Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Written down at last! THE STORY OF THE BLACK COFFIN

This is my most famous story.  I've been telling it for over thirty years now orally, and a generation of my students have heard it, remembered it, and even tried, on occasion to inflict it on others.  I've never written it down before, but I thought that, since I told it to all my history classes today (Halloween is the ONE day of the year that I don't even try to teach any new content), I might try to write it down at last this evening.  So read on . . . if you DARE . . . .

                                                 THE STORY OF THE BLACK COFFIN

     There are two things you should know before I begin.  One is that every word of this story is absolutely, 100% TRUE.  I promise.
     The other is that this story is a little bit creepy.  You might be a bit scared.  You might even be terrified.  But listen to the end, and you will be all right.  Maybe.

     Our story begins in the year 1930 - eighty-seven years ago, at the height of the Great Depression. A third of the country was out of work, and people were walking the streets, desperately looking for jobs, looking for handouts, looking for food, searching for hope. It was a dark time for America. The story begins in Chicago, the famous windy city on the shores of the lake, on a cold, rainy, and bleak autumn day.

                                                      PART I - THE INHERITANCE

     There were four brothers who shared a dingy, walk-up tenement on the city's south side.  They were all single - one divorced, and three who had not yet wed.  All four were out of work, and they were three months behind on their rent.  The landlord had served notice: If they did not make a payment by Friday, they would be evicted.  So on this grim Wednesday all four set out, pounding the pavement in search of opportunity - or maybe a generous stranger, or even just a bite of food. When they met back at their flat at the end of the day, all they had between them were two pieces of dry, week-old bread, and a few slices of bologna that didn't look too bad after you scraped the mold off of them.  No job offers, no money of any sort.  They had about twenty cents between the three of them. They took the food they had scrounged and made a single sandwich, then cut it into quarters.  That fourth of a sandwich was the most any of them had eaten all day - but as they dug into the meager meal, the doorbell rang.

     The youngest brother hopped up and answered the door, and to his astonishment, he saw a Western Union telegram man standing there - not an everyday occurrence in that seedy part of town.  Telegrams were a means of communication reserved for the wealthy, not the inhabitants of Chicago's slums.  Imagine their astonishment, then, when the messenger told the four that he was delivering a legal document that would require all four of them to sign!  They quickly scribbled their names on the receipt, then the oldest brother tore open the envelope and began to read out loud.  As the message unfolded, puzzlement gave way to disbelief, and then to shouts of rejoicing!

     It seemed that their long-dead father had an older brother he had never told them about.  This brother had gone north during the Great Klondike Gold Rush in 1901 and made a fortune.  Coming back to New York before World War One, he'd invested all his money in the arms industry, and tripled it.  Then in the 1920's he plowed it all into the stock market and tripled it again!  He had cashed out before the Great Crash, and placed it all in a nice, safe Swiss bank account earning compound interest.  The long and short of it was that they were now the joint heirs to a fortune of about $200 million!

     The brothers were screaming, crying, and hugging each other, unable to believe this sudden turn of events.  Finally the eldest called them back to attention.
     "There's more," he said.  "It says here that 'There are several unusual stipulations in the will which all four of you must agree to in order to claim your inheritance..  Please come by my offices tomorrow at ten in the morning to discuss the will and your Uncle's  bequest.  Signed, Simon Buckner Driscoll, attorney at law."

     So the very next morning, the four brothers dressed in the very best clothes they had - old and threadbare thought they were - and used their last nickels to catch a trolley ride to an exclusive neighborhood on the North side.  There they found the attorney's office, housed in a huge, ornate brownstone mansion with deep pile carpets and furniture that cost more than they had earned in the last decade.  Driscoll's secretary told them to go in, and they found the attorney waiting - tall, silver-haired, with a monocle and a walrus moustache, smelling faintly of expensive Cuban cigars.

     He explained a bit more about the mysterious uncle they had never heard of.  The man had lived for the last fifteen years as a hermit in a huge mansion he had built on top of one of the Appalachian peaks in eastern Kentucky.  He had his groceries delivered weekly, and managed his financial empire via phone calls and telegrams to his various accountants and brokers.  The delivery boy had noticed, about a year before, that the old man had not picked up his previous delivery.  He thought the old fellow might simply have gone out of town, but the next week there were two unclaimed boxes of groceries sitting outside the gate, so the lad had called the local sheriff.    They had cut the lock on the gate and made their way up to the enormous manor house.  Inside the door they had found the millionaire's body.  I use the term 'body' loosely. The old man owned between thirty and forty cats; the animals had been very hungry for not being fed and had turned on their master's remains.  Little more than a skeleton was left.  Upon confirming his identity through dental records and jewelry, the attorneys had been called in.  They had spent the better part of a year trying to find the old man's nearest relatives, and now, finally, the will could be executed.

     "Here are the conditions," said Mr.Driscoll.  "First, no one but you four may ever enter the old man's dwelling as long as you remain alive and in good health.  Secondly, you may never sell or transfer the property until all four of you are deceased.  Third, no one - not even you four - may live in the house.  Finally, all four of  you must meet up every four years, on the anniversary of your Uncle's death, and clean the house all day long.  You must work the entire day and evening, until at least 9 PM,  and be out of the house before dawn the next day.  That's it.  Do you accept?"
     They conferred briefly, but really, there was no doubt about the answer.  The eldest brother posed the one question they were all wondering:
     "What day did he die?" he asked.
     Driscoll paused.  "Well, the closest the coroner could say was late October.  Why don't we say Halloween, so the date will be easy to remember?"
    "Fair enough," the brothers agreed, and all of them signed the codicil to the will and claimed their inheritance.

     Fifty million dollars is a lot of money today, and it was about twelve times more in 1930.  The country was desperately poor, and everything and everyone was for sale - so the brothers bought what they wanted.  Everything they wanted.  Fast cars, faster women, fine whiskey, big houses, trophy wives - you name it, they had it.  Life went well, and it also went fast.  They blinked, and four years had passed.

                                                        PART II - THE MANSION

     So the four met up at a small Kentucky town, the closest settlement to the remote mountain where their uncle's estate was.  There was a fine little greasy spoon diner there, so they treated themselves to a hearty breakfast, and then went around the corner to a hardware store and bought all the cleaning supplies they could think of.  After that, they followed the oldest brother, who had directions to the mansion from the attorney's office.
     Fifteen miles up a winding blacktop road, then a gravel road turned off to the left.  It snaked its way back and forth up the side of a tree-clad slope, until finally the timber ended and they saw a massive, ten foot stone wall with a massive arch spanning a wrought iron gate that was chained and padlocked shut.  The oldest brother got the key ring the lawyer had given him and unlocked the padlock, pulling the chain free and slowly swinging the gates open.
     The driveway was paved, although the concrete had cracked in places.  It led them up a grassy slope to a huge circle drive with a weedy, overgrown fountain in the middle of it.  Beyond the driveway stood the mansion.
      There really was no other word for it, all four of them thought as they got out of their cars.  Over a hundred yards from end to end, three stories high, with a tall, clock-tower looking appendage jutting up from one end. The eldest brother unlocked the front door, and they entered, not knowing what to expect.
     What they found was a god-awful mess. Stacks of newspapers, magazines, and books all over the floors, mummified cat carcasses in odd corners, desiccated cat turds everywhere.  Some of the windows had been broken out by storms, and there were drifts of leaves in the odd corners.
      The first priority was to clear the front rooms, where it appeared the old man had spent most of his time.  The brothers searched behind the house and found the gardener's shed, with a couple of old wheelbarrows that were still serviceable, and they began hauling trash out of the house and piling it up in the front yard.  It was a cool, drizzly day, so they stacked up the junk in a huge pile and lit it up, enjoying the warmth and smell of the flames as they disposed of the stacks of trash and paper.
     Then they decided to count the rooms in the house and see what shape they were in.  They started on one end and opened each room.  Some were perfectly sealed time capsules, beds still made, furniture still in place despite a thick coat of dust.  Others were bare and unfurnished, and a few were completely trashed.  Ninety-two rooms they counted, by the time they made their way to the staircase  that led up to the top of the tower on the far end.  They made the four rounds of the staircase and found themselves in a small vestibule at the top, facing a locked door.  The oldest brother tried every key on the ring, but none fit.  They pushed, prodded, hammered, and pried on the door, to no avail.  Finally they gave up and returned to their task.
      By the end of the day, the four brothers had cleared a majority of the junk and done some sweeping and mopping.  There was much to go, but they had fulfilled their obligation and were dead tired.  So they went into the kitchen and dug into the supplies they had brought, making some hearty sandwiches and pouring some drinks.  They sat down in the small dining room right off the kitchen and soon the eldest produced from his pocket a deck of cards.  They started a high stakes poker game and played with great merriment, eating and drinking and enjoying each other's company.
    Then the youngest brother stood and spoke.
     "I just hate that we have set foot in every room but one," he said.  "I want to go try the door in the tower one more time.  I have a funny feeling that it might open for me."
     "Well, I think you're a fool," his closest sibling teased him.  "But you go try, and we'll make some more sandwiches."
     So he headed down the long corridor to the tower staircase, and his brothers made a fresh round of sandwiches and drinks.  When they returned from the kitchen, he wasn't back yet.
     "You don't think he really got that door to open?" one asked.
     "One way to find out," the eldest said.  "Let's see."

       There was no sign of their brother in the tower - the door at the top of the stairs was locked tight as ever.  Nor did they see him in any of the rooms they checked on their way back to the dining room.  They looked in the front drive and his car was still there.  His jacket still hung on the coat peg in the front hall.  They finished their meal and then conferred.
     "I figure he took one nip too many from his flask and is sleeping it off somewhere," the eldest said.  "Or he may have gone for a stroll.  It's late - I say we let him lock up!  I gave all of you a set of keys.  I am heading home."
     So the three piled into their cars, and drove down to the gate.  The eldest brother shut the gate and wrapped the chain around it, but did not lock it.  Then they went their separate ways and returned home.  Four years passed by.  They never saw their brother again.
     Four years later they met up once more at the small town and ate breakfast, then picked up their cleaning supplies.  All of them commented on their brother's absence, and as they compared notes, they realized not one of the had hear from him since that day four years before.  They broke up in silence and drove up the gravel road to the gate.  It was still shut and chained, but not locked.  When they opened the gates and drove on up, they saw their brother's car still parked in the drive.  The front windshield had been knocked out by a hailstorm, and there was a nest of raccoons in the back seat, but no sign of their missing sibling.  When they opened the front door, his coat was still hanging there on the peg. 
     In alarm, they fanned out and searched every room of the house, figuring to find his body, at least.  But there was no trace of him.  They climbed the stairs and found the tower room still locked up tight.  After a couple of hours they gave up and began cleaning the place.  There was still some trash to haul out and burn, and many windows that needed boarding up.  They worked hard all day long, not talking much, wondering what had happened to their youngest sibling.
     Around ten o'clock that evening, the three men sat down and conferred at the old dining table.  The eldest brother saw his deck of cards still sitting there from four years before, and he picked it up and began to shuffle mindlessly.
     "Gin rummy?" asked the youngest, so he began to deal out the cards.  They were a few hands into the game when the little brother stood.
    "I know where he is!" he suddenly exclaimed.
    "Where who is?" the middle one asked.
    "Our brother, you moron!  He's in the tower room!  And I think if I go up there right now, I can get the door to open!" he said with excitement.
    "NO way!" the eldest snapped.  "There is something about that room that gives me the creeps!"
    "Look," said the youngest.  "You two can come with me to the foot of the stairs.  I'll run up and try the door one more time.  If it doesn't open, I'll come right back down.  If it does, then I will call you.  Please, I beg you, let me try this!"
    So the two followed him to the bottom of the stairs, and listened to his soft footfalls as he climbed up the four stories.  It was dead calm out, the silence in the old mansion was oppressive.  But it was that silence that enabled them to hear what happened next.  The footfalls stopped, and they heard, faintly but distinctly, the sound of rusty hinges slowly turning.
     Silence reigned.  Then BOOM! there came the sound of a slamming door, followed by a long, drawn-out scream that faded to silence.  The two sprang up the stairs as fast as they could, but the door was locked and their brother was gone.  They hammered and pounded and cursed to no avail.  Finally, the older brother heaved a sigh and spoke.
     "I am going to the police," he said.
     "NO!!!" exclaimed his younger sibling.  "You can't, I won't let you!!"
     "Why on earth not?" his brother asked.
     "If they set foot in here, it invalidates the will,' said the brother urgently.  "We lose it all - we have to give all the money back!"
     "Is that all you care about?" snapped the eldest.
     "It doesn't matter to you!"  his kid brother retorted. "You've invested yours, you have more money now than you did when we inherited.  I've blown through three quarters of mine.  If I have to give the rest back, I'll be back on the street.  I can't do that!  I can't go back to how we used to live!"
     They quarreled for almost an hour, but the younger brother would not budge, and finally they parted in anger and bitterness. Four long years passed.  They never saw either brother again.
     By the time the two remaining siblings met four years later, the bitterness of their parting was largely forgotten.  They embraced and were reconciled, and drove up to the mansion together.  They spent the whole day cleaning and repairing windows, mopping, dusting, and sweeping.  Finally, after eleven o'clock that evening, they sank exhausted into the chairs at the dining table.
     "No sign of them anywhere," the eldest said, shuffling the old card deck.
     "Like they never existed.  What do you think happened?"
     "Who knows?  I think there may be a curse on this place."
     "Let's play cards," the younger said, and his brother began dealing out a hand of "Go Fish."
     But suddenly, after fifteen minutes or so, the younger brother stood, his face gone slack.
"Did you hear that?" he asked.
     "Hear what?" the eldest responded.
     "They're calling me!" his kid brother said.  "They are in the tower room, and they're calling me.  They say the will open the door if I come up right now!"
    "Don't do it!" said the eldest.  "It's a trick that's claimed two of us already.  Don't fall for it!"
    But his sibling was already standing, turning, walking down the long corridor.  The older brother grabbed, pulled, pleaded, and begged, but his brother was a bigger man, and simply shrugged him aside no matter what he did.  Finally they came to the stairs and the younger brother began to climb.  On the final round of steps, the oldest brother grabbed him and slapped him hard.
     "This is IT!" he snapped. "I'm not taking one more step with you!  This thing claimed our two brothers and I won't let it have me too!  I beg you - turn around!!"
     "But they're calling," the younger brother whispered in a ghastly voice, and stepped around him, ascending the final flight of stairs. 
     Cowering in the darkness, the oldest brother waited, knowing what he would hear and dreading it.  Sure enough, in the darkness, magnified by the silence of the old house, the ancient hinges turned once more -  CCCCRRRRREEEEEEEEEAAAAAAKKKKKKK!  There was silence for a second, followed by the booming sound of a massive wooden door slamming shut.  A long scream trailed off into the night.
     The brother charged up the stairs, fears forgotten, throwing himself against the door again and again.  Then he realized what he needed to do, and ran downstairs, grabbing his keys and jacket, peeling out of the driveway and down the mountain road to the small town.  He stopped at the first pay phone he saw, dropped in a dime, and called the police.
     When the officer picked up on the other end, he told him the whole story - the will, the inheritance, the creepy old mansion, and the disappearances, culminating with what had happened that night.  When he finally paused, there was silence on the other end for a long time - followed by a long burst of hearty laughter!
     "I have to admit, sir, that's the best Halloween story I've heard in a long time," the cop said.  "But do you know what night it is? Don't you think I have better things to do than listen your nonsense?  Call back when you are sober!"  The phone clicked into silence.
     The last brother slowly hung up the phone and returned to his car.  Four years passed.  He never saw his brothers again.
     The last brother slowly drove his car up the drive.  Three abandoned vehicles sat there, slowly rusting away.  Three coats hung on the pegs in the hallway, moth-eaten, dusty, and covered in cobwebs.  Mechanically, he worked through the endless series of rooms, sweeping, dusting, mopping, and doing minor repairs.  Afternoon faded to evening and to darkness, but finally he quit working around midnight.  He slumped into the chair at the old dining table, tears gleaming on his cheeks as he thought of his lost brothers.  He picked up the dusty old deck of cards and began to deal out a hand of solitaire.
    All at once the cards fell from his nerveless fingers.  He turned and began walking slowly, deliberately down the long corridor to the staircase.  Inside his head, his conscious voice was screaming "Stop, you fool, stop!  Turn around! Get out of this accursed place!"  But his body ignored his mind's thoughts, and continued towards the staircase, like a man in a nightmare who sees the edge of the cliff looming ahead but cannot wake long enough to stop himself from going  over the precipice.  Soon he was at the top of the stairs, and staring at the massive, thick oaken door that had defied every attempt to open it for the last sixteen years.  And as he stared, the door slowly swung open, revealing a blackness darker than the darkest midnight.  He stepped forward, and as he did, suddenly his control of his limbs returned.  For a split second, perhaps, he might have managed to run away - but the door was open, and he wanted to KNOW, finally, what was hidden in this accursed room.  He stepped inside, but the blackness was so thick that he could not see a thing.  He was reaching into his coat pocket for his lighter when suddenly it happened!
   A cold gust of wind struck him in the back and he staggered forward, wheeling his arms around for balance.  Even as he heard the boom of the door slamming shut behind him, he toppled forward and found himself falling into nothingness.  He fell and fell for what seemed like an eternity, then hit bottom with a crunch and a thud and passed out.
     When he came to, he realized he had landed on a pile of broken plaster - just soft and rotten enough to give way and break his fall without breaking him.  He sat up with a groan, and as he did, one of his hands went over the edge of - a ledge?  a step?  He could not see in the darkness, but he reached down as far as he could and felt nothing.  So he grabbed a piece of loose rubble with his other hand and tossed it over the side.  Then he listened
and he listened
and he listened
but he never heard it hit bottom.
He crawfished back from the precipice, feeling behind him with his hands until he discovered a solid stone wall he could put his back against.  Then he finally remembered his lighter and reached into his pocket for it. He flicked the flame to life and slowly stood to see where he had landed. 
     The ledge was perhaps forty feet wide, but it was not natural.  It had a floor of carefully cut and trimmed marble tiles, with broken off columns every ten feet or so, resting on ornate pedestals.  There were piles of wood and plaster and stone rubble scattered all over the floor.  Behind him, a vertical stone wall stretched up and out of sight, and on either side it curved forward to meet the edge of the chasm.  There were no doorways, passages, or visible openings in the rock face except for a few cracks far too small for him to fit through.  Then he lifted his light up high to see if there was anything on the other side of the void - and there was!
    Directly across from his ledge was another, of the same sort - a marble floor, broken columns, with a stone wall behind it.  But there was one key difference: in that wall was a doorway, standing open.  He could barely make out a flight of steps beyond it, leading upward.  It was as if a once-beautiful underground ballroom had once stood there, until its center section was sucked down into the bottomless pit! The other ledge was only thirty feet or so away - but how could he get across?
    To conserve his lighter, he took a long board and wrapped his jacket around it, then set it alight and jammed the makeshift torch into one of the cracks in the wall to give him some light.  He began pacing up and down the ledge, kicking rocks and boards out of his way, fuming and figuring, trying to discover a way to escape. 
    Suddenly he kicked something soft and yielding, and looked down to see a coil of rope at his feet!  He picked it up and measured it out an arm's length at a time.  It was over fifty feet long, and appeared to be well-oiled and supple, with no dry rot that he could tell. He tied one end around a broken marble column on his ledge, and tugged on the rope as hard as he could to see if it would hold him.  It showed no sign of breaking.  Remembering his days as a rodeo cowboy back in the twenties, he formed the other end into a lariat and began twirling it over his head.  Aiming at the stub of a marble column on the far ledge, he let fly and missed.  He reeled the rope back in, adjusted the lariat, and tried again.  He hit the column but didn't encircle it, but on his third try he dropped the loop gently over the marble.  Once more he pulled and tugged on the rope to make sure it was going to hold him.  Then he looped the slack around his column a couple of times, until he had a reasonable facsimile of a tightrope stretching from one ledge to the other.
    He sat and smoked a cigarette to calm his nerves, then he gripped the rope tightly with both hands, glad that he had been a small, skinny man his whole life.  He slid his buttocks off the ledge and started across, hand over hand, foot by agonizing foot.  By the time he had gone five feet, his body was bathed in sweat.  By the time he had covered ten feet, the sweat was pouring down his face and into his eyes, blinding him.  His palms were slick with it, but he gripped the rope all that much tighter, until there were ten feet left to go . . . five feet . . . four feet . . . three feet.
   He was almost all the way across when he saw by the light of his distant torch that the broken marble edge was steadily fraying the rope on the far side.  Even as he stretched out his hand to grasp the far ledge, the rope parted with an audible POP!
    He grabbed frantically with his one hand, getting a grip on the edge, then threw the other over, getting both hands onto the solid stone. Then, with one mighty surge of adrenalin-fueled strength, he heaved himself up and over, scuttling away from the sheer drop, putting his back against the wall and taking in great, whooping breaths as the ache in his shoulders slowly faded.  After a long while, the sweat began to dry, and he smoked another cigarette to calm his jangled nerves.  Then he slowly stood and started up the stairs.
       It was a spiral staircase, and the older brother counted fifteen rounds as he slowly made his way upward.  Finally, after the fifteenth circuit, he came to a landing, paved with marble flagstones like those far below.  There was a single doorway, and beyond it - more stairs.  A straight staircase, not too long, less than a hundred steps.  At the top, a doorway was framed in brilliant light - SUNLIGHT!  He could see the reflected rays on the ceiling just inside the door!
    Despite his fatigue, he took the steps two at a time - at least at first!  Then, more slowly, believing his long nightmare was at an end, he made his way to the top and stepped through the door.  To his shock, he immediately realized where he was.  It was the old family crypt on the hillside, which he had glimpsed from a distance every time he had driven up to the mansion.  It was a grim stone structure, with coffin slots covered over with blank plates along one wall. Across the chamber was an iron grillwork gate, standing open.  Beyond it, a beautiful autumn sun shone down on the multicolored trees in the distance, and the dying grass in the foreground.  He was perhaps a dozen paces from freedom.  But . . .
     There it sat, between him and the door - a big, black COFFIN, squat and ugly, impervious to the cheerful light that fell on it.  He caught his breath for a moment - after all, it was a tomb, right?  What better place for a coffin?  Then, he stepped forward to walk around it and get the heck out of this nightmare he had wandered into when he accepted his uncle's bequest all those years before.
     With a low, grating sound, the coffin began to slide across the floor towards him. He stopped.  It scooted towards him some more.
     He stepped back.  The coffin moved forward.
     He stepped back again - and the coffin came forward again.
     He stepped back again - not looking where he was going - and his back foot went off the top step, and before he could catch himself he was falling down the stairs!
    He caught himself about halfway down, bruised and battered, one tooth knocked out, but without serious damage.  He slowly climbed back up the stairs until he was just a few steps below the top - and then he sat and thought, long and hard.  What to do?
    He smoked his last cigarette, and then decided.  He was quick for a man in his forties, and had played football in high school.  It was time to blitz, juke, and roll!  He dropped into a three point stance, breathing deeply, gathering his strength, ignoring his aches and bruises.  Then he dashed up the steps as fast as he could, charged towards the ugly black corpse-box, and juked hard right.  As he prepared to spin around the coffin and break for the door, it pivoted on one end, like the flipper in a pinball machine, and smashed into him HARD, throwing him against the back wall of the chamber.  As he scrambled desperately to his feet, the coffin heaved itself up on one end and practically flew across the chamber at him, crushing him against the back wall of the crypt!
    The pressure on his chest was intense - he could not even inhale.  He knew he was about to black out . . . and then, in the last flickering vestiges of consciousness, he got a brilliant idea!  He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a box of Luden's Cough Drops - because Luden's always stops
THE COFFIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(please don't hurt me!)

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