The old man sat in his worn out lawn chair puffing on an equally worn pipe full of cheap but sweet-smelling tobacco. The kids sat around on the creaky, dry-rotted wooden porch. Some of them were trying to brush the peeling paint chips off their shorts.
We loved that smell, the smell of the old man’s pipe. We also loved the popcorn he made. He passed it around in a big wooden bowl as we sat there on the crusty porch listening to his stories on long summer evenings. It had enough butter on it to choke a cow and our shirts were covered in grease by the time the story was over. We didn’t care.
The old man could tell a story that made you think he was narrating it as it was happening. He was better than a movie and back then kids knew how to use their imaginations. It was like a muscle; the more you exercised it, the bigger it got. Ours were plenty big.
We were fascinated by his age. How could anything that old still be moving and breathing? But he was a spry, wiry type of man, the kind you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with because he would be too quick and hard to keep a hold of if you did catch him. We marveled at his grizzled face, deep craggy lines sparsely dotted with snow-white whiskers.
Even his hands looked like they had worked three jobs a day for a hundred years. And he always wore the same ragged, faded blue overalls. We were sure they would someday hang in a museum.
It was his eyes that captivated us the most though. They were gray, the kind of gray that marks an overcast sky just before a storm hits. They lit and flashed as he told his stories, burning holes right through us with the drama, fear and excitement. They made you actually lean into him as he spoke, wondering, with bated breath, what was coming next.
“Tell us about ‘the falling down house’.”
One of the kids spoke up and the chatter and popcorn munching stopped instantly, some of the kids poised with kernels in their fingers, halfway to their mouths.
No one ever spoke of the ‘falling down house’. It just wasn’t brought up except in quiet whispers among ourselves when we would deliberately cross the street to avoid walking in front of the ramshackle, deteriorating three story structure. It was directly across from the old man’s house. That’s how most of us came to know the old man. We were intent on avoiding ‘the falling down house’.
Maybe it was because it was October with Halloween just around the corner. Maybe it was the slight bite in the air and the fact that we occasionally had to remove a leaf or two from the wooden bowl of popcorn if it sat on the floor of the porch for more than a few minutes. Something made that boy bring up ‘the falling down house’.
All eyes were on the old man.
He nodded, puffing on his pipe. A stiff breeze blew his pipe smoke away along with the sweet and salty odor of the popcorn. For a moment, none of us could smell, hear or taste anything as we waited.
“I don’t know that I ought to be tellin’ you kids about that there house. It ain’t never been quite figgered out to this day.”
A neighbor girl who lived down the alley from me spoke up quietly, as though afraid to say anything.
“My Mom and Dad told me it’s called ‘the falling down house’ because it’s a wreck.”
“That ain’t rightly so.” The old man pursed his lips and forced blue smoke out from between them.
“My parents said the same thing.” Another boy spoke up as he shoved popcorn in his mouth. Spitting kernels and half smiling, he continued. “They said to stay out of there or it would fall down on us.”
“I go by there on my paper route and I hear weird noises.” Another boy raised his hand as he spoke as if he were in class. “I thought I heard someone saying ‘help me’. I pedaled so hard to get out of there I thought my wheels were going to come off.”
The other kids laughed nervously.
“You might well have heard exactly that.” The old man’s raspy voice cut through the air and recaptured our attention.
“It’s called what it’s called because of the Robeson’s, mister and missus to be precise.”
Every eye and ear on the porch was sharply tuned to the old man. All of us, at once it seemed, tried to shake off a sudden chill in the air.
“It’s rumored that Mr. Robeson…” The old man paused and tapped his pipe stem on his yellow teeth, “How shall I put this? They say he sort of pushed Mrs. Robeson down the stairs one night after a particularly gruesome fight. Mind you, never proved it. Some nights you can hear Mrs. Robeson at the bottom of the stairs softly calling for help.”
“I knew it!” The boy with the paper route jumped up and turned toward ‘the falling down house’. “I knew I heard someone!”
“Sit down, you didn’t hear anything.” An older boy grabbed his arm and tugged him back to the floor.
We all turned to look at the empty, crumbling house, its broken second-floor windows looking back like hollow black eyes. Early evening was setting in and the shadows of dancing branches bared of their leaves flittered across the front of the house. The tattered front screen door flapped in the breeze, sometimes slamming shut, only to be blown open again. A half-crumbling brick chimney struggled to remain upright on the roof and all the kids on the porch jumped as a single brick broke loose and tumbled down the shingles, clattering to the cracked sidewalk below.
“See,” the girl spoke again in a whisper, “it’s falling down.”
“Ever notice how sad a house looks when nobody lives in it anymore? Anyway, they used to fight all the time.” The old man took a long drag from his pipe and all our noses perked up trying to suck in the sweet smell. “You could hear ‘em clear down the street. Sometimes they’d get to throwin’ things at each other. Mrs. Robeson seemed to favor pots and pans while Mr. Robeson liked furniture.”
He shook his head as he thought about it.
“Them two could go at it for hours and I think they only quit ‘cause they got plumb tuckered out.”
“My parents fight but they don’t throw things at each other. My Dad just gets in the car and don’t come back for two days.” The smallest boy on the porch spoke while others silently nodded in agreement.
“One night it got particularly bad, so bad that the ambulance came and took Mr. Robeson to the hospital. He had a gash on his head that bled so bad it left a trail out the front door. Mrs. Robeson was out there the next day hosin’ off the sidewalk and whistling a happy tune.”
The old man tapped his teeth again. “Come to think of it, I never seen that woman so happy as she was that day.”
The small boy smiled. “My mom is real happy when Dad goes away for two days.”
Some of the kids on the porch laughed.
“Well, she wasn’t happy for too much longer.” The old man leaned forward and the tone of his voice made us all hold our breath.
“When Mr. Robeson came back from the hospital, they was right back at it again. You could hear him screaming at her. ’I’m gonna git you for what you did to me, woman!’ They went back and forth for a couple more hours and then it all got quiet like. I thought they went to bed and finally gave up the fightin’ for the night. But no.”
The old man paused for dramatic effect and it worked like a charm. Several of the kids leaned forward and asked simultaneously, “What happened?”
“Well, round about eleven or so, I seen a light come on at one of the second floor windows. Then I heard some screamin’. Sure seemed like it was Mrs. Robeson. Leastwise that’s what I told the sheriff.”
All the kids on the porch were leaning toward the old man. One of the girls was clutching her friend’s arm and digging her fingernails into the other girl’s skin. A boy was chewing his fingernail in anticipation. Most of us had our mouths hanging open.
“I heard some scuffling and some more yellin’ from Mrs. Robeson and then I heard a couple of loud thumps. Sounded like someone threw a sack of bricks down the stairs. Couldn’t tell for sure though. Next day, the sheriff comes rollin’ up. Me and him go on inside and there she is, poor Mrs. Robeson, layin’ at the bottom of the stairs with a broken back.”
Several of the kids gasped and tossed backward glances at ‘the falling down house’.
“Was she dead?” One of them asked.
“Not right off, near as we could tell. She had tried to crawl toward the front door but she didn’t get very far.”
“Where was Mr. Robeson?” The boy chewing his fingernail inquired anxiously while looking back at ‘the falling down house’.
“What’s the matter, boy? You expectin’ Mr. Robeson to come out on the lawn to answer your question? Truth is, no one knows. He just sort of disappeared. Never been seen since that night. Come to think of it, I may be the last person to have seen him.”
All the kids on the porch looked at the old man in awe, though we didn’t know why.
“So…so they call it ‘the falling down house’ because Mr. Robeson pushed his wife down the stairs and killed her?” One of the girls stuttered and bit her lip, not really wanting an answer.
“Well, can’t say for sure. After all, isn’t right accusin’ a man who ain’t here to defend himself. I have to admit, though, sure is weird, him disappearin’ like that all of a sudden. Never did find a trace of him.”
We all sat there as the darkness of the evening gathered around us. We were becoming shadows ourselves as we looked at each other, enthralled in the mystery of it all.
A gust of sharp autumn wind blew. The empty popcorn bowl skittered across the floor past our feet and a loud crack resounded across and down the street. We all jumped to our feet. Even the old man stood up. Glass shattered somewhere in the darkness and a bunch of bricks broke away from the chimney and rattled down the roof, landing in the yard with dull thunks. We all watched, mouths agape, as the front corner of ‘the falling down house’ crumbled in on itself.
“Well, what do you think about that?” The old man re-lit his pipe, blown out by the wind.
“Guess we ain’t gonna find out much more about it, now are we?”
"I enjoyed the story very much. It remindered me a little of Truman Capote's. Work. Crisp, clear, descriptive writing. Very nice." J.S.