A Short Story
What if reality is different from what we’ve been led to believe, from what we’ve always taken for granted? Sometimes I hear ideas so strange that I don’t even know how to process them.
I heard this story from Stuart M — — , caretaker of an apartment complex on Stevens Square in South Minneapolis in the early 80’s when I made my living as a painting contractor. After a fire in one of the buildings Dennis, my painting partner, and I spent quite a few weeks there painting walls, ceilings, stairwells and doors. On the surface the likeable and loquacious Stu seemed eager to engage in the typical banter one expects from someone who manages a rental property. I soon perceived that this was all an act and thereafter I determined to respect his privacy.
At the end of a particularly busy week I was washing out paint rollers and brushes in the laundry room when Stu came in. “You got plans for dinner?” he asked.
It surprised me, though I appreciated his thoughtfulness. I assumed it was because he was lonely. I knew that his wife was out of town. Having no other plans I felt inclined to accept the offer. Dennis had taken off early to go camping with his family or something like that.
At some point during the meal Stu told me that his wife had taken a one year journalism position in St. Louis in order to get newspaper experience. He made contradictory remarks about her absence, saying that it felt good to be alone, and then again saying that he missed her terribly.
Over dinner we shared a bottle of wine, and through the course of the evening a second. It dawned on me that I’d better get going and I reached for my jacket. He asked me not to leave. I reminded him that it was almost midnight and made a lame joke about turning into a pumpkin. He said he had something he needed to talk about.
Personally, I hate these kinds of situations. I felt a sense of obligation though. Evidently he had wanted to be certain about me before he could share what was really on his heart. Perhaps the wine added to his courage. As near as I can reproduce it, this is the story Stuart told me that night.
I owe the discovery of the ‘empty space’ to the death of my father. Within a week after the funeral I began searching for an apartment in South Minneapolis to be near my ailing mom. I got lucky and found an available efficiency just off Hennepin in the Uptown district. While the manager was showing the room I asked questions. He spoke in short, dramatic bursts in a manner I found unsettling, so I probed more deeply and learned that the apartment had been let to at least four tenants in the previous year. When he asked me to sign a year’s lease, I was surprised that four successive tenants would break that kind of a contract.
You can tell how badly I wanted the place since I went ahead anyways. Later I learned that as many as six tenants had occupied the apartment that year.
The efficiency was located in one of those old-fashioned buildings built in the 1890’s with exaggerated baseboards, a Murphy bed, and ten layers of wallpaper. While moving in a woman across the hallway told me that the room was haunted. When I asked in what way, she couldn’t really explain.
“Is it ghosts? Was someone murdered here?”
She said that wasn’t it, but didn’t offer any more than that.
My very first night I became aware of it but didn’t know what it was. After all the commotion of moving in I put the radio on till late, pulled the bed out of the wall and turned in.
It’s a downtown apartment complex, so one expects a certain amount of noise. While lying in bed I kept hearing the sound of a breeze blowing, crickets, and the rustling of leaves. What was strange about all this is that the windows were closed. Furthermore, there were no trees alongside the apartment building. The nearest tree is across the square. The noise seemed as if it were right there in the room. I was too exhausted to investigate the source of the sound and fell off into a deep sleep.
The following morning I was awakened by the singing of birds and the loud cawing of a crow. I sat up with alarm, again noting that the windows were closed. The birdsongs were coming from somewhere within the room. It was as if there were a speaker in the room playing one of those nature recordings.
I became confused, walking about from here to there in my small space, unable to see anything, but clearly recognizing that the noises were vividly present. Upon more serious investigation I was able to determine that the sound was most prominent in a region approximately two feet from the ceiling and three feet from the corner furthest from the bed.
Throughout the day I told myself it was not too late to break the contract and find another place, but I held off and even became a bit curious about it all. A week passed. Occasionally I heard the lowing of cattle. On other occasions the voice of a woman. Once I heard children playing a game. Several times the distant barking of a dog. Most of the time it was the wind, and a few birds. Early evenings, the cattle. After nightfall, the crickets.
I consulted with a friend who believes in all kinds of strange phenomenon. He was an avid sci fi fan and had all those Frank Edwards books like Stranger Than Science, things like that. Books about Area 51 or 53 or whatever it is.
I told him it seemed as if there were a microphone somewhere picking up sounds and projecting them into my room. He found it “interesting.”
I wouldn’t tell my mother about the room. She doesn’t like things she can’t control or explain. Occasionally I would catch my neighbor across the hall studying me. She was watching to see when I would start acting funny. The old man next door also asked how I felt about the room. I got that fishbowl feeling about my neighbors and it made me want to withdraw.
While doing laundry, a white-haired lady from the third floor said that she heard I had the room with the empty space in it. I asked what an ‘empty space’ was and she said she didn’t know. That’s just what she was told it was called.
I consulted with my friend again — Michael Tucci is his name — and asked what an ‘empty space’ is. He said he’d talk to a woman who works at the food co-op. ‘She’s into all that occult stuff,’ he said. ‘If it’s weird she’s into it.’
The following night, he came to my apartment with an older couple who said they once had an empty space behind their house. I don’t remember their last names. His name was Ralph, and he called her Flo.
“They’re very rare,” the old man said. “You could hear the ocean. It was smashing on the rocks somewhere. Occasionally we’d hear a fishing boat.”
“We were living in Iowa, mind you,” Flo announced.
“What causes it?” I asked.
“Reality is ever expanding. It’s filling more and more space all the time. Mass doesn’t expand as fast as reality and so there are cracks or fissures, empty spaces. Noises enter the empty spaces in the same way sound travels through vents in a house.”
Flo was nodding as Ralph offered his explanation of the phenomenon.
“But how can sound from the country be this loud in my room here in the city? Sound can’t travel that far.”
“Here, I brought a book that explains that,” Ralph said. He had in his hand Volume III of Alexander Manchester’s Tertius Dictum. “Each point of the universe contains all points… Because there is an infinitely small distance between each point in space, all points in space are immediately present to all other points…. Matter creates the illusion of space and distance…. Empty spaces eliminate this distance.” The book went on for several pages in that manner.
Flo told how her life was changed by the presence of the empty space behind their house. “The experience shattered all my preconceived notions about the nature of things. I began to realize things can be different from what we expect. My whole understanding of perceptions and the nature of reality shifted. You might say I began to distrust things which other people take for granted.”
“In other words,” Ralph explained, “she stopped accepting everything she was taught and started thinking for herself.”
“It was like an awakening. As if I woke from a deep sleep. I became conscious,” Flo explained, “became enthralled by our world. Became, well, infatuated with life.”
“Of course, you can go too far, you know,” Ralph inserted.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, just because some things are different than you expected, not every wacko idea is necessarily true. Take flying saucers, for example. Maybe yes, maybe no. I don’t know.”
My friend Michael frowned because he liked to believe one day he’d see a flying saucer or make contact with aliens.
By evening’s end we explored topics as diverse as the Great Pyramids, Atlantis, black holes, werewolves, ouija, the arcana, witches, black cats and the Sephiroth.
To be honest with you, I didn’t like these people. They were strange to me. I mean, sure, they told some wild stories like you wouldn’t believe, and some you don’t want to believe, but it’s pretty weird stuff and, for me, when they left that I night I was glad to close the door behind them.
Then again, where did it leave me. Normal people thought I was the strange one to have this hole in my room that went to the country. And these other people. I didn’t know what to think.
A lot of it had to do with the way I grew up. My family was a little different to begin with, and then, too, it seems like we moved every two years so I was always an outsider, always having to prove myself, always the odd man out. You’d think that a kid growing up like that would eventually become skilled at making adjustments, but I never did. Now here I was trying to live a normal life yet I had this bizarre thing going on right in my living space.
The one good thing that happened that night was this. Once I had some kind of explanation for it, I no longer wondered whether I was losing it, if you know what I mean. Up till then I had this knot in my stomach because I harbored a fear that maybe I was cracking up somehow. You see, when I was growing up I learned that my grandmother had had a nervous breakdown. No one in the family ever talked about it and my mother would change the subject whenever I asked, so it made me scared. The empty space had the same effect, like a vague, dark cloud casting a shadow over a corner of my soul. It made me feel anxious.
After a while the whole experience had an eroding effect on my confidence. I knew that I was living with a secret that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, share. As a result, I felt alienated from my peers, from my neighbors, from my friends and especially my family. It’s almost unbelievable to me now to think how angry I was with my parents because they were so out of touch with what I was going through. No one understood, though now I see that it was as much my fault because I kept it all in.
You know what I mean, don’t you? You’d do the same thing. Anyone would after the strange looks I was getting when I tried to talk about it. I did try to talk about it at first and my mother got worried for me. My sister Lisa was mad at me for getting my mother all upset. I can see now that she was trying to protect her, but what about me? No one seemed concerned about what I was going through.
When my mother died that following spring my sister laid blame at my doorstep. She says mother was distraught because of me. She thought I was going crazy and just couldn’t deal with the notion of having her son committed to an asylum.
Lisa says mother stopped eating one day and in the nursing home kept pulling the feeding tubes out. After the funeral my sister moved to California. She said she needed to get away from her crazy family and make a new beginning. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.
The day my lease was fulfilled I found an apartment in St. Paul where I took on my first job as an apartment manager and caretaker. I’ve always been a handyman. That’s where I met Linda, a student at Hamline University, who later became my wife.
It bothers me though that in the seven years we’ve been married I never once mentioned the apartment with the empty space. She knows everything else about me, but I’m still afraid to tell her. If she didn’t believe me, I don’t know what I’d do.
Isn’t it ironic? I’m afraid the empty space will put a wall between us, so I keep it to myself. The result is a secret I feel I can’t share, and so it separates us. Should I say something, or bury it? I knew if you believed my story I’d feel hopeful that maybe she’ll believe it, too. You do believe me, don’t you?
Originally published at www.ennyman.com.