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Handmade by T. Fox Dunham

“I could have our man mix us a pitcher of screwdrivers.”

“I’m not all that thirsty,” Thayer responded.

She was being cordial now, respectful. It was common among students he was about to flunk, especially the ones used to an easy ride in life. She was one of the worst.

Candace Hathaway beckoned him over to the couch.

“Please make yourself comfortable Professor Thayer. Our home is your home. That’s an original Gòda. It was specially designed for my grandmother on the Island of Capri in Italy. Elegant, isn’t it?”

He lowered himself onto the edge of the monstrosity. The couch let loose a cloud of must. He stifled a cough.

“Indeed.”

“Grandmother had everything handmade. She couldn’t stand that manufactured rot that common people put in their homes. Every year, she’d fly to Europe, spend a month combing various cities for tradition craftsmanship. Then she’d sail home with enough furnishings to fill a house. Are you sure I can’t offer you something to drink? We have whiskey imported from the Isle of Skye. Care for a snifter, sir?”

He leaned on his knees and noticed that his jacket sleeves were covered in dust, the bottom of his pant legs too. Irritated, he sighed and checked his watch. It was still too early to leave without being rude. He remembered what the head of his department had imparted to him when he learned that a Hathaway had invited Thayer to stop by: they contributed a mint to the University every year, and the board of trustees would expect him to be amiable, on his best behavior—don’t piss on her shoe.

“A small sip would be nice,” he said and smiled.

“No man can resist my charms for long. Oh no. Your lovely suit. It’s our maid. I don’t know how many times my mother told her to vacuum the furniture. Poor people just can’t appreciate nice things. I’m going to insist we let her go.”

Thayer examined the black pump on her left foot and gave considerable thought to pissing on it.

The basement-converted into a rec-room felt sick, like it might vomit after riding a roller coaster twice. The dust swirled in the artificial light from the sallow, electrical chandelier dangling from the low ceiling. Hot down here, the sweat on his skin turned the dust to mud.

His nose itched from the dust, and the itch demanded action. No witnesses. He picked at the inside of his nose—a private moment. Then from the corner of his eye, he learned he wasn’t alone. Nebulous in the shadows, a slender, feminine figure sat on a wicker chair. He jumped. She’d been there the whole time, hadn’t said a word. She sat there musing, probably enjoying the little joke.

He slid his picking finger into his jacket pocket.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.” She refused to speak. It gave him the willies. “I’m Henry Thayer—Candace’s instructor in English Lit.”

Silence. She just sat there, smugly, smirking at him behind a cloak of shadow. He understood quickly: she was too good for nose picking, nobody professors. He huffed and checked the time. Alumni or not, it was time to be going. He would not be the subject of such mockery. It wasn’t funny. It was stupid, esoteric—the kind of thing he’d come to expect from the idle wealthy. This was probably about yesterday morning, when he had thrown Candace out of class for being habitually late. She always arrived halfway through class, if at all, and when she actually did show up, she disrupted the class by making conversation, or she’d lay down her head on her desk and doze. After eight weeks of it, he’d had enough. When she’d invited him to visit, he figured it was to apologize, to persuade him not to flunk her. He was willing to give her another chance, but now he understood her real motive: Candace, who was used to being the top dog, had obviously felt like her station was violated by his invective. She’d brought him to her home to put him back in his place, to belittle the middle class professor who’d gotten above himself.

He got up, brushing off the layer of filth that now coated the back of his pants and blazer—probably all part of the joke.

“Excuse me Madame—eh. I should really be going. Please inform Miss Hathaway that I had to head back to my office and that I’ll see her tomorrow morning.”

Candace stepped through the door, carrying a tray.

“Talking to yourself, Professor Thayer?”

On the tray was a glass pitcher along with two tumblers, a bowl of ice, tongs, cheese, bread and a bag of grapes. She poured him a glass and offered it to him. He did not accept it.

“I was just telling your friend here that I had to be going.”

“Who?”

He pointed at the contemptuous woman in the corner.

Candace chuckled, putting her hand on her small bust.

“God. You know I always forget about grandmother. She’s been sitting in that chair so long that I just think of her as another piece of furniture. At least she matches the set; she was also made in Capri. She was born in Italy.”

“I don’t find any of this amusing; in fact, I think it’s very rude. It’s demeaning to both me and her to make her do this sort of thing.”

She set the drink down on the stool next to the couch.

“I know it’s shocking, but we’ve just come to expect her being there. I completely forgot she was in here, or we would have gone out onto the porch. I know what this must look like, but once you hear the story, you’ll understand.”

Was there something he didn’t understand? Was she just senile? His great aunt had gotten like that after her stroke. She’d sit in the parlor, day after day, working needlepoint.

“It’s not everyday you have drinks with a stuffed corpse.”

He grabbed his glass. It nearly slipped through his hand.

“You’re saying that she’s—”

“As a doornail, to quote Dickens,” she answered, too casually for the topic.

She turned the light up, and the old woman materialized. She had black, flat hair that curled down her forehead. Her tan, taunt face was drenched in makeup—flesh colored foundation, rouge heavy in the cheeks and mascara around her glassy, brown eyes. Her body was positioned straight up, like someone had stuck a wooden pole through her head and torso to keep her in good posture. Around her neck hung a medal of St. Jude.

“We keep her down here, away from the hustle and bustle of the house. My mother can’t stand to look at her. She thought it was wholly unchristian, but my father insisted they respect the wishes of her estate. It’s a fine job, wouldn’t you say? She stipulated that it was to be done by a taxidermist she’d known in Milan. After she died, we had to fly him out here to do the job. He did good work though—all of his materials were handmade, even the eyes. Nice, huh?”

“It was in her will?”

Candace nodded.

“She had major control issues. She controlled every aspect of my father’s life. She stipulated in the will that to receive his inheritance, she had to be preserved and kept in an active part of wherever he was living at the time. Mother nearly divorced him over it.”

“You’re joshing me.”

“Not about this. You have no idea how embarrassing it is dragging her to Bermuda with us or to our summer cottage on the lake. I can’t wait to get out of this madhouse.”

Upstairs, something crashed into the ceiling. It startled Thayer, and he nearly fell off the couch.

“God. What now? Excuse me for a moment. If we don’t keep an eye on them, they’ll pretend like nothing was broken, only lost. I’ll be right back.”

She went to the door, but then stopped and looked at him.

“Please don’t touch her.” She turned to the corpse and gave it an angry glance like she was warning it.

She repaired upstairs. A few moments later, he heard her yelling.

He took another sip and stared at the dummy. When he was a kid, he used to look at the corpses at funerals, trying to discern the tiniest movement. Somehow he just couldn’t believe that the people would never move again, never open their eyes or yawn or scratch an itch. It didn’t seem real.

He continued to watch her, and he thought he saw her cheek twitch. He let it go, a trick of the light. He checked his watch. He really wanted to get out of there.There it was again. Her right cheek twitched, and he could have sworn that her eye moved. Were the nerves still active? Or was this something like gas escaping?

Curious, he got up and moved closer, watching her face. Her eyes seemed so life-like. She was watching him, drilling into his chest with her vapid gaze. She looked like a Haitian zombie—forced into a catatonic existence, trapped behind an empty stare, a mind imprisoned.

She grabbed his arm in her brittle hands.

“Please Signor, you must help me. Call the police. Please, get the police.”

He backed up, falling onto the couch, knocking over the remainder of his drink. It dumped down his shirt and pants. The old woman began to moan. He jumped up and ran out of the room, not stopping until he was in his car and safely in another place, far away—preferably Canada.

#

Professor Thayer had nearly knocked Candace over as he fled from her home, and she hurried back down to the parlor.

“Did I do okay?” her grandmother asked, sitting back on the couch.

“You were wonderful! He won’t be so uppity next time. Like you always say Nana, sometimes you have to remind people of their place.”

Her grandmother looked down at the spill on the carpet from his drink.

“Get that useless Anna down here this instant. Tell her to bring a bucket and some cleanser—and tell her to move it. This carpet was hand-woven in Istanbul.”

———————–

I’m not quite sure where this story came from. Often when I begin a short story, it is a journey with an unknown destination. I think this one was cathartic. As a child, I would stay at my grandmother’s in a stuffy room, beneath the earth like a tomb, and sit with my great grandmother. She sat still like a statue, seldom blinking, and I worried that she might have died.

T. Fox Dunham lives outside of Philadelphia, PA. He is a cancer survivor, a historian, and an author published in various magazines and anthologies, some under the name of T. Joseph Dunham. He is currently finishing his first novel, The Adam & Eve Experiment. His friends all call him Fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    04/02/2011 00:29

    Wow, seriously creepy…but in a good way!

  2. Gabonica permalink
    04/02/2011 05:23

    A fun read.
    Not a word wasted through to its humorous ending.
    I liked this story.

  3. Rosie Bell permalink
    04/02/2011 13:35

    I like grandma – she’s a girl after my own heart!

  4. Arwin permalink
    04/02/2011 15:31

    I loved this story…..from actually being in the room with the smells and lighting…..to the insidious and humorous twist at the end! Well done!

  5. Owen permalink
    04/02/2011 23:29

    Heh, the end definately gave me a smile – quite a strange old story, but still very much exceptional

  6. Damian permalink
    04/03/2011 15:35

    Disliked the professor’s attitude midway through, thought he was being paranoid…. but who knew? hahaha

  7. 04/04/2011 19:04

    Great job Uncle Tim. I’m not big on reading, and yet I found this very easy to sit through.

  8. 04/07/2011 23:34

    Fantastic story Tim 🙂 You probably knew when you put this up I’d love it! The speed of the read is so perfect to the content. Marvelous!

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