In the Attic

You’re climbing a long wooden staircase in the old house, step by step, coming closer to the door. You take the last step and reach out to turn the crystal door knob on the unpainted, four-panel door. You open the door. It creaks. You step into a dusty attic space and pull a string to light up the sloping wooden roofline that defines the room running at least thirty feet by eighteen feet. The attic has two cedar chests, an old four-drawer pine dresser, a dress form, a metal file cabinet, a baby buggy, lots of cardboard boxes stacked in teetering piles, and mounds of magazines. You walk toward the far end, your footsteps raising small eddies of dust. You pull the string of a second light bulb next to the small circular window.

A red box lies on the floor beneath the window. You kneel. The box measures about a foot high, a foot deep, and eighteen inches long. The surface is painted a faded enameled red. The seams of the box are bound in golden metal, with carvings that suggest a twining ivy. There is a small lock in front, but the key is inside it. You turn the key, and lift the lid.

27 responses to “In the Attic

  1. The name on the envelope left tears in my eyes, Elaine Elizabeth Eble, my late wife of fifty years. The handwriting wasn’t familiar, the post mark faded with time. With shaky hands I open the envelope and slowly pull out the yellowed paper inside. My knees buckled, and my heart felt as if it was going to burst. Elaine, at sixteen, had a child. The letter was from a Sister Esther telling Elaine that the child had gone to a good home, and would be loved by two devoted parents.

    A child, Elaine had a child. All our married life we wanted children, but couldn’t have them. I always blamed her, now I see that it was me. She wanted to adopt, but I insisted that we try on our own. Now I see why see wanted to give a child a good home, and I see how I broke her heart by denying her that.

    Another letter caught my eye, this time the name raised the hair on my neck. Thomas James Eble, my name written by Elaine’s hand. The envelope wasn’t as old as the other, in fact, it looked fairly new. No stamp, no postmark, personally placed in the box by my love, for me.

    “Dearest Thomas, my Tom. How I wanted to tell you about my daughter every time we discussed having children, one regret I have is not being able to give that to you. I was raped by one of my brother’s friend as he spent the night at our house. He threatened me, and I didn’t tell anyone until I found out I was pregnant. He left town after my brother threatened to fix it so that he would never have kids again, and I don’t know what happened to him after that. Sister Esther took care of the adoption, so I don’t know where my daughter is or anything about her, another regret in my life. Know this, your love and companionship was the absolute best thing that ever happened to me. I had to be the happiest wife in the world, and I never felt I lacked anything in our life, including children. I love you forever, Elaine.”

    I sat there on the attic floor, my tears dropping onto the dusty floor, wondering how life may have been different if I hadn’t been so stubborn, so self-centered. As I struggled to get to my feet, I hear the door bell ring. Great, it’s a long trip down all those stairs, I hope whoever is there will wait.

    The bell rang once more, and then became silent. I finally made it to the door and as I opened it, I see a couple walking back down the sidewalk.
    “Can I help you?”

    “Mr. Eble?”

    “Yip, that’s me.”

    “Mr. Eble, could I speak to Mrs. Eble?”

    “Wish you could Missy, but the Mrs. has been gone for a year now.”

    “Mr. Eble, my name is Elaine. Elaine Elizabeth Wright. Mrs. Eble is my birth mother, could we talk?”

  2. Wow. You never fail to blow me away, Walk.

  3. Some has left an old hookah pipe in here. I sniff the bowl, and yes, it’s the sweet smell of pot. I lift out the carved brass base and jiggle it. It still holds a little water. A long black braided tube is attached that brought the smoke through from the bowl after it had gurgled through the cooling water. There’s no handy baggy of weed in the box, but there is a knot of old, half smoked black stuff—hash?—in the bowl. I sit down cross legged and look around the attic a bit more carefully. An old plastic case, rests against the wall. It looks like an old electric typewriter case, but—just maybe…. Yes! It’s a record player. Albums? Lucky again! There’s a very dusty stack shoved under the baby buggy. Let’s see. I hate most of these, but suddenly I find something I really do want to hear.

    I plug in the record player, pull the album out of its sleeve, dust it off with my t-shirt front, and lay it on the turntable. Now I need a candle and a match. Here’s where the old dresser comes in handy. The top drawer is exactly what I expect—a little underwear and a lot of odd junk including a half-burned taper and some matches that say “Russian Tea Room.” I drag some old beat up quilts out of the cedar chest to sit on and to cushion my creaky back. I pull the string on both light bulbs and light my candle. I press the ON switch and lay the needle carefully on the first track. Match to hookah, careful draw, and then another. I lean back, holding my breath.

    A bit scratchy, but yes there it is: The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Do You Believe in Magic?”

  4. Finally, after all these years, we meet the REAL annlinquist! And Walk, you are too funny!

  5. Actually, I’ve been keeping my real identify a secret all these years….

    Inside I find one of those old fashioned hair clippers that my father used to give me a crew cut with. He called it “giving me the zip.” I never liked the crew cut (I felt bald), but I did like knowing my father was involved in this grooming ritual with me. We were doing the man thing.

    The clipper was silver, heavy, and had a black cord. I remember it well. In fact, I’m surprised I forgot about this box. It’s his old jewelry box. I used to look inside it when I was a kid and pick through his cuff links, tie clasps, money clips, and white handkerchiefs. He even had a few tack bars from WWII that apparently indicated the places where he’d fought. Not something he liked to talk about.

    I tugged my earlobe, feeling the gold stud I wore there. My hair was pulled back in a gray pony tail—a rather thin one that did nothing to hide the fact that in spite of my goatee, the top of my head was bald. Like him, I have a tattoo. His was a naked, big breasted woman sitting with one knee up and both arms propping her up so she could stick her chest out. Mine is a barbed wire circle around my upper arm. Nobody gets to see that, though. I have to keep up my image as Chief Financial Officer of Sotheby’s auction house.

  6. I adore how your mind works. I could believe that you had personal expierence with a Hookah Pipe before I would believe that you were a balding, son of a soldier with visible tatoos. I could be wrong though. Either way, you remain my hero.

  7. …You turn the key, and lift the lid.

    Inside the red box is another box, or more accurately one of those petty cash containers used in offices. You lift it out, your fuzzy mind hoping that you can remember the four-digit combination. You click the wheels. Three-seven-nine-two. Huh? Nothing. Desperately, you try an alternative. Seven-three-nine-two. No. Seven-two-nine-three. Wrong again. Your fingers fumble. Sweat drips onto the closed lid. Three-seven-two-nine. And yes! The lock clicks, and you open the lid, grabbing at the pack of cigarettes you placed there last night after vowing never to smoke again.

    You take the pack out and turn towards the door, but then your leg bumps the prop you’d placed to hold the attic door open but hadn’t mentioned earlier in the narrative because you were so intent on getting to the cigarette part. The door slams. Shut. And you remember how the handle on the inside of the door broke and fell off last time you went through the too-familiar charade of hiding cigarettes from yourself up here. Gee, was that only last Saturday? Seems more like a week at least.

    Anyway, it’s okay, you tell yourself, Martha will be home in an hour or two, or maybe three at most, and she’ll know from past experience where you are. In the meantime…

    Damn. You really should’ve put a lighter in there too.

    • Ah, Fig. Wonderful. I feel the building agony, though when I quit smoking in 1971, it was without pain. Rather, without pain from tobacco-craving as I had broken ribs and broken back to deal with instead.

  8. That was so funny. And no lighter!! John just can’t give up his smokes. Too bad he didn’t run into the lady with the hookah. She had some matches.

    Good one!

  9. Stenciled on the inside of the lid are the words “My Life’s Treasures.” In the box is a pair of pink satin pointe ballet slippers wrapped in worn tissue paper. You lift them out carefully and see newspaper clippings, smudged and brittle with age, inside a yellowed plastic bag.

    The headline of the top story, in faded bold print reads: “Prima Ballerina Katherine Stuart to dance in Nutcracker.” You open the bag to read that article and the others below it. “Katherine Stuart delights crowd as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Katherine Stuart is magnificent in Swan Lake.”

    She was just “Mom” to you, gone these past ten years. After your father passed away last week, it was up to you to take care of the old house and its contents. Your brothers were too busy.

    No wonder. No wonder she started you in ballet lessons when you were just four. No wonder she took you to see the Nutcracker every Christmas. Why didn’t she tell you about her famous past?

    At the bottom of the box is a tired manila envelop. You open it carefully to find inside a picture of your parents smiling brilliantly at the alter of the Little Chapel of the Chimes in Reno, and baby pictures of your twin brothers and you. On the back of the envelop the words “My Life’s Treasures” are repeated in flowing calligraphy.

  10. Great addition to our collection of secret box contents! Finding things out about parents after they pass away is always a great story line. So poignant. Life’s treasures, indeed.

  11. Nov. 11, 201l

    The carburetor lever on the little Quaker pot-burner oil stove was turned up as high as it would go, but the 20 below zero temperature outside was winning the battle. Ice was forming in the corners of the wet floor, so I was scraping that along with years of built-up tobacco spit as I cleaned the one-room cabin, running water of the run-and-haul-it kind, that would soon be my home in the historic gold mining town of Girdwood.

    Old Billy Sproat surely had used a spittoon, but his aim had suffered greatly as ill health and age advanced inexorably. Now there was an inch-high mound around the battered wooden table where he’d sat and chewed Copenhagen for decades.

    I used a metal dust pan and a garden hoe as I worked. In some places, the tobacco layers came up in huge chunks, revealing old-fashioned narrow floor boards beneath the dark brown mess. Finally, I poured fresh warm water into the mop bucket, added Pine Sol, and mopped up the last of the reeking filth.

    I decided to leave the heat turned up high so the floor would dry overnight. I emptied the mop bucket outside, I donned my winter clothes, and stepped into the unheated storage room attached to the main room. I climbed up the makeshift ladder nailed to the wooden planks next to the door, released a hook the held shut a half-door to the attic, and crawled into the dark space.

    A myriad of pin-point lights shown through the corrugated tin roof, evidence of the many holes punched through when Old Billy shot his .22 caliber rifle at the squirrels rummaging overhead. Carl, my landlord-to-be, planned to patch these multiple holes as soon as the weather warmed enough that tar would spread.

    I pulled a flashlight from my parka pocket and turned it on. Most of the stuff up here appeared to be junk—old clothes, dusty cardboard litter with remnants of spruce cones, and bat guano. Piles of bat guano.

    I stepped from joist to joist, bent over under the low ceiling, careful not to miss and wind up in the room below. The flashlight beam caught an old streamer trunk in its light. I headed in that direction, crawling on my knees the last few feet as the ceiling lowered until I could pull the chest toward me.

    Holding my breath to avoid inhaling the dirt and dust, I lifted the lid and looked inside. There was a folded patchwork quilt on top, apparently made of sewn-together three inch squares cut from men’s woolen trousers and coats. I lifted it out and set it on a few 2x4s piled next to me.

    On top of another similar quilt was a red lacquered box, much like a large jewelry box. I propped the flashlight against the hinged edge of the trunk, took off my gloves, and opened it. Inside that was a smaller box covered with blue velveteen. I lifted the lid.

    I recognized the contents immediately; I’d seen a similar thing every time I’d passed the hall table in my grandparent’s home back in Detroit.

    A carefully folded narrow blue ribbon, barely more than an inch wide, was joined at the center of its circle by a shield in the same color, embroidered with thirteen white stars. Below the shield was a gold eagle, wings spread, and fastened below the eagle was a gold bar inscribed with the word “valor.” Another gold piece was suspended below the bar at two points.

    At the center of five-pointed star, surrounded by a laurel wreath in gold and green, was a replica of Minerva’s head, with “The United States of America” embossed in gold around her. I turned it over and saw “The Congress to William Samuel Sproat.”

    The accompanying citation, folded and unfolded many times, was almost illegible.

    Old Billy, living alone with no known relatives or friends, spitting tobacco juice on the floor of the oldest inhabitable cabin in Girdwood, punctuating the ceiling and roof with .22 caliber ventilators and leaks, had been awarded the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest honor for valor, in France during World War I, 1918.

    • Wow, both clever and timely, Gully. A twenty-one pen salute to you.

    • You are master of details, Gullie. I’ve never been to Alaska, but I was certainly there with the narrator (you?) cleaning the cabin and discovering the treasure. You are also a steady producer who all of us like to see responding to these writing challenges. The must must have moved in to stay!

      P.S. Where’s Shaddy?

  12. Thank you for your kind words, Ann. Shaddy is being held captive in the land of NaNoWriMo. Her ransom is set at 50 grand. Words, that is.

    Also, all the details of the cabin are true–except for Old Billy’s medal.

  13. Ann? What’s “must must”?”

    • I must (there’s that word again!) have brain lock. My mind tells my fingers to write one thing, and something else comes out. I think I even proofread that. I think I need rehab.

      I think your MUSE must have moved in to stay.

      Thanks for letting me know about Shaddy. Good for her.

      • Linda, better known as Parrot Writes, sent me here. She said you were wondering what I was up to. I feel bad that I haven’t participated here lately but I’ve been busy doing other things. During the summer months, I got obsessive with our yard and flowers. I haven’t been writing regularly so after receiving a few e-mails announcing the annual NaNoWriMo thing, I decided to do it again this year. Sometimes I need a major challenge to get me going.
        It appears the gang is having fun here with your latest prompt. Keep motivating; you do it so well. Thank you for thinking of me, Ann. I appreciate it.

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