By Sondra Kelly-Green
(A Spooky One for Halloween)
Written some time ago but recently abridged, my short story Now Showing was originally published by Margins; Exploring Modern Magical Realism. Its narrator shares a singular glimmer into the past, the future and maybe most unsettling of all—the present.
. . . It’s not just an urban legend. There really was a window like that. I should know. I mean, I’m just some fuckin’ guy. But I was a viewer.
First of all, the window wasn’t in Olympia like people keep saying. It was in this office building in Seattle, down by Pike Place Market. It’d been installed in this funky narrow hallway people hardly ever used. Most people didn’t even know it was there. I didn’t for the longest time.
But anyway, the first viewer I know of was this salesman, Richard Harley. Everyone, and I mean everyone in his company hated him. He’d lie, cheat, steal, step on anyone to get ahead, you know?
So one day about five years ago he’s late for a meeting, right? He’s hauling ass to get to the elevators but he looks down at his watch and sees his fly is open. So he slips into the hallway for a quick zip and there’s the window. Plain, industrial looking. Steel frame. Nothing special, you know? Then things start to get weird because instead of the parking lot this Harley guy expects to see outside the window there’s this massive oak tree. Then when he squints and comes closer he realizes it’s the exact same tree he played under as a kid down in Oregon. He can see the roof of his parents’ house in the background and his old dog Boz pissing on some rock in the foreground. Then he sees himself as a kid of around twelve or so—all serious-like—staring up at the branches and stepping over these huge gnarly roots so he can move from one side to the other.
Back in the hallway—back in real time, I guess—big Harley moves a step away, almost to the wall behind him. He thinks he knows what’s coming and he doesn't like it. He doesn’t like it at all.
Then the window pans in for a close-up and his little brother Jordie comes into view. Jordie was a perennial pain in the ass as far as Harley was concerned. You know, following him everywhere, messing around with his bike, pawing through his room and breaking his Star Wars shit. Typical kid brother stuff.
Really, the only time Harley paid any attention to him at all was when he needed a subject for his “experiments” as he called them. And here I’ve gotta say—this Harley kid was more than a little whack. But little bro Jordie was always game for these experiments so long as Harley and he were together, right?
Anyway, by this time old Harley’s trying to back even further away from the glass, trying to make the whole scene go away. Now he’s sure of what’s coming. Part of him wants to run. But it’s like passing a bad accident on the highway. You can’t not look, right? He opens one eye. He sees a close-up of young Harley standing there with a rope and a crazy smile that shows his braces. Then he puts on a Darth Vader helmet. Twisted. But Jordie’s just standing there too. Idolizing Harley. The mask doesn’t faze him one bit.
Then big Harley totally loses it and starts screaming, “No!” to his younger self. He drops his briefcase and pounds on the glass and yells it even louder. But little Harley, still smiling, carefully wraps the noose around his little brother’s neck. The only sound is Harley breathing all raspy through the Darth Vader helmet. Harsh in and out breaths like they’re coming from a long way away—all scratchy-record-like—you know? But the weirdest is how calmly Jordie’s waiting for what comes next, staring at Harley’s black shiny helmet under the oak tree. Trusting him.
By now big Harley’s making ‘stop’ motions with his palms like some traffic cop on meth. His eyes are closed tight and he keeps them closed until he hears Jordie’s neck snap like a tree branch. He realizes he’s sobbing. His head crashes into the back wall when he opens his eyes. But all he sees is what should have been there the whole time. A lunch-hour parking lot with the sun hitting his new silver BMW.
I didn’t really know Harley, but they say he was never the same after that. Somebody told me that just before Christmas that year he climbed up on the hood of his BMW and hung himself from a beam in his garage.
You know, it’d be sad if it weren’t so twisted. I mean, we all do crazy stuff as kids but he’d really crossed the line. And having to live with something like that all those years. . . Makes you wonder.
But for the next viewer it was different. She was this real estate exec. I can never remember her name. But anyway, she’s new to the building, right? And she thinks the hallway might be a short cut to the elevators. So she comes blasting by the window and sees a fog bank she figures must have moved in since she got to the office. But then she stops dead in her tracks because sitting on the outside window ledge is this cat and it’s a dead ringer for the one she’d had in grade school.
I mean, picture this—this crazy cat’s just calmly sitting there like some Egyptian statue or something. And even though he’s eight stories up and socked in by all this fog his radar’s honed dead-on the Market’s fish mongers, head back, sniffing the air.
Like Harley’s, the woman’s briefcase hits the floor once she sees the cat’s collar and tag. She whispers his name. “Clyde. . .” Not so much because she doesn’t want anybody to hear but because the whole thing is so completely out there and if it’s a spell she doesn’t want to break it. Plus, she’s afraid she’ll scare him off the ledge. (It’s funny I can remember the cat’s name but not hers.) So anyway, Clyde rubs against the glass and looks up at her and gives a meow she can see but not hear. She drops to her knees and tries to pet him through the glass. He stands up and puts both paws on the window with a kind of expectant look, you know? Then she presses her palms to the window and she can feel something like a vibration sort of like he used to purr, with a little pause between breaths. I mean, most cats purr straight through, you know what I’m saying? So now she and her cat are eye to eye—right? And she’s just completely blown away. Then she realizes the fog is gone and Clyde’s standing on this pink and brown linoleum they’d had in the kitchen when she was a kid. She looks up and there’s her mother, ironing one of her school uniforms. The window zooms in for a closer view. There’s a crease between her mother’s eyes as she concentrates on this one pleat. That’s how clearly she can see her. She says, “Mamma,” and when she does she feels the same sucker punch of grief that keeps sneaking up on her ever since her mother died hiking up Mt. Rainier when she was eleven.
But her mother doesn’t hear her. She just turns to stir something on the stove, crosses the linoleum and moves this sheer pink curtain aside. She looks out the window. Probably, the woman thinks, still trying to stroke Clyde through the glass, she’s checking on her grade school self. She wishes she knew what day this was—what her mother’s seeing. Her kid-self could be picking blackberries, feeding half of them to her dog Astro. Or she might be hanging by her knees on the swing set or else kneeling on the cement patio, mapping the roads of complicated cities with pastel chalk for her Matchbox cars. She did that a lot. The woman thinks all this in one quick second because that’s how fast her mother, Clyde and the whole kitchen disappear.
Here’s how I know all this. There was this old cleaning woman who worked in the building. May Robling. Turned out she’s the one most viewers told their stories to. (Even Harley, if you can believe that.)
Anyway, her viewing happened late at night. She starts to vacuum the hallway—right?—halfway realizing the parking lot isn’t lighting the carpet up like usual. After she vacuums she sprays the window with Windex. It’s pitch dark outside. She’s just beginning to wonder why when the dark becomes what looks like red carpeting and then it’s an aisle and she can see all these people she knew once seated on both sides of it. This time it’s a bottle of Windex that hits the floor, because she realizes she’s seeing her own wedding back in 1940-something. She can’t believe it but there she is, standing in front of the altar in her secondhand wedding dress. Her husband, who’s about to become a World War Two casualty, is facing her and stumbling over their wedding vows.
She’s young. She just can’t get over the fact she’d ever been that young. She’s got on this lacy hoop skirt on and her long veil, which for some reason she grabbed from the hall closet the night her house burned down. But here it’s fresh and new and her face as she looks up at him doesn’t have any lines or sags and it sort of glows from inside like she’s got a secret or something. It must have been like seeing some HD wedding video from the 1940s.
Back in the hallway the old May Robling touches her face, and runs her fingers over her wrinkles. Then she says, “Don’t.” Her voice is all shaky like the rest of her. But she has to say it because she knows without a doubt that right now, this very moment at the altar is the happiest they’ll ever be together. (I think that at weddings sometimes, but that’s just me.) But May knows now that in the short time they have before he ships out their marriage will become its own war zone where, as she put it, the sounds of combat are replaced with silences that say a million things and more casualties than you can count. She talked like that. Every day was a minefield then, she said. Every good feeling I had. Every single goddamn day.
I always liked that about her, how she talked like that. Always had a book tucked under her arm when she came to work at night and I’d pass her at the elevators, going down when she was getting out, you know? Funny how much more people are than you think sometimes.
But looking at her young self at her own wedding she knew they’d say awful things and do awful things and realizes they only got married because there was a war on, and everybody was doing it before they shipped out.
But back at the altar she and her new husband turn in May’s direction and head down the aisle. They, like, smile and nod at friends and family and all. She thinks how naive they are, with so much hope behind those stupid, perfect faces, she said. She knows how much suffering is coming and she wants to tell them, to warn them what not to do and what to do and then everything will be better between them and her memories of them together will be good ones. It’s harder to grieve when someone dies if you’re glad, is how she put it. It weighs more. It lasts longer. Twisted. But true, for all I know.
Anyway she never gets the chance to say this stuff because young May Robling and her husband are coming straight down the aisle at her. She wants to hide. She shrinks back to get out of the way because young May doesn’t know she’s walking through a window and that right behind it is the lonely, sad person she’ll become. So the glass fills with this massive bunch of lace. Nothing but lace, you know? She can hear it rustling along with their steps and their happy, clueless whispers. “Don’t.” She says it once more like Harley did. “Don’t.” Then, suddenly, nothing. She never got married again. She just got old.
You know, it’s kind of like Harley and his little brother. I mean, how crazy-making would it be to watch one of the worst mistakes of your life happen and not be able to do anything about it? You’d do something to try and stop it, right?
I don’t know if that window was a blessing or a curse. What it seemed like was that it just was and believing either way was pretty stupid. To me at least.
Anyway the last viewer I know about was Ann Alcock. We had lunch once. Nice. Married and all. We never knew we’d both been viewers. It’s not the kind of thing you bring up, right? So. She was like eight months pregnant with her first baby when it happened. I guess the baby leans on the bladder or something so she’s heading for the can for like the millionth time that day. She passes by the window and starts down the hall but then she turns around and comes back. Does a double take, like in old cartoons. What’s just registered and what she sees is this massive oak tree like the one the window showed Harley. There’s this little kid playing under it, tossing acorns up in the air, trying to hit certain branches, you know, like he’s picked a few for targets. He turns away and the window zooms in. She can see his blond curls with a cowlick in back just like her husband’s. The kid starts to climb the tree but then turns like he can hear how loud her heart’s beating. And then he’s running towards her and Ann can see, I mean, her heart knows, this is her son. She drops the purse she’s got resting on her belly and instinctively crouches down and opens her arms like she’s welcoming him to the world, you know? He keeps running with an acorn to give her in his hand. Then he stops and holds it out in his little palm and they both just look at it.
May Robling, the cleaning lady, was the first one to tell me about her viewing, and the others’ too. She must have seen something in my face that told her I was a viewer. But thank God she did, because then I knew I wasn’t bat-shit crazy, you know? That I wasn’t the only one. It turns out, by the way, they’d all gone back to the window like a million times but it was just a piece of glass with nothing more to show than a parking lot. I know why they tried. It’s like it’s hard not to try to go back and fix things or live the good stuff over again. It’s just human, right? But the thing is, you can’t. You’ve gotta get it right the first time or if it’s something good, you gotta enjoy it, really get into it when it’s happening. You only get the one chance.
And us viewers, we never talked to each other about it as far as I know. Only to May. To this day I’m clueless why. Too personal maybe. She knew our stories and she shared them with the others. Or at least with me. Maybe I was the only one she did share the stories with. Because my viewing was so different. Maybe she thought I needed to know.
So far as viewers go that leaves me, right? I mean there must have been others before they tore the building down. But these are the only ones I know about through May. And once I talked to her and once I got over the freakiness I started asking, why me? I guess I’m still asking it. That’s why this urban legend shit pisses me off. It’s true. And it matters that people get it right. It really matters. I just don’t know why.
What I saw as a viewer wasn’t the past or the future. I mean, it was but it wasn’t, you know? It was more like the present, I guess is what I’m saying. You tell me. Sometimes I think it wasn’t even meant for me, like there was some mix-up or something. Jesus. I’m just some fuckin’ guy. Just some fuckin’ guy who worked in the mailroom.
So anyway, picture this. It’s a typical Seattle Monday, right? Stormier though. Seagulls heading inshore, away from the storm, and wind and rain hitting our building like they want in. It’s loud. And I’m good and hung-over from the weekend so the noise—it’s more like some assault weapon than a storm. One of those Monday ear-bleeding hangovers, you know?
The noise. Or no noise, I guess. That’s what blows me away at first. When I walk into this hallway it isn’t so much a feeling that something’s there but that something isn’t. Even though I’ve never been down the hall before I can see the frame of a window I know must face the parking lot. But it’s like going underwater. Like a pause between breaths. There just isn’t any sound. No rain or wind or squawking seagulls or pounding headache, even. Just this funny, hollow tapping noise that couldn’t be the rain unless just one raindrop keeps hitting the glass. Not steady-like. More like Morse code. Like fast, but every now and then. Freaked me out. So as I get closer the tapping stops and I can see that outside the window there’s no rain, no parking lot, no Seattle even. Instead I see an old flat green chalkboard moving slowly from side to side, like swinging, kind of swinging and wobbling in and out like a wave. It’s flat but it’s a wave. I can’t explain it. I mean it’s so close to the glass it isn’t framed by anything like a chalkboard would be. I can’t see around it at all. But I figure that’s what it must be because I can see leftover chalk marks where things had been almost erased by somebody. But they don’t look like words exactly—some do, but way too light to read. Mostly what I thought I saw were equations. But farther down the board there were word marks. Something in a foreign language like Chinese, where you read right to left. Or is that Japanese? I can never remember.
I always thought fractals were cool and I saw this show on the Fibonacci numbers when I was in the hospital and higher than piss on morphine after my motorcycle accident so I didn’t change the channel. I really got into it. Who knew these spaced-out shapes could come from equations? And that nature repeats itself that way. It’s like, in everything. But on this board, someone had started to write the number sequence, which can go on forever by the way. But then it turned into Egyptian writing, like hieroglyphics, you know? Cartouches, those king-name things in shapes inside boxes. It’s not like any of this is clear at all. I stand back, I get close. But it’s all so washed or erased I can believe I’m imagining it. It’s so light and then I see there are layers of words or marks or whatever and the lightest ones, the ones in back are moving. I want to try to write down what I think I’m seeing so I can look it up online. The equations, the Egyptian stuff. But all I’ve got is my fucked-up mail cart with the bad wheel. Everyone gets e-mail anyway. So there isn’t much but packages and legal docs and I don’t have a pen. I don’t have my phone to take pictures either.
Anyway, I stand at the chalkboard for what seems like forever. I even reach out to touch it and my fingernail makes that scritchy noise that hits you in the spine. I’m staring at the mark I made, and the board goes still. No more waves or side to side shit, which makes it even weirder. I keep staring at this chalkboard and trying to figure out what it means. What it’s trying to tell me. It’s like between the two of us we’re having a kind of stare-down.
But if we are I lose that round because I can’t stop myself from looking down when I feel something in my hand that wasn’t there before. I didn’t realize my fists were clenched but I open them. In my right hand there’s this chipped piece of yellow chalk about two inches long. It wasn’t there before, I shit you not.
So I keep twisting and turning this thing between my fingers. It’s smooth and dry and cool and it feels like it belongs in my hand It’s like my hand had been grown just to hold that chalk at just that moment, you know? But—and this is where it gets totally whack—there’s like some sort of urgency to it. It’s hard to explain but it’s like it’s waiting for something. Vibrating like a phone, blinking like a cursor.
But by the time I look back up again the chalkboard’s gone. Instead I see the lights of Seattle all blurred by a solid sheet of rain. I hear the ferries docking out on Puget Sound and the seagulls circling and squawking. And my hangover and the wind and now hail starts up full force like someone just turned them all back on and cranked them up to eleven. And I feel sad. Like somebody had gone away I knew wasn’t coming back.
So that’s how stranger than strange being a viewer was for me. Anyway, that was three years ago and nothing like it’s ever happened to me before or since. Now the building’s been replaced by condos. Traffic’s even crazier, with the new high rises and lofts and Amazon and all. I got out about the right time and Sturgis suits me fine.
As far as the viewers go, I never did find out what happened to the woman who saw her cat Clyde and her mother. May Robling was killed in a car accident a couple years ago. I went to the funeral. Nobody else was there, really. I was there though and I went to the burial and I fuckin’ cried, man. She took all our stories with her. “Better the next world than this”, they say. “She’s in a better place.” They say that too, dude. That’s what they say. Me, I say, “Safe journey, May Robling. Precious cargo.” That’s what I said when they threw in the dirt, you know? I don’t know what the hell I meant or where it came from. Maybe it was a time hangover from the mailroom. Or like fractals with safe numbers on journeys that never end. But that’s what I told her. People take whole libraries with them when they go, man. Entire hard drives. They hold the stories safe and it’s like wherever they end up those stories end up too. If they’re your stories that’s where they are.
But whatever else it does, life goes on, right? Before May there was Harley’s suicide. People tried to act all shocked—liked they cared and shit. You kind of have to, right? And about that time Ann Alcock’s son was born. Crazy how if you pay attention, deaths and births, they come together, right? Crazy. She had a framed picture of him on her desk, and a bunch more pinned up. A cute kid with this pink fat little face and a cowlick that pokes up in back like it’s giving directions or something. I thought it was spooky in a good way that she had it in an oak frame she’d decorated with acorn caps all around the edges. I could be wrong, but I think she knew I knew what it meant. If that makes any sense.
It’s weird but sometimes I wonder if I should’ve written something on that chalkboard. Like I say, I’m just some fuckin’ guy. But then I think, if I had, would things be different now. I guess that’s something I’ll never know. But there’s one thing I do know—one thing that’s never changed.
Check it out, man. It’s smaller than you’d think, but heavy in your palm, right? Like it means business.
I was a viewer. And I still have the chalk, dude. I still have the chalk.