By M. L. Humphrey
Copyright © 2015
All Rights Reserved
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Cover art copyright of the author, © 2016 Maurice Humphrey.
Please visit my blog at [ TheCornishTalisman.blogspot.com ].
I’ve known Uncle Phid all my life ‘cause he’s my dad’s older brother and he’s also the local undertaker. My dad is a real estate agent while mom stays home and takes care of us kids. That’s the way things are in the 50’s; least that’s what dad told me. Dad even works from his home office. Yup, Ryan Edwards Real Estate is what it says on the sign out front of what used to be the garage.
When he would be gone, us kids would sometimes get to fighting. Our older sister Jean would escape to her room and lock Joey and me out; that only made things worse. Since Joey was only five and I was almost eight, mom decided to pack me off to spend the summer with Aunty Belle.
Aunty Belle didn’t mind, she and Uncle Phid didn’t have any kids of their own and she enjoyed having me over. Jean wouldn’t go over there any more; she said it smelled gross. But then she was twelve, and girls got mean when they turned twelve.
I use to play basketball with Patty Jones next door; she showed me how to shoot and all. But last year, when she turned twelve, she wouldn’t play with me anymore. Instead she started hanging around with other girls that age reading these magazines and giggling all the time; must be an old age disease or something. Mom laughed at me when I told her that, she told me that Patty was just growing up.
“Don’t worry about it Jerry, have fun while you’re still young enough to enjoy it” she told me. I still haven’t figured out what she meant by that; mom’s can be so weird!
So lucky me, I got to go visit with Uncle Phid and Aunty Belle for the summer ‘cause I wasn’t twelve yet; which also means I wasn’t old enough to walk across town by myself. So Uncle Phid came over and picked me up in the hearse. Back then I use to like riding in the hearse. Probably when I’m twelve I’ll look back on it and think it’s weird too; but then, I’m just a kid.
Uncle Phid’s real name is Thaddeus Paul Edwards, but everyone called him Phid. I use to spell it Fid for fiddle until Aunty Belle told me it was spelled P-h-i-d; but she didn’t know why they called him that.
“Everyone in school called him that” she told me when I asked her one morning while she was baking cookies.
“Well, I don’t rightly know” she mused. “I first knew him in fifth grade, and that’s what they called him back then. Even the teachers called him that.”
“Must have been something real bad then” I replied ominously.
“And you’re almost like him in some ways” she replied wistfully, “but more like your father.”
“What did father call him?” I asked absently as I was starting to smell the cookies she had baking in the oven.
“Where do you get these ideas?” She stopped and thought about it, I could see it in her face. “No, actually your father had a much more colorful name for him.” She gave me the most mysterious look I’d ever seen. The timer dinged and Aunty Belle opened the oven door and removed the first batch of freshly baked cookies. They smelled so good as she slid them off the metal cookie sheet onto the wire holders to cool.
Being only seven I asked her innocently, “And what’s your real name Aunty Belle?” as she slid another batch of cookies into the oven.
That seemed to startle her for a moment as she sat down at the kitchen table beside me. Then she giggled as she grabbed my head in her slim warm hands pulling me close to her face. “You are the inquisitive one, now aren’t you.” She sat up straight and folded her hands in her lap looking very prim and proud. “I’ll have you know young man, my name was Gladys Annabelle Fisher back then, and I was the belle of the ball don’t cha know” as she primped her hair.
“Aunty Belle, why did you change your name?”
“Oh my little dear” she grabbed my face again. “When I was your age my mother just called me Belle for short, I liked it so much I kept it.”
We laughed together as she went to pull the last batch of cookies out of the oven. I loved fresh baked cookies, so warm and gooey almost melt in your mouth yummy. She finished sliding the cookies off the tin sheet before setting it on the open windowsill to cool.
“Aunty Belle, can I change my name if I like one better?” I asked her between mouthfuls.
“Now why would you want to do something like that?” she replied with an inquisitive smile.
“I dunno” I replied wistfully, “maybe Captain Marvel!”
“Captain Marvel?” She just gave a quick laugh. “Does he have a first name?”
“A first name?”
“How about George?” she smiled at me, “You’re certainly curious enough.”
The best thing about staying with Uncle Phid and Aunty Belle was exploring the house. They lived on the second floor above the mortuary; I had a hard time learning to say that word and what it meant.
“Jerry” she told me one day, “this building was originally a theater but it went out of business. It sat here empty for many years until Phid and I bought it.”
“Is that when it came a Morchury?” I asked.
“Silly boy, it’s pronounced Mor-tu-ar-y” she pronounced distinctly as she pushed my hair back out of my face. “Goodness you need a haircut.”
“No I’m fine…”
“Come on Jerry, Aunty Belle is going to give you a haircut” as she pulled a stool out from behind the door. Before I knew it I was sitting on the stool with a bed sheet wrapped around me. “Don’t worry” she told me, “I cut Phid’s hair all the time, he can’t always afford the time when he gets busy.”
I had to fidget a little as little bundles of hair would stick to my cheeks; and it itched.
“Hold still” she scolded, “just a little longer, just a little more over the ears here, and…there… now close your eyes” as she started brushing me off with a fluffy little whisk broom. “OK Jerry, you did good to hold still like that” as she held a mirror in front of my face.
I gazed at my reflection just long enough to see that it still looked like me. Funny, I looked older, much older. Was that a touch of white hair on the side?
“Still look like you does it?” she asked as she put the mirror away and folded the sheet up and set it on the floor.
I hopped off the stool, “Aunty Belle? Can I have a cookie?”
“As a reward for holding still?” She had an odd way of making it sound funny. “Well I suppose so, but only two, and at the table” she replied sternly.
“Yes Aunty Belle.”
I got the cookies out of the cookie jar and sat at the table. Aunty Belle put a glass of milk in front of me before sweeping up the hair off the floor and putting it in the trashcan.
“I’m going to shake this sheet off the back porch, now you sit right there, I’ll be right back.”
“Aunty Belle, can I play in the closet when I’m done?”
“Just make sure you pick up afterwards” as she went out back.
I wasn’t allowed down in the basement, that’s where all of the chemicals and dead people were kept. I was obviously interested of course, but I’d found something even better to play with when Aunty Belle was busy. There were several extra rooms up on the third floor used for storage. The ones in the back were filled with boxes and unused furniture; I didn’t find much of interest in there.
The real find was in the big front room. Aunt Belle told me once it used to be a bedroom but had been converted into a huge closet just filled with clothes and costumes. There was everything in there you could ever imagine for a costume. I asked Aunty Belle if I could play with them and she said she didn’t mind, most of them were left over theater costumes.
I remember the first time I was allowed to play in the closet by myself. I thought it was great ‘cause Jean wouldn’t go near it; she said the place made her feel creepy. “All those ugly clothes” she said; if she didn’t like it, then it must be great. But I was a boy and those costumes looked cool; I really liked the pirate costume.
One day I had on a long black jacket with tails that dragged on the floor and a gray colored wig. Mom had read us a story about George Washington and how he was such a hero. In the picture he had on a white wig and a jacket like this one; but I couldn’t wear the pants, they were too big and got underfoot.
I was poised for my big speech when…
“What are you doing in here?” a voice behind me screamed in my ear. The wig nearly fell off my head as I scrambled over against the wall. I sat there on the floor not knowing what to do next. There was a rustling from the rack of clothes in front of me and a small face peered out at me.
“Who are you?” I asked as the wig slipped down over my forehead, some of the loose hair getting in my mouth. I brushed the hair out of my mouth and pushed it back up.
“I was here first” the squeaky voice replied, “Who are you?”
“I’m Jerry” I stammered, still shaking. “Now who are you?” I demanded.
Slowly a little girl crawled out from the clothes rack and sat on the floor in front of me. “I’m Emily, and I’m seven!” She declared holding up seven fingers.
“How’d you get in here?” I asked.
“Up the back stairs you silly goose; here, I’ll show you.” She jumped up, grabbed my hand, and dragged me over into the back corner. It was dark back there.
She opened a door and I could see an old worn wooden stairway leading down into the dark. Way down below I could see a light and an older gentleman bent over a desk.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s old Thurber, he takes care of the theater” she whispered.
“Is he your dad?”
“Yeah” she whispered and quietly closed the door.
We played in the closet for over an hour before I heard a sharp whistle.
She stopped suddenly and told me she had to go. “Promise you won’t tell anybody that you saw me up here?”
“’Cause I’m not supposed to be up here” she pleaded.
I thought about it, but we had fun in here and I didn’t want her to get in trouble.
“OK…” Just then I heard the door open.
“Jerry?” Aunty Belle called. “Are you in here?”
“Yes Aunty Belle, coming.” I turned around to say goodbye, but Emily had disappeared. I pursed my lips in concentration and decided not to tell Aunty Belle about Emily.
“Well, who are you supposed to be, George Washington?” she beamed at me as I walked up to the door.
“How’d you guess?” I asked wonderingly.
“Don’t forget to hang the costume back up where you found it, it’s time for lunch.” She left the door open and I heard her going back down the hallway to the stairs.
I took the wig off and sat it on its stand making sure to put the dust cover over it. I had to stand on tippy toes to put the coat and hanger back on the rack. One more look around, but there was no sign of Emily. I closed the door and hurried down the stairs to lunch.
As the door slowly closed behind him a small face peered out from between the racks of clothes. A ghostly tear dropped from her face as another sharp whistle told her she better hurry, daddy would be mad if she didn’t come when he called.
I would meet Emily in the closet many times over that summer, mostly in the early afternoon or on rainy days. We had lots of fun up in that closet but I never saw her around outside; one day I asked her why.
“I can’t go outside, I might fall in the river” she told me sadly.
“Don’t you have to go outside to go home?” Then a thought came to me, “Where do you live?”
“I live here in the theater with my daddy, he works downstairs. We stay away from the river” she replied stubbornly.
I thought she was mad at me, then she brightened and decided to play ballerina; I picked out a small clown outfit that was still way to big. We had a lot of fun with those old costumes.
It was late in the afternoon one day when Aunty Belle stuck her head in the door and told me it was time to come downstairs for supper. I told her I’d be right there and listened as she went down the hall to the stairs.
Emily was hiding behind the costume rack still wearing the ballerina outfit when a sharp whistle came; she had to go too. “See you tomorrow?” I asked.
“No, can’t, it’s my birthday.” She ran over and gave me a hug then disappeared in the back of the closet. Out of curiosity I followed her as she went through the door and watched her scramble down the stairs. At the bottom I could see her father waiting for her. Hope she doesn’t get into any trouble for being up here.
I kept watching as she reached the bottom of the stairs and happily rushed into his arms. He picked her up and held her tightly before looking up and waving to me. Then the light went out.
“Jerry?” Uncle Phid called from the door, “Are you still in here?”
“Nothing” I replied, startled. “Just playing with the cool costumes” I replied as best I could; quickly closing the door and walking back up front.
“Ummm?” He asked, but I didn’t say anything; I’d promised Emily.
He tussled my hair and we went downstairs for supper.
The next day was Friday the 8th of August; it was Emily’s birthday and the last day before I had to go home. It was raining so I stayed inside and hung around with Aunty Belle.
“Aunty Belle?” I asked her, “When can I go downstairs and see what Uncle Phid is doing?”
She gave me an odd look, “I thought you’d be on your way upstairs to the costume closet.”
“Don’t feel like it today” I replied glumly.
“Well” she replied with a hug, “there’s more in that closet than just the costumes you know? Come along, I’ll show you what else is in there.”
Upstairs she opened up a big 5 drawer file cabinet set in the corner behind the door. I’d tried to open the drawers but it had been locked. She took a key from her pocket and unlocked it. With a heave she pulled the top drawer open, it was full of folders. She deftly scanned through the contents before moving down to the next drawer. Most of the drawers contained invoices, orders, and finance information from when the theater was in operation.
Finally she reached the bottom drawer, “Ah here they are” as she opened the first folder. She took the folder from the drawer and placed on top of the desk. Inside the folder were pictures and newspaper clippings, each dated and with a list of the cast.
“These are the most recent clippings; further back is where the newer ones are.” She reached further into the drawer and pulled up some old newspapers, “These are from around the time that the theater closed down back in 1929; Phid and your father were young boys back then.
“How come you know so much about this Aunty Belle?” I asked.
“Well Jerry, my mother was one of the actresses that used to perform on that very stage until the economy crashed and the theater folded.”
Aunty Belle left me to look through the folder while she went to start supper. Later on I went back downstairs and sat on the couch by himself.
“My word” Aunty Belle said, “you look like you’ve lost your best friend.” But try as she might I wouldn’t talk about it. The next morning they took me back home, school would be starting next Monday.
After taking Jerry back home, Uncle Phid wondered what it was that had made Jerry so sad. He was usually such a happy child, he thought, so full of life and imagination. He usually spent a lot of time playing up in the old costume closet on the third floor. Maybe there was something wrong with the costumes? Maybe he should check.
Confused, he climbed the stairs up to the third floor and opened the door to the closet and looked around. No, things looked as he last remembered; racks of costumes against the back wall, two dressing tables, one on each side of the double wide window. Jerry had always been good about hanging the costumes back up so they had let him play up here by himself whenever he wanted.
Absently he sat at the nearest dressing table and stared at his reflection in the dusty mirror. The face staring back at him bore a marked resemblance to his father; and probably his younger brother as well.
“Hmm, must remember to clean up here more often” as he stifled a sneeze.
On the dressing table before him was an old newspaper dated August 9, 1929. Phid remembered that that was the year that the theater had closed down followed by the collapse of the stock market a few months later.
Absently he scanned down the page until he came to the Obits and the cartoons. Half way through the obituaries he ran across the listing for Herbert Thurber’s little daughter Emily. Phid vaguely remembered old Thurber. George Martin, the owner of the theater, had left him in charge while he went off in search of financial backing to keep the theater running. No one ever knew what happened to Mr. Martin as he never came back.
In the meantime Herbert Thurber, and his daughter Emily, had moved into an apartment in the back of the theater. It was such a shame that she had drowned in the river out behind the theater on her eighth birthday.
“That’s so tragic” he thought as he scanned further down the column. Equally tragic he found that Herbert Thurber had also drowned that day trying to save his little girl. “Why that’s yesterday’s date” he realized, “could that be what upset Jerry so?”
Still bewildered, Phid picked up the papers off the dressing table and put them back in the file drawer. He took one more look around before closing the door and heading back down the hallway to the stairs.
In the empty room behind him, Phid never heard the soft giggles of a small seven year old girl in a ballerina costume dancing with the dust motes and twirling through the sunlight streaming in through the dusty window.
Page 7 of
Seven year old Jerry Edwards finds spending a couple of weeks with his Aunt Belle and Uncle Phid a welcome change from spending the summer fighting with his younger brother and older sister. Uncle Phid is the local undertaker and they live upstairs over the mortuary in what used to be an old theater and the third floor is where all the theater costumes are stored. One rainy day he finds he’s not alone.