Halloween - October 31, 2013
It was 1957. A time when looking back seems so unreal as compared to the dramatic changes of 2013. We were straight out of high school looking forward to careers in Atlanta. All three of us had taken Ms. Beard’s secretarial science classes; and we were armed with our shorthand notebooks, our two #2 sharpened pencils and limber fingers that could type between 90 – 100 words per minute. We had arrived. Or so we thought.
Had it really been that long since we were all in kindergarten together – looking forward to what our parents called, “big school?”
Right on through “big school” and on to high school we spent many hours and days together – we were like the feminine equivalent of the Three Musketeers – all for one and one for all.
But would all of that change one day? While we always thought nothing could ever separate us – something did. The beginning of the end all began in an old apartment house in Atlanta.
We had shared the chicken pox, many colds, and movie magazines with Elvis, Pat Boone, and Tony Curtis. We had struggled through the mumps together our junior year in high school, shared a riser in the All Girls Chorus – where we were constantly harangued by Miss Davis. We often had to wear chewing gum on our nose when we would forget and showed up in her choral class with our jaws smacking of Juicy Fruit.
Who needed college in those days – our parents had not been – and we knew few in the family who had gone. Their job opportunities were just as limited as those with no degree. We had our business diploma from West Fulton High School and we were prepared to face the world, or so we thought.
Lacking in common sense and finances, we decided to make the real jump away from our families and sought to find an apartment in downtown Atlanta. Harriet was working with the telephone company as an operator and made pretty good money. I was still working in the credit clothing store selling women’s apparel. Bettie Jean had the best of all three jobs working in the infants department at Davison’s. She got an hourly salary of .75 cents and a bonus each time she sold $100.00 in merchandise; an additional .25 cents for each $100.00 sold.
Davison’s was an upscale department store. Atlanta’s elite did their shopping there. Most weeks she would earn as much as $5.00 in addition to her salary. She was always telling us about the famous people coming to the store. She often saw Mrs. Hartsfield, the Mayor’s wife, and celebrities who came to Atlanta to perform at the Fox Theatre or at the Atlanta City Auditorium.
We were just biding our time until that great office job came long. We continued to look in the Constitution in the morning and the Journal in the evening for a “career” job. Soon we settled and continued working these same jobs we had worked in high school. Our routine became kinda bland until one day we decided we needed to live in Atlanta go get good jobs.
We had grown tired of riding the River Trolley downtown and back every day; so we decided to find a little apartment that we could share - right smack dab in the middle of the city. We wanted to be where the excitement was. There were no apartments to be had. To live in some place like the Darlington Apartments was certainly not attainable – and others just seemed a little bit too cheap - for with the lower rental came higher crime. But in those days there was little crime compared to now.
After a lot of looking and even more disappointment, we had just about resolved that we would be living with our parents forever; when we happened upon this small apartment just off Pine Street – it was only a short trolley ride to the middle of downtown – not too far from the Varsity; and easy access to the major movie theatres – we could ride the trolley to the Fox, the Rialto, and the Lowe's Grand. We could even walk on a good day to Bellwood – a little shopping district with cheaper buys. There was Sunshine’s Department Store – Jack’s – and W.T. Grant. But we always carried our Rich’s shopping bag with us to put the printed bags in from these cheaper stores – that way everyone on the bus thought we had been shopping at Rich’s; the other upscale store.
Packing and moving day arrived. After all the tears and advice from my parents, I took a look around my room trying to see - not what all I could take - but what I could leave behind. I was a young lady now and I wanted to put away all the things of my childhood like the Bible verse that said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child – but now is the time to put away foolish things.”
I put all my stuffed animals in the closet; and then hesitated as I looked down at Cloie – an old stuffed cat that I had lugged around since before kindergarten. And without thinking about it much more, I quickly stuffed her into my suitcase as well. She knew too many secrets to leave behind. Then the hugging, the crying, and the admonitions began; and for only a second I wondered if I should just shuck it all and go back to my room. My parents seemed really upset that I was leaving; and I had been so joyful at the aspect. Now I felt guilty – parents are good at that - especially, since they had warned me over and over about the dangers of living in downtown Atlanta. Why all the stores even closed at 6 PM – and my Dad had said there was nothing good going on in Atlanta after dark.
The apartment was a rare find; mostly furnished, in a good location; and with rent so reasonable we were thrilled we had found it. We just could not believe our good fortune. All the other apartments in that area had been much higher. We were kinda skeptical that something might be wrong with it. And what we didn’t have, we would do without. Any sacrifice didn’t seem too much to be free – free from parental control – free from curfews – free from chores – and free to make my own decisions – and I didn’t even have to make my bed if I didn’t want to. I had a lot yet to learn - about freedom – it comes with a price.
Little did I ever dream what loomed in front of me; none of us do at that age. But we think we know everything; but one thing for sure we all found out that the old saying that you never really know anyone until you lived with them was true. The bickering began almost as soon as we moved in.
This was the way life began for me as an emancipated adult – an eighteen year old adult. Mr. Dennis at the clothing store had promised to give me a raise when I finished high school and got my diploma. I would be working on the floor selling over priced clothing to poor people - on credit - during busy times and holidays – other than that I would be working in the little office alcove taking credit applications, verifying employment, and such. I was sitting on top of the world – or so I thought. Each day, I hoped it would bring me closer to meeting my soul mate.
Moving-in day was hilarious as the three of us tried to stuff all that we had brought with us into that small one bedroom apartment. There was a very small living room, the one bedroom, a small kitchen with a tiny table, (and only two chairs). It had the smallest stove you have ever seen; and a fridge, though small, would certainly hold all we could afford to put in it. Besides we were going to eat out mostly; or so we thought.
There was a little sunroom off from the living room that had a type of daybed there – one of us would sleep there. That would be the first of our squabbles. The bedroom, though small, at least had a closet and it was next to the bathroom. Of course, all three of us wanted to sleep in the bedroom. But which two would it be? Harriet suggested that we draw straws – how could that be fair if she held the straws? Betty Jean suggested rock, paper, scissors; but that wasn’t good either. We all three were afraid we would lose.
We put our backs to the wall and would not budge. We had all been an only child with rooms of our own. This was not something we had considered – having to share not only a bedroom; but a double bed – or worse sleep on the daybed in a room not much bigger than the closet; and I would later find out a lot of loose springs that squeaked every time you turned over.
That first night resolved itself as we were all so tired from moving and excitement. Harriet had brought her little pink portable radio and we could at least listen to the music. That night we listened to Elvis, Fabian, and Ricky Nelson – all three the latest heartthrobs.
After a dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – we were pooped. We decided that the only way to be fair to each - was to rotate month by month from the bedroom to the sunroom. I wanted to show that I could be fair so I volunteered for the first month on the daybed – so tired; I barely noticed the squeaks; and that my feet hung off the end.
We would all have to share the same bathroom – we thought that was no big deal for in 1957 no one - no matter how big their house – had only one bathroom. But we finally discovered that it didn’t make such a good laundry room, with nylon stockings, waist pinchers, bras, girdles, and crinolines, for three – it got kinda overloaded.
It seemed we all had to “go” at the same time – we only had one small medicine cabinet to store all our toiletries. There was no counter top – just a single sink in front of the mirror that was part of the medicine cabinet. It was decided that the next day we would buy and install a shelf for our things; hooks for our robes and a hanging shoe bag for our shoes.
We soon learned that wash-days would be no-bath days as you could not get into the tub for all the items hanging on the shower rod. We were on the second floor; but there was a little window that faced the back of the apartment which was over the bath tub. It looked out over a courtyard below boxed in by four buildings. And in good weather, if we opened the bathroom window, the lingerie would dry faster. However, there was no screen and we had mosquitoes.
There were double windows over the day bed which faced the street. There was one small window in the kitchen. But when left open on warm days, we could get a breeze. Air-conditioning was unheard of except for the rich and the movie theatres. That first hot summer we spent a lot of time at the movies. We went to see all the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans movies together as girls; but now we wanted to see the more sophisticated movies – especially the love stories.
We all rushed to see “The Sweet Smell of Success” with Tony Curtis; that was kind deep; but we couldn’t pass up “Old Yeller,” either. During that time when no one would admit it – we were all in love with love and wanted to find someone to pin it on and we all had a crush on Tony. Little tensions began to grow daily – not enough room, falling over each other’s shoes in the floor – leaving dirty dishes in the sink – hogging the bathroom.
Some days I secretly yearned to be back at home with my parents and on “those” days I wanted my Mama who would always bring me an aspirin and the heating pad. Betty Jean and Harriet had little sympathy for me; and that made me mad. We argued a lot; but we also had a lot of fun. Sometimes I felt those two spent far too much time together – cutting me out – and that made me mad. They teased me a lot; and I often felt they were trying to get rid of me.
The first fright I had was when I had arrived home a little earlier than my roommates one afternoon and heard what I thought was one of them at the door. I thought she had forgotten her key so as I walked from the living room on the way to the kitchen, I unlocked the door from the inside and walked on into the kitchen.
Immediately, I had a very odd feeling. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck as I slowly peeked around the curtain that separated the kitchen from the living room. No one had said, “Hello, I’m home.” I had not heard the rustling of packages or high heel shoes being tossed on the floor.
My heart jumped a beat as I knew from the kitchen there was no way out. I slowly pulled back the curtain and there stood the ugliest man I had ever seen in my life. He was short – very short – white hairs covering an almost bald head with white hairy arms – huge thick glasses and a scary look on his face. His skin was so pink. Then as if he knew I was looking at him, he turned his back. His shoulders were hunched over as if he were clutching something.
My voice caught in my throat and I made a little gurgle sound; he looked up and turned around. I realized he had Cloie in his hand and he also had a pair of scissors. My first inclination was to tell him to put Cloie down as I had never wanted anyone to touch her but me.
But my better (more common) sense self just stood there and shook for a while; and then I meagerly spoke in an octave higher than my usual voice. For the lack of knowing what to say, until my blood returned to my head, my saleslady voice uttered, “Can I help you with something?”
I immediately thought how dumb that was as he was probably there to help himself – to me. I was so afraid, I could not even scream. I reminded myself of the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello movies when they would be in a haunted house.
He smiled a crooked unsettling smile and stood there stroking Cloie’s fur – what she had left – and turned to walk away. I said gently, “Would you please put my cat down?” He smiled an even more sinister smile and looked closely at Cloie; and then gently turned and put her back on the chair. It was not until he had left that I hurried and bolted the door. Then I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I feared it had stopped.
Almost immediately I heard the door knob turning again. I stood frozen there in my bare feet in the small living room. And then I heard Betty Jean knock and say, “Hey, let me in. Will you?” Why you got the door bolted?” I hurriedly opened the door and grabbed her and practically pulled her inside and shut the door and bolted it again.
“Hey, what is wrong with you?” You look like you just saw a ghost. I said, “I did… or at least I think I did. Did you see him? “See who?” “You know that little ugly old man?” “What ugly little old man?” “You had to have passed him in the hall or on the steps!” “Nope, didn’t see anyone, sorry – a friend of yours?” “Hardly, I think he was a burglar – or a murderer – or at least a thief. But he could have been a ghost – he had white hair and pink skin,” I said as I stumbled over my words.
“What are you talking about? Why are you shaking so? Are you all right? Here, sit down and tell me what happened,” she said. “Did he have a gun?” “No.. Scissors!” “What did he steal? “Nothing!” “Then why would you call him a thief?” “Because he tried to steal Cloie?” “Who would want to steal that old moth eaten thing?”
I told her what had happened and she said, “That’s bizarre – wonder who he is – did he say anything?” “No, nothing.” But he looked like he kinda felt sorry for Cloie – maybe because most of her fur was missing like his hair or something.”
It was a few weeks later before the second incident. This was even more harrowing. All three of us were looking forward to a slow weekend. The Christmas holidays were nearing and we had all been working overtime on our jobs; and we were really tired. We had downed a couple of Varsity hot dogs; and were off to bed rather early.
Almost simultaneously we all sat up in the bed in response to an unfamiliar noise. There was a thump, thump, thump down the hall and then pause; and then we heard a thump- pause - and thump - pause – thump. It seemed to be going down the steps. We met each other in the living room; each of us carrying a weapon. I had a brass vase, Betty Jean had a softball bat – the one she had used to knock in the winning home run in girls softball her senior year; and Harriet had a can of hairspray. We all arrived at the same spot at about the same time with weapons raised toward one another.
Betty Jean asked me, “Did you lock the door?” “I don’t know.” “You go and see – not me – you go – fear had paralyzed us both while Harriet walked over bravely with her can of hairspray raised and rattled the lock on the door confirming that it was secure. Needless to say that was a wasted night’s sleep – we all three slept late and missed church at North Avenue Presbyterian Church that next morning.
With new and reinforced locks on the front door, we all breathed a little easier and then it happened. Things began to turn up missing from the bathroom. We blamed each other.
Then we figured someone had left the bathroom window open to dry the laundry and someone had entered the window and taken some strange items – combs, toothpaste, (the tube Harriet had not put the top back on) hairpins, lipstick, and nail polish right off our little shelves. We did not know when it had happened – while we were at work or during the middle of the night when we were sleeping. Feeling a little embarrassed to call the police over missing toiletries, we decided - based on the items taken (and the small window), it must have been a young girl. So we coveted to make sure the window stayed locked at all times.
But the mystery was – there was no access from the ground to the window on the second floor – someone would have had to have a ladder.
But then other little things continued to be missing. We got nervous and began to accuse each other of taking the items; until one night I realized that Cloie was missing. I was sure I had left her on the daybed; but asked my roommates if they had seen her. They both said they had not.
And then there were the incidents with the one-eyed black cat. It just seemed to appear from out of nowhere – open the door and it would be standing there looking up at you blocking the exit into the hallway. The strange thing – it never made a sound. It never meowed. It would look up at you with what seemed to be a blind eye on one side. At its own leisure, it would slowly walk away. I was always the only one to see it. More teasing.
I decided as I went back into the little sunroom to look once again for Cloie under the bed and under the pillows – there was hardly any place else she could be for the room was so small. I began to wonder if she had fallen into the trash basket and had been taken out to the garbage chute in error. Or had my roommates played yet another trick on me. They were always teasing me about my old stuffed cat. I figured the chute went down into the cellar – a place we had never explored.
I panicked to think she would end up in the furnace in the cellar of that old apartment house. But undaunted, (after all this was Cloie) I dashed out the door down the flight of stairs to the first floor – turned the corner and ran down another flight to the cellar. I knew that was the furnace room because of the old metal sign that said so. But I had never been down there. I swept back some cob webs as I stepped low to get near the furnace to find the chute from upstairs. Strange, the furnace was not on even though it was December; and cold outside and inside. And I saw no garbage receptacle.
Cob webs – that would mean no one had been through that doorway in a while. Just then I heard a noise behind me. But little matter… I didn’t stop to see what it was…and I didn’t even stop for the first five or six steps as I bounded up from the cellar. I felt something soft brush against my leg – I screamed as loud as I could; but fear had gripped my throat and only a squeak came out. I said as I bounded up the steps, “Sorry, Cloie.. if you are down here.”
It was the black cat. I slammed the door behind me hoping to trap her in the cellar; but when I turned around with my back against the door, I looked down and there it was just sitting there looking up with that nearly closed eye and blocking my way. I would start to move right and she would move to block me – always looking right into my eyes with her one eye. I did the old fake move I had seen the football players in high school do – I made a motion to go right; but went left and bounded up to the steps toward the apartment and there standing in the hallway was the little old man.
The cat ran passed me and jumped up into his arms. I rushed pass them both, ran into the apartment and slammed the door so hard the windows rattled. I rushed into the bathroom and checked the window – in the cold of December it was open. I stood in the tub and shut the window and locked it. I ran into the bedroom and my roommates were nowhere in the apartment. They had simply vanished.
Not knowing whether to stay in the apartment or to run outside, I made a hasty decision to stay – I reassured myself that the doors were locked – the window was locked – and I had Betty Jean’s softball bat. I would just stay put until I saw if roommates were coming back. I was too afraid to go back into the hall where the little ole man was – why was he coming from our floor? Had he done something to Betty Jean and Harriet? What should I do? I couldn’t climb out the two story window. Oh, where were they? I would not dare look in the closet.
We had no phone in the apartment and I didn’t even know the number to the police station; and knew none of the neighbors – so I decided it was best to stay put for a while anyway. I edged my way to the kitchen and slowly pulled back the curtain – shivers went up my spine and I began to have a buzzing sound in my head – I felt like I was going to faint. Steadying my hand against the table and putting down the bat for a second, I reached into the silverware drawer and pulled out our one and only knife – an almost dull bread knife.
Now my hurried mind asked, “Where is the best place to hide?” There was only one closet and it was so full of stuff there was no room for me. I felt sure Betty Jean and Harriet were not in there either. So I crouched down at the end of the daybed between the rail and the wall and made myself as small as I could. Still shaking, I remembered the movie we had just seen. It was about a woman who always wore a black full length fur coat. She could turn into a black cat whenever she wanted to – to do murder. When she was the woman, she had no recollection of being the cat. “Oh, why did we watch such a scary movie?”
I stayed in that cramped position for what seemed like hours until I fell asleep. I awoke to a pounding sound coming from the living room. It took a few seconds before I realized my friends were pounding on the door to be let in. Hurriedly I scrambled to get up from my cramped position and my foot brushed against something soft and furry – I panicked and screamed this time really loud.
My friends, standing outside the door, could only wonder in horror why I had screamed. They were still a bit unnerved as well for they had also seen the one too many scary movie. Finally, I was able to walk on wobbly legs to the door and let them in. I fell into their arms screaming, “I thought you both were dead!”
“Dead?” they both answered in concert – why would you think that – you know tonight is our regular night to go bowling.”
“Bowling, how could you even think about going bowling with a murderer afoot?” “Murderer – he has been promoted - before he was just a thief.”
I told them what had happened and Harriet went into the sunroom and looked at the end of the bed where I had been hiding; and she reached way under where my legs had been and pulled out a cat – not the black cat; but Cloie. Saying, “I’m sorry I just wanted to tease you for leaving the top off the toothpaste again; so I hid her.” “I left the top off the toothpaste – it was one of you not me – but they both said – “No, it was you!” “We set a trap for you and watched and you are the guilty one – and blaming it on us.”
“You did what?” “It wasn’t me who left the top off the tooth paste – it was one of you.” And for a moment we forgot about the murderer and the real black cat and began arguing about toothpaste and who did what.
“Well,” I said, “I am not going to live here anymore. I am going home. What with the little old ugly man – the missing items in the bathroom, and now this black one-eyed cat that never meows – and that infernal woman with her black fur coat. I am out of here just as soon as it is daylight. And I am tired of paying bills, peanut butter sandwiches and not having my own room!”
“Funny you should mention the little old man. – we ran into the landlady downstairs and she had seen you running into the old basement that is no longer used. She wondered why you had run by her so quickly; and why you had gone down into that old abandoned area. She said it has not been used since they started using steam to heat the radiators. And because of the rats –
“What you mean? We’ve got rats too? I am out of here.”
Betty Jean said, “As I was saying… because of the rats, they diverted the garbage chute to another floor where it was carried away each day; but from time to time Mr. Beasley puts his cat down there to make sure there were none still about and because she had no voice, she could not let anyone know when she wanted out.
“Well, what about that ugly little man – and what about the thump, thump, thump noise and what about all that stuff stolen from our bathroom? I’m still leaving.”
“And….while we were talking to her she warned us about leaving the bathroom window open as sometimes ole Mr. Beasley’s pet crow would get out and fly into any open window from the courtyard and come back with all sorts of small items. He used to try and return them; but never knew where the crow had stolen them so he just started donating them to the girls and boys clubs up the street.” Then I asked, “Mr. Beasley wouldn’t happen to be a little short man wearing wrinkled pants, a brown Pat Boone sweater, all matted with nubbies on it, wearing big thick glasses would he?”
Betty Jean replied, “As a matter of fact, yes.” Well, what about the thump, thump, thump and why did he come into the apartment with a pair of scissors in his pocket if he didn’t wish to harm me. They should make him move – he should not be allowed to live among descent people.”
Betty Jeans responded, “Well, that would be a little hard to do, as you see – he owns the building.”
“Owns, the building – we didn’t rent from him!”
“Yeah, she explained that as well. Mr. Beasley was born with no pigmentation in his skin and hair; and was teased and bullied most of his life; but she said he was the kindest most caring and considerate person she had ever known. But people did not see his heart – but his outsides and would not rent any of his apartments – so he had to hire a real estate person to handle that. She collected the rent for him. But he takes care of the building himself – does all the repair work. He probably had the scissors in his hand doing something on this floor. She said he probably stopped by to see if we needed anything.”
But he is very lonely and so he keeps a menagerie of animals – not just any animals – he gets them from the Humane Society just before they are to be put to sleep. He gives them a home – treating whatever is wrong with them – and finds a new home for them – but his ole one-eyed cat, the stealing crow, and the pegged legged dog – no one wanted them; but he did.”
“So…the thump; thump, thump was the pegged legged dog going down the stairs?”
“Yes, he lost his leg when hit by a car and they were going to put it down; but Mr. Beasley kept him and made him a wooden leg. She says from time to time he gets out and goes visiting in the apartment building.”
I didn’t leave that night. I got to know Mr. Beasley and he was a very kind man. I stayed on for a while and then one day in walked the dream of my life – he didn’t look like Tony Curtis… but to me even better. We have been married now for over 50 years. I look back over that time with fondness and just as life would have it – something did separate me, Betty Jean, and Harriet.
We were separated by time and distance.
I keep in touch with them on FaceBook – they are both grandmothers as well.
That was many years ago and I still enjoy telling that story to my grandchildren on Halloween along with the story of the monster that was always saying, “I want my big toe.” ~~~
While many of the events in this story actually happened – not all at the same time - and not all to the same people; it made a nice ghost story huh? I like telling this story to them reminding them that we should not judge people by the way they look; but by the way they act. “Man looks on the outward appearance – but God looks on the heart.”
Did I tell you the one about the grave diggers who had to move some 100 year old graves for development of the property? “No?” “ Well, it seems these grave diggers dug up this certain grave of a beautiful young woman who had been buried in a glass top coffin. She was so beautiful and looked as though she was only sleeping in her white gown; and even the flowers in the coronet on her head were still intact - though dried out - but perfectly preserved as was she. They could not resist so they pried up the lid – and guess what – poof she was gone – just like this story.