(I shared this short story at the Kenosha Writers’ Guild meeting last night. Still very much a work in progress, I want to thank everybody who provided their input)
Ever since the tornado hit and leveled most of Main Street in June of 1963, the Mayflower Hotel, about a block away and untouched by the storm’s path of destruction, has been the tallest building in the small town of Neil, Wisconsin. Standing high on the banks of the Ojibway River at the corner of Mayflower Avenue and Columbus Street, it’s been an imposing sight since its construction in 1884. The windows in the fourth floor dormers protrude from the hotel like gun turrets in a fortress, guarding the residents from phantom marauding enemy boats approaching up river from the east. In the morning, the warmth of the sun lifts fog off of the cold river that rises and floats on the morning air until it spills over the banks and encircles the bottom of the hotel, making the top three floors appear to float like a ghost on a bed of mist.
Most mornings, the sun over the river is bright, and if you look up from the street to the fourth floor windows, all you can see is its reflection in the glass. About thirty years ago, though, by the late afternoon, after the sun vacated the east, particularly on gray and dimly lit days, if you looked up you’d see the outline of her, frail and small, sitting in the third window from the left, watching the cars crossing the bridge or the fishing boats on the river, her hair as white as the shawl she wore around her shoulders.
In October of 1987, it’d already been eleven years since Mr. and Mrs. Boswell moved into Apartment 2E, the small three-room on the east side of the fourth floor. Precious little was known about them. They came from somewhere down state, presumably Milwaukee, and they were already in their mid seventies when they arrived. They were both deaf mutes. They rarely left their apartment, having their groceries delivered in via a service offered by the local IGA. The only mail that the hotel manager, Mr. Williams, received for them and placed in their box behind the front counter was their monthly social security checks and the occasional anonymous sales flyer. They didn’t have children, and no one knew of any family they might have had. The deliveries from the current IGA delivery boy were their only contact with anyone from the outside world. About one morning every other week or so, Mr. Williams would find a filled out form, with a “12” written neatly in the column besides “eggs” or “1/2 gal.” written next to “milk.” The form was always left on the front desk sometime over night for Mr. Williams to find first thing in the morning.
Nobody remembered the last time a human voice was heard from the Boswells’ apartment. They didn’t own a television or a radio, and they never joined the other tenants who’d sit out on the rocking chairs on the porch on warm summer evenings, or gather to watch television together in the lounge off of the lobby once the days grew shorter and the nights cooler. They were forgotten by many of the tenants, and completely unknown of by others, who’d never seen them or even knew about their existence until the day they’d innocuously glance up to the fourth floor window on the way in and see the unmoving sight of Mrs. Boswell staring out her window. Mr. Williams had to explain to more than one tenant that it wasn’t a ghost that they’d seen, it was in fact Mrs. Boswell, while other tenants weren’t so sure, while still others shrugged their shoulders and said, what’s the difference, they may as well be ghosts, given that they spent all their time in the shadowy silence of their little three room apartment.
They pre-dated even Mr. Williams, having arrived and taken up residence in Apartment 2E when the hotel was still under the management of his predecessor, Mr. Johnson. All Mr. Johnson, in that usual cryptic style of his, ever told Mr. Williams about the Boswells was that they weren’t any trouble. In his early days as manager, Mr. Williams always tried to engage Mr. Boswell in conversation whenever he stopped by the front desk to pay their rent or pick up his mail, but Mr. Boswell would just smile pleasantly and shake his head that he couldn’t understand Mr. Williams, and he’d politely wave and venture back up the stairs. Mr. Boswell was thin and short, stooped, always well dressed with clean and unwrinkled clothes. He was always clean shaven and his white hair was always neatly trimmed. He seemed nice enough, Mr. Williams thought. Dignified.
The passing of time, after experiencing the usual problems dealing with the younger tenants that comprised the bulk of the Mayflower’s clientele, made Mr. Williams appreciate Mr. Johnson’s simple and succinct summary of the Boswells. Compared to the endless complaints about loud music and problems with drug and alcohol abuse and Mr. Williams’ personal crusade to rid the Mayflower of the presence of the aging whores and their johns that Mr. Johnson had profited from, he grew to appreciate the Boswell’s silent existence for what Mr. Johnson said it was: No trouble.
One Tuesday night, not too long after he and his wife, Evelyn, had taken up residence in the manager’s apartment on the first floor, Mr. Williams woke from another occurrence of what had become a recurring nightmare at two in the morning. In his dream he was young, in the war again, and it was spring. He was standing by himself in an abandoned railroad yard and he could hear the muffled sound of something moving, something alive, from behind the locked door of a lone railroad boxcar. He woke to a faint thumping sound coming from the basement. He put his robe on and stealthily crept down the stairs. The sounds were coming from the coin operated washers and dryers the hotel had installed for the tenants. He paused at the open doorway of the laundry room and looked in and there, still and silent, sat Mr. Boswell, reading an issue of Time Magazine as the washer and dryer hummed and thumped away. There was nothing wrong with doing laundry at 2:00 A.M. if one so chose, there were no hours posted. Mr. Williams just found it odd that Mr. Boswell, with all the time in the world available to do his laundry, would choose Tuesday at two in the morning. He stood at the doorway for a moment and quickly studied Mr. Boswell, who was as always neatly dressed and the picture of dignity as he sat there, reading his magazine. By this time, Mr. Williams already knew that any attempt to communicate with him would be pointless, so he turned and went back to his apartment, leaving Mr. Boswell alone with the sounds of the washer and dryer that he couldn’t hear.
It’d been six years, 1981, since the last time Mr. Williams was in the Boswells’ apartment. The worn and fading orange carpet that covered the entire fourth floor was being replaced. Mr. Williams sent the fourth floor residents a note detailing the schedule for the change out, and that each tenant would have to be out of their apartment for about a three hour period while the old carpeting would be pulled up and the new carpeting installed. For the Boswells, Mr. Williams was sensitive to their handicap and how difficult being displaced for even three hours would be to them, so he wrote them a personalized note inviting them to lunch with him and his wife the day of the change out.
Mr. Williams knocked on their door at 11:30, the time he specified in the note. The door opened and Mr. Boswell was standing there, his jacket already on. It was unzipped enough for Mr. Williams to see that underneath he was wearing a white dress shirt and a necktie. He had on neatly pressed slacks. Mrs. Boswell was seated at the kitchen table. She was wearing a blue dress dotted with a pattern of small white flowers under a black sweater. Her white hair was tied up in a bun. Mr. Boswell motioned for Mr. Williams to come in. Mr. Williams stepped in and without thinking said, “Good morning.” When neither one answered he remembered that they were both deaf, and felt foolish for having spoken. He stood in the tiny apartment’s doorway and quickly took inventory. It was immaculate, not a trace of dirt or even dust. To his left the bedroom door was open. The bed was neatly made, on top of the dresser sat framed and fading black and white photographs of them on their wedding day, individual head shots, Mr. Boswell unwrinkled in his tuxedo with slick, dark hair parted down the middle and a confident smile, and Mrs. Boswell in her wedding gown, young and pretty with her dark hair curled under a white lace veil. There was a larger photograph of the two of them together holding the wedding bouquet, she leaning her head on his shoulder, both smiling. Mr. Williams looked for clues in the photos that would tell him when they were taken. They both looked so young, in their mid twenties, which he guessed would have been about fifty five years earlier. Doing he math, subtracting fifty five from 1981, he guessed their wedding to have occurred sometime around 1925. He wondered, were they both already deaf and mute at that time? Or did something happen to cause one or both of them to lose their ability to speak and hear? He couldn’t imagine what type of calamity could have impacted them both in the same way, and he figured that the odds were they’d always been deaf mutes, and had lived all those years together in silence.
Mr. Boswell helped his wife to her feet and she grabbed her purse from the kitchen table. They were ready, they both smiled at Mr. Williams, and Mr. Boswell held the apartment door open as his wife and Mr. Williams exited. He shut the door behind them and joined them at the top of the stairs.
They picked up Mrs.. Williams at the bottom of the stairs and exited the hotel, getting in Mr. Williams’ enormous maroon Buck, the Boswells in the back and the Williams up front. He drove the five blocks across town to Gustafson’s, an old-style northern Wisconsin supper club that on Friday nights was the most popular place in the area for all you can eat fish fry. They served good lunches, too, from a variety of burgers, melts and club sandwiches to fresh salads and homemade casserole dishes. They sat in a big three sided booth in the back, Mr. and Mrs. Boswell in the center, Mr. and Mrs. Williams on the outside, one on either side of the Boswells.
Mrs. Williams had taken a basic sign language course at the local community college and tried signing some of the simplest and most basic conversation starters, but to no use. Mrs. Boswell just sat there with a confused frown, while Mr. Boswell smiled politely, waved his hands and shrugged his shoulders, indicating that they didn’t understand. Mrs. Williams, with a hand over her mouth, muttered softly to Mr. Williams, “They don’t know any sign language at all.”
The four studied their menus in silence, and when the waitress came to take their order, when it was Mr. Boswell’s turn, he pointed to the turkey club sandwich and pointed to Mrs. Boswell, then pointed to a tuna melt for himself. It took a while, the waitress working with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, to figure out if the Boswells wanted fries or chips and what beverages they wanted, but eventually they got through it, and the waitress left. Then the silence fell, heavy and dark. Finally, Mr. Williams reached in his back pocket and pulled out a small notebook. He pulled a pen out of the breast pocket of his olive green work shirt, and started writing. He scribbled, looks like rain this afternoon, doesn’t it? He slid the notebook and pen to Mr. Boswell, who read it and nodded enthusiastically in response. Mr. Boswell wrote yes, those clouds are quite dark, aren’t they, and pushed the notebook back to Mr. Williams, who nodded yes in response. Then Mrs. Williams took the pad and pen and wrote, “Mrs. Boswell, I just love your dress,” and slid the notebook to Mrs. Boswell. She read it and blushed visibly, writing “Thank you,” and returning the notepad to Mrs. Williams.
They ate their lunch, finishing just as the restaurant started filling up with the noon lunch crowd. As more people came in, Mr. Williams could sense traces of anxiety appear on both of the Boswells’ faces, especially Mrs. Boswell, and he noticed that Mrs. Boswell slid closer to Mr. Boswell. He noted how they communicated, how they’d learned to read what the other was saying with their eyes, hers dark and deep, his blue and watery.
He also observed that Mrs. Boswell seemed even more uncomfortable than Mr. Boswell, and that she relied upon him to shelter her from the imposing outside world they found themselves in. Mr. Boswell was protective of his wife, helping her off and later on with her coat, making sure she understood the scribbled lines on the notebook Mr. and Mrs. Williams used to communicate with them, and wrapping his arm around her shoulder as they left, navigating the tables and the chairs and the people sitting in them, and helping her into the back seat of the Buick for the ride back to the hotel.
It was only one o’clock when they returned to the Mayflower. The carpet installers still had another hour and a half until they were finished with the Boswells’ apartment, so Mr. Williams invited them into his apartment behind the front desk for coffee,. The Boswells nervously accepted, and the four of them sat in the living room, sipping from cups of coffee, Mr. Boswell looking surreptitiously at his watch. They made more small “talk,” making further use of the notebook, but it was slow and painful, and never got past the most innocent and superficial of topics. Mr. Williams noticed again the way they’d look at each other and he became convinced they were communicating, somehow, imperceptible to anyone else, but it was there, in their eyes, on their faces. If Mr. Williams had hoped the event would remove the aura of mystery that always surrounded the Boswells, he had to be deeply disappointed. When it was over, when the new carpet .was installed and the Boswells were returned to their apartment, the only thing that Mr. Williams knew about them that he didn’t before was that they loved each other with a depth that he previously hadn’t appreciated.
The final time that Mr. Williams was in the Boswells’ apartment was on a Saturday morning in early October of 1987. A front moved in from the north, dropping the temperature nearly twenty degrees to the mid thirties within a fifteen minute span, causing the Hotel’s furnace to kick on for the first time in months, pushing warm air thru the vents. Mr. Williams was at the front desk when Jim Hayward, the resident in the fourth floor Apartment 1E, next to the Boswells, came down the stairs.
“There’s a bad smell coming from the Boswell’a apartment,” he said. Mr. Williams grabbed his passkey and ran upstairs with Jim. “It started when the furnace kicked on,” he added. As they approached the top of the stairs, Mr. Williams instantly recognized the strong and pungent odor. It’d been more than forty years since he and the rest of the 45th Infantry Division of the Seventh Army approached the abandoned railroad cars on the outskirts of the town of Dachau, but the acrid odor that permeated the fourth floor air brought it all back as if it’d been yesterday, and he was filled with an overwhelming dread of what he knew waited behind the Boswell’s door.
He buried his nose in his shirt. Jim Hayward did the same. He inserted the passkey and opened the door. The stench was unbearable as he stood in the dim light of the Boswell’s apartment. Looking across the kitchen, he could see Mrs. Boswell, seated on her chair at the dormer window, with her back to him, looking out at the river, her white shawl wrapped around her shoulders and her white hair neatly brushed and flowing down to her upper back. As Mr. Williams approached her, the smell grew stronger, and he knew what he’d find, but that didn’t prepare him for the rotting flesh, the bulging eyes, and the death mask grin.
Turning back to the door, he saw Jim Hayward, still standing in the doorway, the color drained from his face, as he started retching. He ran out of the apartment to vomit somewhere safe. Mr. Williams turned and stood at the closed door to the bedroom, and he knew that Mr. Boswell was in there. He opened the door and scanned the room before entering. He didn’t see anything amiss. The bed was neatly made. He entered, and looked again at the wedding pictures on top of the dresser at the foot of the bed, taking the photo of Mrs. Boswell in his hand. He heard the faint sound of something moving, and his eyes caught a slight flash of motion, a shadow, on the floor on the other side of the bed, and he looked, and there laying on the floor was Mr. Boswell, crumpled and naked, his ribs and hips sticking sharply out of gray flesh, his eyes vacant but alive in boney eye sockets. He was still alive, barely, waiting for death, in the relentless silence of Apartment 2E on the fourth floor of the Mayflower Hotel.