Single Man in Large House
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
They both died in their rooms upstairs, first the mother and then the father, only six months apart. The father was eighty-eight and the mother ninety-one. They left behind their only son, Gunter, age fifty-four. He was a gray, colorless man, a man without attachments or issue. He was a man who, in certain respects, barely existed.
Now that his parents were dead, the fourteen-room house belonged to him and him alone. For the first time in his life, he had absolute freedom. He could stay in bed all day if he wanted to, or eat dinner in front of the television, watching cartoons or old westerns. He could indulge any whim, such as putting on lipstick or wearing his mother’s wig just to see what it looked like.
The top floor of the old house was very hot during the summer. He liked to go up to the small bedroom all the way at the top of the house, spread a blanket on the floor, and sleep naked in front of the open windows. With the lights turned off, it was like sleeping outside. He would listen to the nightbirds and small animals doing whatever they do at night. He could feel the scented breeze wafting through the trees. The best part was when there was a thunderstorm with lighting, wind and rain. He would feel a tingle all over his body, as if he was part of the storm without a single drop of water touching him.
After his mother died, he went on a spending spree. He had always wanted a tuxedo, so he bought one, even though he didn’t need one and had no place to wear it. He would be buried in it, if nothing else.
He bought an expensive couch and matching chair and had the trash collector take away the old couch and chair. He bought all new linens for bath and bed, all new underwear and socks. He bought himself six pairs of silk pajamas in a variety of colors, including pink. He bought wine glasses and an expensive set of china. The list went on and on.
He always hated going to the grocery store and buying food. He never knew what to buy. There were too many choices and he wasn’t good at making decisions. He would end up buying impractical items, such as a three-pound box of candy or four bottles of wine because he thought the labels were pretty. After one trip to the store, he realized he hadn’t really bought anything he could eat for dinner, so he sat down and made out a list and went back to the store and bought only the things he had written down.
One day when he was in the store, surrounded by crowds of people and at least two screaming babies, the idea came to him to hire a woman as cook and housekeeper. He could afford it. It would have to be an older woman, a motherly type. She could vacuum the stairs, wash the clothes, dust the furniture and buy all the food. Then after she had bought the food she could carry it home and cook it. It was a wonderful idea and it put a crazy smile on his face.
The next day he placed an ad in the newspaper: Single man in large house seeks experienced cook, housekeeper for light housekeeping duties. Since he hated talking to people on the phone, he asked interested applicants to respond to a post office box. Within a week, he received sixteen replies.
After carefully reviewing all the applicants, he chose one out of all the others. She was an overweight, forty-five-year-old widow, an Austrian woman named Alma Bergner. She had lots of experience and glowing references, but, above all, she knew how to make genuine apple strudel. She agreed to his terms, he offered her a generous salary, and she started to work the next day.
The first day he gave her a list of items he wanted from the grocery store. When she returned from the store, she put away the groceries, made a delicious stew for dinner and did all the laundry that had been piling up for weeks. She vacuumed the stairs, cleaned the upstairs bathroom, and organized the kitchen pantry. He was so impressed with her quietly effective way of working that he wondered why he had waited as long as he did to hire her. She was unlike his own mother as a pig is from a giraffe.
One night, in the middle of the night, he awoke with the feeling that he wasn’t alone. Startled, he came partly awake and sat up in the bed.
“Who’s there?” he said.
He heard a muffled voice but couldn’t make out any words.
“If there’s anybody there, you’d better identify yourself!”
“It’s me, Vera, your mother,” a raspy voice said, and when he focused his eyes on the space at the foot of his bed, he could indeed see his mother standing there.
“My mother’s dead!” he said.
“Yes, my body is dead,” she said, a little more coherently, “but I’ve never left your side this whole time.”
He reached out to turn on the lamp beside the bed, but the lamp had vanished. It was like a dream he had when he was eight years old.
“Go away and leave me alone!” he said.
He covered up his head, but her voice only became louder.
“Look who’s giving the orders now!” she said. “Mr. Big Shot!”
“I’m so glad you’re dead!” he said. “I thought you’d never die!”
“I want that woman gone!”
“That foreign woman!”
“Do you mean Alma?”
“Do you know she’s stealing from you?”
“She wouldn’t do that!”
“I saw her take a stick of butter out of the refrigerator and put it in her purse as she was leaving. Another time I saw her steal a stamp from your desk.”
“Why don’t you stop spying on people and stick to the business of being dead?”
“She’s going to poison you when she gets the chance.”
“What? Why would she do that?”
“She’s going to get you to marry her and then she’s going to poison you so she can have the house.”
“Please believe me, mother, when I tell you I have absolutely no interest in being married to Alma or anybody else!”
“She’ll trick you.”
“She wouldn’t do that.”
“I know what she’s like!”
“All right. I’ll ask her tomorrow if she plans to marry me and then kill me so she can take the house.”
“You don’t think she’d tell you the truth, do you?”
“Not everybody’s a liar like you are, mother! Some people actually have some integrity.”
“I know how much you’re paying her and it’s far more than she deserves! You’re throwing my money away! Before you know it, there won’t be any left!”
“It’s my money now, mother! You have nothing to say about it!”
Just then, Tom, his father, came stumbling into the room. He looked disheveled and confused. He was wearing what looked like a choir robe.
“What’s all the turmoil about?” he said, rubbing his head. “You woke me from my nap.”
Gunter groaned. “Get out of here, both of you!” he screamed. “It’s the middle of the night. You’re both dead and you’re both crazy! Now that I’m finally free of the pair of you, I won’t have you intruding on my life and on my privacy! I won’t have you barging into my bedroom at all hours, interrupting my sleep!”
“You wouldn’t even have this house if it wasn’t for me!” his father said. “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for me!”
“He’s right, as much as I hate to admit it!” his mother said. “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for us!”
“You’ve both lived your lives and now it’s time for me to live mine!”
“I can cut off your money, you ingrate!” she said.
“How are you going to do that, mother? You’re dead!”
His mother and father both faded into the wall then, and that was the end of the dream, if a dream is what it was.
A few days later Gunter went downtown to see his lawyers. He was gone all morning and when he got home he had a terrible shock waiting for him. Alma was lying unconscious at the foot of the stairs. When he saw she was still breathing, he called an ambulance. They came and took her away and a few hours later she died at the hospital of a broken neck.
Nobody could be really sure what happened because she was alone at the time, but apparently Alma had tripped when she was vacuuming and fell the entire length of the stairs. After a thorough investigation, police ruled it an accident. Gunter wanted to tell them that there might be more to the “accident” than there appeared to be, but he knew that doing so would raise questions for which he had no answers.
Alma had no family living in the United States, so Gunter paid for her funeral and burial. He couldn’t help feeling at least partly responsible for her death.
Three days after Alma’s death, when Gunter got up in the morning, on his bathroom mirror was scrawled this message in lipstick: It was no accident. You’re next.
Now, why would a dead mother threaten to kill her living son? That was the foremost question in his mind. He had no answer, except that his mother and father were awfully strange when they were alive. Not like anybody else. Outside the norm. They wanted him dead, or gone, so they could have the house to themselves to haunt on their own. He, alive as he was, was in their way. He didn’t fit in with their future plans. His whole life, he had felt he wasn’t wanted, that he was an inconvenience. Looking back on his life, he wondered why one of them, his mother or his father, hadn’t killed him at some point in his childhood. It would have been so easy when he was a baby.
A few nights later he received a message in a dream: Look in the attic.
His mother never threw anything away. If there was something she no longer needed, she didn’t discard it the way most people would; she stored it in the attic.
He hadn’t been in the attic for years. When he opened the door, the cobwebs swirled and the mice ran for cover.
There were trunks, boxes, and barrels of stuff he had never seen before; shelves loaded with wrapped parcels. It was like opening the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. He didn’t know where to begin, so he started with the nearest thing at hand, an old-fashioned trunk, what they used to call a portmanteau.
The trunk was full of books and papers on the subject of Satan worship, witchcraft, demonology, spells and incantations, black sabbath. His mother’s name was on all the books. He never had an intimation that she was interested in any such subject.
In the next trunk he found photo albums containing pictures of his mother and father performing Satanic rituals with other people. Some of the pictures were taken in their basement, where they had constructed a kind of altar. The most embarrassing aspect of these photos was that all the people, including his parents, were naked. He didn’t know how anybody could ever get his father to pose naked; it was so unlike him. They were probably in their late fifties or early sixties at the time.
Other pictures included his father fellating a man wearing a devil costume and his mother slavering over a goat. He was embarrassed for them. Such undignified behavior. He supposed it was all part of what they were required to do, but it made him want to vomit.
So, his parents were Satan worshipers. He never suspected, although it made perfect sense. They used to host parties for special people when he was growing up, but his mother always made sure he went to the movies or spent the evening at a friend’s house. There were the weekend trips to some undisclosed location, mysterious phone calls at odd times, heavy packages arriving by messenger. One time his parents took him on a trip with them to Mexico. He was excited about seeing a foreign country, but he saw nothing of it because they left him locked in a hotel room.
As for the altar in the basement, it was still there, or at least part of it was. When he was a child, his mother wouldn’t let him go down to the basement. He never knew why.
He began seeing his mother and his father every night when he was awakened from sleep. They floated over his bed, made a clatter on the stairs, or moaned and rattled chains. They were definitely taunting him.
Now, the question was how he might make his mother and father depart from the house so he could go on living there? It was the only house he had ever known, and he wanted to stay. It was a comfortable, commodious house. It was home. Hadn’t his parents lived in the house long enough? Now it belonged to him.
Again, it came to him in a dream: consult a professional spiritualist who had experience dealing with people who linger on the earth plane after they’re dead. He didn’t have a lot of confidence in spiritualism, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt to try.
Not knowing where else to begin, he read the classified ads in the newspaper. Right away one ad jumped out at him. It was a woman named Beatrice Corn. She was, according to her ad, a licensed, certified, reputable spiritualist, with one-hour consultations starting at $175.
Beatrice Corn agreed to come the next day at ten o’clock. When he told her what he wanted, she said she had seen many cases like it before. It wasn’t always easy to get an entrenched spirit to vacate the premises that they knew so well in life. She preferred the house to be as quiet as possible while performing her consultation. Also, she liked to be paid in cash but would accept a check.
She was an eighty-year-old eccentric dressed in an army uniform from the First World War and a gentleman’s top hat. He showed her the pictures of his parents engaged in Satanic worship and the books with his mother’s name on them about witchcraft, demonology, and spells and incantations. She clucked her tongue and asked to see the rest of the house.
When she went into his mother’s room, she said she felt a very strong psychic presence.
“The mother is definitely present in the house. The father too. There are also at least two other spirits in residence.
“Who are the other two?”
“I’m not sure. A couple your parents met in the afterlife, possibly. They all want you gone. I think their intention is to kill you in a horrible way so they can deliver your soul up to Satan.”
“They killed my housekeeper. I don’t have any proof that they killed her, but I know they did. They wrote on my bathroom mirror that I was next.”
“How long did your parents live in this house?” she asked.
“Over sixty years.”
“Then they won’t leave willingly.”
“Is there any way to get them to leave?”
“Burn them out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Burn the house down.”
“I’m obviously not going to do that.”
“I’d advise you to sell your house and get far away from here, for your own good. Otherwise something terrible will happen. You’ve seen what they’re capable of.”
“If I leave, how do I know they won’t come after me?”
“From all you’ve told me, I would say they’re not interested in you. They want the house and they want you out of it. Spirits are always unpredictable. I would advise you to do what your instinct tells you to do.”
He thanked Beatrice Corn for her professionalism and her sensible advice. She gave him her business card and told him to call her any time, day or night. He paid her her fee and she left.
Two days later he put the house up for sale. Within a week, a funeral home agreed to his price of two million dollars. They had two funeral homes in other locations and wanted to open a third one. They were eager to close the deal and take possession of the house as soon as possible.
He made his new home in the Old World. He lived in Paris for a while and then in the Italian countryside. He could live in style wherever he wanted. The world was finally opening up for him.
Copyright © 2023 by Allen Kopp