It is late Saturday morning in 1950. Tucson’s sun is shining bright. A ten year old boy walks four blocks and stands waiting for the bus. Awaiting downtown is the ornate Fox Theater, gearing up for the onslaught of the weekly horde of kids. The projectionist organizes his reel cases. It is his hardest job of the week. With four cartoons, the serial and a Roy Rogers western, there will be a lot of reel changes.
On the bus, the boy watches the car lots on Speedway Blvd pass by and recalls the first two episodes of the science fiction serial currently showing at the Fox Saturday Matinée. The bus turns onto Sixth Avenue and heads for downtown. The boy thinks ahead to the shock of that marvelous shift of reality when he will emerge from two hours of suspended time, spent in the dark world of a movie theater, and then walk back into the light and warm 3:00 Tucson afternoon reality. And there was always the following week spent anticipating and speculating about the next episode.
I have always had a fond place in my heart for those science fiction and western serials, mostly shot on the Jack Ingram or Iverson Ranch outside LA. Hokey alien landscapes, the boxy vehicles made of plywood, and the cornball costumes. Posses riding hell for leather through the Hollywood Hills.
In honor of those serials, The Flash Fiction Press presents The Restoration, a twelve part story comprised of daily 100 word episodes. I hope you enjoy it.
Sam sat in his pickup truck. Before him was his next restoration project. The house was old, a hundred years or more. The paint was mostly long gone, and what little remained showed that the previous painters had not scrapped adequately. The result made the house look pockmarked. The Victorian gingerbread was intact, though badly in need of care. At least Sam wouldn’t have to manufacture replacements. The surrounding vegetation grew wild, tall and thick, as if to shield the house from the modern world. A neglected and overgrown holly bush shaded and encroached on one corner of the porch.
The thing Sam liked best about restoration was the challenge. Anybody could take new lumber and hammer it together to make a decent looking house. But it took an artist to restore a house like this. Or so Sam now told himself as he looked at the old house he had recently bought. It was much bigger project than he had wanted, but the price had been too good to pass up. When he finished, he planned to move here with his family. He sighed as he got out of his pickup, a little reluctant to start the difficult project.
After two days, the dumpster was getting close to overflowing with branches and debris. The holly bush was now history, but Sam’s scratched arms served as a reminder. Sam sat eating lunch on the porch. He got out his pen and started working the crossword from a 1927 newspaper found on a wall behind some wallpaper. Another thing he liked about restoration was what he found inside the walls—tools, cups, books, and once a civil war era Spencer rifle. Sam had traced the rifle to Colonel John T. Wilder’s Union cavalry unit and found it cost the government $35.
First on his afternoon agenda was stripping the walls of the bedroom at the top of the stairs. Small, it had probably been a child’s room and judging from what wallpaper remained, it had likely belonged to a girl. As he tore off the lath and plaster, he pictured the room as he would fix it for his little girl. He’d put the bed there so she could look out at the giant oak. The oak would help keep the room cool in summer. His crowbar hit a gap in the lath. In the recess he saw a small box.
The box inside the recess contained two small scuffed and scarred dolls with painted faces, some jacks with a ball that had been badly chewed by mice, and also a ring box containing a small ring with a pretty blue stone. Sam fingered the ring and thought it would make a lovely birthday present for his daughter. He carefully put the ring back and carried the box with all the toys down to his pickup. Since it was already late afternoon, he decided to knock off a little early and stop by the jewelers and have the little ring cleaned.
The dreams started that night. Disturbing dreams. Sam would half wake, then fall back.
Always a little girl.
A mother hitting and berating her, blaming her for the father leaving. It’s all your fault. If it wasn’t for you he’d have stayed.
Sent to her room hungry.
The mother twisting her arm till it broke.
Pushed down the stairs. Clumsy brat
The mother reaching out and pulling her hair if she walked too close.
Watching the mother break her toys. You shouldn’t leave things out.
Late at night, sneaking downstairs to pick though the garbage, retrieving a thrown away doll.
Sam avoided the small bedroom the next day and finished tearing out the old kitchen instead. Tired and listless from not sleeping well, he had to force himself to keep at it. He went to bed early that night hoping to get some rest, but the dreams returned. And the next night. And the next.
Dreams not disquieting were rare. The girl sitting in her room, singing softly to her dolls, wearing her ring—her father’s present. Playing quietly, glad to be let alone. The room sanctuary from the abuse outside. The only safe and quiet place in her world.
After a week of dreams Sam decided he would not live in the house, but finish as soon as possible and sell. On his way to work he bought a small metal box and a small rubber ball suitable for playing jacks. He returned to the small bedroom and over the next week ran the wiring, sanded the floors, put up drywall, scraped and painted trim.
Searching online, he found the same wallpaper as the original. Before hanging the wallpaper, he placed the metal box—containing the dolls, jacks, and the little girl’s ring—inside the recess in the wall.
Sam had finished with the room and was about to seal it off with plastic to protect from the dust and dirt from the rest of the work redoing the upstairs bedrooms. He heard a knocking at the front door.
A small woman, white haired and frail, stood there clutching a large old-fashioned black purse in front of her, almost as if a shield. Her voice was soft and a bit scratchy. “I saw you were working on the house. I used to live here. Do you think I could come in and look around?” Then, when Sam hesitated, “Please”.
Sam just wanted to finish what he was doing and be done with it. Reluctantly he opened the door wide. Without pausing, she headed up the stairs. She mounted them slowly, one step at a time, always right foot first. A blue-veined hand clutched the railing tightly. Sam followed behind.
When she finally reached the upstairs hallway and turned into the small bedroom, she stopped abruptly. Entering, she stood in the center of the room, turning slowly, looking at the wallpaper, freshly painted trim, and gleaming floor. Then her gaze fixed on the corner where the toys had been hidden.
Sam, who had been watching, quietly knelt and retrieved the metal box from the recess, accessible behind a piece of base molding, and handed the box to her. She fumbled a bit opening it. Once she had it open, she fingered the two small dolls. Sam could see her eyes glistening with tears. She opened the new ring box and looked at the ring, bright and shiny from the cleaning, resting now on a bed of satin. She returned it to the metal box, then picked up the new jacks ball and looked questioningly at Sam, who just shrugged slightly.
The house was quiet. Sam could hear the old lady’s labored breathing. After a long moment she put everything back in the metal box and closed it. She spent few more moments looking about the room. She slowly moved to Sam and placed her face against his arm. Sam could feel the tears through his shirt. Then, purse on her arm and hugging the metal box to her breast, she quietly left the room without a word.
Sam stood on the porch watching the frail old woman slowly disappear down the sidewalk. Maybe he would live here after all.
I hope you have enjoyed this experiment.