The Box Hunters
1: The Ems
June's statement drove home the fact that Margrave was the scene of many peculiar experiences.
"Mr. Ransome left a tombstone in our room," she announced casually. It was kind of early. I hadn't gotten a firm grip on the day, so to speak.
Her accusation failed to rouse me to righteous indignation. Measured against the standard provided by the Bickerage, a tombstone in one's bedroom wasn't that much of an incident.
"Anyone we know?"
"It's for someone named Cosgrove."
I shook my head. "Never heard of him. You want me to give Ransome a piece of your mind?"
"Would you? But do it in a nice way. I mean, he can't possibly control everything that goes on in a place like this."
Which was an understatement. Christ, Himself, couldn't have gotten a handle on what went on at Margrave. I promised not to upset Ransome and still drive home the fact that our bedroom was no place to leave a grave marker. The best way of doing this would have been to beat him up, but June said, "No!"
Having nothing better to do, I went in search of "machine-gun mouth," as I thought of him. It was one of those warm, balmy summer days, and as I searched for the elusive Mr. Ransome, my mind drifted back and reviewed the chaotic events of the past month.
We were here on vacation - it was as simple as that. But from the moment of our arrival, the so-called vacation had degenerated until it was nothing more than an exercise in the bizarre. I mean, not a thing was normal.
I thought of the quiet afternoon when it had started. My wife was perusing one of those improbable rural weeklies that I imagined existed nowhere except on television or in isolated farm communities on Mars. You know the kind I mean ... "Will trade used tractor in good condition for a woman who can cook." To this day, I still don't know how it fell into June's grubby hands.
"Listen to this!" She read us a back-page advertisement. The paper seemed to be all advertisements. "'For rent! Twenty rooms. Yours for a song and eighty dollars a month!" There followed a rural attempt at levity. "'We are willing to forgo the song, but insist on the eighty bucks.'"
I said, "It has to be a joke. You couldn't rent an ashtray for eighty a month." My brain must have taken the afternoon off. I pointed to a telephone number that followed the ad.
Towering Realty, Sprite-Williams, NY. "Try it," I suggested.
She argued, "No place in the world has ever been named Sprite-Williams."
Moreover, a doughnut would get you a dollar that the place would be rented just before we called. But we could have a perfectly divine four-room goat shack without running water or electricity for only three hundred instead.
I agreed with her but, of course, didn't admit it. Instead I said, "At today's prices, that ain't bad."
Eugenia was listening to all of this. Earlier I'd told her to pay attention to Grandma and Grandpa - that was the way to learn. I mean, the kid's got to find out and what better role models are there than grandparents? Eugenia is only eighteen months old - but smart!
She asked, with the guileless curiosity of the very young, "What do we need twenty rooms for?"
"We don't," I replied.
At the time I spoke, I hadn't the faintest thought of even looking for Sprite-Williams on the wide-angle map of New York that graces my den. I was willing to bet money that it didn't even have a zip code, and what could be more trivial than that?
The kid, being a female, continued to argue. "Then why should Grandma go to the trouble of calling it up?"
Obviously, she knew little or nothing of economics. "It ain't the idea that we need it or we don't need it," I explained. "All bargains ought to be investigated. If they're phony, the DA will give us a reward for turning them in."
"But you said we shouldn't ever tell the cops nothing."
June ended the argument by calling. There was such a place as Sprite-Williams. It was an operator call. That is, it couldn't be dialed or punched. You got as far as a local switchboard and from there an operator completed the call manually for you. She handed the phone to me. I spoke to a voice that was as rusty as an abandoned railroad siding ... obviously a senior citizen. I reserve my Humphrey Bogart voice for these kinds of calls.
Someone quavered, "Y ... e ... s ... s?"
"About this ad of yours," I said. "Twenty rooms for eighty bucks a month?"
There is nothing wrong with my hearing, but I had amplifiers installed on the phones so that June can listen over my shoulder when I get a call. She thinks I got a girlfriend.
The voice scraped at me, "That was taken just before you called." June shot me a triumphant look. Then the voice finished what it had started to say. "But I have a nice little place you can have for only seventy-five dollars. Let's see ... " There was the sound of papers being shuffled and something being knocked over on a wooden desk. "Yes! Here it is! There are one hundred and fifty rooms." The voice ran out of lubrication and creaked to a stop.
Amazing June has required more effort each succeeding year of our often tempestuous marriage. She's become what is referred to as "battle hardened." What I hadn't been able to make her do in at least ten years - that is, getting her to shut her mouth - the voice succeeded in doing by the sheer magnitude of its announcement. Her jaws slammed shut with the finality of a leg-hold trap and her eyes popped open.
"What'd he say?" she asked when her mouth functioned again.
I confirmed what she thought she'd heard. "One hundred and fifty rooms ... seventy-five bucks."
"Take him up on it," she gasped. "If there's anything wrong, we can burn the place to the ground."
Women are emotionally incapable of resisting a bargain. Moreover, she likes a good fire.
Her voice carried into the transmitter.
"You can't," the voice cackled. "It's been tried before."
And so, deviously, like a snake in the grass, Margrave came into our already overfrantic lives. Not without a struggle on my part, though. I dug my heels in and fought them tooth and nail, but against three females and an idiot son-in-law, it was useless. The dog was against me, too. The moral being that no husband can come between a woman and her bargain. I'd just as soon have spent the summer watching the grass grow, to see which blade was the fastest. And in the end, all the others wished they had also.
We Italian fathers are reputed to possess an extremely firm familial hand and exact a great deal of deference and respect from our families. That's as it should be.
Maria Francesca threw her two cents worth into the scale. "Aw, come on, Dad, don't be such an old fart. Let's go somewhere for a change."
So much for deference and respect. Maria is my daughter. Then there was her husband Leland Stover, who would have to be taken along as he wasn't potty-trained yet. Leland had the build, the height, and the sturdiness of a lighthouse. There the resemblance ended. He served no useful purpose whatever.
Aside from his brazen effrontery in becoming my son-in-law, he was distinguished only by a minuscule intellect and gigantic feet, which would undoubtedly be passed on to my grandchildren. No matter where he was, or where I was, or how he sat, or how careful I was in picking my way around the house, I usually managed to fall over them ... the shoes, that is. Running into Leland's shoes in the dark was akin to running into a floating mine in the shipping lanes, with the resultant wreckage being about the same. And he had the witlessness to complain to my daughter.
"I don't see what your old man's got against me."
"Dad thinks you're a pain in the ass," she explained in her charming but scarcely diplomatic way.
For whatever reason, his boyish idiocy captivated her, and as a result I was saddled with 220 pounds of incompetence. These 220 pounds of uselessness were nicely augmented by seventy more belonging to Annette. Annette was the family albatross, in the form of a weimaraner. She was carried on the household roster as a watchdog. In reality, she was nothing more than a parasite given official status. Cerebrally, she and Leland were about evenly matched.
To get this group working together toward the same purpose and headed in the same direction at the same time required the skills of a wagon master and the tact of a marine sergeant.
Even so, it was a surprise to find we were actually on our way.
Sprite-Williams was a phantom. It survived, maintaining a precarious balance between existence and nonexistence - something like the margatto whales. It was off the beaten track by any standard you might care to apply. Such commonplace institutions as gas stations, fast-food emporiums, and drive-through funeral parlors became rarer as we neared our objective and finally ceased to exist entirely. The bloody place wasn't even on the map ... not the new maps anyway. Eugenia dug up an old road atlas produced by the Medusa Oil Company in 1904 and on it we found Sprite-Williams. Halfway between Nowhere and Imperceptibility.
The "town" should have regarded itself as fortunate to have a post office.
Its mail was thrown off the Hardware & Grimes Railroad onto a splintery wooden platform that served as a station. There was no ticket office or restroom ... though there was talk of constructing both. But until then, if you wanted to go, you went behind some underbrush and took your chances with the local fauna.
I found out later that no one ever left Sprite-Williams. And the last outsider to arrive had been a French balloonist who escaped a Paris besieged by the Prussian Army in 1870. A westerly wind carried him across the Atlantic. His gas bag was attacked by woodpeckers while over Sprite-Williams.
I want to give you an idea of what the place was like. A feeble dirt road that may or may not have had the strength to reach its destination ran parallel to the tracks. Not surprisingly, Towering Realty occupied space in the general store between the ax handles and the fertilizer.
We met the rusty voice weighing out a pound of nails to some indeterminate type farmer.
I say "indeterminate" because I couldn't figure out what possibly could be grown or milked locally. Or, for that matter, what could be nailed.
Towering Realty turned out to be Mr. Horace Haas. Face to face, his voice did not sound so much rusty as unused.
"You're renting only half of a house," he informed us. "If you need more space, I'm authorized to give you a discount on the rest of the place."
"You did mention 150 rooms, didn't you?" I asked.
He nodded seriously, which led me to believe he thought we'd brought an ant colony with us and that each ant required a separate apartment.
I asked, "Why would we need more than 150 rooms?"
He looked us over, the five of us - six if you counted the dog. "Well, some folks like to spread out, you know. Privacy and all that sort of stuff."
Eugenia, who had an overly active imagination, tugged at my pants leg. "He's trying to separate us so that we'll become easy victims for whatever is haunting the place."
This from the kid that had been all gung-ho to come. I told Haas, "We'll let you know if we need more space. Where's the keys?"
"You won't need any; the doors haven't been closed for twenty years."
Eugenia's words impressed June. She believed in the direct approach. "What's wrong with the place? Is it haunted?"
I'll admit that Jeannie's remark succeeded in rousing the same thought in my mind. Why was the place so cheap? Haas had trouble meeting June's eyes.
"Well, yes and no," he said evasively.
"Give us a straight answer," I said.
He admitted reluctantly, "It's haunted in a manner of speaking ... not by what you're thinking of," he added hastily. "I mean, there's no ghosts, no headless apparitions, or any of that kind of stuff. There's no mysterious footsteps in the night, no groans or ectoplasmic blood forming on the floors. No insane laughter or sudden temperature drops, or ..."
I cut him off. "Don't tell us what it ain't. Tell us what it is."
Jeannie tugged at my pants leg again. "Gramps! I'm afraid of ghosts. I want to go home."
Immediately, Haas became conciliatory. He said in a syrupy voice, "I was about to explain to you that you wouldn't be troubled by ghosts. The whole thing boils down to that ... it seems lonelier in Margrave than it is anyplace else. It looks spookier and it's been untenanted a long time."
"That kind of stuff gives a place a bad name," Leland said brightly.
Haas went on as if Leland hadn't spoken ... as I would have done. "No tramps or bypassers have ever attempted to break in. That, along with the spooky atmosphere and the fact that a place that large has got a lot of echoes, would scare an imaginative person ... but there isn't anything to worry about."
I could see that he already had rung up the commission on the seventy-five bucks' rental. He hadn't rung it up on the cash register, but it showed in his eyes. At least twenty of those seventy-five bucks probably went into his pocket and that undoubtedly was a lot of jack in a place like this. Twenty dollars was twenty dollars, and I could see that he wasn't about to relinquish it without a struggle. For that amount, he'd probably pass off an embalming room as a bridal suite.
June doesn't abandon suspicions easily. She said, "What you mean is that if tramps ever did break in, they'd never find their way out again."
He had the grace to look embarrassed. I thought of the 150 rooms and agreed with her assessment. A mind picture of dozens of tramps dying of hunger and thirst, as they futilely groped their way about the recesses of Margrave, rose before my eyes.
"It serves them right," I thought.
Haas tried a radically different tack ... it might have been the truth.
"It's sort of primitive," which was an understatement large enough to bury a cow in.
"You'll have to bring your own water in from the well. But I have some nice buckets at reasonable prices."
June asked, "What kind of stove is there?" I don't know why she asked this. She cooked one meal every twenty-five years.
"Wood-burning, ma'am. You'll have to scrounge up your own firewood for cooking, but ..."
"You have some nice axes and saws for sale cheap," Maria finished.
Haas blushed. "Waal, yes, now that you mention it. There's no electricity or central heating ... never has been. But I got a special price on candles and kerosene lamps ... "
Central heating was a redundancy in July. Towering Realty went on to add the finishing brush strokes on an already dismal canvas.
"There ain't any of them there modern amenities, you'll have to live like your grandparents did."
Eugenia spoke up. "My grandparents have electricity and heat and air conditioning. And they don't have to chop wood and carry water."
Haas pretended not to hear her. His tone implied that lack of these facilities was an asset.
I'd wanted to thrash these little shortcomings out over the telephone, but somehow he'd eluded me.
Not that I didn't suspect the existing conditions. What else can you expect in a place named "Sprite-Williams?" Even now, he tried determinedly to convince the rest of the family that the challenge of roughing it was a noble and worthwhile experiment. All great Americans roughed it. Look at Theodore Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln. They'd roughed it as kids and look where they wound up.
"Both men got shot," I pointed out. "Are there any screens in the windows? You must have windows."
June added a fib. "Someone told me the mosquitoes were as big as sparrows."
"There ain't no screens," he admitted, "but I'll throw in a citronella candle."
That swung the balance. My objections were overridden, and the next thing I knew we were piling into the Millennium Turkey and pulling away from the general store. June sat beside me, holding a map that Haas had improvised for us on the back of a wallpaper remnant, and she read the directions while I drove.
"Go two miles down this road," she said, "and then you take the first right-hand turn."
Leland wanted to know, "What's a citronella candle?"