30 April 2015

The Mysterious Contents of the Burlap Sack


It was a cold winter morning in 1963 I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Faulkner and looking out the window at the fog and wet streets. It had rained the night before and more looked to be coming. That suited me fine. I was wearing a warm wool sweater and khakis. My loafers were not ideal for wet weather but they'd do. Other than all I had with me was the book, an umbrella and in my pockets my wallet, keys, loose change and a comb.

I had a girl named Charlene who was part of a folk music trio. She had long black hair, that hung down to her ass, a slender figure and beautiful green eyes. She was taller me than me by a good two inches. I was thinking that Charlene may have had a thing for one of the guy's in the trio, Larry McKinnon. He was two inches taller than Charlene, the opposite of me, and was a charming guy and  talented musician. The third member of the trio was a scrawny fella called Doug Speer, it was widely known that he was queer. 

Charlene's trio was called the Wanderers and they were playing a few gigs in the valley that week. This meant that Charlene was off with Larry McKinnon and I was stuck in Berkeley feeling melancholy. On the other hand I had a lot to do. I was trying to earn my PHd in Literature at the University of California and as you might expect had ton of reading to do. Actually the Faulkner book wasn't even on my reading list. I'm such a book junkie that I was actually reading a novel for fun while I had about half a dozen I needed to finish in a few weeks for school. 

The bleak weather suited me. I've always liked it grey and wet I've never been one for outdoor activities except for walks, which I don't need the sun shining to do. The only sport I'd ever played was basketball which I stunk at. I was too much of a loner to be any good at sports anyway.

My mother had died from cancer the previous Summer and my dad was struggling to keep his record store open, especially since he was depressed about losing Mom who he had been married to for 30 years. My little sister, Evie, was no help. She was screwing up royally in school and spent most of her time chasing boys. It was even money she wouldn't graduate high school with her class that Spring. But they were all up in Tacoma, Washington which is where I was born and raised. They might as well have been on the moon. Out of sight out of mind.

My dog Rufus was tied up outside and it seemed he was becoming aware of the fact that I was taking my sweet time. I'd heard a few tentative howls and he'd gotten on his hind legs a few times to peer through a window. If he spotted me, the howling would triple in volume and frequency very quickly. Rufus could stand to be tied up outside for only so long before he got antsy.

I decided to finish the coffee and take Rufus home. The rain could start again any second and Rufus wasn't big on walking in so much as a drizzle. I left a half a buck on my table which covered the coffee the refill and a tip. I headed out. My name is Whitney Peterson, although some people call me Whit. Dad, Evie and Charlene all called me Whitney and some other people do when they first meet me, but mostly people assume that Whit is okay. Doesn't matter to me. I was 25 years old at the time.

Anyway this is a story about the time my pretty ordinary life became pretty interesting -- for a short time. It's taken awhile but I figure its worth telling. You can decide whether I'm right.

The part about being in the coffee shop reading Faulkner isn't so germane to the story but I remember it so vividly and it happened just before things got interesting so I decided to include it. Also let's be clear, I'm a life long student of English literature and an avid reader but I'm nobody's idea of a great writer and I admit that right off. So remember that I may read Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I don't claim to write like any of them. Not even close.

After the coffee I'd taken Rufus for a walk in the park and repaired to the room I had in the Tofelson's backyard. Abe and Leona Tofelson were a retired couple who had converted their garage into sort of cottage to rent out to college students. It was perfect for me because it meant I could keep Rufus. He had the run of the backyard, although he spent nights inside with me, usually nestled at the foot of my bed. Rufus was all mutt, a big wire haired dog with gray, white and black fur.

My living quarters were what you would call cozy. Plenty of room for a bed, chair, desk, hotplate and all my books. There was even a half bath with a toilet. I had to go into the Tofelson's house for showers but I had pre-arranged times so as not to surprise or disturb them. Best of all the rent was dirt cheap.  They even invited me over for dinner some nights and Leona Tofelson was one helluva cook. I'd been living there for two and half years at the time of this story. They liked me because I was quiet and paid the rent on time. The Tofelsons didn't even mind Charlene occasionally spending the night with me.

*********************************************************************************

I was laying in bed reading -- this time it was an assigned work of Sinclair Lewis -- when I dozed off. This was not unusual for me. I often fell asleep reading then woke up and just picked right back up where I left off. I was dreaming about flying. Not in an airplane, just as if I were a bird. I was flying across San Francisco Bay towards the Golden Gate Bridge when a loud thud against my door woke me up. It took a second to confirm to myself that this was not part of my dream and an investigation was in order. Tentatively I opened the door. There was a large burlap sack with something heavy in it on the ground beside my the door. I looked to the left, to the right, straight ahead and even straight up. I saw no one and nothing out of the ordinary except the sack. Two instincts were in direct competition: one was to pick the damn sack up and see what was inside; the other was to have someone else do the dirty work, perhaps Mr. Tofelson. But I noticed that his truck wasn't in the driveway so it was either going to be up to me to have a peak or I could just leave it. Option two  seemed out of the question. My curiosity had gotten the better of me.

First I bent down and looked at the bag hoping that its shape might reveal something, perhaps there was some tell tale bulges. My conclusion was that the whatever was in the bag was in the shape of a human head. I found this idea to be most disturbing indeed. I picked up the bag and noted that it was quite heavy. Too heavy, I thought, to hold a regulation human head, save one that had been hollowed out and filled with cement. It was nearly a minute of holding the damn bag before I felt brave enough to look inside.

I had no idea what I was looking at. It was round and metal and had what appeared to be minutely carved incisions in patterns. I turned it around like you would when looking at the other side of the world on a globe. It looked like there were two eyes, actually it was hollow where these oval shaped eyes were. There were no other markings on this side. I remember looking at it and actually saying out loud: "what the hell are you?" I also wondered where it came from, I mean who chucked it against my door. Was I selected or was it at random?

Rufus finally came out. I put the object down and he went over and sniffed it. I was surprised at how much sniffing he did and how interested he was in it. I mean for crying out loud it wasn't organic so what kind of smell could it have had? I sure didn't smell anything. But Rufus was fascinated. When the mutt was done sniffing he sat down and just stared at it. This was spooky.

It was past 1:00 and I had to be on campus in an hour for a seminar. I decided to head out their early and see if someone could help me sort out what this metal head actually was. But who?

I finally settled on a friend named Harry Fillmore who was a grad student in psychics. Harry would almost certainly be working at the department office or doing research in the same building, which was LeConte Hall. I'd be glad just to get rid of the damn thing. After wolfing down a sandwich and glass of milk I set off on the 20 minute walk to campus lugging the bag with me. I'd find Harry, give him the whatever the hell it was and make it to my seminar in plenty of time.

Sure enough Harry was holding the fort in the office.

"Got something for you," I said by way of greeting, then without further ado, handed him the sack.

"What is it?"

"See for yourself."

Harry took a long look into the bag and then said: "So I repeat: what is it?"

"Beats me. That's why I brought to you. I can't make heads nor tails out of it. Thought maybe you could. Weird thing is that spooked Rufus. He was sniffing away at it and then sat in stared at it."

"Where'd it come from?"

"That's another weird thing. Someone tossed it against my door. Woke me up from a nap."

"Who?"

"No clue, Harry. Mind if I palm it off on you? I couldn't think what the hell to do with the damn thing but thought you'd either figure something out or be able to pass it along to someone who could."

"Sure I'll take it off your hands. I like a good mystery. I'd say that based on these markings it seemed something for the archeology department but given the shine of it and whatever its composed of it may be up our alley."

"So you've got no clue what we've got here just looking at it."

"Hell, Whit if I had to guess I'd say its from outer space."

"You're ribbing me, right?"

"Well, kind of but the truth is that seems a good a guess as any. I'll take a closer look, check with one of my profs and then maybe we'll figure out what we're dealing with. Or we'll go mad trying."

"I've got to head to class. Thanks for taking it and when you find out what it is lemme know."

"Sure thing. And if someone tosses anything else of interest against your door, just bring it on by."

"I promise."

I liked Harry. We'd been roommates my sophomore year at Cal. We had different interests academically but shared the same sardonic sense of humor and had some great chats over spaghetti dinners and bottles of wine. Harry was also on his way to a Phd and there was no question that he was destined for big things. He was the darling of the department. Harry had a fiancé named Kate who was probably the world's prettiest librarian. Charlene and I sometimes double dated with them

I headed to my seminar and forgot all about the stupid bag and the mysterious metal head.

*********************************************************************************

It was about two days later that I finally thought about the mystery bag. Charlene was back in town. The first thing we had done was get between the sheets and become reacquainted with one another's bodies. We were laying there after chatting when I remembered about the bag and told the story. Naturally Charlene asked if I'd followed up with Harry. It wasn't unusual for me to get absorbed in my studies and forget about most everything so it didn't surprise Charlene that I hadn't. It was just then that there was a gentle knock on the door, it was Mrs. Tofelson telling me I had a phone call. I rarely got calls but when I did they came to the Tofelsons. They didn't mind seeing as how I got so few.

I hastily dressed and dashed through the Tofelson's back porch and into their kitchen where their old fashioned wall phone was off the hook waiting for me. It was Harry and he was excited.

"Whit, I've got some news. That head you brought in has been analyzed and no one can figure out what the heck it is. More than that whatever its made from is a total mystery. One prof said the only thing that he could figure was that it came another planet."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I absolutely am not. Course no one is taking that idea seriously, except me. I swear to you Whit there is something really strange about this and its creeping people out."

"Where's it now?"

"Oh I don't have it. Looks like I'm out. Someone in geology is looking at it now. I've been promised that I'll be kept in the loop so I'll let you know when I learn anything new."

"Thanks I appreciate it. How you been, by the way?"

"Me, I'm fine. Better question is how you been? I'm sorry to hear about Charlene...."

"What about her?"

"Come on, Whit, everyone knows she's been keeping real close company with what's-his-name the guitarist. Sleeping together on tour and registering like husband and wife at motels. You'll find someone better. How'd she put it to you anyway?"

"She didn't"

"Huh?"

"I gotta go. Thanks for the latest dope. Stay in touch."

I was shocked but not surprised. I'd had a feeling for awhile that she was going to take up with this McKinnon guy. What got me the most was that she came back into town and not only didn't level with me but immediately hopped in the sack like everything was normal between us.

"Bad news there?" Mr. Tofelson, pipe in one hand, evening paper in the other, had just come into the kitchen and saw whatever expression was on my face.

"Oh, not really. Just a surprise. Thanks for letting me use the phone again."

"Never a bother. Say you want to come back later for dinner? Leona's making pork chops."

My immediate reaction was to say beg off but given that I was about to send Charlene packing a good family meal might be just what I needed.

"Usual time?"

"'Course. See you then."

The Tofelsons always had dinner at 6:00 except Sundays when it was at 4:30. Don't ask me why. But they were as regular as clockwork about meal times.

Returning to my room Charlene greeted me with the question: "You up for another round, handsome?"

The nerve.

"Word is you've taken up with McKinnon. In fact everyone but me seems to know." I said coldly.

Charlene turned white. She got up and wordlessly dressed. Once she had her clothes on and her purse clutched to her bosom she finally spoke. "I was going to tell you, Whitney, honest I was. I really just wanted one last bout of passion with you."

"So you could compare me with McKinnon?" This was icy cold and mean.

"Goodbye Whitney. I had fun with you. Honestly I did. Maybe we can talk about it sometime."

"Maybe not." Icier yet. Charlene went out the door. A year later she and McKinnon split and the trio was kaput too.

*********************************************************************************It was a week after Harry's call and I hadn't heard from him so being near LeConte Hall I decided to pay a visit. A secretary I kind of knew named Ruth said Harry hadn't been heard from in a few days and no one knew where he was. They'd tried calling his apartment but had gotten no answer. They even called Kate and she didn't know where he'd gone off too. This was troubling because Harry was reliable and consistent. I went from there over to his apartment which was near campus. A lot of knocks on the door weren't answered. His landlady from downstairs finally emerged and told me she hadn't seen Harry since before the weekend. This was a Tuesday.

I went back to the physics department and found a prof that Harry worked with, Dr. Vine. He was as worried as I was, but the strange thing was his reaction when I asked about mysterious metallic head.  Dr. Vine immediately looked down then to his left. He didn't say anything for a several seconds. Finally: "oh that, yeah that was nothing." I didn't believe Dr. Vine. It wasn't just what he said -- which contradicted what Harry had told me -- but the way he said. I didn't figure that questioning further was going to get me anywhere so I split.

My plan was to drop by the Geology Department and see what they knew since when I last spoke to Harry he said they had the bag. But it would have to wait because I had a paper due and needed the rest of the day to work on it. My next few hours were spent in the library. When I finally got home I took Rufus for a walk and then it was lights out.

It was eight the next morning when I was awoken by a solid knock on my door. Something about this knock seemed official. I put on a robe and opened the door. There were two large men in suits and wide brimmed hairs filling the doorway. One asked if I was Whitney Peterson. I said I was and they both immediately flashed badges. "Is this about Harry?" I asked. "Is there bad news or are you guys investigating his disappearance?" I was at once scared and hopeful.

"No Mr. Peterson. We don't know anything about your friend, Fillmore. We're just here to talk to you about something you discovered, a bag with an object in it."

"Yeah, but is this a police matter?" I was curious.

The one who did all the talking ignored the question. "Any idea where it came from? How it happened to be thrown against your door?"

"No. None. I was asleep at the time. I looked around after I saw it but saw nothing or no one nor even any sign of anyone."

"You're sure?"

"Positive. Say what's the big deal? What is it and why are you guys interested? Was there a crime committed? And are you sure you don't anything about Harry?"

The guy who did all the talking took out a notebook and jotted something in it with a stub of a pencil then officiously put the notebook back into his inside coat pocket.

"I'm afraid I'm not liberty to answer your questions. We don't know who this Harry fellow is. I will tell you this: you should lose interest in this case. There's nothing to it that is of any concern of yours. Nothing. We strongly advise you not pursue it. Were the people who live in the house home at the time the bag hit your door?"

I told them no, they thanked me and left.

This was downright bizarre. Why had Professor Vine acted so strange when I asked him about the head? Why had these men warned me off even asking about it and why were the police looking into it anyway? And  what, if anything, did Harry's disappearance have to do with it? Then I realized something. First the cop had referred to Harry as "friend" and by his last name then he claimed not to even know who he was. He was lying, just like Dr. Vine.

I changed my mind about going by the Geology Department, there seemed little chance anyone was going to acknowledge that their had been a heavy head-like object given to them to analyze and anyway the cops had me spooked about making further inquiries.

Believe it or no that's pretty much where the story stands with the exception of an epilogue. You see I never learned anything from anybody about the metal head in the bag. And certainly not why it was thrown against my door. Anyway I was pretty busy with my doctoral program. Harry never showed up. I spent a lot of time comforting his fiancé Kate and two years later she was my fiancé and a year after that we were married. We still are. Rufus is long dead but has been since replaced several times by other mutts. I've loved them all and of course I've loved Kate and the two kids we've had.

The epilogue is this. Five years later Kate and I were in Chicago for the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention, the one where the cops went on a protestor beating frenzy. We were standing in a Lincoln Park early one morning talking with a friend when we saw a rather disheveled looking gent shuffle by. I immediately recognized him to be Harry Fillmore. I nudged Kate. "Harry?" I said. Harry looked at us, his eyes got wide. He tentatively approached us and finally put a hand on my shoulder and looking at Kate said: "I got away from them. Don't tell them you saw me."

"Who?" Kate and I said almost simultaneously.

Harry searched our eyes with his, they moved back and forth. His body was shaking. "I'm not telling. And I'm not telling about the head. They'll kill me if I do." Then quietly, looking down. "You know it wasn't from here." Then he looked up to the sky.

Kate said, pleadingly, "Harry what's wrong, what is it, can't we help you?"

Harry shook his head no and said: "they asked me to sign something saying I'd never talk about the head, never tell what I know. I refused. They made me pay for that refusal. They took me away, you know, but I finally escaped. Some day I'll tell, I'll tell the world what I know. People will believe me." Then Harry ran. Harry was always a good athlete and ran track in high school. There was no way I was going to catch him. He disappeared into the crowd.

We never saw nor heard from him again. I wish this wasn't a true story. But it is.







No comments: