[Author’s Note: This story was written for the Undercooked Analysis Fleming Storage Unit challenge in November 2017. Due to unfortunate recent circumstances, the future of this project is uncertain, so I have decided to post this here in order to preserve it in the public in case nothing ends up happening. Huge love to all.]
“You’re here about Unit 26 right? We opened it up a couple of days ago. This place seems to have been a magnet for crazies, so in all honesty what we found in there was a relief compared to that stuff.” The cop licked his lips, pink flesh running along the underside of his coarse-haired moustache. “But, I’m sure you’ll get to that in your own time, won’t you?”
I nodded, not saying anything. I’ve always been cautious around police officers, but had been more so in recent years. The news was too saturated with stories about the Trayvon Martins and Philando Castiles of the world for me to not consider the very real possibility that any cop could be a George Zimmerman waiting to strike.
Not that the man in front of me was particularly threatening. His green state police shirt bulged out with the force of his restrained gut. On his chest was a brass badge, reading SCHERKER, across an expanse of glutinous breast from the seven-pointed star of his office. When I’d walked into the small, cramped office that had, until recently, belonged to the custodian, he’d been absent-mindedly fiddling with a wedding ring that he’d set down on his desk.
The room was dimly lit by four fluorescent tubes on the plasterboard ceiling. One of them was flickering on and off with a soft plink. On the wall behind the broken swivel chair Scherker was slumped on was an old corkboard with a couple of plain business cards and a “Kittens and Puppies 2014” calendar, flipped to December and left there. To the left of me, a blandly motivational poster was tacked to the wall, hanging in a carefully quirky manner. There was a slight smell of old sweat in the room, masked ineffectually by the putridly sweet stench of Febreze.
“Here,” he murmured, handing me a labelled key without looking up at me, his attention fixed on the old cathode-ray Dell on the plywood desk. “Do you think you can find it yourself, or do you want me to come show you?”
His glassy eyes passed over the screen, set in pallid skin. He blinked, eyes closed for a second, and finally looked up at me.
“No, I think I’ll be alright,” I replied. There was a short, uncomfortable silence. “Hey, you got a wife?”
He looked surprised at me for a moment, before glancing back at the gold ring he was twisting around his finger. “Oh, this? Nah,” he chuckled. “You?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t like women.”
“Ha, neither”, he guffawed gracelessly. “Not that I’m a queer or whatever.”
I felt a flush of anger run up my neck, but steadied myself. What was I expecting? Montana was Red heartland, after all. I thanked the Deputy and left the office, back out into the chill afternoon air of Havre.
Though the snow hadn’t come yet, there had been a threatening chill in the October air when I’d stepped off the train. Though I was used to the cold autumns, having only migrated west to Oregon, I had forgotten the bleakness of the world I was returning to. The train was uninterrupted, save for a brief stop in Spokane, WA, at a platform with a broken vending machine, before the train started to wind its way through the night-shrouded majesty of the Rockies. As we crossed the mountains, the pine forests of home were replaced with the bare prairies and empty fields of my past. I was sleepless as dawn broke over the gridded countryside, kept awake by the vision of something with teeth in my dreams, and stared out of the dirty train windows at a world as hostile as my past there.
The tarmac of the path passed underfoot as I walked towards the block of storage units containing Number 26. Somewhere to my left, a mercury light flickered on in response to the setting sun and encroaching dark, lighting up the grey patches of discarded chewing gum on the floor beneath me. Someone on the other side of the lot was just closing up their own unit. I glanced at my watch, and saw the white minute hand crawl past half-five. Half an hour left.
The numbers beside me increased, sliding past as unstoppably as the years that had separated me from this place, and from what was inside the dark green metal door, stencilled with the white, painted characters “26”. I drew up to a stop beside it, and slotted the key into the old Yale padlock. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and turned it.
“Sir,” a voice interrupted, calling out from beside the office. I took the key back out. “You’ve got ten minutes to vacate the premises, are you going to be out in time.”
“I guess not,” I sighed, turning to face her. The policewoman walked towards me, her movements measured and masculine. She drew up close, and held her hand out.
“I’ll need the key back before you leave, sir.”
“Gilroy, I assume?” I queried as I dropped it into her palm. The keyring shone in the light of a speeding pickup truck.
“Officer Gilroy,” she admonished, not unkindly, but with the tone of someone who had to make the correction too often.
“Sorry, yes. We spoke on the phone? Frank Hanlon.” I offered my hand.
She shook it once, her grip firm. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr Hanlon. You should get going now, though. The units are open for the next two days. You’ve found somewhere to stay?”
I nodded. “Yes officer, the Best Western on First Street.”
“A fair walk then,” she mused. “I’ll let you get on your way. Goodnight, sir.”
She walked off, her black hair moved slightly by the cold wind that blew through the gates and into the compound. My breath frosted in the air in front of me, and I turned the collar of my coat up as I walked back out and onto Pollock Street.
I found a curious kind of solitude walking along the road. The darkness and the cold had driven most people home and, though I did spot a couple of lonely souls drifting down the sidewalk, it did nothing to quell the sense of emptiness the town had.
Walking through Havre that evening was like walking through a memory. I hadn’t been in the town for fifteen years before that autumn night. I hadn’t even returned when my dad died, instead arranging by phone to have what he owned dumped into the storage unit and what couldn’t fit in there sold. It had been so long, though, and so much had changed.
I was roused from my reverie by a pang of hunger. Aside from an overpriced sandwich and a couple of chips on the train, I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since leaving Portland. Near to the storage units was a small plaza with a couple of decent looking restaurants and, remembering it opening just around the time I’d left, I walked over and opened up the cold metal door of the Lantern Buffet.
“Table for one, please?” I asked at the entrance and the waiter, a bored looking Asian guy of about 19, motioned me towards a seat over the back of the restaurant. The inside of the place looked like it hadn’t changed since it opened up in 2002. Overhead, ugly bright fluorescent bulbs shone glassily out of red lanterns which, though Made in China, were not at all traditional. On the wall, an oversized print of a Hokusai hung in a plastic frame, at a hideous angle to the dirty grouting lines on the tiled wall. The green vinyl creaked under me as I sat down.
“You want buffet?” a young woman asked, coming over to me with an iPhone in her hand, ready to take down my order. She was eager to get my choice, and her wide eyes stared at me while I examined the yellow laminated menu.
After a while I settled on an a la carte vegetarian katsu curry to keep it safe. With surprising speed, yet another waitress came out and delivered the meal to me. I deliberated over my noodles slowly, enjoying the surprisingly adequate taste. I heard a voice from the door.
“Frank? Frank Hanlon? That can not be you?”
I turned to face them. A short, plump, homely woman, blonde dye barely covering the grey, was striding purposefully towards my table, the door sliding shut behind her. Her arms were outstretched. I stood to hug her, still unsure of who she was.
“Oh, it’s great to see you,” I murmured. She pulled back and grinned at me.
“Audrey? Audrey Allen?”
“Audrey… Oh! Mrs Allen?”
She nodded and grinned, lips tight and broad across her lightly wrinkled face. “I taught you English in 7th Grade, remember? How are you?”
I shrugged. “Weird to be back.”
“Oh, you haven’t come home since your dad’s funeral?” she said, frowning sympathetically. I shook my head.
“No, I didn’t come back then.”
Her expression faltered, realising the faux-pas she’d made. “Well, tell me, anyway,” she said, brushing it off like snow from her shoulder. “What brings you back to little-old Havre? I hear you went off to the city.”
“Yeah, this storage unit business.”
“Oh, that poor man,” she exclaimed quietly, looking down at the waxy surface of the table. She knotted her hands together, and rested her chin on them. “Have the police said anything yet about what happened to him? There’s nothing in the Daily News about it.”
“The Havre Daily News,” I whispered to myself, mock-reverently. “God, I haven’t thought about that in over a decade. They still print it?”
She nodded and smiled. “Yup, every afternoon. There’s one over there on the desk if you wanted to take a look.”
I glanced at the folded paper and shrugged. “That’s alright.”
There was a moment’s quiet. The smell of chow mein wafted over as one of the staff slotted a new tray into the buffet.
“Why didn’t you come back?” Mrs Allen blurted. I glanced up at her, a flash of irritation passing briefly through me.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, I-“
“No, what did you ask?”
“Well, why didn’t you come home?”
“I’m back now,” I muttered.
“Yes, but when your father…” her eyes were staring intently at me, rheumy and prying.
I stood up, leaving half my food untouched. “It’s been nice to see you again,” I lied, finishing off my coke and leaving two twenties on the table. Without looking back at her, I strode out of the restaurant and into the cool night air.
On the way to the motel I stopped in at a liquor store. I’d not drunk since leaving Montana but, I reasoned, what the hell. When in Rome.
Back in the room, half a bottle of vodka down, I slumped against the side of the bed. Staring up at the single, slowly spinning fan on the undecorated ceiling, I let my mind wander. Through the open window I could see the blinking red lights of the old LORAN transmitter, beaming out signals into the nothingness. I relaxed into a sort of sleep.
My father loomed in my dreams. Half remembered memories and forgotten events drifted back.
Once, a few years ago, I flew into Salzburg, Austria at night. It was winter, and thick snow clouds hung in the air, pregnant with latent storms. Through the window, nothing could be seen save for the dark miasma of the weather and the flashes of the wingtips. Yet, somehow, there was some animal part of me that could feel the mountains beyond that, that could sense this colossal immutable mass in the black night.
It was with this same sense of untouchable magnitude that my father was present in my sleep. Glimpsed images of things from my childhood- the empty, open fields, the exclusion from school, worship at the Pentecostal Church.
And something else. Something in the living room, teeth and claws, ugly, patched fur. Stitches.
I woke up, gasping with fear and still in my clothes from the previous day. I looked with disgust at the bottle in my hand, and tossed it away, watching the vodka spill out and onto the dirty carpet. Crawling into bed, I slept again.
Although the sun was bright the next day, the night’s chill still clung to the morning air. I winced at the sunlight walking along the street before turning and entering the office at the Fleming Storage Units. Scherker was at the desk already, playing with his wedding ring while reading a story about the Blue Ponies on the Daily News’ website. He glanced up at me, a tired look in his eyes.
I nodded tersely.
“Here you go,” he said, passing me the key. He glanced at my rumpled clothes and dishevelled appearance. “Fun night?”
He laughed once, a quiet bark. “Not much of that around here. You know your way?”
I nodded, and left the room, pacing quickly to the locker. Without stopping to let myself chicken out again, I slotted the key into the padlock and pulled it off. The door slid easily up into the ceiling, and I flicked the fluorescent light on.
I don’t know what I was expecting. The unit was full of what you’d expect- dusty boxes, old Christmas decorations, a couple of damp old chairs. I picked up the closest item to me. It was a green box with draws, and I pulled one open, taking a cursory glance at the glass baubles inside. I carefully placed it back on the shelving unit it had been placed upon.
There was really only one thing I was looking for as I opened up box after box, glancing over the entirety of my father’s life up until he was moved into the nursing home four years ago, two years before his death. Even then I hadn’t been able to come back and face him, instead arranging by phone for his worldly goods to be packed into boxes and stored here. I knew that what I was looking for must’ve been here though, the movers had called me about it.
Photo albums, tools, ceramic ornaments, I passed them all. I knew my family history. My grandad had been born in Brooklyn but settled down on a farm out West when he came back from the war. The discrimination he had suffered had been awful here. Jim Crow was still in place to say nothing of the… extrajudicial punishment inflicted on him for his skin colour.
In the last box, I found it. It was filthy, covered in cobwebs and poorly preserved, but in it’s yellow glass eyes I could still see the anger of my father and his father before him. The claws were smaller than I remembered, the teeth frozen in a less angry sneer than in my nightmares, but the thing was still there, and still horrifying in its materialism. I physically backed up from it when I saw it.
Around the neck of the dog was a collar, with a dirty brass badge which still read “Poppy”.
I lost count of the number of times my dad told me the story of how he found her on the front lawn. He told me about the still potent smell of petrol from the long burnt-out cross driven into the earth (later showing me the hole in the ground where it had been staked). He narrated, too, the stench of death, the noise of the frantic, feasting flies, and, finally, finding Poppy on her back, her skin torn off of her and laid neatly on the ground beside her.
My grandad had had a strange sense of how to educate his son. Rather than consoling him when he found him doubled over by Poppy, chest spattered with vomit, face streaked with tears, he made my ten-year-old dad help dig the grave where they dumped the skinless corpse. Then, over the course of a couple of days, he had Poppy stuffed as a reminder to my dad of the hate and evil of the world but, more importantly, to fight it and be proud of his identity.
It was, then, an unforgivable betrayal to me when my dad flipped it around and showed the ugly side of his prejudice to me. It had taken all the courage I could muster to accept my sexuality, and even more to tell my father who had, all his life, been a Pentecostal Christian.
I had grown up with ways to deal with the racism, taught to me by my father, my grandad, and the leering nightmarish face of Poppy, who stood by the fire in the lounge. I had no defence against homophobia, though, and when I told my dad and he denied it, shouted at me, called me “faggot” and “queer” and sought advice from the pastor about gay conversion therapy and how to “get the devil out of me”, I did the only thing I could do- I fled. As soon as I was out of school, I went to college in Portland and made a life there, a new life where I could be whatever I wanted.
Still, though, the spectre of my father’s betrayal and the yellow-eyed threat of home haunted me. I ignored his calls, his letters, his urgent pleas that he could help me. All I wanted was an apology, but he couldn’t see it. Even as the dementia worsened, and he was taken into permanent care, I refused to come home. He died two years ago.
Shaking my head, I closed up the box and stepped outside for a breather, shutting the door behind me and letting the tears flow down my face, unashamed. The police could have it all. I didn’t need the past any more.