By Michael Warren
“That’s bull-shit! There’s no such thing as a Hook Man.” Inky was quite certain on this point.
“That’s just a story.”
There were five of them: Martin, Teeter, Paz, Inky and Tom. The boys met on the old suspension bridge over the river, then moved to the swing tower in the city park. There were six swings hanging on chains from a tripod made of welded irrigation pipe. The swings were made for younger children, not for soon-to-be high school freshmen. The boys stood on the seats, pumping until they were upside down at the peak of their arc, then twisted and released in a chaotic top-spinning furry.
Few used the park, especially after dark. It was a good place to hang out on a summer evening, lit only by a few weak yellow argon lights. Some concerned parents wanted to close the park at night and chain off the entrance. The Mayor argued that a chain would not keep people out and would complicate the jobs of the city employees. It would also eliminate a favorite early morning rest stop for the lone night cop.
The town was small. This was rare free space where young boys could hang out un-observed. Everywhere else everyone saw everything. Here the boys could smoke their dad’s stolen cigarettes and talk constantly. Ideas sprouted like weeds. They straddled that boarder between children and young adults, still entitled to be ridiculous while exploring thoughts and ideas not wholly adult, on the edge of adolescence. This was a dangerous age.
“My brother showed me a scratch on the car door from the Hook Man’s hook. He said you have to lock your doors when you go out to Hook Bend to park. You have to leave quick when you hear him so he doesn’t break the windows. He always tries to get the girls first.” Paz was fully invested in the Hook Man legend.
“That’s bull-shit. Besides, who’s gonna go park with your brother. He don’t have a girlfriend, how would he know”
“No, its not! I heard it! One of the seniors said he found a hay bail hook hanging from his bumper!”
“I heard they think the Hook Man is actually the old Holdeman Twins, that there are two of them.” Tom had now entered the debate. “They do it because they were both in love with the same girl, and she got shunned and killed herself, and now they want to kill anyone who has a girlfriend because they never can. It makes sense.”
The Holdemans were a religious sect similar to the Amish, locked in a time past, disdaining ornamentation and education beyond the required age of sixteen. Mostly farmers, they stood apart form modern life. Their church was located several miles from the distractions of town, among the fields beyond which they saw no need to venture.
The Twins gave the appearance of being sect members. Their long beards were neatly trimmed. They were tall and thin, wore the same denim overalls, the same caps and the same shoes. Even their smiles, which they shyly displayed easily, were interchangeable. They were identical in every respect, mirror images of each other. They never drove, but walked everywhere together, never alone.
“That’s bull-shit! Those guys must be ninety years old. Besides, I don’t think they’re real Holdemans anyway.”
By now the boys had moved on to the grassy space next to the old stone bathrooms where the they lay flat, looking at the cloudless moon-lit night sky. Martin remained quiet. This was an unusual night of freedom for him. His father had remained in Madison for business, and his mother was visiting her sister in Nebraska. Tom’s mother had agreed to serve him dinner. Afterwards, he and Tom had ridden their bicycles to the park. They were walking their bikes across the “swinging” bridge when they met Teeter, Paz and Inky.
“They just don’t act like real Holdemans. Don’t you think they’re creepy??” Tom’s inflexion was not confident. He seemed to be expressing not a firm opinion, but to be asking for support for a position that he knew was shaky and blurted out on impulse.
Martin continued his silence. He had encountered the Twins while working at Sarge’s, the local lunch counter with an old fashioned soda fountain. His job there was to clean the floors, wash dishes and make the occasional cherry Coke from syrup and soda water. Sydney, his father, thought a job on weekends and after school would prepare him to work in the appliance store when he was older.
Martin liked the Twins. He was uncomfortable wrapping them in a conspiracy. In his empathy he could feel the embarrassment they would feel if they heard these words. They were gentle, always courteous, always with a ready smile. He could not imagine them as the notorious Hook Man, or as anything other than kindly old Holdeman brothers living quietly in town.
“Ya know, dope-head may be right,” said Teeter. “They could be faking it, You never see them with any other Holdemans.” The idea appealed to Teeter, whose instinct to challenge was as strong as his inclination to scoff. “They dress like farmers but they don’t farm, they don’t work. And where does their money come from? I think they might not be real Holdemans. I’ll bet they’re Hook Man.”
The boys continued to field ideas on the subject as they left the park and walked up a darkened street, pushing their bicycles next to them. The town was silent. They walked in the middle of the street, safe from traffic since there was no traffic. In Newtown, traffic ended by seven in the evening, even in the summer. It would not start up again until early the next morning when work resumed. The only car likely to be on the street after seven was the night cop, and he would only be patrolling Main Street, past the grain elevator and the high school.
“Lets go to their house and look in the windows. See what we can see.” Teeter was often the instigator of questionable adventures. He was not yet the bully he was to become, but he already had a way of shaming others into following his lead.
Martin cringed at the idea of doing something he knew would get him in trouble. This was the kind of hair-brained stunt his brother would do. If caught at something, he could not face his father.
“I don’t know. It’s getting late. I need to get home,” he offered as a feeble excuse.
“Oh, come on! Lets go check them out.”
They continued talking as they walked down the street. It did not require a noticeable deviation to wander towards the Holdeman Twin’s house nearby. Every house in Newtown was nearby.
The house was dark. It was an old house, like most of the houses in town. There were a few that were newer, owned by people who drove to Madison every day for some kind of work. But most of the town’s houses were old and plain, wooden structures with an occasional porch, a detached garage in the back facing the alley. The boys stopped at the curb in front of the house.
“I don’t think they’re home.” Paz was looking for a way out, mistakenly thinking that if the twin’s were not there, the boys could not intrude. “Maybe they’re still down at Sarge’s. They eat there almost every night. Might still be at Sarge’s.”
“Could be. Sarge is open ‘till ten or so. Maybe they’re still there.”
“I’ll bet that’s it. We probably got fifteen, twenty minutes.” Teeter sounded decisive.
“Fifteen twenty minutes for what?”
“To go have a look.”
“What the hell you mean, go have a look?” Paz gave Teeter a look of astonishment.
“I mean, we go in the house and have a look. See if it’s a real Holdeman house or a fake. Martin and me’ll slip in, the rest of you keep an eye out for the Twins.”
Martin stood speechless.
“Shit, what if Jazzy catches us?” Now Martin was alarmed. Jazzy was the night cop. “He’ll throw us in jail.”
“Newtown don’t got no jail. Besides, Jazzy’s probably up at Sarges too, having a cup of coffee. He won’t be around here.”
“That’s stupid.” Tom registered his opposition.
“Hey, its no more stupid than breaking into the high school and doing all that shit. Remember that? Nobody got in trouble for that.” Teeter was referring to a never-resolved episode that occurred over the preceding winter.
“That was different. That wasn’t someone’s house.”
“Bullshit. Martin, lets go.”
Teeter started to walk around the house towards the back door. Martin continued to stand frozen and silent.
“Come on, dip shit,” Teeter hissed. “Get your ass moving. You two keep a lookout.”
Martin’s feet were heavy. He slowly fell in behind Teeter.
The back door faced a garden and what looked like an old out-house. As with most doors in Newtown, it was unlocked. There was not much need for locks in Newtown, just as there was not much need for a night cop. Few things ever turned up missing.
It was a religious town, a mélange of protestants that included Methodists, Mennonites, the Holdemans, Baptists, plus a few isolated Catholics and Jews. Everyone knew everyone else. It was inconceivable to enter someone’s space uninvited. Once in a while some one might report a petty item that was lost or misplaced, but never stolen. Teeter was a collector of these lost items, but he did not have the courage to take anything of importance. Only the Madison people locked their doors.
The wooden screen door was stuck at the bottom corner. It gave a groan as Teeter pulled it open. The wooden back door opened without resistance onto an enclosed porch. There was another door from the porch into the kitchen. This door was also unlocked.
Martin walked on his toes, afraid of making the slightest sound. The anticipation of what they might find, of who might find them, hung on Martin like a heavy wet coat.
Inside the only light came from the half moon shining through curtain-less windows. Even in this dim light he could see a simple kitchen, with a few open cabinets, no doors, over a large and worn porcelain sink. A cast iron skillet rested on one burner of an old gas stove.
“Not much of a kitchen, huh!” whispered Teeter. The whisper was barely audible but Martin shrank back towards the door at the amplified hissing sound of Teeter’s voice.
“Oh don’t be such a pussy, no one’s here.” Teeter continued to whisper in spite of his confident assertion. He was not interested in the kitchen and quickly moved through the doorway into a dining room with a plain wooden table at its center. Everything was simple, and painfully ordered. The walls were barren except for a calendar and a picture of Jesus. A floor lamp with a faded cloth shade stood in a corner. There were no light switches.
The two boys slowly walked through the dining room, into a living room containing only four wooden chairs and an old cloth couch with a wooden frame . “I’ll bet they don’t even have a bathroom,” hissed Teeter as he passed into a hallway leading from the living room.
Martin’s breathing stopped! A clock somewhere in the living room began to chime the hour. It chimed in pairs of two with a single chime at the end. He was frozen and could not breathe. The chimes seemed loud enough to be heard on the street, to be heard in his father’s house a few blocks away, to be heard by Jazzy in his patrol car. He counted nine chimes in the space of time necessary for ninety. After the last chime’s reverberation, the silence of the room was dense.
Teeter had not returned from the hallway. Martin whispered after him, “Teeter, lets go. This is stupid. Lets go.”
Teeter did not answer. Martin cautiously leaned into the hallway and saw Teeter standing in an open doorway. He was staring intently into a room, his mouth open. Martin made an almost inaudible “psst, Teeter” as he stepped next to Teeter and followed his gaze into the room. The same half moon light was shining like a beacon through another un-curtained window. There were two narrow beds, one either side of the window. For the second time in minutes Martin stopped breathing.
In the bed on the right was a body, covered by a thin sheet. Its hands were folded over its chest in a pose of supplication. The sheet was tightly tucked under its chin, a long white beard lying atop the sheet. Its eyes were closed. The sheet was perfectly smooth except for the large mound at its feet and a smaller mound where the groin would be.
In the other bed was the same body, only it was sitting upright and staring at Teeter and Martin with the gaunt face of a death camp survivor.
Seconds passed like minutes. Then wordlessly, Teeter turned into the hallway and ran. The noise of his feet hitting the bare wooden floor was deafening. He ran back through the house, out the door onto the porch, then through the stuck wooden screen door with a loud bang.
Martin stood transfixed by the stare of the twin. There was no expression on the twin’s face. His eyes were wide and impassive, no fear, no anger, no surprise, no expectation. Only a willingness to face the truth of whatever Martin might do next.
Without taking his eyes from the face of the twin, Martin took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry.” He then turned back down the hall and walked out the front door of the house, closing it carefully behind him. He stepped into the street and walked through a tunnel of light towards the rest of the boys gathered at the end of the block.
About the Author:
Michael Warren is a retired executive and sailor living in Newport, RI. Raised in a Mennonite community in central Kansas, Michael has since traveled the world as a business manager and writer as well as a sailor. HOOK MAN is part of an as-yet unpublished novel INVENTED PEARLS.