The Lady and the Tall Man: A Spooky Short Story

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

No, I haven’t started celebrating Christmas early like every big-box store in America (seriously, I think I saw a Christmas tree up somewhere by late September) – I’m talking about Halloween! October and November are my two favorite months. I love everything about fall. Cooler weather, the smell of fires burning, beautiful falling leaves in glorious shades that crunch under your feet, beautiful, majestic spiders with their feathery webs, busting out the slow cooker, the smell of cinnamon and cloves permeating everything, the best music, television and movies of the year, and of course, Halloween. I’m spoiled, because I hail from Athens, Georgia, and we know how to do up spooky-time right. This past weekend was the Wild Rumpus, a wonderful Halloween-themed parade based on the book Where the Wild Things Are, which also happens to be a wonderful non-profit organization (this year it benefited Athens Homeless Shelter). Adults and kiddos alike dress up in their best costumes, head downtown and join the parade. Throngs of folks gather in front of bars and retail outlets to see everyone in their Halloween finery, and are serenaded by the best musicians Athens has to offer, trapeze performances, and myriad activities (there’s a 5k, a kid’s party, and an after-Rumpus ball!). Needless to say, it’s a lot of fun, and it’ll get you right in the spirit of Halloween.

Athens own Flagpole Magazine also publishes scary stories from local authors in their annual Halloween/Wild Rumpus issue. This year, I was lucky enough to make the cut (it’s a contest, and I didn’t win, but hey, I’m just happy to be included).

 

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My natural habitat… (photo by Cate Short)

In addition to all the spooky happenings going on, NaNoWriMo begins in just a couple of days! Last year, I wrote an urban fantasy novel about necromancy and dead rockstars, and I’m a little sad to leave that world behind and head back into the land of historical fiction. This year I’m working on a saga that spans three generations, and is inspired heavily by Bobby Kennedy. It’s fun heading into the sixties, but also rather daunting, because historical fiction takes so much research. It was mighty tempting to just write a sequel to deadrockstar and stay in my happy little goth world for the next little while.

But, alas, the sixties are calling me. So as I get ready to leave spooky time behind, I’m sharing my little ghost story with you. Enjoy your Halloween, boogers and haints! Stay creepy!*

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*And in case you’re wondering, the most important event of November is not NaNoWriMo. It’s on November 6 – please, please, please VOTE.

The Lady and The Tall Man

Originally published in Flagpole Magazine, October 24, 2018

The kids got the old farmhouse in Winterville for a steal. As they ambled through the creaking screen door, dragging hand-me-down furniture over the hardwoods, staking claim to the various bedrooms, the lady of the house watched silently from the room with the red-painted walls.

The landlords warned them. “Might want to paint that room,” they’d said to one of the kids, a tall man who was never without his acoustic guitar and wore pearl-button shirts with pointed western collars. The lady liked him; he reminded her of her husband, buried just down the way, a few yards past the garden, which bore nothing now except shriveled, abandoned okra and a few maypops. “The last tenants liked it red. But they sure did move out in a hurry.” There were strange things in the house, they said, red walls being the least of them –  the pagan altar out back, a clawfoot tub with a stain that might be rust, might not, the constant dusting of flour on the kitchen floor even when the house was vacant. The tall man nodded absently, paying no attention to these tales – nothing seemed weird to a seasoned Athens gutter punk – but the lady had noticed him look up at the foyer ceiling to see the black, smudgy smoke that lingered there, and smiled.

The tall man and his friends had dragged an out-of-tune piano into that spot, declaring it perfect.

Soon after, the kids had a house party. People milled out of the house into the cool night, cicadas mingling with the sound of singing saw music played from an iPhone. They clogged around the bonfire in dusty jackets, swigging blueberry wine from the bottle, clutching tropicalias and Nattys. The tall man’s guitar, old and bent with a peeling Wuxtry sticker, was being strummed in time. The lady watched, the room seeming to pulse, red walls breathing in and out, like her lungs had once done. Young people, she found, were so malleable, so vulnerable. They yearned to flirt with the abyss, to find meaning in mystery. And they all drank too much beer.

The eyes of the house peered out, and the rickety, splintered old steps seemed to smile.

The tall man was drunk. In the fire, shapes seemed to move, to beckon. He wiped his eyes with a clammy hand, drained his can and stood, staring out into the dark forest beyond. He looked so much like the lady’s husband.  And she liked his music so very much. Clutching his guitar to his chest, the tall man took a step, then another, stumbling into the inky night. His friends, in the smoky haze, did not notice when he didn’t return.

Weeks later, the remaining roommates dragged the same hand-me-down furniture back out of the house. Their angry voices traveled through the walls. “He skipped out on us,” they complained. “He’s always been a grifter, a couch surfer. He’ll come back. He always does.”

And he did. It was only after the last had gone with a trash bag hoisted over her shoulder, that the tall man emerged from the trees in the dawn’s dew, his skin whispy pale, his shirt with the pearl buttons torn, his once-bright eyes dull. With his guitar clutched under an arm, he shuffled back to the house that wanted him and passed through the door. Swallowed up by the red-walled bedroom, he would play. On a cool fall morning, you can pass by and hear the strains of a sad tune echoing from the walls – guitar or piano, it is the lady of the house’s choice.

©Lillah Lawson 2018

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