By Bill Ectric
Miss Glenly’s Dreadful Room
a short story with the ghost of Jacques Derrida looming in the text
“He was very ill, for quite some time,” is all Miss Glenly would say.
We sat in the wicker chairs and she brought out two glasses of delicious iced tea with orange slices instead of lemon wedges.
“What are you reading now?” she always asked. “Still into Double-O-Seven?”
I had been reading all the James Bond books when I first went to her house to ask if she needed her lawn mowed, trying to earn some money during the summer. She did let me mow her lawn, and we became friends and she invited me to stop by anytime on the way home from school as summer ended and autumn began.
“No, I finished all the James Bond books,” I said. “I’m reading Dracula.”
“Ah, yes,” she said. “The red, gleaming eyes of Dracula, when he is looking at Mina through the fog, standing over the helpless Lucy. That’s the scene I remember.”
“I don’t think I’ve read that far yet,” I said.
“Well, I don’t want to give it away. You know, my late husband and I saw Bela Lugosi when he reprised his Dracula role on stage in the 1950’s.”
“Wow,” I said. “Was he good?”
“Lugosi was a consummate performer, despite his later reputation for strange behavior. But you know, I rather like the newer Dracula movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “With Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves.”
“Yes,” said Miss Glenly. “And that Tom Waits as Renfield. Such a performance! So scary and pathetic at the same time!”
That is how the conversations went until about six o’clock. Then I walked the rest of the way to my house. My parents got home from work around 6:30 and we ate dinner.
There was no hint that anything ever troubled Miss Glenly until we started talking about a literary idea called deconstruction. I never dreamed this would lead to such a shocking event.
“What is deconstruction?” I asked.
“It would be easier to demonstrate than to explain,” she said. “Give me a statement.”
“A statement? Like what?”
“Anything,” she said. “Your opinion on something.”
I looked around and said, “This is a cozy screened-in porch.”
“Oh,” smiled Miss Glenly. “This is the coziest room in the house.”
“Okay,” I continued. “That’s our sentence, ‘This is the coziest room in the house’.”
“Good.” Miss Glenly was now perky and involved. “You see, the word ‘cozy’ has a meaning to each person who hears it. You can’t hear ‘cozy’ without having a preconceived notion of what it means.”
“Ok,” I said. “But everybody knows what it means.”
“Do they?” she asked. “Does it mean the same thing to everyone?”
“Well,” I said, reaching for the Webster’s Dictionary, which she always kept on the table beside some crossword puzzle books. I looked up the word ‘cozy’ and read the definition aloud. “Enjoying or affording warmth and ease. Comfortable. Relaxing. Marked by intimacy of the family or a close group.”
“Right,” said Miss Glenly. “What about the word ‘most’? If this is the most cozy room . . .”
I interrupted, “So, what is the least cozy room in the house?”
My smile quickly faded when I saw the strange expression on Miss Glenly’s face. She was staring into the house through the door that led in to the kitchen. I shuddered because she looked afraid. I turned around quickly, thinking she was staring at something, but saw nothing but the inside of the kitchen.
“Are you okay, Miss Glenly?”
She didn’t answer. I felt alarmed.
“Oh,” she said, suddenly looking at me. “Oh, I’m sorry. I…oh, dear, I’m…not feeling well…I guess I’m just tired.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“What were we just talking about?” she asked. “Oh, yes. Least cozy. I guess the. . .storage room isn’t very cozy.” She forced a nervous laugh.
“We were talking about deconstruction,” I reminded her. “But if you’re tired, I should probably be going anyway. We can talk about it later.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re right. Maybe I should lie down, take a nap. I’ll be fine.”
She walked over to the porch swing. The swing was made of wood, but it had thick vinyl cushions on it and a pillow at one end. There was always a light blue comforter on there, too, because Miss Glenly sometimes took naps on the porch swing. She wasn’t very tall, so she had only to bend her knees a little to lay on the swing, pull the comforter over her, and take a nap. Now that’s cozy, I thought.
On my way home, I kept thinking about it. If the screened-in porch is the most cozy, why is the storage room the least cozy? What is the opposite of cozy? Uncomfortable? Cold instead of warm? Producing anxiety instead of relaxation?
I remembered last Halloween when two friends and I were taking a short cut through Miss Glenly’s yard. We were too old to go trick-or-treating, but we liked to go out walking just to check out the scene, maybe get into some minor mischief. When we first passed her house, walking in the street, she was cheerfully handing out candy to costumed children. Much later that night, on our way home, we tromped across Miss Glenly’s dark lawn. As we passed the porch, we all jumped with fright at the sight of her sitting upright in the swing. She had been sleeping there until awakened by our voices.
We stopped in our tracks.
“Hello, boys,” she said. “Out for a walk?”
“We’re sorry. We didn’t know you were out here.”
“No harm done,” she had said. “I’ll go right back to sleep. There’s a cool Florida-Autumn breeze blowing and it’s too stuffy inside.”
A few days after our “cozy” conversation, I went to see Miss Glenly again but she wasn’t sitting on her porch. The screen door hung open. I walked into the porch area and knocked on the inner door. My knocking made the wooden door glide open. It must not have been shut all the way. I could see into her neat, clean kitchen.
“Miss Glenly?” I said, and knocked on the door a little louder. “Hello? Miss Glenly?”
I walked into the well-kept kitchen. No one was there. It didn’t seem likely that Miss Glenly would leave the door open.
“Miss Glenly?” I said, rather loudly.
I walked from the kitchen into the hallway, realizing for the first time just how small this boxy house was. The first door to the left was the bathroom. There was one more door on the left (closed), no doors on the right, and one door facing me at the other end of the hall, also closed.
The door at the end of the hall had an old glass doorknob. There was something unusual about it. In the otherwise clean house, there was a thick cobweb stretching from the dull dusty glass knob and clinging to the wooden doorframe. This door obviously not been opened in a long time so I assumed this was the storage room. The only remaining room, the second door on the left, must be the bedroom, I thought. I knocked softly on it.
Something didn’t sound right. The rapping of my fist on the wood sounded muffled. I gripped the doorknob nervously and turned it slowly.
I gasped and backed up as door jolted open!
It only opened about an inch then nothing happened. It was just a closet stuffed so full of folded towels, sheets, and blankets that Miss Glenly must have pushed hard on the door to make it close and latch. So when I turned the knob, the compressed towels and linens had popped the door open about an inch. I opened the door wide. Just a closet.
I frowned and looked around. The only other door was the one at the end of the hall with cobwebs on it. If that is the bedroom. . . has she been sleeping on the porch swing every night?
I closed the closet door, pushing hard against the packed fabrics until the latch clicked.
Turning back to the kitchen, I looked out through the screen door. There was Miss Glenly, happily bustling from the bus stop with a shopping bag.
“Well, hello!” she said when she saw me in the kitchen. “Looking for me?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, walking out onto the screened-in porch. “I shouldn’t have walked in but I was worried. Your door was open. Can I help you with that bag?”
“You did the right thing,” she assured me, placing the bag on the porch table. “I must have left in too big a hurry. I was shopping. Sometimes I get anxious to leave the house.”
Her voice trailed off.
I asked, “What’s the matter, Miss Glenly?”
One thing I liked about her was she spoke to me like an adult, not a child.
“I’ve been . . . I’ve been depressed,” she said. “There’s no reason not to talk about it, I guess. Sometimes I can’t stand being in this house.”
“Oh,” I said. “Not even out here on the porch?”
“Not anymore,” she said. “I started thinking about the word ‘cozy’ and I thought, ‘the opposite of cozy is dreadful”.
“Why dreadful?” I asked.
“Because if this sun room is the most cozy, then some room has to be the least cozy. Instead of peace, anxiety. Instead of warmth, cold as nails. Instead of safety, a feeling of dread . . . a dreadful room.”
I just looked at Miss Glenly, feeling kind of scared.
She continued, “So if this screened-in porch is the least dreadful room, there must be a most dreadful room, right?”
“I guess so,” I said.
“And if the porch is the least dreadful room,” Miss Glenly’s lip began to quiver and tears were in her eyes. “It’s still a dreadful room,” she wept.
She sat down in one of the wicker chairs as I just stared at her, realizing that she must sleep out here every night because the only other room, what must be the bedroom, is the one with cobwebs on the doorknob.
“What?” I finally asked.
“If two people get caught in the rain,” she said, trying to compose herself, “Even the one who is the least wet is still wet! This porch is not as dreadful as . . . as . . . oh, but it’s still dreadful!”
She was crying again.
I was worried about my friend and couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You run along,” she said. “I’ll be alright. I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Oh, this is so embarrassing.”
I didn’t see Miss Glenly as often after that. She was almost never home, always taking the bus to who-knows-where.
One day I had to take the bus to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a test to get my restricted license for Driver’s Education.
The bus driver asked me, “Is Miss Glenly alright?”
“I guess so,” was my usual response to any question I didn’t quite understand.
“Well,” said the bus driver, “I used to see her almost every day, but it’s been almost a week now since she’s taken the bus. Did she start driving?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, worried.
That evening I went to check on her. I went onto the screened-in porch. It was dark and quiet inside. I thought she wasn’t home.
I walked past the table and into the kitchen. The bathroom door on the left was open, no one in there. I passed the closet on the left. There were no doors to the right. Something was different about the door at the end of the hall. No cobwebs. The glass doorknob was clean.
I was going to knock softly on the door when a strange cold feeling hit my feet and legs. What was that? Cold air. I reached down and held my hand near the bottom of the door. Cold air was coming from under the door. There must be an air conditioner in there, I thought.
I went back down the hall, outside through the front door, and walked around to the back of the house.
Just as I thought, there was an air conditioner. A window unit. I had always heard it running; I just never thought about it before.
Somebody had painted over the ancient duct tape used to seal the edges of the AC unit in the window. The tape was dry and brittle, with curling edges. I peeled it back, until it cracked and fell away, exposing a half-inch space between the AC unit and the window frame. I could see inside the bedroom through this space. The drone of the AC covered the sound of my tampering. I looked in.
Miss Glenly looked so brave and proper as she sat at the edge of a bed, legs crossed like an elegant star of the silver screen, speaking to a wall of books. She was looking up at an entire wall covered with homemade wooden bookshelves, full of books, opposite from where she sat.
She was saying, “I’m sorry, Henry. I’m sorry! I know I should visit you more often. But you shouldn’t have left me the way you did.”
Suddenly books flew off the shelves, past Miss Glenly on both sides and over her head! The books crashed into the wall behind her. One of the books hit her forehead, drawing blood. Every book, two or three at a time, spinning off the shelves and flailing around Miss Glenly’s small but resolute figure. Another book hit her shoulder. She never raised her arms to protect herself. The books that missed her flew past and slammed hard on the wall behind her. One large hardback volume hit the paneled wall so hard it broke the wood and wedged itself into the paneling. An old pair of men’s shoes also went air-born and whizzed by Miss Glenly’s face and slapped against the wall, leaving scuffmarks.
Miss Glenly refused to let this terrifying barrage move her, even as the faint traces of a dry water stain on the wall behind the shelves began to glisten moist and crimson.
I ran as fast as I could, home.
When I tried to tell my parents what I saw, they got the idea that Miss Glenly herself had been throwing books around the room. They scolded me for spying on her.
My father said sternly, “You need to calm down!”
“But,” I asked, “Why would she throw books?”
“That poor woman,” my mother said. “We never told you this, but her husband committed suicide in that room. Who can blame her for getting hysterical sometimes?”
“And sleeping on the porch swing,” my father added.
I started thinking maybe I had imagined it. I lay on my bed that night, listening to music through my headphones, which was my other escape from the world besides reading. I stared at the ceiling until my eyelids got heavy and I fell asleep.
For the next two days, I did nothing but read a book about deconstruction called Spectres of Marx, by French author Jacques Derrida. The part about a “dancing table” caught my attention. At first, I imagined an animated cartoon, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia, with a wooden table scampering around the room. Derrida was making a point that the word “table” means different things to different people.
Wood from a tree becomes lumber. A carpenter fashions the lumber into a table. When one person sees that table, it might represent business executives having lunch at a bistro in the financial district. To the owner of the restaurant, it signifies one more space for a paying customer to sit. Others might think of dinner with his or her family, and by extension, their departed grandmother, whose memory is now but a ghost in the empty chair. The table dances with possibilities.
With some apprehension, I went back to visit Miss Glenly. She wasn’t home when I got there so I waited. Soon enough, the bus pulled up to the corner bus stop and she stepped onto the sidewalk carrying one of those shopping bags with handles on it and the name of the store on the bag.
She had a band-aid on her forehead.
“Hello,” she greeted me.
We walked onto the porch and sat down.
“I’ve been reading about deconstruction,” I told her.
She was silent for a moment, and then said quietly, “I didn’t do a very good job of explaining it to you. You know why? Because, in all my years of teaching English, I don’t think I ever fully understood the concept.”
“Well,” I began haltingly. “Let’s deconstruct the words cozy and dreadful.”
“Alright,” she said, seeming to be glad to get back to the old discussions we used to have.
I said, “You didn’t find this room to be “most cozy” based on the most dreadful room. If the dreadful room were the only dreadful place in your life, then anywhere in the world would be cozy compared to that room.”
“Oh,” she said. “I can think of other cozy places. The farmhouse I grew up in had a fireplace and in the winter, we sat around it and drank hot chocolate. And the dorm room in college was nice. Outside the window, squirrels darted around on the tree limbs.”
“Cool,” I said. “So you base the idea of cozy on good experiences.”
Miss Glenly gave me a closed-eyed smile and said, “Warmth and safe places.”
“What were some cold, bad places you remember?”
“Oh, my,” she said. “I’ll never forget the time Henry and I were on a luxury cruise in Alaska and the ship hit an iceberg. It was almost like the Titanic, only nobody died. However, we were frightened and cold, because the power was out and we didn’t know if we were going to make it back to port. That was a dreadful experience.”
“Dreadful?” I nudged. “Like that dreadful room in your house?”
“What about that dreadful room?” she shuddered.
“Well,” I said, “That room has nothing to do with this room. What do you dread?”
“Oh,” Miss Glenly began in an off-hand way, “Going to the dentist.”
“Me, too,” I said.
We were silent for a moment.
“I really dread going to funerals,” she said. “I mean, don’t we all?”
I said, “Dentists and funerals have nothing to do with fireplaces, hot chocolate, or dorm rooms.”
“I kept yelling at him to get up,” Miss Glenly said, confusing me for a moment. “I didn’t see the empty pill bottle. I thought he would rather be with his books than me. I thought he was asleep so I started pulling books off the shelves and throwing them at him. When he didn’t move, I got down and listened for his breath. He had overdosed.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Then I felt really guilty like I had killed him with the books but the coroner said he’d been dead for hours. But I still blamed myself. Aren’t I stupid? I dread that memory when I see it coming. I try not to think about it. In the winter, I used to stretch an indoor clothesline down the hall, from the kitchen to the bedroom, to hang the wash up to dry, so I wouldn’t have to go outside. After a while, it seemed like the clothesline connected the front of the house with the back, and I couldn’t stand it any longer after Henry died. So I took the clothesline down.”
“There are lines connected to those rooms,” I said. “But the lines don’t connect the rooms together.”
I drew two squares on a piece of paper, side by side, and then drew a straight line from one square to the other.
“There’s your clothesline,” I said, pointing at the line I had drawn. “Each square represents a room, connected by that line.”
Then I erased the horizontal line and drew two vertical lines, straight up & down through each square. The lines did not cross; they were parallel.
Miss Glenly picked up a pencil and wrote a list of words at the bottom of each line. The first list was, “sad, cold, and afraid.” The second list was “happy, warm, cozy.”
She said, “My ideas of cozy and dreadful come from different experiences that formed separately. So, instead of two rooms being ‘connected’ by a line running through the hallway, it is more like each room has it’s own ‘line’ running straight up & down. Two separate lines which never touch each other; each line connects to separate experiences in my life, good feelings and bad.”
“Right,” I said, surprising at myself. “The lines never cross, never intersect; they are independent of one another. The rooms are independent of each other, too. Each room based on independent past experiences; not based on each other.”
“I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going to have to take a nap.”
I went home.
One summer morning when I went to mow Miss Glenly’s lawn, I noticed the window AC unit was gone. In its place were a freshly painted window frame and some new lace curtains, drawn back partway so I could see into the room.
The bedroom was clean and picturesque. The golden sun flowed warmly through the window and onto Miss Glenly, sleeping in a real bed instead of a porch swing, the light blue comforter snuggled over her. Her alarm clock went off and she yawned, stretched, and smiled at the new day.
She had patched the hole in the wall where the book had stuck, repainted the wooden bookshelves, and carefully replaced each book, where they sat handsomely, at peace, satisfied to be taken down individually for some occasional light reading.
Miss Glenly’s Dreadful Room
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Ectric, All Rights Reserved