Small Town, Big City, (part one)

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Neely Sumner wonders if he is haunted more by his mother's death, or a battered child who lives in the great Victorian rooming house where he now rents an attic apartment.

Submitted: February 10, 2019

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Submitted: February 10, 2019



... "Hello, you have been specially selected to take part in our national survey."

The call itself was a very welcome change from Neely's typical Wednesday evening; a day off with nothing to do.  Maybe they needed an extra pair of hands at work, or one of his dead-beat friends would actually want to hang out.  Of course there were not many friends, and certainly no family.  Hell, even a wrong number would have been okay, but totally unprepared for that lousy recording.

For Pete's sake, where were all the people?  Oh, Neely had learned to get along well enough alone, but appreciate others, too.  After all, so much of his day seemed to teeter on the brink, balanced by the weight of others.  He waited tables at Geopetto's, that quaint, little Italian place on Main Street.  There was the corner grocery where he bickered with a crusty, old shop keeper, to either widen his selection or sell to a larger franchise.  The man shared an occasional How-do-you-do with jolly Officer Sam, last of the red-hot coppers who walked his beat, and even a strange sort of kinship with other residents of the giant Victorian rooming house, where he rented an attic apartment.

Neely actually came a long, long way from the numbing isolation, restless flights of fancy, and moony internalizing of his adolescence, even if he did have far to go towards true fulfillment.  It was all a matter of small town living, really; what amounted to two blazing blocks that the idyllic country hamlet of Little Pearl, New York, called its business district, and a stifled, dispirited loner named Neely Sumner had to somehow happen upon any interaction in his otherwise insular environment.  Main Street and Broad Avenue, nestled together at that one busy intersection where a  guy like him found his one only link to a world outside of his own.  The real world, which appeared to revolve around that other one, with the top floor studio-Italian restaurant-corner grocery-Sam the Flatfoot- friendly neighbor deal.  All of it for the great low price of just nine hundred and fifty dollars, including utilities.

"You could live at home for free," His mom once said, in an argument against room and board away at college.  Obviously, she never saw what the big deal was being independent, especially from her.  It was only later the funeral kind of put things into perspective, when he suddenly had no choice in the matter.

Neely was forced out of his reverie by the phone's urgent signal that the line had been broken.  He quickly put the receiver down, somehow unsettled by the notion it was his mother trying to call.  "Come home, Neely... please."

Exactly what any devoted son would do in a role perfected through years he moved in and back out of a family home deemed nothing more than some Broadway stage his mother directed.  A tired performance in which doctors became critics who brought her final curtain down with rave reviews of what they dubbed acute renal failure, caused by Diabetes.  Neely's return home after merely fourteen months of higher education was to learn about life the hard way, and watch as they replaced daily insulin shots with a dialysis machine.  Three times a week, she was carted back and forth from the hospital, wrapped in bloody sheets and her own excrement.

Talk about on the job training, Neely took the director's chair just in time to yell, "Cut!"  At that point, nothing anyone could do but mop up the filth and bring in a new lead.  Afterward, the young man continued on in his new part as janitor, since sole heir left to cleanse an entire household of sickness and death.  Rather than classes, new tasks were airing out rooms with a medicinal smell not quite there anymore, launder dirty clothes with ghosts still in them, and immaculate housecleaning blemished by nothing but memories.  It got so bad he finally had to sell, and then move from place to place whenever the same old stains became too visible.

Eventually, Neely gave up on apartments and simply settled for rooms to rent.  The end result was a sparse but spacious old attic, renovated by one of the more reputable "flop" houses his small home town had to offer.  It was not much, but contained everything he held dear.  Such as the velvet covered settee where his mother used to read to him; the hand-carved armoire in which Dad used to hang business suits and ties; a windowed hutch to display those few remaining heirlooms, in addition to a drop-fronted desk with its matching ottoman he used to do homework upon.

After a while, the surroundings felt so much like home that Neely began hearing Mom's voice call for midnight snacks and her undergarments changed.  Not long after, came the smell and discoloration, with ambulance lights turned into kaleidoscope shapes by stained glass windows, which should have looked out onto a Broadway's thoroughfare.  Instead, casting deceptively pretty hues upon images done up in Technicolor reruns of an old black and white memory, Neely originally forced to view from the large picture window overlooking their driveway back at 49 Quale Lane.

How many other nights had the man stared out at those two huge flashers atop that medical vehicle he personally called for emergency dispatch, but still feeling as if paramedics were truly officers of the law who caught him in some illegal offense?  Unfortunately, rather than give himself up gracefully, forced to direct them back to the scene of his crime, in a ground floor room where Etta Sumner lay with nightgown hitched up over hips, her head caught between rungs of a  bedside safety-rail, and feces smeared head to toe.

The bright bursts of light, which shattered Neely's world might just as well have been mug-shots taken by doctors and family friends.  All the real arresting officers in an indictment against a slighted son's maltreatment of his helpless mother they could not help but suppose started way before she was driven off to a nursing home.  Everyone really wondered why Neely insisted on no outside help, and suddenly viewed him with accusative eyes when poor Etta died so quickly after that, as if maybe she would have had more of a chance if only someone acted sooner.  Of course, he the one person to understand it was the simple act of putting her in such a place that ultimately did the job.

"What kind of boy would let his own mother die this way?  I tried to give you everything, and this is the thanks I get!"

Neely thought he heard what sounded like a casket slam shut, and jumped back to the present with a start from the last words Mom uttered before lapsing into a coma and pass on.  Only the logic of a full grown man protected him from childhood fears like things that go bump in the night, creatures under the bed, and a ghost haunting his new home.  Deep down inside, he knew all that truly remained of Etta's suffrage slowly made its way up from a Hell, which never completely belonged to him, but countless of other children just like young Clara Burns in another apartment.  For Neely, she was not merely a cute kid with parental problems of her own, but perhaps his very reincarnate sent to visit its grown up version, so at least one of them might get things right the second time around.

Ghost or not, even Etta's transient spirit back in the preteen's father, but with more of a vengeance than emotional abuse such as the name-calling, belittlement, and home imprisonment Neely endured, but late night beatings that made him grateful when she later turned up at his doorstep with bruises rather than broken bones.  Even so, the damage on eleven year-old Clara's face only a reflection of a devastated childhood he remembered all too well in his mid-twenties.  So, when she said, "I can tell you know what it feels like," He could only reply, "No, what happened to me was different.  It hurt just the same, but you might say my scars are on the inside."

"What's so different?"  Clara would ask.

Always able to trace her contusions back to the pretty girl she was, He thought, Your wounds will heal, but whispered back, "Not so much, I guess."

It was a camaraderie Clara felt through that same sense of terror in Neely's eyes the moment they met six weeks earlier, when it was way too hard for other tenants of Broad Avenue Manor to believe an upper middle-class guy's kind of empathy was not just pity for the poor souls with whom suddenly forced to live.  As far as they were concerned, he had simply been a Ken doll minus Barbie, shown up with a moving van full of belongings that looked like accessories from one of those play-sets sold separately on TV.

Always in awe of how perceptive Clara was for an eleven year-old, she remained one of only two such neighbors able to look beyond the fine and delicate things all superimposed upon some much bleaker landscape than Ken and Barbie's Dream House, and saw someone who had also lived in mortal fear of a loved one.  Their housemates just did not realize it was the very same demon they found in a bottle, drugs, and poverty, but in the form of a parent.  Destitution was not the only form of social disgrace, but others far worse when bestowed by someone dear.

"You are no son of mine... I'm sorry you were ever born!"

A tiny inner voice slowly driving the man insane, got one-upped by what surely was another part of poor Clara's body being kicked, punched, or pushed downstairs.  It then did not seem so strange for Neely to think Hates could be that close, and the devil a neighbor.  Why not, considering every piece of furniture down to the last memento willed to him, bore his mark of 666 in the attic he resided:  The exact address on mail reading apartment 6 at number 66, and its lone occupant willing to give it all back, gladly.  Everything he owned outright, in exchange for the girl.

Neely slammed the phone back down in its cradle to quickly cut off the clamor in his head, even if an all inclusive emptiness all he had to take its place at one a.m.  Nevertheless, the despairing young man would not let that stop him from trying to find something else, as he grabbed his coat and headed for the door.  That particular hour of morning arrived in Little Pearl much like a giant, black mantis spreading its wings over town.  People always ran for cover, leaving streets devoid of any food for the hungry, nocturnal beast who would hunt until dawn.  Unlike large cities, the suburbs were easy prey unless someone had a comfortable home and those to love.

A quant family hamlet with no family was the equivalent of Heaven without God, or an angel without wings.  One particular resident trapped in a place called Home; for the moment, his only companionship the occasional glare of headlights, blinking traffic signs, and big, multicolored neon above, The Country Kitchen Coffee Shop, which was open twenty-four hours.  That last northbound bus from New York City passed by, scattering Neely's thoughts about the macadam along with a flurry of recently felled Autumn foliage, leaving him to wonder why anybody would ever get off there.


... Look for part-two coming soon!




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