66 Sunflower Street
by Ann Wuehler
Granny Tru killed Gran’pa Burley with the chicken hatchet. She buried him in the corner of the basement at 66 Sunflower Street. Mama assured me the dead stay dead.
Mama turned the key in the lock. I stood on the walkway made up of red bricks and tufts of grass trying to strangle those bricks. The house itself seemed ready to fall down, full of angry shadows and boards ripe with ringworm and rusty nails. “Why are we trying to clean this up?” I had no wish to spend days here, in the old family mansion, scraping mold off the walls. My mama, who is fifteen years older than me at best, just tutted and went on in, setting her bottle of bleach down, letting the mop and the broom fall as they wished. “Mama?”
“You get your ass in here,” she said. My unwed black sheep mama and her sin child got tossed some money to tackle the old haunted mansion. My granny had killed gran’pa in after telling him she’d had enough of marriage. The servants kept the hatchet out behind the mansion, once upon a time and long ago. Fresh roasted hen on Sundays had been a tradition when the reverends visited. Granny Tru had marched out, gotten the hatchet, marched back in, let my grandfather have it. That’s the story my mama told me many a time over a shared bowl of government-issued oatmeal. Women marched to vote but Granny Tru marched to kill her husband.
“You start in the kitchen. I’ll start up top, in the big bedroom near the roof. Watch your step, Lucinda.”
“Sure,” I muttered. The house had two turrets attached to the roof, with a tiny round window in each turret. Weeds grew in belligerent clumps, mocking the once-neat lawns. The flowerbeds boasted no prize-winning roses these godless days. Stark skeleton-like trees had fallen over during storms or from age. Most of the furniture had been dragged out back, the stuff no one wanted or that was not valuable. The house itself needed razing or a lot of work. Nobody had lived here since Granny Tru, or Trusilia, had allegedly chopped her husband into ordained pieces and blessed silence, followed by the obligatory burial in the basement soil.
Funny thing was, he had disappeared. Went to check on a noise outside but never came back. It’s just a rumor my grandmother murdered him. She had never touched a hatchet in her life. She had never washed a dish or scrubbed a floor or unclogged a shit-filled toilet. Granny Tru had kept her sins well hidden from the judging world. Some women are very clever that way. Though the world seemed far too ready to believe she had killed her husband with a hand tool.
The kitchen had a strange crabbed feel for such a hulked out house. I could imagine very well trying to cook eight-course dinners here as my relatives sat about embroidering or checking the stock market. I had only a vague idea of what truly rich people did with their time. Stock markets and needle work.
Tiny narrow counters, buckled, one hanging drunkenly by a very rusty nail indeed. An Amana fridge that smelled of rotted corpses. It didn’t work, we’d been told. If you can, haul it around back for the workman to deal with. As if we two could somehow get that fridge around back by ourselves without help. One of those wheeled push carts would be needed. A magnet from the Oregon State Fair. I touched it and it fell off, cracking apart. The linoleum, once robin egg’s blue or perhaps sky blue, had turned a greasy gray littered with dead dust bunnies. That is, where it still adhered to the floorboards beneath. Who had put linoleum over wooden boards? My family had rented this house out now and then, perhaps that was when the blasphemy had occurred. The glass of the cupboards slivered with cracks; the cupboards littered with mice turds and broken dishes. I found an abandoned mouse nest in a cracked yellow tea cup.
My mama, Vanetta Burley, stomped into the kitchen, her hard eyes making a tally of what to clean and what to put aside or not bother with. She already had her bright yellow gloves on and already smelled of bleach. “Damn. I’d sweep that floor first or you might turn your ankle in here. Move that old table out to the lawn. We can drag it round back. Is that the fridge? It stays. I ain’t breaking my back trying to get that thing down those front stairs. The bedroom should be burned. This whole place should be burned. But it’s good money. If they want to waste their money trying to clean this place up, by all the flying monkeys of Jesus, I will cash that check with a clear conscience. We just do our best. They’re gonna say we didn’t even try.” Her bright hard eyes flitted to me, the child who had ruined her life. Then back to that fridge, to that old splintery kitchen table. “This might mean a lot more work thrown our way. In these times, Lucinda, paying rent beats pride every damn time.”
“I know. You want to check the basement?”
Netta, as she let others call her, blinked at the uncleanable horror of a floor. “I sure do. We’ll need a flashlight if we’re looking for where gran might have buried him. Might as well scare ourselves a bit before splashing bleach on anything that moves here.”
My mother took a deep breath. “Of course I am. Might be we can’t even get down there. Wooden steps.” She shucked her yellow gloves, her hands that red crayon color.
Hot water and soap had ruined them. Cleaning houses for a living had ruined them for all time, amen.
The flashlights we both held told us those steps might plummet us down into the darkness and garbage below whenever they wished. No railing or anything to cling to. My mother ventured down first, always fearless. She tapped the step below her before trying it. I heard creaking and complaints from the wood, but it held. I also heard mice and probably rats and squirrels and ghosts fleeing for all corners as the two invaders descended. Spider webs defied us both to try them but my mother fears no spider, mouse, rat, or whatever might be lurking in uncleaned corners. I remained convinced spiders should not be messed with but my mother had no such religious views. Who is not afraid of spiders? My mother was not.
“It wants to be evil,” she called up to me as she stood on the dirt floor of the far-stretching basement, which ran underneath the entire first floor, and the whole house, I guess. It had once stored canned food, seasonal items, boxes of this or that, trunks that had gone to Europe on big fancy boats. I ventured down, taking the same path she had walked. The smell. Mold and dust and rodents and icicles. My mother had already stumped toward the far wall.
“Anything?” I called, and my voice sounded strange, weird and flat.
“They looked down here for where she buried him.” Her voice returned, betraying that she did not like being down here, among the litter and refuse of her own kith and kin. “It’s just a story.”
“I know,” I said, remaining by the stairs, unable or unwilling to venture into that dark with just my cone of light. How would you even clean this up down here? Dirt pocked the floor and the neighborhood cats had been in here. The stench of cat pee now. They had probably been peeing here since Kennedy was president. They’d no doubt be peeing down here after Gerald Ford left office. “Mama?”
“I found something.” Her voice floated back to me from quite a distance. She must not want to clean upstairs if we were down here messing around. Maybe it was hard for her to come back to this giant hulk of a house. Maybe it reminded her of how her own had thrown her away when she would not throw me away at their command. This old place abandoned for years, with the uncles fighting over it. And now to go on sale. Time marches on.
“What did you find?”
“Get over here and find out.”
I called her mama but she had been more like a big sister trying to baby-sit me. I did what she told me. It seemed the only way to repay her giving up everything for me. She never discussed it, but I assumed she kept me out of some love mothers are supposed to have for their children. Maybe it was more a duty she felt she had to honor, since the Burley’s were all about duty and honor, except when one of their own embarrassed them. I walked across that moist floor, careful of the debris, dead rodents, even a dead cat, rusted out trunks, books swollen into monstrous things, a hanging dress that dripped with lace and mold. A dress from some Depression-era photo. It just needed a hat and those little pearl necklaces to set it off. Who had last worn it? Who had hung it down here on a nail?
My mother had a giant trunk open. Inside were boxes; packets of letters spotted with damp. A hat that looked like it went with the hanging dress, the same shade of lime green, except the green had faded. “This is Granny Tru’s trunk. They just left it down here. That’s her favorite hat. She wore it with everything, even if it didn’t match. She didn’t care. Look at this. Dated twenty some years ago.” My mother handed me an envelope with an Illinois address. “I bet that’s Chicago. Or nearby. It’s never been opened. That’s my gran’pa’s handwriting.”
My heart thudded uncomfortably. I did not want to read whatever that letter from the damned said. I wanted no part of such ugliness. “Just put it back in the trunk. She didn’t want to read it. Leave it.”
“Lucinda. You can’t go about avoiding everything.” My mother ruthlessly tore that letter open, then shook out the two pages that had been neatly folded inside. Poisonously neat cursive writing, as clear and easy to read as print in a book. Her bright black eyes scanned the lines, her face avid and eager as she trained her light on what she read. “It says he can forgive her finally for taking the kitchen knife to him. He’s got a good life and she can do as she fancies.” A picture had been tucked into the pages. One of those tiny old-fashioned snaps, showing my great-grandpa standing by what had to be one of those big lakes back there. Smiling.
“What if she wrote that herself?” I asked, suddenly convinced that unkind eyes watched this, wishing we’d leave so they could have the darkness back. “Traveled to Chicago, dropped that in a mailbox. Just put that picture in there. It doesn’t say anything on it. No date or place.” My mama took the picture back, tucked it into the envelope.
“Granny Tru never went anywhere. She hated travel. It wasn’t easy like it is now.” My mother frowned at the letter. “She tried to stab him. She never wanted to marry. But it was what you did in those days. They’d have never let her do what she wanted.”
“What was that? What did she want to do? Can we go back upstairs now? Just bring the letter.”
“She’s here. You can feel her. She don’t like us reading this. I’ll leave it here.” And she dropped that letter back in the trunk, then slammed the lid shut. “She liked to garden and read her books. She didn’t really like people or being around them too much. She was beautiful, so they ignored how mean she was until she wasn’t pretty anymore.” My mother gave me a grim little smile. My plain, mole-spotted mother. “My dad was raised by the housekeeper here. He never saw granny much. She didn’t like children. She had six of them. Didn’t like a one of them. She had eight but two died. Polio. The twins. They were two or three. You go tackle that damn kitchen.”
I got to the landing, glad to face dirt and mold rather than spiders and a knife-happy great-grandmother. Netta’s foot went through the second-to-last step before you were back in the house proper again. I grabbed at her. I could feel the steps trying to go altogether. I’m a big strong bull of a woman, so it was easy enough to get us both onto the landing, her leg now bleeding, my shoulder about wrenched out of its socket by yanking her into the hall.
I rubbed my right arm, she lay there, sort of stunned, then we both laughed. She had lost her flashlight but mine revealed the stairs had given way and we’d need to get a ladder or rope to get back into the basement. I saw or thought I saw the figure of a slim woman in a lacey dress with her hand pressed over her lips, her eyes glowing with mean glee over yanking that stairway nearly out from under us both. Then just the darkness again.
My mother got herself to her feet with my help. Her left leg looked chewed, with blood dripping from the deeper gouges. “God damn it, granny. He should never have forgiven you. You respect hate far more than love. You mean ole bat!”
I heard the rustle of a mouse or the laugh of a ghost. “You talk like she’s here.”
“Cause she is,” my practical, hard-headed mother said. “I got some cleaning rags I can wrap this with. You get back to that kitchen. We got women’s work to do.” She laughed and laughed, limping off toward the Ford Comet as I stared down into the maw of the basement, looking for my great-grandmother in her favorite lime green hat.
Ann Wuehler has written four novels– Aftermath: Boise, Idaho, Remarkable Women of Brokenheart Lane, House on Clark Boulevard, Oregon Gothic. Her fifth novel, The Adventures of Grumpy Odin and Sexy Jesus, will be out later this year. Elbow and Bean appears in the current Whistle Pig Literary Magazine. Witch of the Highway was in World of Myth Magazine. Her Blood and Bread will appear in Hellbound Book’s Toilet Zone 3, the Royal Flush, due in spring of 2022. Her Sefi and Des will be included in Brigid Gate’s Musings of the Muses. Her Lilith’s Arm just got an acceptance from Bag of Bones, to be included in their 2022 Annus Horribilis anthology. The Cherry of Her Lips will appear in Black Hare’s War anthology. Circle Salt will be included in Horror Zine’s 2022 summer edition. Strange New Heart was accepted by Every Day Fiction.