hard patter of rain on his face, Rusty caught sight of a dark gray blur hurtling out the sky over the tool shed. Another flash of lightning ignited across the sky and something bearing the silhouette of one very large owl tumbled toward Rusty’s upturned face. Catching sight of two golden coins in the middle of a round, flat face Rusty had half a second to swear and dodge right as the great bird and its four-foot wingspan clipped his left shoulder and spun into the boggy lawn.
Rusty turned to regard the bird. The owl’s left wing was splayed out to the side, it right pinned beneath its torpedo shaped body. The wind and rain ruffled its moon-gray feathers but the bird refused to stir.
Milwaukee, Summer, 1996.
He came awake with a start. Lying on the mattress, feeling the crinkle of starched linen beneath him, the man once known as County Coroner and Forensic Specialist Ron Goltry (now Former Coroner Ron) peered through the gloom of his hotel room at the blood red numbers on the digital clock.
It was 3:02 am CST and for the third night in a row Former Coroner Ron awoke to the distant rhythms of dirty jazz. The sounds could have been interpreted as the fading remnants of a dream, but the muted wail trombones, the hiss of the high hats, the slow chuff and slide of young men with their long coat tails waiting to take wind, their watch fobs winking, their pinstripes vivid under the hot red lights, their women light as fog in high, hard heels, strung in pearls aching to take leave of warm skin and skitter freely across the sprung varnished dance floor—that was just too much detail for a dream left lingering in the waking world.
And each morning at 3:02 am Former Corner Ron jumped out of bed, shot his arms through the sleeves of his old blue cardigan, pulled on his sweat pants, slid his feet into his battered deck shoes, grabbed his tape recorder and ran fast as fast he could down the cold stairwell to the first floor of Milwaukee’s old Pfizer Hotel. Bursting into the brightly lit corridor he’d bolt for the doors of the old ballroom, feeling for the distant sound of raucous clarinets and reeling trumpets below the huff and puff of his own breath. Not pausing for a second, he’d grab the brass handle and swing the wide ballroom door open into silent darkness.
Former Coroner Ron chuckled, shook his head, and turned on the tape recorder. Peeping back and forth down the corridor he inched through the door and stepped into the yawning darkness. Seating himself on the old hardwood floor he took a flask from the pocket of his cardigan sweater and downed a swig of the heady Schnapps. Depressing its red button, Former Coroner Ron gently placed the little tape recorder on the floor. Watching the wheels turn in the gloom he sniffed and said.
“Okay you turkeys, I’m here. Tell me your story.”
And then Former Coroner Ron sat back and waited for the sun to rise and the cock to crow.
It was nearly 74 hours following the performance of his hippy-hippy shake across the waxed floor of the county morgue that Coroner Ron awoke in a hospital bed. Coroner Ron’s recollection was keen but recounting the tale of the bird-form silhouette of “Interstellar Ether” which rose from the open chest cavity of the late Carrie Ann Cromwell only convinced the doctors, police detectives and co-workers that Coroner Ron had lost what little shit he had.
Lying in the hospital bed, feeling the warm summer sun stream through the window and over the crisp white sheets, Coroner Ron soaked himself in the cold sweat realization that all he’d ever known was wrong. The world was not rational, the rules he’d believed all his life were flawed and in a brief flashing instant the Universe had given him one big spanking. It was then Former Coroner Ron discovered he’d been called to wake up the world to what was true.
We remained in a World of Hurt, of that he was certain–but it was a hurt deeper and far more frightening than he’d ever anticipated.
After his cold sweat warmed and dried, Former Coroner Ron checked himself out of Sacred Heart Hospital, typed a terse letter of resignation to the county, put his two bedroom home on the market, cashed in his CDs and emptied his bank account. He spent the next three weeks visiting every county library and rare bookstore in a 100-mile radius, pouring over books, digging through musty folios, microfiche, Time-Life Book collections and pushing aside a lifetime of critical thinking, organic chemistry, anatomy, and physics for psychical research, telepathy, telempathy, telephony, electronic voice phenomenon, cold spots, hot spots, shadow people, ectoplasm, orbs, spiritualism, and the pursuit of Interstellar Ether.
If you asked, him, and many made the mistake of doing just that little thing, what Former Coroner Ron did for a living, he’d tell you he was an investigator trying to resolve a World of Hurt.
For the next ten years Former Coroner Ron assembled the components it would take to reinvent himself and in so doing, became a dogged pursuer of truth. Former Coroner Ron was now a Paranormal Investigator, but in the trunk of his rusted 87 Mazda, beside the steamer trunk packed with camera equipment and recording devices, motion sensors and EMP detectors sat a tattered and coffee-stained folder of newspaper clippings relating to an unsolved murder involving two females, razor-sharp weapons of indefinable make and a stone cold trail to the killer.
By 1990 with a head full of paranormal references and undaunted research, Former Coroner Ron posted notices offering up his analytical and investigative services in publications catering to the paranormal and the outré. Upon receiving the first mailed missive for his aid from a motel proprietor in Weed, California, Former Coroner Ron made a dash from his Portland PO Box to his embattled Mazda and drove over three hundred and fifty miles through the night and into the dawn.
Arriving on the scene of his first case with the high heat of summer baking the dusty Northern California town, Former Coroner Ron kept his best poker face as he listened to the Laotian motel owner’s jangled description of the phantom odors issuing from Open Arms Motel Room Number 90.
Phantom smells, like cold spots and shadow people, were well established in the lexicon of the psychical research, but when Former Coroner Ron turned the key in the lock of Room Number 90, the odor that met his nose was anything but paranormal. Standing at his elbow, wide eyes surveying the immaculate motel room, the owner put hand over mouth and nose and commenced to retch.
Former Coroner Ron leaned against the door jam and swallowed. “Mr. Saichow, what you are smelling is about a 150-hour build-up of human decomp. I suggest you call your local law enforcement immediately. Advise them they’ll need to contact the county coroner. They’ll be needing a forensic team, a body bag, and some sponges…”
“Decomp? What you talkin’ about. This room clean!” squalled the little Asian man.
“Advise the authorities to remove the mattress from the box. They’ll find the origin of the phantom odor underneath.”
“Origin?” said Mr. Saichow.
“Sir, you have a dead body under that bed. It’s been rotting there for over a week. How many times have you rented this room out in the last week?”
“Um. three, maybe four time…”
Former Coroner Ron walked slowly back to his old two door and dropped his bulk into the driver’s seat. With clinical calm, he pulled the empty ashtray from its recess in the dashboard as far as it would go. Making a fist with his right hand he brought it down in rapid succession on the little metal receptacle until, bent and mangled, it fell free of it’s moorings. Dropping his head to his chest, Former Coroner Ron allowed himself a luxury few grown men in the Greater United States and Canada allow themselves; he bit deeply into his lip and cried hot tears of anger and frustration.
That was when Former Coroner Ron realized revealing the truth behind the World of Hurt’s heavy curtain was going to take more out of him than he anticipated.
The hard rain ran in runnels down the planes of Rusty’s face. Gently, as he would retrieving a newborn from a bassinette, he scooped his hands under the motionless bird. Through the stiff feathers he could feel its heartbeat. An uncanny patter, faster than should seem natural, like a tiny piston pumping its engine for the stars.
Drawing the owl carefully to his chest, Rusty made for the kitchen door and the warm light within. The bird’s head lolled back and forth like a broken sunflower. Rusty would be certain the poor thing was dead were it not for the pulse of that powerful little heart.
Making his way into the kitchen, Rusty gently laid the motionless bird on the drain board. Yanking his dry bath towel from where he left it draped across the back of Granny’s 1970’s-era vinyl covered barstool the morning before, he swaddled it about the damp bird. Casting his eyes about the room, he leapt on an empty cardboard box freshly emptied of kitchen supplies. Lifting the motionless bird once more he rested it in the box and picking it up by the hand holes, made for the living room.
In the corner of the kitchen, the shadow of the little girl watched in somber silence. When the young man carefully placed the owl in the cardboard carton and moved into the other room, she followed close on his heels.
Placing his burden on the battered oak coffee table, Rusty peered over the cardboard rim and wondered at the gray bird. Eyes closed, chest rising and falling whisper silent, he marveled at the mechanics of the creature; the gray feathers, the white, flat face, the large orbs, now covered by blue-gray lids.
“What am I going to do with you?” he asked the bird. “If you’ve got broken bones I wouldn’t have a clue how to set them. And if you’re bleeding internally like all them blue jays I rescued from the cat as a kid you won’t live to see tomorrow.”
“Poor thing.” He sighed.
Knowing injured animals die more frequently from shock than actually their actual wounds, Rusty cast about the room for some place warm and quiet. Spying the closet door, he picked up box and bird and placed them both into the gentle dark.
“I think maybe you should sing to her,” said the little ghost. “Maybe that will make her well.”
Wringing the rainwater from his hair with his left hand, Rusty sighed and shook his head. Life was just so silly-strange, he thought. With the touch of a smirk on his lips, he returned to his place on the floor and picked up his battered old guitar. He’d been working on a simple finger pluck diagram he’d found in a tattered book of guitar lessons. As he began to work his way through the light, three-chord progression the little ghost girl took up her position in the corner by the front window. For the ten plus years since becoming translucent, Dawn heard music issue from the TV, radio and through the neighbor’s open window across the street, but not until the damp-haired boy sat on the floor before her was it ever something she could actually feel, deep down inside.
Sound and Vision
Two nights after checking himself out of the downtown Milwaukee’s old Pfizer Hotel, former Coroner Ron sat in a booth of an I-Hop near the interstate off ramp. His empty plate of steak and eggs pushed to the side and a carafe of coffee now empty, Former Coroner Ron spent the last four hours spooling through the remainder of his stack of audio tapes, head bowed, his brow a slope of deep red furrows, his hands pressing his headphones to the sides of his skull until the sponge pads rewrote the texture of his ears. Without sophisticated sound equipment, he was left to his own devices to create a vivid cone of silence within the booth, listening for any hum or mumble, buzz or creak that the dearly departed denizens of the old hotel might have left for him on the otherwise silent tapes.
Popping the tape from the player, he unceremoniously dropped it into his camera bag in disgust. Electronic Voice Phenomena was fickle proof of paranormal phenomena. Success in retaining aberrant sounds on an otherwise blank tape seemed to require something more than a potentially haunted space, the investigator himself seemed to need some metaphysical dint, some paranormal means by which to draw the spirits near and inspire them to interact. “If I could only figure out how to chum for ghosts, I’d have this in the bag,” Former Coroner Ron mumbled to himself.
Looking about the restaurant for the first time since his arrival, he noted the world beyond the parking lot had grown dark and the restaurant’s overhead fluorescents made him squint. Not wanting to check into the Motel 6 across the way after the temporary luxury of the Pfizer, Former Coroner Ron cast about for a reason to remain in his booth. He noted his bill resting near the edge of the table and exhaled. Shifting his focus from the check where it teetered on the edge of the Formica surface, Former Coroner Ron glanced across the aisle to another, recently vacated booth. Pages of today’s Milwaukee Sentinel lay scattered about the dirty plates and white mugs. Partially obscured by a crumpled napkin dabbed with ketchup Former Corner Ron caught the black 72-point headline, “Double Homicide Baffles…”
Former Coroner Ron snagged the paper and drew it back into his booth. He skimmed the copy just below the fold and an all too familiar jamboree of words and images danced before his eyes, “Two victims…both female…” “Severe blood loss,” “Lateral incisions,” “razor-like weapons,” “Surgeon’s precision,” and “A befuddling lack of evidence.”
Feeling a butterfly the size of a medicine ball flutter in his guts, Former Coroner Ron re-skimmed the article for the murder site. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, approximately a hundred fifty miles from where he now sat. Scooping up his belongings and throwing a wad of crumpled bills on the tabletop amounting to not only the sum total of his bill but an exceedingly gracious gratuity, Former Coroner Ron ran for his car and yet one more long and anxious drive into the night.