WEDNESDAY, JUNE 2, 1926
ADMIRAL BYRD CIRCLES NORTH POLE
FLAGPOLE SITTER TOPS FIFTEEN DAYS
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN TESTS
At five minutes to midnight, a stranger arrived for the seance. He came out of the hot summer darkness and tapped three times on the door.
The sitters were at their places, all four around the table. My mother was dressing in her bedroom. So I was the one who answered the knock. Scooter King, thirteen, I saw the Stranger in.
He was standing under the porch light, like a big moth in a rumpled overcoat, holding his hat and a bamboo cane. His hair was silver, his mustache gray, his spectacles thick and round. Behind the lenses of those cheaters, his eyes were almost yellow.
He spoke in a soft and mumbly voice. “I’m not too late, I hope. For the sitting, I mean.” From the bowl of his hat he pulled out a scrap of newspaper. He showed me the advertisement that he’d circled in black.
“This is the proper place, isn’t it?” asked the Stranger.
“Sure. Come in,” I said.
The guy was a chump. He tried to take off his coat without putting down his cane, so he got himself in such a tangle that I had to unhook him from his own clothes. Then he gave me his things, and I led him into the tiny room that my mother called the vestibule but was really a closet with the shelves ripped out. Inside was a lamp, a wicker chair, and a spindly table that would shake if someone looked at it too hard. Piled on the tabletop were a stack of books, a candle and matches, and an ashtray shaped like a turtle. Under all that stuff, the table looked more crowded than Noah’s ark, but the widgets were there for a reason.
“Madam King is waiting,” I said. “If you could write out a question for the spirits, I-”
“That’s not necessary,” said the Stranger. He patted his mustache, smoothing its ends. “I have only one wish, and that’s to hear from my poor Annie.”
“Of course.” I turned away and dumped the Stranger’s stuff on the chair. His eyes had changed color in the lamplight, reflecting the red from the roses that sprawled on the wallpaper. It gave me the heebie-jeebies to look at them. “Please follow me,” I said.
We went down the hall and into the seance room. Mr. Stevenson twisted round in his chair to squint at us over his narrow bifocals. That week he’d turned seventy-one. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War; he had met President Lincoln. But he was still the youngest at the table. If their ages had been added together, it would have been more than three hundred years. After every seance, I had to open the windows to blow out the old-people smell.
I got a chair for the Stranger and sat him at the end of the table. Of course I made sure that his back was toward the huge wardrobe that stood against the wall. Mr. Stevenson leaned forward and shouted at him, “Are you a believer, sir?”
“I believe what I see,” said the Stranger.
“Well, see this,” said Mr. Stevenson, bristling like a porcupine. But his wife calmed him down. She patted his hand and told the Stranger, “Henry’s hoping to contact Paul Revere tonight. You see, Henry’s a bug about Paul Revere, and-”
“I’m not a bug,” said Mr. Stevenson. “I’m interested.”
“Oh, he only knows more about Paul Revere than anyone alive.” Mrs. Stevenson smiled at her husband.
“He’s frightened that a nonbeliever might block the spirits. They do that, you know.”
“I assure you, I will block no spirits,” said the Stranger.
I left them at the table, went out, and shut the door. Then I sprinted down the hall to the vestibule and snatched the Stranger’s hat from the chair.
The sweatband was still warm. I peeled it away with my thumb, bending it back to look for a name underneath. When I found it, I smiled. The first initial was blurry from sweat, but the rest was easy to read.
I turned to the overcoat next. I rifled every pocket, but all I got was a hat-check stub from the Limelight Club and a Chuckles candy wrapped in lint. But there was a hole in the right-hand pocket, so I groped through the lining and found two curious things. The first was a small metal ring, the second a sticky ball of lint and mold.
Now, this was the sort of puzzle that I liked to solve. By itself, the ring didn’t seem important. But I figured if the green stuff was an old biscuit, then maybe the ring came from a dog tag. I imagined Mr. Brown stuffing his pockets with Chuckles and biscuits, picking up a leash, whistling for Annie. He wouldn’t have been the first person to come to Madam King about a dead dog. It happened nearly every month, someone showing up to speak to a dog or cat-or even a budgie-that had gone along to Summerland.