Before I begin this post, I just wanted to tell Carol “Happy Birthday!” I was hoping her birthday would land on the day I post.
You’ll never hear her say it, but Carol is a fine person. She’s not only an amazing beauty for her age (she’s much older than I am–but you can’t tell until we pull out the birth certificates), but she’s a fine writer, fine friend and very, very funny. When I started reading this blog she and Andy write, I said to my wife, “I need to try out for a day to post.” After almost two years, I got my day in the limelight (I was scrubbing the floor around the toilet when I said this. My wife was handing me toothpicks so I could get things super clean.). But back to Carol.
I met Carol when her youngest, Carolina, was a baby (I was later Carolina’s bishop. What a privilege to be the Williams’ bishop. I sure have missed BEING bishop and wish I had that calling again and I have missed that family of amazing women plus Cheri Earl. I put the fear of God in Carolina when I would do the birthday interviews.).
During the years I have seen Carol publish one amazing book after the other, seen her serve the writing community and watched as she performed many times from the stage (she is a fantastic singer. And yes, I’ve sung up there with her as a back-up).
I’ve watched Kyra grow up. Her writing will probably be supporting us all. And I’ll tell you what, she certainly DOES have a ‘hot Indian boyfriend’ (though I feel a little uncomfortable saying that).
While I’m at it, I need to say a thing or two about Andy. While Carol and I were singing, Andy was growing up. Now that she’s old enough to be published she has written some amazing books. These books are full of voice and feeling, and while I might sound a little like a woman when I say this next part, Andy’s books caused me to choke up. I actually cried on an airplane, EVERYTHING IS FINE in my used-to-be football player hands. More on that later.
Here’s my own haiku about Carol Lee and Ms Andy (!!! another rhyme right there)
Andy and Carol Lunch Will
“Yums” are the word for
those two girl writers
That probably says it best.
Happy Birthday, Carol. And to the two of you–Thank you for letting me be a part of this really great blog. While we may only have two readers (especially on the days I post), writers just don’t know what they’re missing. This blog is smart, funny and teaches the writer to become better at what he does. It’s certainly taught me to be a finer professor and human being. Please wait a moment while I wipe my eyes and blow my nose.
Now on to my post
On Monday, I spoke at a civil rights conference in Oakley, Kansas. I stayed in the home of the conference organizer in Quinter, Kansas, about 30 miles east of Oakley. Here’s a writing prompt based on my real-life experience:
Find Quinter, Kansas on a map. It’s there, in western Kansas, right on I-70. It’s a quiet little town, population 918, surrounded by cultivated fields that have gobbled up most of the great plains. Kansas, you’ll remember, is the state that hosted the grisly murders that became In Cold Blood, and if you have a chance to chat up a bunch of Kansans, you’ll assume that the two killers who cut up the Clutter family, must have been from out of state.
Like most small towns, Quinter has a Main Street and a few blocks of wood-frame houses, each with an elm tree or two in the front yard. There’s a Rexall Drug store on Main Street, just across from the public library, which closes at 5:00.
Across the street and down a block, a four-story Victorian house occupies most of the corner. The buffalo grass in the front yard looks dry and crunchy, like it could use a good rain. Though the house, built in 1904, isn’t shadowed by trees, it has a shadowy look about it.
If you cross the yard on the winding path of concrete fragments that lead to the front door, you will reach the four well-worn wooden steps that take you up to the covered porch. Before you take that first step, something, you’re not sure what, makes you pause. Wind in the trees? A squirrel scurrying across the porch roof? A faint and desperate whisper? Even though it’s sunny outside, you shiver in the shadows and look behind you, to the right and to the left. No one, nothing. In fact, for a moment you imagine that you’re in some sort of Twilight Zone and you will soon discover that not only is this Victorian house empty, but so is the entire town. But you know better, you have the address, 508 Main, it’s real and right and before your eyes, so you walk up the creaky steps and ring the doorbell. The front door is open, and through the screen door you see your hostess, Valerie. She’s much younger than you expected, and when she sees you, her face lights up and she hustles over to the screen door to hold it open while you drag your suitcase into the house.
The night passes pleasantly but unremarkably at first. You meet her husband, tall and tanned with a profile like Cliff Robertson in his prime. Dinner is delicious and plentiful, and the two children pay you little mind while they put away their mashed potatoes in anticipation of the real pay-off: a made-from-scratch chocolate cake with a chilled cream-cheese frosting.
After dinner, the hostess and her husband take you on a tour of the place, proud to show off how they’ve transformed it in the last few years. The stairs are steep and narrow, but you enjoy seeing the tidy bedrooms, sitting rooms, and bathrooms on each level. Every wall is neatly painted or wallpapered, and each room stocked cozy with antiques. On the top floor, where the outer walls slant to the ceiling, you feel a little claustrophobic but can’t imagine why. At the end of the short hallway on the fourth floor, you see the one flaw in their remodel: a splintery wooden door with a rusty iron handle in the shadows. You point it out and ask your hostess about it, assuming that it leads to the attic. Her smile fades, and something flits behind her eyes, and in the incandescent light, you swear that she paled for a moment. But for only a moment, for she recovers quickly and says with a laugh that, well, it’s a big house and they’ve simply not been able to get to everything yet. The husband says nothing, but he gives her a look that surprises you.
The tour takes you down the front staircase, four flights to the main floor, then back through the kitchen and a long playroom to another set of stairs, as steep as any in the house, but these are not wooden but cold black stone. You’ll be down here, says the hostess. She rubs her arms as if a sudden cold breeze came through.
The husband leads the way down the stairs, cautious for some reason, as if he’s worried one of the steps might slide right out from under him. The stairs end in a wide family room that takes up most of the low-ceiled basement that is well lit but dark nonetheless. You bedroom is tucked into a corner. A jet-black refrigerator sits right outside your door. Left and down a wide, dark hallway is the bathroom. The hostess perks up, but it’s forced, fake, and asks if you’d like to see the secret room. Out of the corner of your eye, you notice that the husband is frowning and shaking his head, but she doesn’t see him. She walks to the wall opposite your bedroom, and leans into a section next to the fire place. The wall gives way, and you’re expecting cobwebs and cobble stones behind it, but when she switches on a light, you see it’s a barren wine cellar—long wooden racks, but nary a bottle among them. You step in, feel chilled immediately and step right back out. The hostess says something about the fact that they’re not wine drinkers, switches off the light and pulls the door closed. You think you hear something, something like what you heard when you first approached the house, but no, it couldn’t be. Not down here. Nope. Nothing.
You settle into your windowless bedroom, read for a while, then get into your pajamas, switch off the light, and crawl into bed. With the lights out, the room is blind black. The bed’s comfortable, and the room is quiet as a tomb. At first. Then the darkness starts to feel thicker, and you think you hear something again. Water in the pipes, you tell yourself. And maybe the wind has kicked up.
Or maybe you’re imagining things.
You must have fallen asleep, but you wake up, confused, unsure of where you are. Your eyes strain against the blackness, your heart’s pounding. Then you remember: you’re in the basement of a century-old house in Quinter, Kansas. An ancient house, yes, it all comes back now. You hit the button on your digital watch: 3:13a.m. You’re not sure what woke you or if you’ll be able to drop back to sleep. You lay on your back, staring at the unseen ceiling, feeling the movement of your own breathing and the dull thudding of your pulse.
Sounds. At least you think they’re sounds, but you can’t be quite sure. It’s getting creepy, but you shrug it off. The hostess and her husband are salt-of-the-earth Midwesterners. Don’t let your imagination run away with you. But you can’t help lying still, holding your breath, listening for an unseen presence, fighting to push your paranoid panic aside.
Then the bedroom door creaks open . . .
[OK, dear readers—all two of you—finish this. And make it good. If it’s REALLY good, Andy might give you a prize.]
7 responses to “Quinter, Kansas. Real Place. Real Life, I Think. You Finish the Tale. by Chris Crowe”
Wow, this sounds even better than I remembered it! It’s funny how writing sometimes takes on a life of its own. Not “funny” as in humorous but “funny” as in strange. So I guess it’s strange how writing sometimes takes on a life of its own, just as it is strange writing this blog with Carol Lunch Williams and Andy Ellis.
Happy birthday, Carol. I swear, you really don’t look 60!
Now I know why Andy Ellis and Carol Lunch Williams haven’t taught me how to post to the blog myself!
Okay, it’s very long, but here goes…
A filmy iridescent form flits into the room. Broken chains rattle on ghostly wrists. Hollow moaning reverberates off the windowless walls and seeps into my soul. My flesh wants to crawl off my bones, leaving me cold and skeletal. I try to cry out, but my voice has fled the room in terror.
The THING, as I call it (my writer’s brain has also left the room in terror, and description is impossible now), puts its icy fingers in mine and pulls me along through the air as if I am but a THING myself.
We fly through air and stone and wood and suddenly I am sitting on the cold floor of the wine cellar. The THING collapses in on itself like a black hole. Out of this chaos emerges a plump woman with leathery skin waving a wine bottle. Even with its ghostly pallor, the human shape reassures me, and my voice and brain return.
“Wh-who are you?” I ask.
“Gr-grandma W-weston.” She slurs the words. “Who are you?”
“I’m a professor at Brigham Young University, an acclaimed author, and a former bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so you better keep that wine from me! I’ve got a reputation to maintain!” After having twelve kids, I get grumpy when my night’s sleep is interrupted.
“Bisssshop, huh?” She tilts her head to one side. “Well, that’s good because I’ve got a confesh-sh-ion. I drank every bottle in this wine cellar. That pretty little hostess upstairs didn’t underthstand why it was full one day, and empty the next!”
“But you are dead! Spirits can’t eat or drink.” My LDS theology is standing me in good stead.
“Dead, schmed.” She waves the bottle again, splashing wine down the front of my blue velvet pajamas, a gift from my wife.
I don’t care who this ghostly creature is. My wife will not understand why I smell like a Word of Wisdom breaker. I stand and grab the bottle from her. She holds it out of reach. I jump higher. Suddenly, I am rising through space with the chunky drunk ghost.
Once again, I am sitting on the floor, a splintery wooden floor that pierces the seat of my blue velvet pajamas. Grandma Weston’s eerie light illuminates the small room, and I recognize the splintery door from the tour earlier that evening.
Grandma W. sits cross-legged three feet above me, her head in her hands, and she is crying icy tears that hit my bald spot. Who knew ghosts could cry?
I wipe my head with my pajama sleeve and scoot back, right into a stack of boxes that topple around me. I cover my head. Above me Grandma Westin’s weeping erupts into moaning sobs.
In the grayish white light, it’s easy to see what the boxes are: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Stove Top stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, and Cocoa Puffs cereal.
I shake loose of the boxes and stand up to face Grandma W. “What’s going on here? What are you crying for?”
She spreads her arms, covered in a ghostly calico print. “This! I spent sixty years in this house cooking fresh meals for my husband and sons, God rest their souls, and she arrives here with her boxes of fake food and offers it up as homemade. They even installed a thing called a microwave oven!”
She breaks down into sobs again. As an ex-bishop, I have little room for hypocrisy. The nerve of my hostess, serving me up preservative-packed food! I pick up the bottle of wine and take a swig. It burns going down, but for the first time since I awoke, I am feeling fine.
“Here’s to homemade food!” I hand the wine bottle back to Grandma W. We pass it back and forth, and I’m feeling finer and finer until my eyes start to slide shut, and I slump to the floor.
I open my eyes and blink. I’m back in my windowless room, in bed. My watch says 7:30. I have to get up! I leap out of bed, when the biggest headache I’ve ever had pulls me back to the bed.
I can’t figure out why my head hurts. Wincing, I manage to get dressed, say good-bye to my host and hostess. I decline their offer of breakfast. The pancakes don’t look right somehow.
As my suitcase and I clatter over the concrete fragments, a chill wind blows through me, wiping away my headache.
Thank you, Elizabeth.
Yeah, Elizabeth–I loved your ending! I was going to write something annoying and smart-alecky involving Ashton Kutcher. (That’s the kind of mood I’m in after working for way too many hours straight on a work deadline.) Yours was so fun to read. I loved the processed food twist.
Well this was such a great post. I’m so glad I read it this morning!
I loved that Elizabeth, especially your explanation of the empty wine cellar.
This one’s long too–something fun to keep me occupied while waiting for my daughter and friends at the mall tonight:
I grab the thing closest to me—a worn lacrosse stick–and stare straight at the widened space between door and frame.
A little boy stands there, giggling at me. “There’s leftover cake from dinner, but it’s too high in the freezer. If you reach it for me, I’ll let you have some.”
I have to grin. “Sure. Chocolate cake is the perfect pre-dawn breakfast.”
In the basement hallway, I open the black freezer door.The bottom shelf holds something with a face. I take a step back. “What is that?”
“Muskrat. They’re really good, and . . .” The boy presses both hands over his mouth. “I talk too much.”
He goes on tiptoe to look in the freezer. The top shelf holds more freezer containers and half of the cake—deep chocolate, frosting so snowy white I have to stop my fingers from scraping around the plate edge.
The boy licks his lips. “I don’t want them to see me eating it. Let’s go to the toy room.”
I follow him into the empty wine room. He points at a door made of the same rough wood as the wine shelves. “That’s the real secret room.” We walk through and up a staircase. At the top, I lean forward to see what other mysterious secrets my small tour guide might spill. But as he turns on the light, I see a toy room.
He moves the erector set off a table and sets the plate down, then takes a handful of cake. “Go ahead,” he says, mouth full.
I take a chunk out of the other side of the cake and watch the boy, realizing I didn’t remember seeing his face in the row of moon-blond children at dinner.
“I’m Kip,” he said, “and they didn’t let me come down to dinner. I talk too much.”
I slid my finger along the frosting. “That seems a little harsh.”
“I know, but I forget and tell secrets.” He took another handful of cake, angling his head toward me. “Did you ever wonder what makes all the sounds in this house?”
I wipe my sticky hands on my pajama pants. “What?”
His smile shows his chocolate-covered teeth. “This whole house is filled with them. You can hear them everywhere. You know,” he whispers now, “mice.”
I laugh, but of a whole mouse household makes me push the cake toward him.“Anything else?”
He smiles again, leaning in closer.Then his head turns to listen.
“Kip? Are you sneaking food again?”
Kip shoves a huge cake handful into his mouth. “You better go.” He mumbles, spilling cake crumbs out his mouth. He points at a door in the wall opposite the secret passage. “They can’t know I talked to you. They’ll get mad.”
I nod and hurry out. As the door clicks shut, I glance at the door’s rusted handle. It looks so much like the hallway door I saw earlier that I want to laugh. These people are all about appearing to be more than they are, I think. They seriously didn’t want me to see the messy toy room?
Before my eyes adjust to the darkness I step forward, anticipating hall carpet.
Instead my feet crunch rough grass.
I look up, blinking again and again at the sight of stars, moon, and the ruined outline of an abandoned Victorian home.