Al picked me up at 4:30am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Our bundles of papers— Morning Call, New York Times, Herald Tribune, Daily News, Wall Street Journal — waited at a gas station across from the Haledon Diner. As we drove up the hill to Wayne, I opened the bundles and began rolling and rubber-banding the papers.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do that,” Al had told me. Although I was now a senior in high school, I didn’t question his instructions, having learned, when I worked at the Deli, to follow the advice of experts. After a day trying to wrap the cold-cuts my way, I did it their way. It was 1960; we still did things their way.
“Wrap a bunch of rubber bands around the middle two fingers of your left hand,” Al instructed. “Then roll up the newspaper and the rubber band is right there. Pull one off with your right hand and slip it over the paper. Ready to throw.”
He also warned me about “ghosts.” “There’ll be early risers, walking their dogs. In the dark you won’t see them till you’re right on top of them.”
About half the time we tossed the papers while the van kept rolling — the sliding doors open as we drove, despite the North Jersey winter. I never did figure out how to keep my toes from going numb. When not tossing papers from the truck, I did four- or five-house “runs,” dropping the papers at the appropriate spots before returning to the truck. Occasionally I’d be startled by one of the early-morning “apparitions” walking his dog.
It was my birthday, a foggy, dark morning; my mind was full of driving test and drivers license. On a run, one that took me through an estate called Sunnybank, a large collie greeted me and a man walked toward me out of the darkness. A big, tall man with a strong jaw.
I stopped. New chills clutched my back, not caused by the foggy, foggy dew.
“I need to talk to you. I am Albert Payson Terhune.”
Growing up, I gorged on Terhune’s books about collies. Sunnybank was his home till he died — the year before I was born.
“Where are your gloves?” he demanded, like he was my father.
I showed him the rubber bands and how I used them.
“Nonsense. When I was a kid we just folded the paper and threw it. No need for rubber bands.”
When I didn’t reply, he said, “I arranged this meeting — I need to tell you something. Seventeen years ago, shortly after I died, my housekeeper was murdered here. The police never solved it. You must look up the old newspaper stories. There’ll be information there to give the police.”
“Are you really him?” I blurted, not knowing what else to say.
“Hard to say if I’m really ‘him,’ but I am really ‘I,’” came the reply.
Three houses down the street, Al hollered from the truck, “Did you get lost or something?”
I turned to go, but Terhune said, “Wait. I know this is a stretch, but we need to band together to wrap up this case.”
Then he was gone.
I completed my run.
Al hollered, “What the heck? D’you stop to talk to one of those ghosts I warned you about?”
I chose not to tell him about my encounter.
Of course I was unable to focus on teachers or work that day. My mind stretched every which way before snapping back to class.
Did this really happen? You’re crazy. Just something you imagined because you love his collie stories. No—how could I image that? I was wide awake, working and running. I don’t imagine things under those circumstances. Yes you do. Your sense of reality is far too elastic.
That day and the next were a waste. I couldn’t tell anyone. My parents were rational Calvinists. They would scoff, accusing me of stretching the truth.
Needing confirmation, I found, at my borough library, an old biography. Seriously deteriorating, the book was held together with a stout rubber band. After I studied the photos, I decided that if I had seen anyone at all, it had to be him.
Thursday morning, my nerves kept me alert as I ran through Sunnybank. Nothing happened. I paused to make sure, before rushing on lest Al get upset again.
All day Thursday and Friday, taut with no release.
Nonsense. No — it did really happen. You’re going crazy. No I’m not — I’m perfectly sane. There’s nothing else strange in my life.
Saturday morning, with rubbery knees, I boarded the bus to Paterson. At the main library I found the microfiche boxes for the 1943 Morning Call and Evening News — already pulled from their drawers. A huge rubber band held them together along with a folded sheet of notebook paper. On it someone had written “November 10, 1943” — the day I was born. Inside the folded sheet were two items:
A clipping from the Morning Call, with “November 11, 1943” handwritten on the top. The clipping read:
“Yesterday at Sunnybank in Pompton Lakes, Mrs. Penelope Witherspoon, housekeeper at the estate of the recently deceased author, Albert Payson Terhune, died from a fall down the outside steps leading from her third-floor rooms.
“The body was discovered by her husband, Mr. Archibald Witherspoon, as he departed to catch his commuter train into the City.
“‘The steps are ridiculously dangerous,’ her husband complained to the police. ‘Two full stories of steps straight down from the door.’”
The story went on to present additional details and background information.
The second item was a hand-written note. At the top, in a feminine hand: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”
Below that, a man had scribbled, “’Tis done, my Lily. Destroy this note immediately. Police suspect nothing. A simple matter of a rubber strap hooked between the balustrades right outside the door. I unhooked it and tossed it back into the junk drawer with the other straps as soon as I heard her fall.”
Also published at medium.com
Image:Albert Payson Terhune 1872–1942 collection, Special Collections, The Elihu Burritt Library, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain. Modified: EHB.