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Vol. 4, No. 3

Camera Obscura
by Lee Durkee

Nick wants us written up in one of those books about rural Vermont's haunted houses. There's a regular here, a guy named Joe, who writes such books, and he sits at the bar and downs Guinness while Nick lies about our ghosts. Nick thinks if we get written up it will help business. And the Ice House is haunted, too, it's just that our ghosts are rather dull and subtle creatures. The house dates back two hundred years and was built by the local Grand Master of the Freemasons. (Originally the house had a spiral staircase, chessboard floors, and Palladian windows--all Masonic telltales.) Upstairs is a chandeliered ballroom we book for wedding parties; downstairs we have two dining rooms with lake views. The barroom used to be a stable, though I've yet to hear the ghost horse Nick claims kicks open doors on thundery nights. Hung on the walls are wooden skis, double-handled saws, compasses, and squares. The bar is lacquered mahogany, scarred and reddening. Its chairs, medieval iron swivelers with red leather seats.
    My name is Tom Slaughter and I tend bar. For this I have the prerequisite beard, a golden ropy brown, housing a distinct rust-colored handlebar mustache. Used to be I could recite to you a whole Rolodex worth of drinks--I'd even set them on fire for you. But here on Grand Isle we get very little exotic. We get manhattans, martinis, the odd margarita. (Now, if someone yells out so much as seabreeze, I go blank.) I am sober these days, too, and sober, I am a poor storyteller, but there is one story, itself very sobering, that Nick makes me tell whenever there's a turnover in staff and the new waitresses figure to have me pegged as this loping bartender from down south who doesn't hit on them and isn't much fun to work with. Then, after hours, Nick will cross his feet up on the bar and announce: "Hey saps--you know Tommy-tom here once got bit by a real-life vampire? Listen up. Tell your story, Tom."
    And I do. I tell my story.

 

~

My story begins in an Episcopal seminary in New Orleans, where once upon a time I shared cramped quarters with a flock of young, would-be men of God. It is said that where you find four Episcopalians you will find a fifth, and sure enough the pub where I then bartended (to pay tuition) made its share of revenue off my fellow seminary students. One such student was Paul. A Yankee. Ex-hockey player. Rich family. Paul had roached hair, blond, though mostly colorless, and a thin nose and yet thinner mouth, but he was a big guy with giant hands that lent him an authority his mind did not altogether deserve on those late nights when wine turns to whiskey. Paul proved brimstone at heart, and the more he drank the more he slurred and stumbled through the infinite midnight graveyard of hell and Revelations. His only real expertise: vampires. He collected old movie posters and even read the latest trash novels. It was the one thing about him I found noteworthy. Other than his fiancée.
    Her name, Lucinda. Long, dusty brown hair. Long fine-featured face. Eyes like turned earth. And the damndest accent. Vermont.
    The poet-saint Vivekenanda once staggered the streets of Calcutta an entire week unable to distinguish God from oncoming traffic; me, I have never beheld God once but for the emptiness of bottles and the nakedness of women. Back then I was the resident drunk gnostic: Saint Thomas, Valentinus, John of the Cross, Meister Eckehart. And the more I drank (what with being Irish) the more eloquent and condescending I became. I was a lady-killer, too. Sharp cheekbones, dimples, a ridiculous Prince Valiant haircut. On the night Lucinda broke off her engagement to Paul, she found me (where else?) tending at the local and commenced to down Absolut kamikazes and tell me how Paul slaps her, pulls out her hair, and how this whole vampire thing is getting out of hand.
    A week later, in her newly rented cottage, Lucinda is straddling me on a waterbed, its assembly instructions leafed on the floor. Her neck is arched, her chin and breasts jutted forward. She is wearing faded red panties. A yellow drip candle in a basketed wine bottle sputters on the bedside table, its light glossing her breasts, which are just gaining a circular momentum when the window behind us explodes.
    Wind snuffs our candle. Lucinda claws my wrist, whispers, "It's Paul. He's got his gun!" Darkness. Silence. The abdication of time. Then, from the yard below, a strangled voice, and a promise to kill us both. Another window explodes, at which point Lucinda commands me to call 911. These might be my last words, my epitaph. I tell her, "You call 911, sugar, I'm putting on my damn pants."
    The front door has a frosted-glass inlay that Paul shatters with his fist, the same way he has shattered both windows. (He does not have a gun, but we don't know this yet.) Lucinda dials 911, then drops the receiver as Paul barrels into the bedroom. I brace myself to be shot, but Paul skates past me to check Lucinda into the wall. Meanwhile, 911 is now recording the assault and broadcasting it to every squad car in the parish.
    "It's me, Paul, me!" I shout while prying his fingers off her throat. When I finally pull him off her, we begin an arm-locked waltz across the glass-scattered floor, until my feet slip in their own blood and I topple backward onto the waterbed. Here Paul begins to strangle me, very rhythmically, using the squall motion of the bed to his benefit, like lovers do, his blood-slick hands producing a squeegee-like noise that grows inside my head as the room begins to dim. Lucinda, bless her heart, is now riding Paul's back and pulling out handfuls of colorless hair. She is also screaming, or rather stagger-screaming: "You're! Killing! Him!"
    We have changed positions is all. A Kama Sutra of assault and battery.

 

~

The world we know is a ghost. This is a lesson dying teaches us. I am blinking up at Paul, whose eyes are white orbs, and I am agreeing rather dispassionately with Lucinda: yeah, she's right, you're killing me. Drowning peacefully, I hardly notice when Paul quits strangling me and instead hinges back his head and howls up at the ceiling, his mouth opened impossibly wide. As the howl subsides, he collapses upon me like a child bobbing for apples and buries his teeth into my chest, right above the heart.
    The pain from the bite is so excruciating that I buck and wail and somehow manage to convulse Paul off of me. We resume our waltz, thudding off walls until we arrive in the living room, where the front-door frame has been left outlined with shards. Paul is backing me toward this shark's mouth, and the choice I have is becoming increasingly simple: either I go through the broken door or I once again topple backward, this time onto the pool of glass beneath the door. (My back still carries the scars. It resembles a giant palm, I am told.) Paul lands on top of me. His weight-shifts create great crunching sounds underneath me. Clutching a dagger of frosted glass in his red fist, he croaks, "Either leave now or I'm gunna cutch ya fucken throat!"
    In a helium voice, an embarrassing voice (I've heard the 911 tape), I tell him I can't leave. Then, just as my throat is about to be slit, something unforeseen happens. A hoard of blue angels swarms the house, painting the walls, the mirrors, the windows, everything, blue. Caught in this spell, Paul turns blue, then dissolves. A moment later, blue Lucinda and I limp outside into a night of revolving turquoise, where shadowy cops lurk tethered to dogs. A spotlight illuminates us on the porch. Lucinda naked but for red panties. Me, swabbed in blood, glass shards clinging to my back, my arms, my jeans, my hair . . . a human ice storm.

 

~

After everybody else has returned to their lives, Nick and I remain at the bar. The Ice House is Nick's life. He lives upstairs with his wife and her son, and the marriage, his fifth, is not faring well. Invariably we talk sports and ex-wives, and invariably he pokes fun at my sex life, which has not much existed for three years now. Nick tops off his beer and declares an open bar, trying to lure me off the wagon. We are watching The Weather Channel (which is something, like board games, that people do in Vermont). A time-lapsed storm is approaching Grand Isle, a big nor'easter. Nick frets aloud about his morning flight to Hawaii, where his family is having a reunion, and while he worries he once again repeats his final instructions, everything from feeding the fish to counting the drawer. Tomorrow I become boss.
    My little white pickup sits crystallized in ice. I scrape the windshield and bundle inside to wait out the defroster. Navigating the four-mile bridge home, I keep my chin to the wheel, my fists bloodless. The speedometer dwindles below 5 mph as I take the final hairpin, where just last week a family sedan punched through the flowering ice.
    The drive back to work the next day is even more harrowing. I arrive ten minutes late to find a haiku of angry waitresses huddled in the snow. Chico, the cook, arrives at the same time as Sysco Inc., and I have Freddie haul in the frozen boxes. Freddie, our dishwasher/drug peddler, has straight black hair, a slew of black concert T's, and an American Indian profile broken up by attempts at chin whiskers. Because of the storm, we get no early tables. My one bar customer is Joe, the haunted-house writer. Joe is an islander with a Whitman beard and hands atremble. Tonight, bearlike in red suspenders, he starts into his fifth pint, then with a renewed determination pleads, "Just this once, Tom. As one Irishman to another."
    Joe's big on being Irish, though there's little Irish about him save his last name. He's fond of me because, when I was four, my father fled Belfast for Louisiana the day after the church he ministered exploded. If Joe's had too much to drink, like now, he'll start speaking to strangers with a leprechaun brogue.
    "Five bucks," I repeat, then wait until he spreads the five ones on the bar before I unbutton my red flannel shirt to reveal the vampire scar, each tooth minted perfectly around the heart.
    Out the window the snow is rising, as if suctioned upward.
    "Jay-sus," he says.
    Of course Joe wants to hear the whole sad song now. I am tempted to embellish the story, but since I don't have that kind of imagination I just shrug and tell the truth. That the seminary divided into camps, the younger priests and the women rallying around me, the old-boy network siding with Paul. (After all, Paul had been engaged, and it was assumed I had caused the break up.) Also, it turned out, Paul was a legacy. Both his father and grandfather had attended the seminary in New Orleans. Paul's father was now a bishop.
    "Ahhh," says Joe, waxing a bit more Irish. "A man of considerable pull, no doubt. That might explain why you're passing out pints now instead of the blood and the body." These last words sound odd to me, like from a foreign language. The blood and the body.
    Joe guesses the obvious, that I was expelled, and I tell him yeah, expelled. But not Paul. He got probation. Joe's face clouds, and by way of consolation he asks, "But you got the girl, right?"
    "Not for long, I didn't." I make the universal tippling motion and turn my back to him. "She herded me up here, after we got married, and we opened up a bookstore. But then, when she divorced me, she got the store, liquidated the inventory, then turned the finest bookstore in Vermont into a lingerie boutique."
    In the copper bar back, I can see Joe scrawling away on a napkin, which he crumples into his shirt pocket as I turn around.
    "Hey, you're not writing about this, are you?"
    "Of course not," he replies, as if offended, but then he changes his tone to add, "Well, that depends." He leans forward and squints at me and after a moment he says, "Tom, show me your teeth."
    "That," I explain, "will cost you another five."

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