The Morris Manor
(Friday, November 12th, 2004)
At first glance, the old Morris Manor looked like a lovely Victorian house. The vines were charming, the dark windows somehow picturesque. At first glance, one might even consider going inside the Morris house. However, for those few folk, those folk that saw more than what just their eyes allowed, the Morris house wasn't lovely at all.
For the townspeople of Sadie, that is.
Sadie was a sleepy little place somewhere between that big city and that other big city. Nothing changed in a place like Sadie. Oh, sure, babies were born and old people passed away, but in truth, that wasn't change. Change was a new business. Change was a new farmhouse, a stranger visiting town. Change was what Sadie didn't have. The sign on the side of the road when you entered Sadie read: Welcome to Sadie, Ontario. Where nothing ever changes. And it was the honest-to-God truth.
There were two roads in Sadie, if you could call those cracked, tarmac paths roads. One was Main, the other Morris. The only thing on Morris Street was the Manor, and a lot of brush. Every now and again if you drove up the street you'd see a few little troublemakers by the old baseball diamond on their way to egg the Morris Manor, but if you stuck around you'd notice they never had the courage to do it.
On Main Street there was everything you would ever need to live in Sadie. Sadie Market, Sadie Hardware, Sadie Pharmacy, Sadie Beauty Parlour, old Uncle Sam's place Sadie Variety where you could buy the only ice cream cone for kilometres around, Clara's Toy Shoppe and a diner called Jeffery's Stop. The church and the police station crowded Sadie's only intersection; the school and graveyard were at the end of Main Street where the road met nothingness. Farm houses tumbled all over the town, old Uncle Sam lived in the tiny apartment above his store, where the townspeople gossiped that the body of his late wife was kept in his freezer (there was, of course, a tombstone in Sadie Cemetery on top of where Sam's wife was buried after she died very expectedly of cancer, but it gave the ladies something to talk about over tea). If you needed medical attention you were sadly out of luck, only eleven people in Sadie had a car and the nearest hospital was a two-hour drive away. That is, if you had a tank of gas. Eddie's Gas and Convenience Stop was a good 20 kilometres in a completely other direction.
The children of Sadie spent their days playing marbles behind the school, or watching old sitcoms on T.V. Teenagers weren't anywhere to be found Friday nights unless they were necking in the cemetery or daring each other to sneak up to the Morris Manor. None of them ever did.
Old Sam and the men sucked toothpicks at the Hardware store on those lazy Saturdays, while their wives and sisters sipped weak coffee at the diner. There was always something to talk about despite Sadie's inactivity, Mr. Robertson's affair with that absolute (ssshhhh) tramp from the Beauty Parlour, or little Tommy's broken wrist ("when is Harry going to repair those monkey bars?"). On Sunday mornings the town crowded into church, and on Sunday afternoons they prepared Sunday dinner and had a nice Sunday evening.
In fact, the only thing remotely interesting about living in Sadie was that every one of those nosy neighbours had a secret. A secret they didn't want anyone to find out.
Robert Clarkson hit the steering wheel in frustration. "I don't understand…"
Joan opened her eyes and looked around in confusion. "What?"
Robert shook his head bitterly.
He gestured towards the roadmap sitting despondently on Joan's lap; confidently abandoned some 30 kilometres ago. She picked it up and smoothed its crinkled surface with some success. "Are we lost?"
He didn't hear her. "I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere…"
Joan sighed and gave his shoulder a gentle tap. "Robert, are we lost?"
"Does this look like a country town to you, Joan?"
Joan looked out the dusty car windows. Robert had stopped in the middle of a destitute road. On either side as far as she could see, there were dry yellow fields. Up ahead, Joan could faintly make out a dark mass that must have been a forest. Laying her head back, she turned and gave her husband's arm a sympathetic squeeze. "Oh Robert…" she said quietly.
"Where the hell are we?" he demanded angrily. Snatching the road map from Joan's fingertips, he studied it vigorously. "We were just there." He said, pointing with one well-groomed nail at a speck on the map. "Now…" he scratched his head. Joan rubbed her temples. These summer trips were supposed to be nice and comfortable. Jaunty tunes on the radio, cool drinks and maybe some restful napping. She felt hot and overtired. Unbuttoning the neck of her blouse, she opened her window and rested an arm on the sill.
"Okay okay, I think I've got it Joan." He put the map back on her lap and started the car. She smiled nervously. Of course you do, dear she thought, patting his thigh. How many kilometres before you've got us lost again?
It was almost three more hours of radio static and the smell of sun-drenched car upholstery before Robert was happily driving along a somewhat lonely highway approaching a sign that read: Welcome to Sadie, Ontario. Where nothing ever changes. He chuckled with satisfaction.
"Look, Joan," he tugged on her jeans. "Joan!"
Her eyes fluttered open. "God, we're not lost again are we?"
She read the sign as they sped past it. "Great, finally…"
"Oh come on honey, we're on vacation." He said, twiddling his fingers over the radio-tuning knob for the hundredth time. Some Elvis Presley fuzzed through the speakers. Joan cringed at the reception.
"At least it's music."
Within minutes the highway jolted left and they found themselves closing in on some farmhouses, a barn or two and even a paddock with a few fly-haunted horses. Joan sighed with exhaustion.
They finally entered Sadie and were hit with a sense of estrangement. The town was not as welcoming or cozy as they would have expected. No friendly faces lined the sidewalks, no happy-looking children played ball in the streets, there weren't even any downcast teenagers loitering around the diner. The street they were on seemed to end a short distance away, where they could see a building and an ominous cemetery looming.
Robert pulled their old Pontiac into one of four empty spaces in the diner's parking lot. With resigned relief, the couple opened their car doors and bent their knees into walking condition. Slipping her sunglasses up her nose to block the harsh rays, Joan slammed the door closed.
"Charming little place, eh sweetie?" Robert attempted. The look on his wife's face quickly told him now was not the time.
Clasping hands, the couple headed towards the diner, where a dozen curious faces could be seen following their approach. Robert pushed the squeaky door open and was met with eleven pairs of judgmental eyes.
"Well, uh… Hello!" Robert said jovially, sitting on a stool by the counter. Nobody answered. Joan quickly took her place to his left and tucked her feet underneath her seat.
The diner was at least 30 degrees warmer than outside. Decorated with outdated fifties stools and vinyl, it looked as though they had wandered into another time period. An old-fashioned radio sat by the coffee machine, playing the same blurry Elvis they'd heard in the car. The floors were black and white ceramic tiles; the ceiling featured hanging lamps in faded red shades, which were switched off. Light was pouring through the window blinds making rectangular slats of shadow across everyone's face. Joan coughed.
"Well, what can I get you folks?" said a plump woman behind the counter. She placed a few menus in front of them.
"Well, um, could I have a Pepsi?" Robert asked. Joan surveyed the menu.
"No Pepsi here. We got Coke and iced tea."
"Coke then." He said. The woman nodded, and glanced sideways at a lady seated a few stools to Robert's right. She had a pointy face and peroxide blonde hair. Her clothes were ultra conservative, a button down white blouse and beige slacks. She eyed Joan and Robert shrewdly.
"So, where you folks from?" asked the waitress, placing a glass of ice with a bit of Coke in front of Robert.
"Toronto. We're here for summer vacation."
The pointy woman piped up. "Are you the couple who're renting the Morris place?"
Joan closed the menu. "Yes, as a matter of fact."
Another look was exchanged between the other women. "How long you gon' be stayin' for?" the waitress asked, wiping the perfectly clean space in front of Roberts glass.
"As long as we can. We've got to get back to the city by the beginning of September though." Robert said. He sipped his drink.
Joan leaned forward. "Can I have a slice of apple pie?"
"Yes ma'am. We got ourselves the best pie you'll find in all Ontario." She chuckled to herself. "Whipped cream?"
"Best whipped cream too." Came a voice from the back of the diner. Everyone but Joan laughed. Robert managed a forced chuckle.
"In that case, I'll have some whipped cream on the side."
"'Atta girl." Said the waitress. When she handed Joan her pie she offered her hand. "Bonnie Wilson, pleased to meet you." Joan smiled. "I'm Joan Berkley; this is my husband, Robert."
After about a half hour of chatting with Bonnie and peroxide Charlotte, they excused themselves. It was about time they got to the house, after all.
Once outside, Joan let out a breathe it sounded like she'd been holding for years. "Was that uncomfortable or what?"
Robert laughed. "They just aren't used to visitors, I guess."
Joan shook her head. "They didn't like us. Robert, I can tell they didn't like us at all."
He laughed again. "Oh Joan…"
They got back in their car, and drove a little ways up the road. Sadie seemed like a typical little village to them; all the necessary shops along the street, a school, a police station and a graveyard in perfect country order. There wasn't much litter in the streets, not many people and every shop window looked like it was cut out of a fifties postcard. What made them nervous was the resentment the air seemed to have, the unpleasant atmosphere that made them feel most unwelcome.
It was only a few minutes before they were right in front of Sadie High, a school containing classes from kindergarten to twelfth grade. To the left of it were a rather forbidding cemetery, and a sharp turn onto Morris Street, where the pavement ended and the gravel began. Rumbling on an upwards slope, Robert pushed their car in that direction.
Pebbles tapped on the sides of the car as it trundled over the weeds and lumps of gravel that consisted of Morris road. They passed a baseball diamond, a few garbage bins, and soon enough, approached the Manor.
It was a large and lonesome mansion, with three stories, an overgrown garden and a wooden shed. No driveway was visible, so Robert parked on the unkempt grass by the porch. Getting out of the car, Joan huffed in surprise.
"I must say… I was expecting something quite different."
"Me too." He agreed, walking around to the back of the car. He opened the trunk and lifted out their paisley luggage. Joan rushed to help him.
"Your back, Robert!" She cried as she pulled a suitcase out of his hand.
"Joan, I can lift the bags, for Chrissakes!" She looked at him with a mixture of concern and reproach in her eyes. He shrugged. "Just relax, honey." He said, "The bags are no problem."
They trudged up to the wooden steps of the porch. Joan searched for the keys in her purse. In a few moments she pulled out a ring with two rusty keys attached. Fumbling with the larger of the pair, she stuck it into the lock. At first she had some difficulty, but eventually it slid in and clicked open. Pushing the door open, they entered the Manor.
A layer of dust centimetres thick coated the hardwood flooring. A staircase swept up to the right, winding onto the second floor. Right in front of them stood an antique end table and a dim hallway. Dropping their bags with a dull thud, a cloud of dust billowed from below. Joan closed the door.
"Kind of gloomy, isn't it?" She said.
"I think it's got style. That wallpaper's very old-fashioned." Replied Robert, running his fingers through his hair. He rustled past his wife and into the hallway. Joan, feeling uncomfortable, followed.
Black and white photographs and oil portraits lined the walls. Eerie light came in through the curtained windows beside the door that gave the interior a haunted look. In the living room, they found a marble-topped coffee table and two sofas covered in yellowing sheets. There was a Persian rug centered in the room, and a beautiful brick fireplace at the focus of it all. Nothing lined the mantle, however, but a vase holding a dead rose. Joan picked it up.
"This place needs a good cleaning." She said, as the flower crumbled in her hand. She tossed it in the fireplace.
"Nothing a broom and a little polish won't fix." He swept the sheets off the sofas, and discovered faded pink cushions. Crossing the room, he drew the heavy red drapes that blocked the windows. Sunlight poured inside.
Joan peered through the window in awe.