It was the summer when heat hung still and heavy as a blanket over our small lakefront community. The buzz-saw rasp of katydids drove everyone near crazy and dogs lay splayed and panting in what little shade they could find. Leaves turned yellow and fell. There was no breath of cooler air coming off Lake Michigan, which was less than a block away from where my friend Carson lived. He told me their old house was haunted. I had no reason to disbelieve him, and not just because we were best friends. There was a “widow’s walk,” a railed platform up on the roof that overlooked the beach and the lake beyond. Carson said that the old sea captain who built the house used it as a lookout for ships like those that sank offshore during the terrible Armistice Day storm of 1940.
But none of that was on my mind when Carson came down with polio. He and I were at the beach, horsing around in waist-deep water, when he went under. One minute he was there, and the next he wasn’t. I thought he was funning at first because he liked to scare girls that way, especially me, a tomboy who didn’t scare easy. But when he hadn’t come up after a minute, I dove under to see him bumping along the sandy bottom like the current had taken hold of a rag doll. Sheer panic gave me the will to lift him out of the water by his armpits and drag him back to the beach. He was all clammy white, with blue lips. Wet sand clung to his skin and the scratchy wool swimsuit his mother bought him at J.C. Penney’s. Lucky for us a lifeguard came down from his tower and blew air into Carson’s mouth. When Carson came to, he puked up water, opened his eyes, and said, “I can’t feel my legs anymore.”
Because Carson shivered like he was having a fit, I covered him with my beach towel and held his hand until an ambulance came and took him away. That was the last time I saw Carson until the next summer, when his mother called to say he’d come back from a special polio hospital in Detroit and was asking after me. I was 14 that year, and he was coming up on 13.
Nobody but the Fuller Brush Man, gypsies, and the church ladies ever came to the front door of the house where Carson lived with his parents, Eunice and Jerome Parrott; like the bird, but with two t’s. Family members and those closest to the Parrotts always went around to the kitchen door in back that never got locked. That’s where I went whenever I visited Carson, who spent most of his time upstairs in bed drawing pictures of what or wherever his restless imagination could conjure up.
One day he drew a picture of me with a huge zit on my forehead. I hadn’t started breaking out like most of our friends had, but the next morning I woke up with a zit exactly like the drawing showed. I was both scared and mad, but he said I was lucky he hadn’t given me a hairy wart instead. That was the day when I realized Carson could somehow foretell things by sketching them. As bad as that scared me, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was actually making stuff happen.
The zit was nothing compared to what happened three weeks later, when on the Fourth of July Carson drew a sketch of fireworks being set off over the beach. In this one, which he’d done with colored pastels on black construction paper, a starburst rocket fell short and exploded just above the crowd gathered on the beach. Children and grown-ups were shown running away from the fireballs. I’d been planning to watch the fireworks from the beach on that very day. But because I’d seen Carson’s sketch, I was afraid of going. I tried convincing everybody I knew not to go either, but nobody would listen and called me Chicken Little.
Mrs. Parrott called for me to come in when I knocked on her screen door, even without knowing who it was, like she was psychic. This made me wonder if Carson got his special foretelling gift through his mother. She was in the kitchen ironing Mr. Parrott’s dress shirts, which he mostly wore with a navy-blue suit and striped tie, a requirement because of his teller’s job at the bank. Like most days, Mrs. Parrott wore a gingham housedress and a red bandana that kept her prematurely gray hair out of her tired eyes. The windows were open and a breeze ruffled the sheer curtains like restless ghosts. Outside, in the backyard, two stuttering lawn sprinklers made rainbows under a late morning sun that meant we’d have another hot day.
“How’re you doin’ this mornin’, Ardie?” Mrs. Parrott said as she ironed starch into Mr. Parrott’s shirt collar. Like everybody who knows me, she calls me Ardie, which is short for Ardith. Her eyes were on the zit Carson drew on my forehead. I tried squeezing it before coming over, but that only made my eyes water. I would’ve combed my hair over it, to hide it, but my mom always puts a bowl over my head when she cuts my straight black hair short, like a bob. But it suits me. I favor boys’ clothes too; usually knickers that hide the roller-skating scabs on my knees, and bulky shirts that hide my boobs.
I said, “I’m doin’ good.”
“There’s some lemonade fresh-squeezed this morning,” Mrs. Parrott said, and nodded toward the Kelvinator. “Pour yourself a glass and one for Carson. He’s been wonderin’ if you’d be goin’ down to the beach later on. Seems like that’s all the boy ever talks about anymore, is walkin’ down to the beach for a swim. Breaks my heart, is what it does.”
I wasn’t at all sure about going down to the beach myself; never mind Carson, who couldn’t. There’d been talk of waves and strong undercurrents because of a storm the day before. Lots of trees got blown over. Even now, from where I stood in Mrs. Parrott’s kitchen, I could hear heavy surf coming ashore and pounding the beach like they was dump trucks rumbling back and forth nonstop.
“Maybe I’ll go later on,” I said as I poured pulpy lemonade into two plastic tumblers that had pink flamingos standing one-legged on them. To be honest, I was scared to go swimming anymore. Not since Carson nearly drowned last summer. Or maybe I was afraid of catching polio. Last year, special stamps had come out showing two pretty little girls in pinafore dresses. They could’ve been identical sisters, except one had caught the polio and wore braces. If I knowed how to help Carson walk without braces and his canes again, I surely would’ve.
He swore me to secrecy after what happened on that Fourth. He said the penalty for squealing was him making something even worse happen, like drawing a hunchback on my mom. Or a terrible car wreck out on the highway. When I walked into his room, Carson had his head down and looked to be sleeping with his hands folded over an open sketchpad on his stomach.
His leg braces stood in one corner like an invisible boy, with ugly lace-up ankle boots connected to them and padded leather straps that went around his withered calves. His walking canes lay across the end of his bed. They had braces and rabbit fur–padded leather straps that slipped over the hands and forearms. In that way, Carson could manage to walk, but it was a leg-dragging shuffle like Frankenstein would do, and only lasted for short distances. Other times, when the weather was nice, I’d carry him down the stairs and into the backyard, he was so light.
“So you finally decided to come, huh?” he said when he saw me standing in the doorway.
“I brought you a glass of lemonade, fresh-squeezed this morning.”
“Put it on the nightstand.”
“What’re you drawing?” I tried to sneak a peek when I put the lemonade glass down. He tried covering it with both arms, but I could tell he was sketching an old man up on the widow’s walk above Carson’s room.
“It’s not done yet,” he said. “Come back tonight, and bring me a Butterfinger too."
Well, I did go back that night. But now I wish I hadn’t. At dusk, a heavy fog rolled in off the lake, somehow muting the foghorn and slowing down what little traffic there was to a crawl. Streetlights glowed like spook eyes in the gloom. When I reached Carson’s house, I could see a light in the living room was on. I stood on tiptoes to see Mrs. Parrott watching Milton Berle on their new Philco. She was hooking a rug, probably for Carson’s room, but Mr. Parrott was nowhere in sight and probably drunk and in bed.
It wasn’t no secret Mr. Parrott drank, because it all started when Carson came down with the polio. I knew the back door would be unlocked and went there. I let myself in and tiptoed across the kitchen to the back stairs and took them up to Carson’s room like I always did. But this time was creepy, with the foghorn groaning on and off and the long hallway that led to Carson’s room dark enough to scare anybody, even a tomboy like me. The only light came from the reading lamp in Carson’s room, and I followed it to his room.
He’d been waiting for me and waved me in. The finished sketch lay across his withered legs — the chalk sketch he drew of the bearded old man who paced the widow’s walk above Carson’s room. He’d added a yellow rain slicker and knee-high rubber boots and put a pipe between the old man’s clenched teeth. Tobacco smoke wreathed his grizzled head like the fog outside Carson’s window.
He held it up and said, “What do you think?”
I put the Butterfinger candy bar on his nightstand and said, “Is that supposed to be the old sea captain who built this house?”
He nodded. “Close the window and listen.” In the eerie silence that followed, I strained to listen, but I only heard Mrs. Parrott downstairs laughing at something Milton Berle said on the TV.
Carson whispered, “There it is again,”
He pointed toward the ceiling. “Up there, dummy, on the roof.”
Then I heard it, a heavy boot-like tread up on the widow’s walk clomping from one end to the other, back and forth. I shivered and rubbed the gooseflesh on my bare arms. “It’s him, isn’t it?” I whispered
“The old sea captain. Your foretelling must’ve brought him back to life.”
Carson said, “Yeah. But now I’m tired of him stomping around up there.” Before I could say one word to stop him, Carson wadded the sketch into a tight ball and threw it hard it across the room, where it hit a framed photo of him and his dad taken down at the beach before the polio. My heart jumped to my throat when at that very instant something heavy crashed outside Carson’s window.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “I think you just killed the old sea captain.” I ran from Carson’s room to find my way down the long hallway to the back stairs, down to the kitchen, and outside. The foghorn was louder here and the fog made everything indistinct, threatening even, like the Frankenstein and Wolfman movie. But there was something on the ground, an unmoving shape beneath a blue spruce nearly as old as the house itself.
I was about to nudge whatever it was with my toe when I realized it was the top of the blue spruce that had broke off. That was what I’d heard. But who, or what, made the footsteps I’d heard from Carson’s room? To find out, I had to risk climbing the tree one branch at a time until I was where the top broke off. I looked down at the widow’s walk, but there wasn’t anybody there. However, there was a pair of knee-high rubber boots and I smelled pipe tobacco.
Nearly paralyzed with fear, I clambered down until I was opposite Carson’s bedroom window. He was sketching something again, but because of the fog I couldn’t see exactly what it was.
I nearly tumbled out of the tree when I heard my name being called. “Ardie, is that you up there?” It was Mr. Parrott, standing beneath me with a smoldering pipe clenched in his fist.
“Come down here.”
I did, with my legs shaking real bad.
He said in a very stern voice, “What were you doing up there?”
I turned around, as if expecting the guilty party to magically appear out of the fog and take the blame. “I was with Carson just now. He was sketching the old sea captain who built the house up on the widow’s walk. We heard him clumping back an’ forth, and then a loud thump. But it was the top of the tree that fell. I climbed it far as I could, but whoever it was, was gone by then.”
Mr. Parrott put the pipe in his mouth and drew on it. “Ardie, can I trust you to keep a deep, dark secret?”
In addition to the smelly pipe, there was whiskey on his breath. “It’s about Carson, isn’t it?”
Mr. Parrott nodded. “Carson’s mother and I humor him by bringing to life some of his sketches. That was me up on the widow’s walk.”
“But what about the fireworks that blew up over the beach?”
“I arranged with the Jaycees to hold them there instead of over the harbor, so Carson could see them from his bedroom window. Unpredictably, one misfired. A coincidence.”
The foghorn was making weird sounds that seemed to come from every direction in the swirling mist. “What if he drew a really bad one, like a car wreck on the highway?”
“Let’s change the subject, OK, Ardie?”
I said, “How come the tree top broke off? It was almost like Carson made it happen.”
“It snapped during yesterday’s storm. Just a matter of time before it came down. You see, Ardie, it’s important that Carson has something to believe in, something to take his mind off … well, off his condition. Lately it’s become more and more challenging, to a point where I feel uncomfortable.”
“How do you mean, ‘uncomfortable,’ Mr. Parrott?”
He drew on his pipe, like he’d already come too far not to say. “When Carson showed me his sketch of an old sea captain up on the widow’s walk, my blood ran cold. It was almost like I was that old sea captain, summoned from his grave to do Carson’s bidding. That feeling has gotten to the point where it frightens me to think of what Carson’s next sketch might have me doing.”
“Maybe it’ll be another coincidence, Mr. Parrott, like the fireworks. Or maybe he’ll give me another zit.”
“Let’s hope it’s not something worse. Now off to home with you, Ardie. And remember, not a word to anyone.”
I lay awake in bed that night, turning over in my mind what had happened, and what Mr. Parrott had said about actually being the old sea captain coming up from the dead. I couldn’t believe there could be so many coincidences either.
I went back to see Carson the next morning while his mother was in the backyard feeding the rabbits they keep for food and the fur they use for Carson’s braces. I told him about the other night — how I’d climbed the spruce to see if somebody was up on the widow’s walk, and that the broken top of the spruce was what we’d heard crashing to the ground. What I didn’t tell him was that it had been his dad doing the clomping. I was keeping it our secret, Mr. Parrott and me.
All this time, Carson was sketching something on his pad and ignoring me. He finally looked up and said, “I heard you and my dad talking below my window last night.”
I felt a terrible chill. “What did you hear, exactly?”
“He was telling you to get down from the tree. But then the foghorn blew. Then he said something about keeping a secret. Keep what a secret?”
“If I told you, then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. Besides, what are you foretelling now?”
He held up his sketch. It showed a boy and a man down at the beach, and they were walking hand-in-hand toward the water. I could tell from the skinny legs that the boy was him, Carson. The man must have been his father, Mr. Parrott, because he smoked a pipe. I recalled what Mrs. Parrott had said, about Carson wanting to go swimming again. I sat on the bed next to him and pushed back a lock of sandy hair that had fallen over his forehead. He felt hot, feverish even, and he hadn’t eaten the Butterfinger. “Do you really think you could make this happen, like you did with the old sea captain?”
“Just wait and see,” was all he said.
I left him then. But now I wish I hadn’t. It was the last time I was to see Carson alive. Or Mr. Parrott either. Mrs. Parrott called my mother early the next morning. She was in a terrible state, and said Carson had disappeared, along with the leg braces and special canes. She wondered if I had snuck up to his room and carried him off like we did sometimes. But I’d never carried him past his own backyard whenever Mrs. Parrott set out a picnic for us when the weather was nice.
I dressed as fast as I could manage and ran the four blocks from my house down to the beach. Because of the early hour, it was deserted except for some sea gulls squabbling over picnic scraps and a man fishing for perch far out on the breakwater. An old Indian fishing tug chugged past the lighthouse on its way to the open lake, where their gill nets were.
I used a hand to shield my eyes against the sun and searched up and down the beach for any sign of Carson. And then I saw them — the leg braces with the lace-up ankle boots and canes standing upright in the sand near the shoreline. They had to be Carson’s, but how could he possibly have gotten this far? And where was Mr. Parrott? Then my eyes caught a pair of deep footprints in the sand leading toward the braces.
I remembered what Mr. Parrott said about actually feeling like the old sea captain — of how his blood ran cold that day, and how he worried about what Carson’s next sketch would force him do.
Scared half out of my mind, I ran to where the braces and canes were and followed a single set of deep footprints like heavy boots had made them. They led straight to the water’s edge, where the surf was already washing them away. Whoever made them left an empty Butterfinger wrapper behind and a still-warm pipe jammed stem-first in the sand.
The Envelope, Please…
Palm Springs Writers Guild winning author G. Gordon Davis’ first success as a writer came at the University of Notre Dame when he wrote a short story his teacher labeled as “supernal.”
However, his career path took him into car design and then into professional recruiting. After retiring to California from Michigan 20 years ago, he took up writing full time. When he and his wife moved to Palm Springs, a friend advised him to join the Palm Springs Writers Guild.
“It was immediately a wonderful experience,” says Davis. “They helped me develop the discipline I needed to get control of my stuff.”
Founded in 1977 by a handful of valley residents, the guild has grown to 299 members and meets the first Saturday of the month from October through June at the Rancho Mirage Public Library.
In addition, more experienced writers such as Davis mentor smaller groups of writers on a regular basis. The guild is open to both seasoned, published authors and those beginning to work on their craft. It has held a short story writing contest from the beginning of its existence. Former Desert Sun reporter Maggie Downs, who holds an MFA in creative writing, judged this year’s contest. In addition to Davis’
The Foreteller, Michael Craft’s Crazy Thoughts took second, and third place was awarded to Alaska Mourning by Harmony Byron.
Davis, who spent the first 15 years of his writing career penning a “road” trilogy he self-published through Amazon and has subsequently written four novels in the last five years, feels both “lucky” to have nabbed first place for his story, but also a very satisfying “validation.”
Says the determined and prolific Palm Springs writer, “It feels like the next best thing to winning an Oscar.”
Contact G. Gordon Davis at email@example.com.
Visit www.palmspringswritersguild.org for more information on the Palm Springs Writers Guild.