My Bronx Haunting Chapter 5

That smells weird

I have to preface this by saying my brother doesn’t completely remember this story, although it is clear in my mind as if etched in solid stone. And given the fact that his memory was never sharp to begin with, I will continue to tell the story and ask that you read it with an open mind.

 I believe it was winter because my memory brings me to a place in time when I was peering out of my mother’s bedroom window and into the street. I can recall seeing the elevated train and hearing it as it screeched to a halt a block away. The trees were bare, their long limbs reaching for the grey sky ; dark fingers grasping into the air.

My mother, being overly protective, rarely let us out to play in the street when the temperature dipped into sweater weather so we were stuck in the house with little to do.  The lenses had been thrown away, along with the leather case, but my mother had forgotten about the cardboard box that remained nestled in the corner of the old and dusty basement. 

    “Let’s go see what’s inside?” I asked. 

My brother and I ran downstairs. It was still there. Sitting idle, one flap wide open as if waiting for us. We darted towards it and inspected its contents. A few powder puffs, large and fluffy lay on top. Still dusty, but they smelled of vanilla. A few bottles of nail polish, various shades of pink, cluttered the bottom. They were impossible to open, although I tried several times. The pigment had separated from the oil in a globby mess. I tilted the bottles and watched as the colors swirled into the oil and formed intricate patterns. There was also a large number of  tins containing mauve and rose colored rouge. 

 I felt like I was invading the secret world of Mr. Mel’s wife. These were her things.   I imagined her to be tall, sophisticated, smelling of flowers and shrouded in pink.   There were other items, which at the age of eleven eluded any plausible explanation. A white porcelain jar with a slimy, green, greasy substance, a long cylindrical tube, tapered at the end with a clip attached, a few tubes of lipstick, all pink as well and several jars or ivory foundation that had dried into cracked pieces of clay. The items were useless however, what remained intact were several bottles of marvelous perfume.

Bottles in all shapes. Some were as small as a head of garlic, some tall and thin like a bottle of aspirin,  and others as large as a pint of milk with fantastic and intricate tops. Some were lined in gold leaf, others made of tinted pastel colored glass, and some looked as if they were carved from diamonds.  They were beautiful, colorful and delicate and unlike the other goodies, the perfume had somehow survived the decades. The magical collection was a  testament to a world that came before us.

Lacking any dexterity, my brother was unable to open any of the bottles. Having been intrigued with one particular bottle , I snatched it from his chubby grip and slowly twisted the top. Large and red, resembling a glass tulip I managed to unscrew it and in doing so it emitted the strongest smell I had ever experienced. I laughed and shoved it under my brother’ nose,

    “That smells weird.” he snapped as he pushed it away. A sickening concoction of what I can remember as a noxious mix of ammonia and vinegar. I immediately twisted the bottle shut. We grabbed as many as we could  and rushed upstairs with them in our arms.

I can’t say why exactly we did what we did, but we ended up in my mother’s bedroom and we lined the bottles, in a neat row, on the dresser.  And it occurred to me, it was her dresser, Mrs. Mel’s dresser before it had become my mother’s. And these were her bottles, on her dresser. I wondered if she had ever placed these bottles on it in the past. She must have. And then a shiver ran through me. Starting in my lower back it rushed up towards my neck. My head shook violently and uncontrollably as my shoulders hunched upwards. It lasted a second and then was gone.

We continued lining up the bottles and looking through their colored glass.  The sky was grey but the light filtered through the window and exploded into a prism of color as it passed the bottles. 

    “Wow, look!” My brother said as he positioned his hand  as if catching a rainbow. The colors landed in the palm of his hand. And then it happened. A crack, we heard it and looked at each other.

    “What was that?” He asked.

    “I don’t know.”

    We watched in horror as each bottle we lined up, slowly cracked and the tops toppled over, as if someone had strategically knocked them off . One by one, Slowly and meticulously. We ran out of the room, darting into the dining room to find my mother, who at this point, was scolding us for running in the house.

    “Stop it!” She yelled. A rolled up newspaper in her hand. 

    We looked at each other and stood quietly, allowing her to yell, until she had her fill and returned to the kitchen. We then slowly proceeded back into the bedroom where the bottles lay standing on the dresser, each one topless, their lids on the floor, the room an explosion of smells, sickening , chemical,  potent. I approached them, their necks had been snapped off, the thread split yet the bottles stood upright, completely filled with perfume. Their open mouths jagged with shards of glass gaping open as if taunting me. Yet the lids lay on the floor , still connected to their their threads, And I distinctly remember wondering,

    “Was Mrs. Mel mad?”

    That’s where my memory ended. I suppose we tossed the bottles out without my mother knowing. It’s hard to say. My older brother offered his explanation years later. The train and its vibration had shattered the bottles. I suppose it’s possible? Then again, I don’t think so.

The window on the bottom right was the bedroom window

My Bronx Haunting Chapter 4

What’s with the Lenses?

Trying to recall what happened close to forty years ago is like looking through a lace curtain; you can see the basic form but some of the details are obscure. So my time frame may be questionable, and inaccurate, but what I do remember was at some point my little brother and I had hauled up the leather case and its contents from the basement. A year had probably passed and i know this because when i saw the man with the light eyes he was standing in our living room. That memory is solid and as clear as pure water. But the day we brought up the leather case, the room had been converted to a dining room. We placed the case on that dining room table. Staring at it in amazement. It was filled with such fun stuff!!! It was so cool.

 The box had two leather buckles and a wooden handle. It opened easily to reveal a collection of lenses in various shapes and thicknesses. We surmised that they had been Mr. Mel’s lenses, and that by trade, he must have been an optometrist.

My brother and I were fascinated by the collection. This was the early eighties, when a typical Bronx household had only one television and no computer. Having grown up with limited resources, we had very few toys, so we relied on being creative to entertain ourselves. The lenses were as good  a pastime as anything else. 

My brother wanted to build a telescope. He held up two lenses opposing each other, stared out the window and into the houses across the street,

    “I can see into their bedrooms!. “ He squealed.

An old woman with long blond hair , which she wore in a braid that twisted around her head like a crown, lived in that house. She had told us she was the descendant of royalty in Denmark so we used to refer to her as “The princess” even though she was well into her eighties.

“Give me” I snatched it from his hands and held them up, inspecting the window across the street which seemed so close to us. I could see her standing inside, it looked like she was sweeping.

“Wow.”  was all I could say.

Later in the afternoon I brought the box into our small, concrete backyard and tried to make a fire on some dry leaves by reflecting beams from the sun. 

By nightfall, the box had made its way back to our dining room table.

Pretty typical right? Nothing out of the ordinary? But wait……

To explain this part I need to explain the floor plans of our small Bronx house. It was a two bedroom apartment. What was referred to as a prewar railroad flat where each room led into the next room like a train car.

 I was given the small bedroom and my poor little brother slept on the couch in our living room. If I were to explain it as being a straight line it would go something like this; My bedroom, small hall with bathroom to the side, which lead to the dining room, which lead to the  livingroom where my brother slept, which lead to my mom’s bedroom.

So the dining room, the same room I had seen the man with the light eyes, lay between my bedroom and the living room (Where my brother slept). I hope that makes sense.

That night something awoke me. Not a noise, or any disturbance, I simply found myself sitting upright and unable to get back to sleep. I have since learned , when that happens, when something wakes you up and you don’t know why, there is a reason and here was mine.

Unable to return to slumber, I decided to use the bathroom. As I sat on the toilet I heard a screeching sound. It wasn’t loud, but in the stillness of the house it seemed menacing. But I could clearly hear it, even through the rumbling of the elevated train which came through the avenue every fifteen minutes. The best way I can explain the sound was as if two pieces of styrofoam were rubbing against each other. And with that sound, the unsettling feeling that something was in the dining room. 

I have to admit, what made this even more frightening was the memory of the man with the light eyes came to mind. I wondered, was he there? Was he waiting by the lamp post again? Staring into nothingness? Was he waiting for me?

I swallowed hard and whispered to my little brother.

“Tommy, are you there. Is that you.”

His voice came back instantly.

“What is that?”  He had obviously heard it too.

“I dunno?”

“Go see” I ordered.

“No, you go see.”

“No way.” 

I’m sure the conversation persisted as such for some time as the remainder of the night I cannot recall, but at some point I had made it back to my bedroom.

My brother was a rooster during those days, waking at the peeking of the sun. I , in contrast, hibernated well into the late morning. He came barreling into my room,  shaking me violently out of my sleep that morning.

“Get up!” 

“What!” I snapped and pushed him violently away.

“Get up, Get up. You gotta see this!”

Memories from the night before dripped into my consciousness and I popped out of bed, and followed  him into the dining room. The box with the lenses lay open, although I remembered having buckled it the night before. Its contents strewn across the table and onto the linoleum floor. But what was even more frightening, some of the lenses were shattered into tiny fragmented pieces as if they had exploded.

My mother barreled in with a broom and in a frenzy as we were blamed for the mess neither one of us had created,

“I want that box out of this house. Throw it away! I’m tired of you too making messes!”

I don’t recall what happened to the box. I suppose we did as she said and threw it away. Like I said, my memories were like looking through a lace curtain. To this day however, how could those lenses have exploded? 

My Bronx Haunting – Chapter 3

The Wall and the Unleashing

I started my new school on a cloudy day in September. It was hard to fit in. We had a lot less money than the other kids so my mom resorted to sewing all my clothes which made me stand out miserably. In my old neighborhood it was commonplace. The immigrant mothers all knew how to sew, and used this skill to their advantage; saving money by sewing their family’s wardrobe. But in my new neighborhood, if you didn’t dress a certain way, you were instantly ostracized. I longed for a pair of store bought jeans and it was months before my mother actually obliged. So i had few friends in the beginning. But one friend was Malinda. She began sitting with me at lunch and with the Gods in my favor, ironically, she ended up moving into the house next door. Anna’s house.

Malinda’s family was the first African American family on the street. I suspected that she felt outcast as well, and wondered if that was why she had befriended me to begin with. Malinda made my second summer in that house amazing.

The street I lived on consisted of what we called railroad flats. Pre-war I, two family homes, attached on both sides like a can of packed sardines. If you knew a kid who who lived in one of the second floor apartments you could get on the roof and run the entire length of the street safely on roof tops. We’d toss water balloons or shoot spitballs at the the cantankerous older neighbors then duck away down the rooftops like a murder of crows. Giggling over the fact that they could never understand where the attack originated. It was a magical time when kids played manhunt into the night, stick-ball in the street, rode bikes over makeshift ramps in the alley, and watched TV through open windows from our porches while slurping 5 cent ices from the corner deli.

The houses were identical, carbon copes of one another, as if someone had xeroxed one and sprinkled copies down the length of the street. I spent a lot of time in Malinda’s basement where we played hide in seek or board games because her mother worked late and often slept in the day and didn’t want kids upstairs. It was an unfinished cellar, with a cold concrete floor, exposed ceiling pipes and cinder block walls. The walls however were splattered with graffiti . Anna’s grandchildren apparently had decided to decorate it that way. One image, I distinctly remember being a devil, with red horns, long yellow fangs and the letters A- D – G scribbled underneath. When we exited we were always covered in dust and asbestos from the exposed pipes. I got to know that basement well.

The house on the opposite side, was Carina’s house. Carina had an older teenage daughter named Gloria who would often babysit me and it was usually in their basement. She’d give me a coloring book and a cigar box with crayons to keep me busy while she sat on the phone with her friends. But unlike my basement or Malinda’s , Carina’s was finished with creamy linoleum floors, and a makeshift kitchen complete with white tiled walls. There was a small coffee colored couch, with flowery pillows and an aluminum table with two black chairs. A TV sat positioned under a lace lined window but it was hard to watch and displayed no more than snow most of the time.

What became quickly apparent to me, was although Carina’s and Malinda’s basements couldn’t be more different they had one thing that stood out, the back wall.

“I’m telling you. yours is bigger.” I told Malinda.

“No its not.” She insisted as she spit a piece of chewing gum across the bare floor, then kicked some pieces of loose concrete over it.

“Come on.” I grabbed her hand as we emerged from her basement and went into mine. I took her towards the back, and towards the back wall. Unlike the other three walls which were cinder block, this one was made of wooden planks. I had my suspicions, but an open knot hole confirmed it. I stuck my finger inside.

“See, its hollow inside. They boarded up something inside.”

Her large almond shaped eyes squinted, she pushed me aside and put her finger in. Then cautiously withdrew it and stepped backwards. Within minutes we had removed a single board to reveal an opening.

“See its a room!” I squealed. She looked at me quietly,

“You better leave it alone.” she warned.

Within the next few hours I brought the wall to my older brother’s attention. He ripped off the planks and the remainder of the wall to reveal the original cinder block wall and a shoot, which he deduced had once been used to deliver coal to the house. The shoot , about two feet high and three feet wide looked as if it had collapsed into itself. An area about 5 cubic feet gaped open like an decrepit mouth, full of debris, cobwebs, and the stench of mold. It reached out towards me as if whispering,

“Come inside…”

But I was the only one to hear it. Full disclosure, I had a raging imagination.

“Hmmm.” was all i remember saying.

“I don’t want you down there playing anymore.” Was all my mother could say when we brought it to her attention. She wiped her hands on the dishcloth she was holding and went back to her chores.

Irregardless of what she said, I spent the next few days inspecting the the area. The shoot didn’t contain anything suspicious although I remember telling a neighborhood boy I had found a skull and a pair of baby booties, but when he ran home crying I decided not to lie anymore.

The area around the shoot however, had a number of interesting things in it.

Mr. Mel had emptied out the house when he moved but left a few boxes in the basement which my mother hadn’t had time to dispose of. There was a collection of large frames with formal sepia colored pictures in faded vignette. Men in tall hats with long beards, sitting in chairs with high backs. There was one with an old woman, standing alongside a table with a lace tablecloth and a vase which oddly had no flowers .

Two boxes, however, would become important in my Bronx haunting. One was filled with makeup and large perfume bottles and another was a leather case, filled with lenses and mechanisms which appeared to be for an optometrist. These two boxes gave me a hint, as to what it was, we had uncovered.

Our Basement. The shoot was in the back.

My Bronx Haunting- Chapter 2

The Dainty Desk

I suppose I need to go back to the beginning. When everything seemed so normal yet exciting at the same time. The first occurrence in the house.

 I grew up in a borderline-ghetto neighborhood smack in the center of the Bronx in an area called Belmont, more nostalgically referred to as Little Italy. But be rest assured, the buildings were small, old, and the area over populated.  The apartments were stuffy and infested with roaches and mice and other than the narrow sidewalks, there was nowhere to play. There’s nothing fun about hauling grocery bags up a four story building with no elevator or sitting on your stoop near mountains of garbage because the apartments lacked any air conditioning..

So I felt like I won the lottery when my parents took my younger brother and I to our new house in a much more affluent part of the Bronx. A private house, on a tree line street, and where the ants in the backyard were bigger than any ants I had ever seen. The apartment itself was not much different in size than the building we were in, but we had a porch and a full basement to play in. I felt we hit it rich. The word private sounded so provincial.

The neighborhood was a mix of Italians and Jews that tended to keep apart , yet live together harmoniously. Other than the Mezuzah , that the Jewish people kept on their front doors, you couldn’t tell who lived where.  The houses were well kept. Flower pots overflowing with pansies, and the front gardens were well manicured.

All except our house, which needed a set of steps and a new screen door. The garden was nothing more than a collection of weeds so high that my brother and I were able to crawl in and remain totally camouflaged . I didn’t care. I’d pick yellow flowers and bring them inside, put them in  a glass of water. In those early days, dandelions were actual flowers. 

I had two neighbors. Carina lived on the  left. She was an middle aged Italian woman who held a very high standing in the neighborhood. Anna lived on my right. An elderly Jewish woman who spoke with a heavy Polish accent.  Carina was friendly, always giving me braided cookies or small mints wrapped in silver foil. But Anna didn’t care for my brother and I. The neighborhood was changing and the Jewish people were moving out. My family was a reminder of that. So when Anna saw us, she’d dart into her house and disappear with a swift slam of the door..  

“She’s moving soon. Ignore her.” My father would warn us. “She’s an old lady so stay out of her way and be respectful.”

So that’s exactly what we did. 

The man we had purchased our home from at an unbelievable price, was an elderly Jewish man by the name of Mr. Mel. To me he seemed to be a hundred years old. I had never seen anyone that age. So frail it seemed a strong cough would crack his ribs. He took us on the tour of the house that smelled of moth balls and chicken soup. He told us he was going to spend his last years in a retirement home and had asked if we wanted to purchase any of his furniture. Our own furniture was dowdy, mismatched, yet functional. My parents decided to purchase his bedroom set and a small dainty desk that my father had said reminded him of a desk he had in Italy prior to the war. It was a delicate piece of furniture, with brass pulls, dainty legs,  and a small drawer with a golden keyhole in the center. I remember wondering if there was an actual key, and pulling at the draw  to open it. It was locked.

I never saw Mr. Mel nor that desk again.

On move in day, the house was empty, except for the bedroom set. The desk was missing.

“Where is it?” My mother asked as she scanned each room trying to locate the desk. It was nowhere to be found. 

Somehow in the shuffle of the move and all the other chaos that goes along with relocating, the desk was forgotten until one afternoon, the neighborhood italian women congregated on Carina’s porch clutching their supermarket bags. I was in earshot when I caught the odd conversation regarding the desk,

“I saw Anna enter the house and take it.” One of the women had said.

My mother’s expression was blank. We had been in the house for a few weeks at that point and during that time Anna, our elderly neighbor, had moved. “In the middle of the night”, was the term that was used. 

“She’s so old.” My mother replied. “How could she carry it?”

“She did, she took it out, I asked her what she was doing it, or how she was able to get into the house, but she didn’t say anything, and took the desk home with her. It was the night before you moved in.” The conversation continued, as I listened curled up on a decrepit bench that lay on the porch. From what I could infer fron their conversation on that late summer day, the two elderly people were close friends and it was not uncommon to see Anna visit Mr. Mel. Why exactly she had gone over, after he had moved, seemed to be a question we would never find the answer for, yet has made me curious for years.

That night, I slept with the window open, overlooking our yard. I had become fascinated by the sounds of the crickets in the night. I fell asleep, and distinctly remember rolling over and pulling the blanket on my shoulder as we were ending the summer season and the nights were beginning to get cool. The blanket shifted, as if it were caught on something under the bed. I tugged back at it, pulling it up once more over my shoulders. I felt my eyes closing, as a breeze trickled over my face, but once again the blanket slipped off my shoulder.

I tugged once more. The banket felt as if it were caught on something. A shuffled upwards, tugging firmly when the blanket slipped out of my hand and fell to the floor. I gasped, sat up straight and froze. Not knowing what to do. I convinced myself that what had happened didn’t actually happen. 

Reaching towards the floor I grabbed the blanket and tossed it back on the bed. Tucked myself in  and lay staring at the ceiling. I remember looking at the waning moon through my window, when I felt something on my head. At first I thought it was merely my long hair, which at that time was waist long, shifting over the edge of the bed.  But the sensation that followed terrified me. It was the distinct feeling of a cold hand, moving over my forehead and onto my face, clasping my chin. I leaped out of bed, and scampered into my parent’s room.

“Go to bed!” there was no arguing her. I knew that. I retreated to the hall and waited. “Are you in your room?” Came the follow up ordinance. 

 I went back to my room. Stared at the bed, the moon cast an eerie blue sheen to my pillow. 

“Go to bed! ” Came one last demand from my mother. I entered slowly and crawled into bed. It was years before I ever told anyone that story….

My Bronx Haunting – Chapter 1

The man with the light eyes

Imagine sleeping quietly in your small room in the middle of summer.  We couldn’t afford air-conditioning , so our windows were always open, offering the slightest relief in the form of a wayward breeze. But along with the welcomed air, heavy with the smell of the city, came the noises of the concrete jungle. Police sirens, the 24 hour elevated train and the constant barrage of rowdy teenagers winding down the busy streets was commonplace. City kids learned to be heavy sleepers by necessity. So much so that when I moved to the suburbs of Bergen county in my thirties, I found it hard to sleep in the silence. But back to the Bronx….

It was three in the morning, and I found myself restless, sitting upright in my bed. I was eleven, and in full disclosure, suffered from a raging imagination. But this was different. Something woke me up. I was wide awake, and I knew it.

I shifted several times, rolling the pillows under my neck, desperate to get back to sleep. I began looking at the posters on my wall.  Adam Ant and John Schneider occupied equal occupancy in the early Eighties. I was desperate to distract myself back to a sweet dream of either.  But something was wrong. It was hard to explain. A subtle shift of energy in the room. The hair on my arms was standing up.

After a few failed attempts to get comfortable, I walked to the bathroom. It was the very next room from my door, and in a tiny hallway that lead to our living room. As I stood in that hall, barely five feet in length, I sensed a presence. I don’t recall exactly what I felt, but I sensed someone was in the living room.

Initially, I called out to my mother. It was a muffled cry as I was too scared to scream in fear of getting her angry. When she didn’t respond I investigated on my own. That’s when I saw him. Standing in the corner of the living room. He was silent and motionless. His shoulders broad, positioned against a standing lamp between a window and a large standing radio that doubled as a curio cabinet.

The room was dark, save for the light that streamed in through the windows from the streetlights outside. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I could see the shape of his face, his eyes wide opened and gazing back at me. He was fully formed, three dimensional, not a shadowy shape that you see depicted in movies. He was as real as I was.

I was frozen. The kind of fear that immobilizes you, makes it hard even to breathe. But it occurred to me that this man was as frightened of me as I was of him.

He was middle-aged, wearing suspenders and I remember boots. A dark hat, something like a cowboy hat, but not quite, sat on his head. I couldn’t see his facial features, but I distinctly remember his eyes. They were steady and fixed on me. Light colored and intense. I opened my mouth to say something but found myself speechless .

Then the barrage of questions rushed in my head. Why was he here, in the middle of the night? Why was I the only one in the room with him? Why were the lights off? Where was my mother or my brother? I knew this was wrong. So I darted back to my room, closed the door quietly so as not to wake anyone, and remained leaning against the door for what seemed like hours. Finding it hard to breathe, finding it hard to think, I remained frozen. At some point I quietly shifted away from the door, turned the doorknob which had a small lock, and retreated to my bed.

My bed was nestled in the corner by a window. I curled into that corner, forming a cocoon by wrapping the sheets and pillows around me until morning came. It was a long, sleepless night.

At some point I had fallen asleep, and by morning I heard a movement in the living room. Grateful that my mother was an early riser, I rushed in to meet her and told her what had happened. The revelation garnered me nothing more than a roll of the eyes. Like I said, full disclosure, I had a raging imagination.

Later in the day, my mother was entertaining family friends for dinner. I brought up the conversation at the table but was met with laughs and chuckles by everyone seated around the meal, and when I insisted what I had seen was not a dream, I was admonished with a discrete slap in the face by my mother.

I learned a very important lesson that day. Be careful who you tell, because unless it’s happened to you, it is hard to believe. This was just the beginning of my haunting. A haunting that scared not only myself but several of my friends through the years.

The Corner where he stood. The radio use to stand on the left.