Paperback, 108 pages
Red Hook Editions
List price: $19.95
Pauline Farley had never been attached to the aunt who passed away leaving her the house, but perceived it as a duty to take over the modest estate. It wasn't the responsibility in its own right which made her resentful, but the thought of a full hour's drive each way between her place of work and home on a narrow rural road. The multi-lane expressway would have meant less than half of the time, but she had only to imagine the open stretch with its stark, bare horizon and faint sickness overcame her.
Pauline quickly learned to make do with the scenic, wood-lined route, whose only troubling aspect was a figure, which appeared every morning and evening, at one point or another, on the gravelly shoulder of the road. She always started when the small, shrunken form came into view. Stiff, brass-colored hair covered the profile in massive waves, and the heavy mohair coat with over-sized pockets seemed to swallow up its frail bearer. Given the many curves and an uneven, inadequately paved surface, Pauline had to keep her attention on the lane ahead, and could only glance quickly into the rear-view mirror to make out a thick fringe hanging before the down-turned face like a curtain.
Even when the days turned cold and wet, the pedestrian appeared steadfastly, always moving in the direction in which Pauline drove. Despite her pity for the lone plodder, whom she saw as delivered up to the Autumn elements, the feeling of unease, even repulsion, that got hold of her when she imagined the faceless mass of hair, made her decide against stopping to offer relief from the endless, drizzly stretch.
All at once Pauline was possessed by the idea that the pedestrian might lurch out onto the lane and tumble under the car. Pins and needles danced on her scalp and the nape of her neck when she imagined a heavy thud, accompanied by a scratching sound from the enormous buttons of the mohair coat. When the figure actually began to appear on the very edge of the road, it horrified and enraged her to think that, through no fault of her own, she should be turned into a highway butcher.
Not even sleep was a refuge from the anxiety which began to harden the contours of Pauline's face. Deep bluish half-circles formed under her dark eyes, which themselves had assumed a wild expression, reminding her of one in the throes of suffocation. Every thoughtless glance in a mirror, at the blade of a knife, or the glass within a picture frame gave her such a terrible start that, before long, the thought of her own reflection became intolerable.
On a damp evening, when the wind cried and moaned out of doors, she slipped into bed early. Weary from the struggle to remove the full-length hall mirror, she closed her eyes to find herself on the dark, winding road. Heavy rain and the sparse, dim roadside illumination made it necessary to approach every curve at a crawling speed.
Pauline shuddered in expectation of the faceless pedestrian and, soon unnerved by the suspense accompanying every cautious shift of the wheel, decided to turn back toward the expressway. But when the car lights fell on the brassy mesh a few meters ahead, her heart shot into her throat. She brought the car to such an abrupt stop that, despite the restraining force of the safety belt, her forehead nearly struck the wheel.
As soon as the figure had disappeared around a curve, she began maneuvering to change her direction, and — in the haste of fright — backed too forcefully across the lane, embedding her rear wheels in the rain-softened shoulder of the road. When, after a long struggle, she succeeded in bringing the car up onto the paved surface, she hurriedly steered onto the lane leading back to the road's entrance.
Determined to put the narrow, winding stretch behind her, Pauline cast off what she knew to be an unjustified fear and thought almost triumphantly of the bald, multi-lane expressway. For the first time in weeks, she even switched on the car radio, but the onslaught of rain permitted only a loud, abrasive static. Despite her frantic effort to switch it off again, static continued to pour out at an painful pitch, finally forcing her to pull out the hearing apparatus without which she was almost entirely deaf. She waited for her heart to slow, refreshing herself with several long breaths of fresh air from the slightly opened window before starting off toward her goal.
What had become impatience to face the challenge was suddenly checked by the appearance of a blurred figure on the far side of the road. Its stiff, brassy waves scintillated under the light of the streetlamp. Pauline felt her skin tighten when the pedestrian stepped onto the lane and moved toward the car. In horrified confusion, she closed her eyes and pressed her foot to the accelerator. The cry stuck in her throat as a thud jarred her out of her sleep.
In order to free her attention from the road and arm herself with a witness, Pauline had decided to hire taxis for the trips to and from work on the following day. When she set out at six-thirty in the morning, anticipation along with weariness from a poor night's rest, left her in a state of almost unbearable excitement. She imagined the driver's alarm at the emergence of the pedestrian with a feeling of vindication and struggled to refrain from twisting about in the seat.
Not until an hour had elapsed and the stretch converged with a four-lane road did suspense give way to frustrated rage. Pauline had been prepared to pay a sizable sum for the taxi, but the thought of all being in vain made her ball her hands to bloodless fists and grit her teeth. Only the hope of success on the evening trip home made it possible to face the tedium of eight hours' work.
Shortly before five o'clock she was underway again. At first she scanned both sides of the road furtively. But when nearly half of the stretch was behind them, her impatience had mounted to the extent that she entirely forgot the presence of the driver and turned frantically from side to side, eventually wrenching herself around in order to look out of the back window. As the narrow road came to its end for the second time, she strained to smother a convulsion of sobs.
Despite the warmth of the house, a chill took hold of Pauline as her eyes fell on the dreary staircase leading to the upper hall. Although the full-length mirror no longer hung in its place, the memory of the shrunken image — a horrific testimony to weeks of anxiety — was enough to fill her with such dread that she pulled open the door again and hurried out onto the stoop. Only a few seconds passed before the icy wind and rain drove her back into the foyer.
Finally slipping out of the damp coat, she allowed it to fall to the floor in a cold, glistening heap. After much hesitation, she put on the light and made her slow, shuddering way up the stairs. When she reached the upper hall, she fixed her eyes on the varnished floor in order to avoid the sight of two massive hooks which had suspended the mirror. Ill from exhaustion, she slipped into bed without washing.
The ringing of the clock startled Pauline out of a deep sleep. Before she could reproach herself for the idea of pursuing the pedestrian on foot — a fantastic last resort — a glimpse of her silhouette in the glass plate covering a hallway chest reminded her that she would never recover until the torment of curiosity had been brought to an end. While she hated the idea of a masquerade, she shrank from the thought of betraying her purpose to anyone. Not only would it be necessary to disguise herself, she would have to set out in the dark and quiet of the evening.
The draped, stuffed figure in front of the sewing room window always gave Pauline such a start upon entering that only with harsh, loudly spoken self-reproofs, could she muster the courage to approach it. Not even the mortified resolve which governed her steps kept her emaciated hands from trembling as she raised the drape to examine the familiar artificial hairpiece.
Over a heavy woolen skirt and pullover she thought to wear an old coat left in the sewing room closet. Just imagining the stale, musty smell made her mouth fill with sour saliva, and she scolded herself again for faint-heartedness before daring her way into that unwholesome, neglected place. Finally drawing in and stopping her breath, she gave the brass knob an unaffectionate twist and wrenched open the door. Warped and heavy on its time-worn hinges, it groaned in protest. Pauline reached in, tugging the selected mohair coat off of its hanger. Wadding it up in her arms, she withdrew and pushed herself against the door so that it closed with a loud click.
When the sky had turned dark she removed the hairpiece from the stuffed figure and cut a fringe out of the one-length bowl of hair, leaving it just long enough to cover her eyebrows. She adjusted it on her head so that the fringe and enormous side waves enveloped her like the hood of a cloak. Reluctantly drawing the mohair coat about her, she breathed through her mouth in order not to drown in the abhorrent musty smell.
Pauline buried her fists in the large pockets of the coat and set out, carrying only the key to the front door. A short distance from the house, she noticed that she had forgotten the hearing apparatus, which she had taken out before adjusting the hairpiece, but decided that the brassy sheen under the street lamps would be adequate to signal the whereabouts of the pedestrian.
The wind urged her along with strong, soundless gusts and suddenly she thought of those, who, driven by restlessness or desperate circumstances, wandered out into the night either to be found butchered or never to be seen again. She shivered recalling the story of a school child, Bernie Lou, who had run out of doors late one evening in a fit of ill-spirits and vanished, leaving behind only a mass of torn hair —
A sudden movement under the lamp across the road sent a bolt of electricity through Pauline. Too frightened to look about, she turned her face downward, allowing the heavy artificial hair to bar her view ahead and on both sides. Just as she had decided to turn back to the house, the recollection of her image in the hall mirror came to her with almost tangible vividness, inspiring greater horror in her than the dark stretch.
Having found her determination again, she resolutely pushed the artificial waves away from her face and looked across the road. But the great curves allowed for only a narrow range of vision. Pauline watched and waited, fixed to the spot, until a bright flash of light among the trees opposite drew her out onto the lane.
The frail mohair-draped pedestrian was thrown some twenty feet by the impact of the car fender and struck the roughly paved surface in a supine position. Her nostrils were filled with dark fluid and the small mouth seemed to form a smile of satisfaction. Motionless black eyes looked peacefully out from below the disordered brassy fringe which glimmered under the light of the streetlamp.