The Ropewalk by John Knauf

John Knauf
By John Knauf April 2, 2012 18:56

The Ropewalk by John Knauf

Summary:

Two people trapped by winter storms in a remote setting try to come to terms with events they cannot understand.

Egan Drummond, a twice-divorced history teacher, looks forward to being alone during the Christmas break to work undisturbed on a research project. But he quickly discovers that Margaret Gillespie, another teacher, is still there with her young daughter. Margaret’s convinced there’s someone walking the halls at night, and Egan is the only person she can turn to. Annoyed at this distraction, he persists in doubting her story because of the effect that isolation can have on a person’s grasp of reality.

But over time his initial doubts slowly yield to the realization that she may be right. As days pass and the evidence mounts, he finds himself not only caught up in the events of her life, but also on a journey back from the edge of loneliness to another chance as a man.

Excerpt:

I didn’t know at what point I dozed off, but I woke up to the sound of voices outside my door. I was so startled and confused that it took me a moment to realize what was happening. The reading light was still on, “Decline of the West” was lying face down, pages folded, on the floor, and the voices I was hearing were actually only one voice, and it was the announcer on the radio. It was two a.m. and my clock radio had woken me up. I lay there listening to his inane babble, the ceiling appearing to waver before my exhausted gaze, thinking: What kind of Cyclops takes a job that requires him to blather away all night to an audience that wasn’t even awake?

I sat up and realized that I was still dressed. I had fallen asleep while reading, yet somehow still had the presence of mind to pull the blanket over myself. That was probably how the book ended up on the floor. I reached down to retrieve it and was dismayed to discover that several pages had folded back on themselves and would forever have a crease in them. The bookmark was lost, probably under the bed somewhere, so I used the folded-over end of the jacket to hold my place and got up to put it back on the shelf. I was so tired I was having trouble keeping my eyes open.

It was chilly in the room. It sounded like the storm had stopped, so I went over to the window to check. It had subsided but not stopped, and I could still hear the faint tinkle of sleet pellets against the windowpanes. But the moon was nearly full, and with the overcast thinning out, it was possible to see all the way to the school itself, about two hundred yards away. It was an absurd anachronism of a building, surrounded by the carefully contrived artificial ruins of a long-vanished Greek civilization, as if such a thing had ever actually existed in New England. Fluted columns held the upper veranda aloft in a poorly executed parody of the Parthenon. Yet there it was. Rumor had it one of the first teachers there actually ran around in a toga and sandals. I fleetingly wondered if he wore underwear with it.

The whole idea of the artificial ruins was a carryover from some imagined golden age of higher learning. Wealthy poets of the nineteenth century, patrons of the passions, who had the monetary wherewithal, would build artificial ruins on their estates just so they could brood over them. The founders of the school, who apparently imagined themselves the last escapees from some hypothetical Age of Passion, had followed that example. The result was the school sitting in the middle of a large field strewn with ruins—not whole buildings like the Roman Forum but stone enclosures a few feet high or, in some cases, at ground level. Random bits of unconnected stone debris also lay about like shards of giant pottery dashed to the earth and kicked across the field. Some of them seemed to have been statuary.

And none of it was authentic. It was all a reproduction ruin, a drawing-board delusion deliberately planted the way a gardener might lay out his future harvest. It could even have been made of Styrofoam, for all I knew. I grinned as I imagined the “stone” underlayments wobbling in the wind like giant masses of pudding. That the whole thing was created to illustrate the school’s connectedness to the classic past was what I found most amusing. Maybe in a simpler age, with television in its infancy and whole generations not yet programmed by mass media, it might have seemed impressive, even awe-inspiring. But now it seemed ridiculous, inappropriate, the way the live circus had been eclipsed by special effects in the movies.

“Okay,” I said to myself, “Time to get this over with.” So I grabbed my flashlight and headed for the door. Just before I opened it, however, the thought struck me that I should follow up on what I had said to Margaret earlier about being able to see part of the hallway and staircase from the peephole in my door. So I switched off the reading light and looked through the hole. But the feeble nightlights did not help, and it was so dark out there that all I could see was the misshapen points of light that were those nightlights. Everything else was indistinct. There could have been someone standing at the head of the stairs and, unless he moved and I happened to notice it against the weak backlight, I would not have seen him. “Pretty useless,” I muttered as I turned the light back on and opened my door. The head of the staircase was suddenly illuminated as I stepped out into the hall. I very quietly closed the door behind me, an instinctive—or rather, condit ioned—response that I had acquired so that I would not disturb sleeping students.

I stood there with the flashlight off for several minutes, not moving. The idea was that, if there were someone in the building, I might be able to hear him. I listened. The building groaned under the weight of the still accumulating ice and produced random bumping sounds, but nothing was rhythmic enough to suggest someone walking. I decided to start my search on the top floor.

I had taken my shoes off when I laid down to read and, rather than put them back on, I had simply stepped into my slippers, so my tread was virtually noiseless as I moved down the hall. Noiseless, that is, unless I stepped onto one of the many partially loose floorboards, which would then creak in tones that, I was sure, were loud enough to alert anyone to my presence. But it could not be helped; unless I wanted to map out where the creaking boards were, it would simply be one of the hazards of the job.

The nightlights provided enough illumination to allow me to walk the length of the hall without the flashlight being turned on. I wanted to do it this way so that I, too, would remain as “invisible” as possible, just in case there really was someone in the building. It also would make it easier for me to spot any light coming out from any of the doors, which was what I fully expected to discover. I tiptoed down the hall, staying close to the right wall in order to avoid as many of the creaking boards as possible, which tended to be in the middle of the hall. All the way to the end I slithered, listening for sounds of movement at every room and looking for telltale slivers of light. But there was nothing. I crossed to the left side at the end and repeated the same procedure as I came back. Once again, I heard and saw nothing. The whole affair had taken about twenty minutes.

I paused at the head of the stairs before heading down to the first floor. That floor seemed darker than the one I was on, and I suspected that maybe some of the nightlights had blown out. I had no idea where to find any replacements if that were the case, except maybe in the shed when I went out there in the morning.

I needed the flashlight just to be able to see the steps. Nevertheless, I cloaked the beam with my hand, allowing just enough light to escape to make it possible to see where the landing was at the halfway point, where the stair turned and descended to the floor. When I got to the lobby, I saw immediately why it seemed darker than the floor above: it wasn’t that some of the nightlights were out—they were all out. The only ones still functioning were the ones in the lobby itself. The narrow window above the front door allowed diffuse moonlight to filter into the lobby, but the hallway leading down towards Margaret’s apartment was an absolutely black, featureless tunnel that could have been the inside of a cave. There was no light whatsoever.

“What the hell?” I mumbled, and was about to shine the light down there when an enormous “boom” exploded from the front door, as if a gigantic fist had been slammed against it. I nearly jumped out of my skin, whirling around with my nape hairs prickling and instinctively landing in a defensive position. I shined the light at the door, saw nothing, quickly shined it left and right, saw nothing, then whirled again and checked behind me. There was nothing. I stepped up to the door very slowly, the light out in front, holding it ready to temporarily blind anyone who might be trying to get in. And listened. I could hear the wind, which apparently had not died down. Other than that, I heard nothing. I was about to push the door open a crack when the sound came again. This time it was not so loud, more like a muffled thump, as if someone outside had banged his fist against the outer wall rather than the door. I pulled my hand away from the latch and listened.

“Some kind of animal?” I wondered. “A bear, maybe? Coming around to see what he can find with the humans gone?” My mind, which had been racing under the adrenalin rush, was starting to calm down. Whatever it was, it was not able to get in. I pressed my ear to the door to listen for anything going on outside. The sounds of the storm were instantly magnified, but other than that, I did not hear anything. If it had been a bear, I would have expected to hear him sniffing the door, or would hear the scratching sounds of his claws on the ice.

I decided to chance it. Surprise, after all, was a two-edged sword. The animal would be so startled that its first instinct would be to run, allowing me enough time to close the door again, at the same time alerting it to the fact that the building was not empty.

I reached for the handle, my thumb hovering over the release. “On three,” I said to myself. “One, two, three.” I pushed down on the latch and leaned into the door, intending to add some momentum to the suddenness of the move.

But it didn’t open. I bounced back as if I had thrown myself against the wall. It would be hard to describe the sensation that went through me at that moment. I could feel the adrenalin coming again, my heart rate increasing, my breathing deepening. Something was holding the door closed from the outside. Something wouldn’t let me leave.

Copyright© John Knauf. All rights reserved.

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John Knauf
By John Knauf April 2, 2012 18:56
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