Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A House In The Woods

A House In The Woods

I worked at a Kmart in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in November, 2001. Williamsport is a city in the mountainous region of north central PA, best known as being the home of Little League Baseball, and lumber capital of the world until the surrounding mountains ran out of trees. I grew up in a much smaller town outside Williamsport's borders, called DuBoistown. DuBoistown is the kind of town where most folk know other folk's business. If Bob is cheating on his wife and Bob is walking down the street, bystanders see him and think "That's Bob, the guy who cheats on his wife." But folk in DuBoistown also grow up with that small town sense of morality; if someone needs a hand, well, by god drop what you're doing and lend a hand. If a neighbor knocks at your door at 3 in the morning because he needs 3 pounds of flour and a ballpeen hammer, you wake up and get him the flour and the damned ballpeen hammer.


I was manning Kmart's home center department one evening when I was paged on the overhead speakers concerning an incoming customer call. I picked up the receiver attached to the pillar between the paint shaker and deck wash, and I greeted the caller with the obligatory, "Hi. Thank you for calling Kmart. How can I help you?" The voice at the other end was somewhat meek. "Yes, hello. I have something to ask you. I'm a disabled veteran and I'm in the process of moving. I need a big favor. The doorknob on my front door is broken. Since I can't make it down to the store myself due to my disability I was hoping that you'd be able to purchase a door knob for me and deliver it to my house personally tonight. I'll pay you gas money."

I put him on hold while I processed the conversation. Kmart clerks don't typically take personal orders for merchandise and delivery them to private homes like pizza delivery services. And nothing screams "good idea" about driving god-knows-where to deliver a doorknob to god-knows-who late at night. But this fellow was a disabled veteran who lacked a vital household commodity. I imagined a geezer in a wheelchair becoming more and more disenchanted whenever he tried to close his front door and it invariably creaked back open when the latch didn't catch. I felt like it was my duty to lend a hand. But to be safe, I approached my two friends, Andrea and Dustin, who were also working that night. Normally the three of us would be seeking trouble anyway had we not been scheduled to work. So when presented the opportunity for an off-the-cuff adventure, both were predictably enthused.

I hit the hold button again and informed the disabled veteran that I'd be happy to help. But when the man replied, his voice now seemed quite sinister. "Great! But I don't actually have the gas money on me. You'll need to stop at a buddy's house. He lives near Kmart." Okay. Just a little more adventure, I suppose. "I live out in Trout Run." Trout Run is a hamlet way out where the buses don't run. It's called Trout Run because that's about all that lives out that way, trout. "When you take the Trout Run Exit, take a left and drive about a quarter mile down the road until you see a long gravel driveway that heads deep into the woods. Take it. My house is at the end. Now, I have no electricity, but you'll know it's my house because there'll be a Meet the Parents promotional poster in the front window." Okay. Meet the Parents was a big hit earlier that year. Perhaps he just really enjoyed the film. Regardless, I told him we'd be there by 11 o'clock.

I purchased a door knob prior to punching-out for the night, and I stuffed it inside my car's glove box. After work I followed the veteran's directions to the gas money pick-up point four blocks from Kmart, with Andrea and Dustin in tow. Throughout the drive the three of us joked about the preposterousness of our mission, which already seemed akin to a warped kind of scavenger hunt. When we arrived at the street address, I pulled to the curb along an inconspicuous residential street. Taped to the front door of the house in question was a white envelope with the name MATT written across the front in black marker. Frankly, the errand now seemed more like a booby-trap. Of course, none of the three of us volunteered to be the sucker to approach the front door and be ensnared by the giant net in waiting, or clip the trip wire en route, or succumb to the boogey man waiting inside the front door, who’d spring out and snatch whoever dared remove the envelope from its resting place above the knocker. Being adults, we submitted ourselves to the only fair way to determine the victim; we played paper, rock scissors. Andrea lost. So the only woman amongst two men leapt out of the car, sprinted to the door and snatched the envelope, and then rushed back as though she were being chased by a pack a giant rolling boulder. But sure enough, inside the envelope was 10 bucks for gas money.

Moments later we were climbing the on-ramp to Route 15 North, toward Trout Run. Andrea was still huffing and puffing; her heart was decelerating to normalcy. The Williamsport city lights gradually dimmed in the rearview mirror as we traveled amongst the rugged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Moonlight cast a pale but widespread glow. Ahead, man-made illumination was scarce: a porch light on a faraway farm house in the hills, or a flood light outside of a silo. We mused about who exactly we would encounter when we arrived at the house in the woods. Andrea expected no one less than a secluded wild-eyed veteran turned Michael Myers. Dustin imagined a cockeyed but innocent hermit. Me? I still figured the mysterious veteran was just a little old man in a wheelchair, hoping to repair his front door.

We exited the highway at the sole Trout Run exit, four miles beyond the prior exit and four miles before the next. The last sign of life we'd encountered was a car southbound, about five minutes ago. We moved along the narrow road for about a quarter mile until we arrived at a driveway that headed into a cluster of skyscraper-like trees. I turned right unto the driveway, as instructed. We rolled along slowly. Pebbles popped underneath the tires as the car gently bounced along the rutted terrain. Eventually, two hemlock trees parted revealing a decrepit house awash in moonlight. Shingles were dislodged from the roof; gutters sagged; the chimney was slightly bent. As described, no lights were on despite the presence of porch light globes adoring the doorway. But, in the front window, an apprehensive Ben Stiller was taking a polygraph test from a scowling Robert De Niro. Believe me, there's nothing more intimidating than a scowling Robert De Niro in the moonlight, especially when your nerves are already on high alert. "This must be the place," I said as I stopped the car.

I plucked the door knob from the glove box. Then the three of us slinked on to the front porch, which creaked in meager support of our weight. Meanwhile, the scowling De Niro's eyes seemed to follow us like the eyes in those creepy Jesus paintings. I knocked on the front door, rattling paint chips dangling from cobwebs sagging off the door frame. Footsteps trudged toward the front door—not the sounds of a wheelchair rolling along hardwood. The doorknob turned. Yes, the door knob TURNED. The veteran pulled opened the door, revealing himself. He was clad in camouflage from his black combat boots to his leathery neck. His head was topped with a black bandana; bushy white hair exploded out the back. He wore Rawlings batting gloves on both hands. RAWLINGS BATTING GLOVES! He held a metal flashlight—one of those industrial strength ones that holds four D batteries long-ways—in his hand. This provided the only light in the house besides the moonlight pouring in above the scowling De Niro in the window. Behind him were several stacks of cardboard boxes scattered about the kitchen floor; each box was sealed at the seams with duct tape. A dining table rested in the corner beside a tilting bookshelf. In the opposite corner was a rusty Mad Men era oven between scuffed countertops. Everything was covered in dust.

The veteran turned the flashlight toward us and probed us with his eyes. His face was wrinkled and coarse; he had the eyes of a man who'd seen some shit in his day. Jack asked…I'm going to refer to him as Jack from now on, in honor of the scowling De Niro. Jack asked, "Do you HAVE the doorknob?" I held it into the oncoming flashlight beam. He smiled subtly and nodded. "Good," Jack said as he grabbed the doorknob and tossed it on the kitchen table. Dust kicked up. "Come on in," he said, motioning us toward him. We slogged forward a few steps. Jack brushed passed us, closed the door behind us, and then locked it. Andrea gasped as the deadbolt clicked. The DISABLED VETERAN who desperately needed a new door knob WALKED to the door and LOCKED THE DOOR behind us. We were prisoners now.  

Jack spun back around and perched his weathered eyes on mine. "Want to see my daughter," he asked. I gulped. His daughter!? She's in this house!? Is she locked in a dark, dark room? Is she chained up outside in a shed? Oh my God! Is she in pieces in the boxes on the floor? Rather than ask the obvious questions, I simply nodded. "Follow me," Jack said. He followed his flashlight beam to the bookshelf. I followed Jack, wincing with each step in anticipation of whatever crazy shit was about to happen. Andrea and Dustin followed me, walking slowly like they wore cinderblock shoes. Jack pulled a binder from the glut of other binders and hardbound books on the shelf. Then he turned his flashlight downward and opened the binder. It was filled with assorted letters written in pencil on tablet paper, and clippings from various publications. "There she is. There's my daughter," he said, almost proudly. He held up the binder, displaying a newspaper article from the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. The paper on which the article was written was wrinkled and yellow. I skimmed the piece, a human interest story about the owner of a newly opened pizza shop in downtown Williamsport. Accompanying the story was a low resolution photograph of the owner, a smiling woman with dark shoulder-length hair. I felt like I was looking at the missing person picture on the backside of a milk cartoon from three decades ago. The woman in the photo MAY have been his daughter, but she was long, long gone.   

Jack directed the flashlight beam over my shoulder and toward Dustin, who was hunkering behind me. "You. I want to show YOU something," Jack said. I had never heard such a foreboding statement. Dustin's eyes widened. Then Jack turned the flashlight to the opposite corner of the room. Dust slowly drifted through the beam. "See that red trunk. I want you to go open and it and see what's inside." When I recall this moment now, I imagine Jack is licking his lips and salivating. Dustin eyed the cumbersome red trunk and took a deep breath before uttering a single word, "Okay." Jack crept toward the trunk. Dustin followed, and stopped when told, a feet in front of the trunk. "Go ahead. Open it," Jack said. Dustin closed his eyes for a moment, as though he were thinking "Okay. This is it. It all ends here." Then he slowly bent down and slipped his fingers underneath the lid. Jack turned off his flashlight and set it on a stack of boxes. Moonlight enveloped the room. Jack proceeded to snatch a wrench from the nearby countertop, and gradually raise it above his head. I got a good look at the wrench in the moonlight as it hovered above Dustin's skull; this was the wrench a plumber would refer to as his "big gun."

I glanced over at Andrea. She was standing still, like a mannequin in a Macy's department store. The look on her face was just as blank. I slowly tiptoed backwards toward the front window, where the scowling De Niro still watched over the front porch like a guard dog whose master toyed with his prey.  Thoughts—rather survival plans—darted through my mind. Should I yell for help? No. Only the forest would hear me. Should I tackle Jack and save my friends. No. I'm too scared to play hero. Should I somehow muster the strength to thrust my elbow through the window behind me and run for dear life? Yes. If I must, I must. Then the thought occurred to me: I never told Jack I was bringing friends. He expected me to appear alone! I'm the one who is supposed to be moments from being bashed in the back of the head and stuffed into that red trunk! Because I decided to do a guy a favor, now my friend is going to be murdered.  

"See what that is?" Jack asked as he leered over Dustin, poised to strike. Only the sound of Dustin panting answered. "That's an Andy Gibb's guitar. He played it in concert," Jack said, lowering the wrench.

WHAT!? THAT'S what all this was leading too? This "disabled veteran" lied about needing a doorknob so he could lure us to no man's land to lock us in his house and scare the living shit out of us every which way, only to ultimately brag about owning teen icon— younger brother of the Brothers Gibb—Andy Gibb's fucking guitar?

Dustin was wobbling, a heartbeat from fainting. Andrea remained frozen. My elbow was cocked inches front the window, prepared to shatter it. Jack simply smiled. It wasn't a "gotcha'" smile, rather the seemlying proud and innocent smile an Andy Gibb's fan would flash upon displaying his prize possession.  He proceeded to grab the flashlight, turn it on, and then point it toward the front door. "Okay. I think you guys should be leaving now," Jack said, walking to the front door and unlocking it. Andrea Dustin and I all exhaled at once.   

As the three of us scurried through the doorway, Jack asked, "Hey. If the doorknob doesn't work can I bring it back to Kmart?" I chuckled, however nervously, as I thought to myself, "Oh, YOU can take it BACK to Kmart apparently, but you need a stranger to personally deliver it to your home." I stiffened. "No," I replied. "You can't bring it back. It's not Kmart's policy to take back defective merchandise." Of course Kmart takes back defective merchandise, but I was so disoriented and downright pissed-off concerning the night's events that I needed to feel empowered as I walked away. I closed the door behind me before Jack could do the same.

For the first ten minutes on the return drive to Williamsport silence was in command. Our psyches required time to ease back to equilibrium. When we finally came to we pondered Jack's true intentions. Was he truly a disabled veteran, but his disability purely of the mental sort? Is shellshock still a condition? Possibly. Was he actually planning a murder tonight, but decided at the last second to spare Dustin his life, possibly upon realizing that two unexpected "guests" might either be witnesses or complicate the plot too much? Perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, Jack really was a just huge Andy Gibbs fan, and concocted a ploy to unleash his repressed fandom and flaunt his precious guitar that was once plucked by Andy Gibb's fingers.   

 Life had seemingly returned to normal by the preceding afternoon. I was again toiling in the Kmart’s home center department, mixing paint and recommending drill bits, when I was paged to the customer service desk. As I approached the desk, a mixture of rage and anxiety overcame me. Jack was leaning on the countertop, doorknob in hand. Of course, he still sported the camouflage outfit, bandana and Rawlings batting gloves. Cheryl, the customer service lady, motioned me over to the service desk. I obliged out of misguided loyalty to Kmart. Cheryl questioned me as to why the gentleman before her was told by me that he couldn't return the dysfunctional doorknob I so graciously delivered to him. I glanced to Jack, who sneered. That pushed me over the edge. "You can't return this doorknob," I repeated. "I told you that last night. You need to leave the store."  A look of sheer wildness overcame him. If Jack indeed was prone to shellshock, he must have suddenly thought he was back in the jungles of 'Nam. He stepped toe-to-toe with me and cocked his fist behind his head. "I welcomed you into my house. I showed you my daughter. I showed you my Andy Gibbs guitar. And this is how you treat me?"

Jack seemed totally pathetic now, almost sad. Had I raised a combative hand myself, I would've appeared to witnesses like a young asshole retaliating against someone who was clearly, at least in the broad daylight beside the service desk in a crowded Kmart, a disabled veteran just trying to return a defective doorknob. So, I just turned and walked away.


I grew up in DuBoistown. I was raised to help others when others need help. I still believe that, mostly.  But when red flags abound, perhaps it's better to just turn and walk away, and help yourself instead.  

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