Late Night Imaginings in America’s Midwest
I was startled by the pounding. It had to be two in the morning. And it was damn cold. The bars cast shadows across the blackened room as light streamed in from the door, and loud noises echoed down the hall. I must be dreaming. Was it raining again? These late night thunderstorms were getting tedious. I felt like I’d been swallowed by a black hole. The room spun around. I struggled to focus on my opaque noir surroundings. There it was again, crashing, booming disruptively against the walls. No, I didn’t imagine it. It was coming from the kitchen. I was neither dressed nor awake, but the banging continued. I trekked out of bed and across the flat, certain to meet my demise. Perhaps it would be painless if I were half asleep.
The frenzied banging and fevered pitch beyond the door was bizarre, even alarming. Like some out-of-body experience, I didn’t recognize it, especially at this hour. The encounter seemed surreal. In the wee hours, it was deeply disturbing. Who on earth would be outside now? They were surely crazy. I had never seen the purpose in multiple deadbolt locks—until now. I thought the door would collapse, but I didn’t dare open it. I couldn’t make out the loud, staccato rant coming from the other side. Unfortunately, the alien voice was strangely familiar. The old woman had lost it again. She was a tough émigré. I heard she was originally from Europe, maybe Germany or Austria, then moved to the Midwest during the war years. It’s amazing what time and a certain place will do to a person. She’d been here over 50 years, and must have gone mad long ago. She probably missed the old country. But now she was in a rage, and completely out of control. Apparently no one quite knew why. Her words spilled incomprehensibly, and at that moment I really feared for my physical well-being. That door was staying bolted; it was the only thing preserving my safety. There was no reasoning with her when she was this destructive.
The walls slammed. The stairway echoed a litany of blood-curdling howls and vicious threats. No doubt everyone in the area was also woken by this possessed spirit. But no one dared venture out into harm’s way in that black night. The ruckus finally died down and just as suddenly as she appeared she was gone. She said she’d be back. No one knew when. I reluctantly peered through the peephole at the empty shadows outside the door.
Suffice it to say I was more than a bit shaken. And now, albeit thoroughly disoriented, I was awake. I called the police to inquire whether this sort of thing was routine—they said if she came back to call 911 and report a disturbance in progress. It was little solace. I imagine she’d be worse if the cops took her away, especially since she saw herself as running the building. Its brick facade looked like such a normal place. With the party girl across the way and the neurotic violinist from Budapest downstairs. It was a mass of men and music next door. The virtuoso below was a little odd. Paranoid, and who knows maybe even schizophrenic, the classical musician was notorious for having the police search the building on numerous occasions for a peeping Tom outside the apartment. Maybe it was the old lady. What was I doing here?
I thought about calling the family, but they were too far away. The balmy beaches of home seemed so remote and otherworldly now. Yet, the lush tropical vistas, glowing sun and laid back pace of the Caribbean beckoned. It had been so long since I’d been back. It would be too outlandish to even explain. I couldn’t imagine folks would believe the unusual occurrences in America’s heartland. I was in no shape to go to bed. I didn’t care to hit the bottle.
I listened to the storm winds howl and watched the rain stream down the window in the darkness. Lightning illuminated the room for a brief instant before thunder rumbled through the building. Then, a sudden movement caught my eye. A shrouded figure floated across the courtyard oblivious to the raging downpour. I strained to decipher anything as the murky night swallowed its inhabitants. A shiver tingled up my spine. Maybe the virtuoso downstairs was at the scotch again. Perhaps it was Lance, the actor across the hall. He always got back late after waiting tables and working at the bar all night between his theatre gigs.
I knew the cheap rent here was too good to be true. The creepy gargoyles that adorned the tenement were a pretty clear indication. I should have heeded my premonition. I ignored the rumors about the place being haunted. I thought it was gossip from my gothic medievalist neighbor Luke next door. “A crooked developer built this huge complex on an ancient graveyard years ago.” “Really? I never heard about that.” “Well, you wouldn’t. Folks don’t talk about it much these days.” “Why? What happened?” He mentioned bulldozers and the old cemetery and families of the dead. I dismissed his story. He’d been out with his roommate Jerry, an existentialist philosophy major obsessed with Sartre, Nietzsche, and Samuel Beckett; their buddy Vince was discussing Derrida. I thought he just made up an inebriated tale.
Luke dropped by to warn me. His long, shaggy brown bangs swept over his eyes as he looked at me earnestly. “Watch out for the lady with no face,” he cautioned. (I had no idea what he was talking about.) “When the moon and the stars and the spirits are aligned just so, you watch. She’ll be out there. She’ll haunt the place. She’ll start suddenly appearing in the mirror or out the window. She’s like a long lost soul.” I figured he was drunk playing Ouija board.
Just then, a fierce screech and huge crash shook the building, then the clamor faded away. A dead moment of silence hung eerily around the place for a frozen instant. I looked up. So did Luke. We stared at each other, eyes wide in stunned surprise. “What was that?” We shook our heads in disbelief. Luke peered out the window. I ran to the door expecting to see some dreaded sign of the apocalypse.
We heard a shriek. “Oh, my God! What happened?” Bernadette, the intellectual cheerleader who dabbled in PR, was flailing her hands. Her blonde hair with avant-garde magenta highlights shook wildly. “I don’t believe this!” She was in a state. Some drunken phantom had totaled her vintage VW bug parked outside her studio and then vanished, leaving her with a heap of crushed debris and no car to get to school or work.
“Wow. Unbelievable,” folks murmured. It was a horrible mess.
“It’s pretty awful for them to do this and just drive off!” Bernadette was inconsolable. She was understandably outraged. “Good Lord,” her flat mate Vera stopped dead in her tracks. “They took off? Why would they do that?” Her red headed braids whipped back and forth frantically as she looked around assessing the situation. Vince was mumbling to Luke and Jerry.
“I guess the bars in town must have just closed,” I offered. Vera gave me a dirty look, but I was preoccupied. It was like a bad, surreal midnight movie. Neighbors were coming out disheveled. Even the violinist, Sig ventured out of his virtuoso cocoon, then gasped. “Jeez,” Lance breathed as he gazed at the chaos. I could hear a cacophony of voices clatter on outside. Sirens blared down the road. Folks began investigating. “I think they found the guy who did it down the street,” Luke exclaimed. “He was face down drunk in his truck, crashed.” Jerry followed the skid marks. “Looks like this guy’s not very bright. He left the bar and drove across the lawn.” Ralph the butcher muttered, “His truck was decorated with huge dents and pieces of paint from Bernadette’s bug.” (It was the first time I saw him without his meat cleaver.)
A heated argument erupted when Bernadette filed a police report. “Did you hear or see anything, maam?” “I was in bed,” she was overwhelmed in tears. “I didn’t see it happen. I just heard a screech and a big boom. It woke me up. I was really scared. I thought someone hit the building.” “Was there anyone in the car at the time?” “No, I had just gone upstairs. It was parked outside my bedroom by the curb.” She sighed, exasperated. “Why would anyone smash my parked car?” “These things happen all the time.” The cop was filling out the paperwork. “Do you have insurance?” “Only basic collision, officer. It won’t pay for this,” she sobbed. “What am I going to do now?”
Neighbors wandered back and forth trying to locate pieces of her car on the road and sidewalk. “Can you arrest this guy or give him a ticket and get him to pay for this?” She stammered. Her voice trailed off in despair.
“I heard the cops tell Bernadette it was pointless to investigate,” Jerry insisted, “and if she approached the guy about it he’d have the legal right to shoot her if she stepped one foot on his property.” (That was his existential reading of events.) It was an unbelievable shame. My head throbbed. I was parched. Now I did need a drink. Not a beer. Something stronger. Maybe brandy. All I had was bourbon. Thankfully the rain was dying down.
I wanted to call someone. Despite the unexpected late-night activity I felt agonizingly alone. I missed Simone. I could still hear her haunting, mesmerizing voice reciting Shakespeare sonnets and T.S. Elliott in the stairwell outside my flat. I really longed to see her again. I imagined her wavy black tresses billowing in the wind. But she was gone. She just disappeared one day. No one ever explained what happened. She had been pretty shaken and devastated to find that limp body in the barn on the farm outside town. She discovered it was her father. It was pretty grisly. They thought it was a shotgun suicide, but it turned out to be a murder. Apparently plotted by her mother and lover. She never really recovered from that shocking, horrifying tragedy. Then a fire ravaged her home.
I stared bleary eyed at the empty bottle I just opened. Dazed, sad and disoriented, I thought about Simone. I missed our spontaneous late night philosophical discussions on the balcony over a bottle of Chianti. She recited poetry and dialogue from the plays she wrote. Those were such interesting times. They seemed so long ago and ethereal now. Almost like a dream or a faint memory that never really existed. How could she vanish without a trace? Something was wrong. She didn’t even say goodbye to anyone. It was deeply troubling.
Unable to solve this mysterious dilemma, my mind wandered. I imagined my friend Lauren in California sitting serenely watching the waves and foaming surf onshore near her house. She moved there from the Midwest and was wise beyond her years, with an abundance of common sense in the most absurd circumstances. I don’t even think an earthquake could shake her up. It was truly amazing. “Boy, I wish I had her nerves of steel.”
The phone had been ringing. I didn’t remember dialing Lauren’s number and I was surprised when Sam answered. “I’m the only one home,” he admitted. “Everyone went out of town.” Lauren had left with Kitty, a talented art school dropout who was piecing her life back together after a bitter divorce. “I’m here solo.” It was great to hear his warm, deep, gravelly voice. “You won’t believe what just happened.” I recounted the day’s wild events. “Just humor the old gal,” he chuckled when I told him about the bizarre episodes out here. I had no idea it would be the last time I talked to Sam. I was so far away. His sage spirit and buoyant wit seemed irrepressible. He was a storyteller who lived in his greenhouse, loved his Midwest heritage, a lively polka and Lawrence Welk. Sam’s good nature and dry, matter-of-fact sense of humor found amusement in the absurd. Even in the darker reaches of our existence.
Sam and Lauren survived the Dustbowl and Depression, the war and a series of family accidents. Folks claimed there was a murder and arson which left them scarred, orphaned and homeless. So they converted an old school bus and hit the road making their pilgrimage across Route 66 from the Midwest to the West Coast. I admired their resilience. Sam urged me to pursue my education. And this was certainly a college town.
As I hung up the phone and enjoyed my drink in the dark, Wilma came by from across the way. She was a striking brunette, who’d gone platinum blonde. “Do you like it? I’m channeling Marilyn rather than Jackie at the moment.” She had a flair for drama. She’d left the stage and given up college to get married. “Sure. It looks great.” Beneath her upbeat demeanor, she was a bit distraught. Her smile faded and she looked serious. “I just wanted to say goodbye.” She was suffering with Mitch, an intimidating Chicago tough guy just back from overseas prone to drink and violence. He even hit the baby and left Wilma with a nasty shiner across her face. It was a bad scene. “I’m sorry to see you go. You want a drink first?”
“Nah, it’s now or never. This is my chance.” She was leaving to pursue ambitious dreams of stardom. She changed her name after singing at the Cat’s Meow. It was a dive, but I guess it was a place to start. There was a big bar scene here in town. “Wish me luck.”
“Break a leg.” I imagined watching her barrel away in the old station wagon to her cheap apartment, an ugly mustard-yellow lima-bean-green monstrosity. It was better than this haunted place which always reeked of the foul smell of cod soup. And there was the crazy old lady’s nephew who tried to bust in and steal the furniture one day, then wouldn’t leave until I showed him my receipt. At least it was upstairs. “It’s just as well Mitch isn’t around.” She sighed. “I heard he spent time in jail after all those divorces.” She nodded, looking down at the glass. “No one ever needed to ask why. I guess they saw it coming.” I poured another bourbon, fascinated by her adventures.
“Tomorrow is another day.” She moved to the Midwest from the South and prided herself on emulating Scarlett O’Hara. Her tales were extraordinary and outrageous. “I was going to Hollywood,” she admitted, “but the band headed for the Caribbean. I got stuck on the island when they stole my act and left.” I remembered the beautiful beaches and soft breezes down there that offered freedom and tranquility, but no livelihood. “Then I met Frank. Actually, he’s called ‘Blaze’ in Latin America.” “Nice.” She showed me her exotic alter-ego, sporting flamboyant make up and costumes. “My stage name is ‘Tundra.’” She smiled suggestively.
I laughed and opened another bottle to toast her success. “The crowds are wild,” she giggled. “We started a new band.” “Yeah? What’s it called?” The bourbon seared my throat and made my head spin. “‘Blaze, Tundra and the Wildfires.’ We’re hoping to tour the islands and make it to Miami and then back to the States.” “So you’re going on the road?” I imagined the vanguard couple threw off conventions and reveled in the possibilities that lay ahead. “Maybe I’ll see you if you ever play up here.” I looked up and turned around and she was gone. I could still hear her words echo in my mind: “Now we can live our dreams and make music.”
A sound on the balcony caught my attention. Thunder rumbled in the distance and light rain splashed my face as I searched in vain for Tundra and Simone. I could smell the fragrant scent of jasmine and honeysuckle as the crickets sang and faded with my imaginings in the night. At some point I seemed to dose off. My temples throbbed. My body ached. Bottles littered the floor of my shadowy apartment. I stumbled around and muttered to no one in particular. Was I dreaming? As the sun rose and the storm cleared, I squinted my eyes. My wits swirled as the first rays of light flickered across the window, bathing the room in an early morning glow. In the groggy dawn air, I wasn’t sure if I’d fallen asleep or spent the night thinking, weaving in and out of a tapestry of real life events. And it wasn’t clear whether truth or fiction was stranger.
Sheri Chinen Biesen is a writer, cinema professor and author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (2005) and Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films (2014) at Johns Hopkins University Press. She received her BA and MA at the University of Southern California School of Cinema and PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. She has contributed to Film and History, Literature/Film Quarterly, Film Noir: The Directors, and Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. sherichinenbiesen.blogspot.com