She had dyed red hair, and on good days it surrounded her head like a flaming bouffant. Well over eighty, favoring loose purple dresses, Sally liked to sit on the tilted, broken front steps of her house on Dove Street, smoking menthols and watching the workers come home from the Capitol buildings just down the hill. Her family had built the house in the 1880s, and then lived in it ever since. She’d seen the neighborhood change many times, going from an enclave of wealthy Albany politicos to a slum in the ‘60s, eventually winding up a kind of modified, gentrified combination of both now. With an afternoon’s supply of cigarettes stashed in the pouch attached to her walker, she’d croak to anyone passing about her house, the street, its history, and herself. She wasn’t shy about being a witch, or about her anger at her no-good alcoholic son who never got around to fixing the steps, or the scurrilous past of Dove Street. With shiny blue eyes, grossly swollen knuckles, and lipstick that matched her red tartan shawl, she talked to everyone as she sat on her steps, flaming hair brighter than the clothes, eyes, and lipstick combined. For one year I lived above her, in the witch’s own house.
She lived in the bottom two floors of the house, though the basement kitchenwith its disarray of overflowing ashtrays, cats, a gurgling humidifier, and an unused oxygen tank in the cornerwas the center of her realm. Always with her was her dirty white poodle named Munchkin, or ‘Munchie’ for short. The cats, though impressive, were not her familiarsMunchie was. I’d always make sure to pat Munchie’s scruffy head when I went downstairs into the thick funk of cat piss and instant coffee, to drop off cigarettes or pay the rent.
When it came to rent, Sally preferred cash.
With most of the top floor converted haphazardly into a separate apartment, the place was small, but perfect at the time. Though it was only two-hundred dollars a month, it proved more than I could afford for a while, as I was living on savings and borrowed funds. There were some definite oddities to the set-up: The bathroom had an extra door that opened on to the landing above the stairs, while another locked, useless door off the living room led to a closet linking my apartment to her son’s old room. For the first month I lived there I checked the lock on that closet door every night; I didn’t want to see her drunken son creeping into my apartment. Also, the phone had a terrible buzzing noise that made any conversation inaudible. The phone company couldn’t figure it out, other than that somewhere along the lines, something was wrong
There were also oddities of a better kind: The living room had a huge square skylight, at least four feet wide, and the bathroom had decrepitbut beautifulazure linoleum. Off the bedroom was a porch with ripped screens overlooking a succession of backyards, all of which ended at the wall of a gigantic Baptist church, providing a stained-glass window of Jesus with his head on Magdalene’s lap directly overlooking Sally’s yard. On Sundays I’d wake to a singing choir; on Saturday nights I’d drink cheap wine and listen to the stereo, and wait for the light behind the stained glass to go out. Sometimes I would have strange dreams and would hear things, and I was tired a lot, but I figured it was just the drinking.
The house next to Sally’s had once been a whorehouse. She told of the night the police raided the place, of being a child and seeing the girls flee in their underthings through her backyard, escaping over the fence just beneath Magdalene’s window.
She talked of old Albany politics, of a mayor’s mistress who kept a pet wolf at her country house; of the mayor who walked into council meetings, whiskey bottle in hand, and never once offered to share; of how she used to canvass the worst of the tenements for the party machine, registering bums and flops from all over the neighborhood and literally dragging them to the polls; of her other son, a current police chieftain whose girlfriend was almost Sally’s age.
Later, I read that Legs Diamond had been gunned down by the Albany police within four blocks of Sally’s house.
She told of being a witch, her Irish blue eyes glistening through the wrinkles. Her family had been Catholic, but it never took with Sally. Making an overly pious posture of prayer, she once winked, ‘That wasn’t me at all. I like to dance naked in the moonlight.’ The shift to present tense didn’t escape me.
The first floor of the house had been devoured by moths. Sally only went up there in the evenings, to brood over her bills. Not long after I moved in I spent a rainy day wandering through that part of the house to find room after room, each shrouded in dimness, all opening off of each other. Once-gorgeous oriental rugs rotted on the floors. Dust, cat hair, and towels (for Sally’s ‘accidents’) covered all the sprung-back Edwardian chairs. Books on sorcery and the Kabala littered the coffee tables. In back rooms I found furniture: a maple sleigh bed, a marble-topped mahogany vanity, full sets of art-deco ceiling chandeliers. Glass-fronted cabinets lay beneath old rugs, with porcelain knick-knacks (there seemed to be a Chinese dragon fetish) fallen over behind the streaked glass. Taking my mother on a quick tour one day, she just shook her head at all of it. She said, ‘You have no idea what some of this is worth, do you?’
‘No,’ I replied truthfully, ‘not at all.’
I found out about the apartment from its previous occupant, an acquaintance named Rich. I knew Rich from a party I had a few years before that I had to throw him out of after he shit-facedly insisted that he be allowed to borrow an E. Annie Proulx novel. Perhaps still feeling bad (though others had done far worse that night) and knowing I was looking for a place in town, he mentioned the apartment, which he was planning to vacate quite soon. Intrigued, I checked out the place and met Sally and Munchie. At the end of the interview, right before I gave Sally the first month’s rent, she suddenly stopped me and asked, ‘You’re a Democrat, aren’t you?’ A registered independent, I smiled broadly and replied, ‘What other party is there?’ I moved in the next weekend.
Soon after I realized almost everyone I knew had left town for one reason or another. The only person I knew in the old neighborhood was a long-time friend, and he’d only gotten out of jail the week before. Sitting on the back porch together and talking about all the people that had moved, we both felt like we’d returned to a ghost town.
Flora and Fauna
I wasn’t in the apartment long before I noticed more oddities than the layout of the place. For one, whenever I played Tom Waits huge, black roaches crawled out from under the gas stove. They were slow, stupid, and easy to kill, but still unpleasant, probably because I always imagined they were dancing. And when I sat on the porch I could hear from a few houses over a terrible gurgling voice, part-cough, part-curse, part-gibberish. I’d crane my head through the ripped screen trying to figure out where the awful voice came from and what it was, but never could discern any more about it.
Later, Sally was enraged that her drunken sona Viet Nam vet who left his tiny boots in the hall outside my door at nightkept his upstairs room closed to her. She had clothes and plants in there, and told me she’d be grateful if I got the room opened any way I could. I told my friend about Sally’s request and he gleefully used some of his subterranean skills to pick the lock. With the secret door opened, we walked around, choking against the must in the air, looking at the vials of expired Lithium on a nightstand and the aloe plants gone brown and dead. Work clothes were strewn across ratty stuffed chairs. My friend and I shrugged. Though Sally had said I could use the room if I wanted, it wasn’t worth it. We brought the aloe plants downstairs, and with Sally watering them, most somehow came back to life.
I’d been above Sally less than two weeks when the first crisis hit. A hurricane off Cape Cod was also buffeting Albany. Reading while listening to NPR, I heard dripping sounds in the living room. I got up to check it out and found streams of water pouring down the walls underneath the skylight. I tried to fix it using duct tape and caulk, but flooding cracks instantly appeared right next to the ones I’d so half-assed filled. I rushed downstairs and told Sally what was happening. Her eyes went wide, and she said the roof drain must be clogged, her damn drunken son hadn’t checked it. She said the roof was flat, and that the whole thing could collapse. She then described how to unclog the drain and sent me up there to do just that.
What appeared to be a hall closet in the upstairs was actually a laddered entryway onto the roof. Broomstick in hand (to clear leaves from the fist-sized drain), I went up the metal ladder, opened a hatch, and braced myself in a crawl space full of mouse crap. I felt in the dark for the latch, found it, and used the broom handle to open a second hatch onto the roof. Kneeling painfully on a ledge, I pulled myself out onto the roof and into the storm.
The water was higher than my knees. I could see trees swaying in the yards all around, the wind making solid little waves on the roof. Lightning occasionally flashed through the racing, black clouds. It was like being on top of the world during the end of the world.
Wading through the downpour, saying ‘oh shit oh shit’ the whole time, I went to where Sally said the drain would be. I couldn’t see anything through the cold water, and had to feel for the wire mesh covering. ‘Oh shit oh shit’ as the roof beneath my sneakers seemed to sway from the weight. Finally, I found the mesh, ripped it away from its rusted hinge, and then poked my fingers into the drain, feeling as the leaves and dirt suddenly gave. I quickly yanked my hand out of the water, away from the powerful suction.
Drenched, I went back down the ladder and ran to my bathroom, where Sally had told me the pipes ran. If I heard water, it meant the drain was working. I heard the rush of rainwater, running off. The rivers in my living room had stopped, and the roof was saved. When I told Sally, all she kept saying was, ‘Thank god you were here, thank god ’
Flora and Fauna II
As spring came around, things were good. I’d gotten a job with the state senate as a letter writer, and money stopped being an issue. Sally made it through the winter without mishap or even pneumonia (she smoked three packs a day) and we were getting along fine, though she always kept an uncomfortably close watch on my doings. She never actually said anything when I brought home the occasional date, but it was an unpleasant moment nonetheless. With Sally wreathed in smoke at the table on the first floor, Munchie at her foot, cats among the resurrected aloe plants, the darkness and mold and cat piss smell seeming to loom just behind Sally’s hunched shoulders and red, red hair, it always felt as though her and the entire, hidden house were inspecting the situation. She’d nod hello, mention she needed cigarettes in the morning, and that would be all as I tried to get up the stairs as fast as possible. As for the girls, though Sally scared them, they liked the apartment, with one calling it the Garret and thus rationalizing its dingier aspects, as well as mine.
In order to keep the downstairs funk out of my apartment, I always left the porch door open at night. One morning I heard scrabbling in the kitchen trash and leapt out of bed to find out what it was. As I turned the corner into the kitchen I felt a squirrel race across my bare feet and out onto the porch. I shuddered and jumped backwards, then yelled and chased the squirrel through the rip in the screen it had entered through. Still shuddering, I used duct tape to close the rip. I continued to leave the porch door open.
About a week later, waking from a thick dream, I felt something on my legs. Wondering what my cat was doing, I rolled over. Then I remembered that my cat had been dead for years. I yanked my head off the pillow to see the squirrel walking up my legtoward my face. I hollered and the squirrel bolted out through where it had punched the tape off the screen, and then glared at me from the tree just beyond. I shut the door and later used a staple gun to properly close the screen. But the squirrel remained near all the time, always waiting for another opportunity to try to get in. Ever after, I felt under siege.
Someone stole Sally’s social-security check out of her mailbox. Then they jacked the scam up a notch and called Sally, saying they’d found her check but needed her to sign it. I’m not sure what they told her, as Sally was unhinged. She became afraid, said things were missing. She couldn’t find her jewelry. Thieves had taken necklaces from boxes in the back of the house. Somehow they were getting in. She didn’t know how. She’d quiz me with an evil eye, asking if I’d seen anyone around or lent my key to anybody. I hadn’t. I’d get calls at work, with Sally telling me she had the locks changed, and I’d need to knock downstairs to get a new key. This happened three separate times.
It took awhile for her check to be reimbursed. I paid my rent like normal, then lent her some money. Not much at all: eighty bucks. A few days later she said I hadn’t given her my rent. Since it was all in cash, I had no proof. She insisted I had cheated her. One night I came in from work very late and she stood by her table, Munchie at her side, and threatened to curse me. The sight of her red hair and furious, blue eyes was unnerving, as the old witch raised herself as high as she could, arm outstretched with a finger pointing at my head. We had been friends. Now she said she could kill me if she wished. The next morning I called her daughter and explained the situation. The daughter, worried and understanding, said this tended to happen with Sally’s renters, especially after a certain amount of time had passed. She promised to talk to her mother, to try to get it straightened out.
After that, I avoided Sally as best I could. She didn’t leave money on the table for me to buy cigarettes with anymore. Occasionally, she’d still demand her rent money when I passed her going up to my apartment. Then one day, again coming home from work, I saw Sally on her steps, telling a neighbor that her renter had cheated her. The neighbor gave me an odd look as I went past the two of them. Whether she, like a lot of the neighbors, thought Sally was insane or whether she believed the old woman and thought I was a thief was hard to tell. Either way, that was the last straw. I called the daughter again, said I couldn’t take it, that the situation was out of hand, and that I would be out by Labor Day. When I told Sally, she tried to make me leave immediately. I told her that was illegal, but I’d be out by Labor Day and she could have the rest of the month’s rent (paid by check): I didn’t care.
The day I moved out, Sally sat on the steps all morning. Friends and I had to maneuver a bed, a bureau, box after box of books, everything, around that old woman. Knuckles clutching her cane, she watched the whole time, nodding as though she’d already read her leaves and making sure I didn’t steal anything else.
Witchcraft and After
I still saw Sally occasionally, huddled on her steps and gabbing to whoever passed. I did whatever I could to avoid going by the place, and still do. Dove Street as a whole is off-limits as far as I’m concerned. Sign of a guilty conscience? No, but you can choose to believe whatever you like. Maybe I did steal her necklaces and her checks, her rent money spent like water at bars that had arrived like a plague in the area. I have already admitted to being poor, to being made aware of the dust-covered values buried beneath rotting clothes in backrooms, to having a lock-pick as a friend. Maybe that squirrel came as a protector of old witches, ones who cannot see at night, whose familiars need the fur trimmed around their eyes and who are not strong enough to protect their mistresses against shadows and lost keys and lost memories and thieves, thieves everywhere, and drunken sons who never fix the steps? What sorcery can change that, or the dust and mold of a family house rotting within its own antiquity, or another son whose girlfriend is eerie and old like the mother? What magic can shift that, or the kept wolf howling in the countryside, the Mayor’s unshared whiskey, the whores in their robes running, running toward the image of Magdalene while just a couple blocks away, gangsters are murdered by cops and a terrible cursing, gibberish rises from the old tenements and carriage-housed mansions of Dove Street, the sound like the moan of a roof falling under the weight of the deluge and age and rain? What witchcraft indeed.
Not long after I moved out I ran into Rich for the first time in months. I told him Sally lost it, and I had to move. I laughed about how when it rained at night I still wanted to get up to listen to the pipes for the sound of water draining off. Though saddened about Sally, he understood completely and said it was probably for the bestthat after he’d left he felt strangely better. He said the whole time he lived there he thought she was trying some sorcery on him, that he always felt tired, that he often had strange dreams and heard strange sounds. Then Rich laughed and said, ‘I thought she was stealing from my soul to keep herself alive, but I was drunk all the time, so ’