Night on Sefton Avenue
Halloween and its shivers. An old van’s coughing engine, its door rasping open, metal-on-metal. Then, children’s piercing voices as they leap out to a Sefton Avenue sidewalk, here to join the rumpus. Spider-Man. A ninja princess. An older boy with no costume, gripping a pillow case for the loot.
Sylvia hands out bite-sized candies and orange and black plastic rings, this one with a spider, that one with a bat. Across the street, Joyce coos over costumes. Bert, from his porch lit orange, shouts to her. “Hey, Joyce!”
“Hey, Bert!” she yells back.
On his porch, Michael sits in a rocking chair, stock-still. For this, his first Baltimore Halloween, he’s dressed himself in black shoes and pants, black jacket, black hood up and with a skull mask he borrowed from Joyce to conceal his face. He has wired his arms, legs, and torso with tiny white holiday lights, plugged in via extension cord, so at first glance he looks like an elaborate decoration, all darkness and fairy light and plastic-bone. Yet each time children approach, he begins a slow rock…rock…rock, then raises a hand or turns his head or arises from the chair. The children shriek! Subtle mischief thrills most.
As Michael, too, is thrilled by this subtle creature just appeared. Facing him on the brick rail of the porch. Crawled out of the night, big as a ragdoll but ghostly white, with a rat’s pink tail and a tiny pink snout, its teeth like thorns, its feet like your hands, almost human, pale and grasping. Primeval. Imp of the woods, conjured from wildness more ancient than these houses and pothole-patched streets, from the dank forest that once thrived here. Its streams. Its fallen trees and bickering black birds. A woodland so present in this possum, it might as well be growing here this very night, vines and leafy bushes overrunning Michael’s porch.
Through the eye-slits of Michael’s skull mask, the possum blurs, a white fuzz, a strange uncertainty. It steps oh-so-slowly along the railing, drawing near. Michael knows the possum is no fake, no Halloween decoration bought at the Rite-Aid. He imagines its teeth at his ankles, terrible and gnashing.
He had not known that wild things still roam this city block. But one morning to come he will watch three raccoons crawl into the sewers through a grate. One night he will wake to foxes screaming their lust from under a parked car. Another evening, near dusk, a heron will glide above the back deck not more than twenty feet overhead, elegant and prehistoric.
But now, in this moment: a possum, asserting itself on the porch as if it belongs. For a moment, Michael feels himself the trespasser. But he can’t have mermaids and pirates visit while a sharp-toothed creature perches on his railing. So he moves—slowly—rising from the chair. The possum halts. Then Michael blinks and in near-blind panic yanks away his mask, but the possum is gone from sight, disappeared, into the night of its very own lair.
All night, the house’s basement bulbs burn, windows at ground level shining. Fran, who loves all creatures great and small, thinks it wrong to leave the turtle in the dark. In her basement, it crawls over sand and pebbles in its terrarium, a shelter around the one the turtle carries. Fran tempts the turtle from its shell with morsels of raw ground beef.
She has cared for this animal over the decades since she was a girl, beginning when her parents owned this very house. Since her parents died and Fran moved back to Sefton Avenue, the basement light has shone every night.
Neighbors believe her when she tells them about the turtle, though Fran never shows it to anyone. They know the turtle only by its light.
They believe her, too, when she says that before the house belonged to her parents, a man had hanged himself in that basement. Sufficient tragedy, but worse, he’d first taken a broken bottle to his wife’s throat, left her body in the kitchen. Who found them? Who knew? A child, perhaps. Not long after, Fran’s father and mother bought the house.
For neighbors who’ve heard the story, to think too much about that basement is also to think about those ruined necks, one gashed, the other stretched. The kitchen and blood. The basement’s concrete floor and toes not quite touching.
Fran never leaves the turtle without a light. But last night, the basement windows went dark. Today, neighbors offer condolences.
As a Fulbright scholar, Michael Downs is currently living and working in Kraków, Poland, a city of castles, dragons, and poets. He’s the author of three books, most recently the novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist, which re-imagines a true story of addiction and anesthesia, set in the 1840s. He also directs the graduate program in professional writing at Towson University. Learn more about his writing at michael-downs.net.
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