Congratulations to Pazit Cahlon! She won the Shirley Jackson unfinished story competition at Tin House.
Do you know what would be really cool? If Kelly Link and the Jackson heirs would produce an anthology of stories started by Jackson and finished by others. Here's my stab at a dream list of contributors: Stephen King (who sings Jackson's praises in Dans Macabre), Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Jo Walton, Charlie Anders, Haddayr Copley-Woods, China Mieville, Colson Whitehead, Cathleen Scheine, Terry Bisson, George Saunders. I would read that book 100 times.
Here's my non-winning entry in the contest. If I'd been in charge of titling the story, I would have called it "The Common People."
“Maybe a witch lives there,” Hilda said, because it was an old-fashioned kind of house, with gingerbread decorations on the porch.
“Or maybe a dirty man,” I said. That made Hilda laugh, which gave me hope that I could still redeem myself after I’d done nothing to help when Hilda did the shop.
“You don’t even know what a dirty man is,” said Hilda.
“Sure I do,” I said. “It’s not just a man who’s dirty. It’s a man who will try to touch us, or kiss us.” That made Hilda laugh even harder. She went up on the porch of the house and knocked on the door as if she had a reason to be there. Right away the door opened.
It wasn’t a dirty man. It was only a woman. So that was a relief. She was plump and had gray hair. I guess “plump” isn’t the right word, though. She was just fat, and her hair was stringy. “Hello, girls,” she said, as though she’d been expecting us. “Come in.” She looked up and down the street.
Hilda gave me a smile that said this is going to be easy as pie. The woman hadn’t even asked us our business or why we were knocking at her door so late in the afternoon. Hilda was going to be able to do anything to her.
Once we were in her living room the woman sat down in a chair and Hilda and I found ourselves sitting down politely on the couch opposite. “I’ll get you some tea,” she said, “and then you can tell me all about it.”
“Tell you all about what?” I said.
Meanwhile Hilda had taken a notebook out of her bag and had a pen in her hand. “First, we’ll need your name,” she said. Then I got it. It was going to be a survey.
“Oh, my name is much too difficult to pronounce,” said the woman, “so you can call me Mrs. B.” She went into the kitchen and started opening and closing cupboard doors and banging things about like any normal mother would when guests come over. When she came back out she didn’t seem as fat as before. She had a tray with tea things on it and a plate with some dusty chocolates. Her teeth were bad, like common people’s teeth always are. They didn’t fit together very well.
“We need your name for the survey,” Hilda said.
“No, you don’t,” said the woman, and there was a little flicker there, something that passed between the woman and Hilda so fast I couldn’t catch it. I’m never fast enough with things. Hilda took a piece of chocolate and put it in her pocket when the woman wasn’t looking. To show her, I took two pieces and ate both of them right then. I knew I still had to make up for the shop.
“Our first question is, how long have you lived here?” I said to the woman through a mouthful of chocolate. It wasn’t bad chocolate, actually. I took another piece. We’d never done the survey in a person’s house before. We normally did it in parks and things. So I was tailoring the questions to the new situation, which I thought was clever of me and should show Hilda that I can think on my feet. She always acts like she’s both prettier and cleverer than me, but I don’t see why she should get to be both. There should be at least one area where I can be the best.
“Quite a long time, dear,” Mrs. B. replied. “Since before you were born.”
“Are you married?” Hilda asked, with her pen in hand.
“Not anymore,” said Mrs. B., and let out a tinkly laugh like a much younger woman. Though maybe she wasn’t so old. In this light, her hair was only a little bit gray. She waved a hand toward a painting on the wall. “My family,” she said. The faces of the husband and children were faded, almost rubbed out. One of the children, a girl, was wearing a blue skirt with a green blouse.
“What a pretty outfit your daughter is wearing,” said Hilda, smirking. I knew she was remembering the time we made Suzy cry at school for wearing blue with green. Everyone knows those colors clash. “How old is she now?”
“Oh, who knows,” said Mrs. B. “So what kind of a survey is it?”
“May I use your powder room?” Hilda asked. She handed me the notebook and pen and gave me a significant look. She even tapped the notebook with the pen, hard. Her message was clear: it was my turn now, my chance to even things out for my poor showing at the shop. I flipped to a new page in the notebook.
When I heard the bathroom door close I took a few more chocolates and told Mrs. B. that we were doing a fashion survey. “Clearly, you have a sense of fashion,” I said to Mrs. B. (It’s always a good idea to butter them up.) “Which magazines do you take?”
“All the usual ones,” she answered, looking out the window. “Which ones do you recommend?”
You can’t let them get you off track like that. “When was the last time you went shopping,” I asked, “and what did you buy?”
“I went to the grocery just the other day,” she said, “and got those chocolates and the tea.” The kettle still hadn’t boiled, so there was no tea yet. “I went to the Pick-N-Pay. They were having a sale.”
I scribbled something in the notebook. There hadn’t been a Pick-N-Pay in town since I was very small. Mrs. B. was maybe not all there, brain-wise. “No,” I said, very friendly and polite, “I meant clothing shopping. When did you last go shopping for clothes? Did you go to a department store, or …?” The idea, with this one, was to give the person all kinds of compliments and then fall out laughing afterward at their awful taste. This woman’s taste was perfectly ghastly, so I knew her fashion survey would be a great one. Her living room looked like it hadn’t changed in forty years.
“I mostly make my own clothes,” said Mrs. B., looking down at what she was wearing. I could have sworn it was something brown and drab, a house dress or something, but now that I looked more carefully I saw that it was even better than that, it was some sort of woolen thing, too tight in the hips and too loose in the bust. All different shades of beige. And her shoes! They looked like something a cow would wear. They had those plastic inserts to keep your ankles straight.
“Yes, of course,” I said, all professional. Where was Hilda, anyway? What was taking her so long? I wanted her to see how well I was doing without her. I flipped a new page in the notebook and continued scribbling down random bits for the survey: Pick-N-Pay, Makes them herself, Shoes with plastic. “And where do you buy the fabric you use to make the clothes?”
“I make the fabric, too,” said Mrs. B., offering me more candy. “I have a loom in the basement. Would you like to see it?” She looked so hopeful I felt I had to say yes.
“Let me just check on my friend,” I said. I knocked on the bathroom door, but there was no answer. “Hilda?”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Mrs. B. was right next to me all of a sudden. There was a faint scent of onions and something like cigarette smoke about her. She strode ahead of me in those beige plastic-supported shoes and opened up a door further down the hall.
If I went down into that basement without Hilda no one could ever say that I was second-best. It was quite freeing to realize this. Either Hilda was hiding – and she couldn’t possibly claim to be better at the survey if she was hiding – or she was staying in there on purpose and this was a test. I got that excited feeling in my throat. It was a test.
“Hilda, you’re going to miss seeing the loom,” I called out. “The loom Mrs. B. uses to make her own fabric so she can sew her own clothes.” This was going to be the best survey yet, and it was going to be mine, all mine. Hilda was only going to be the witness. I fairly stomped down the basement stairs. Mrs. B. was a few steps behind. Well, she was old. Of course it would take her longer. “Is there a light switch?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mrs. B., sounding like she was still at the top of the stairs. “But it’s a bit tricky.” Then the door closed and it was dark.
“Mrs. B.?” I called. “Hilda?” I grabbed for the railing, but there was none. Just for a second I was a little bit scared. I put my hand on the wall and tromped back up the stairs and found the switch. It turned on a dim light in a room at the bottom of the stairs. “Is that where the loom is? In that room down there?”
“Yes, dear,” said Mrs. B. “I’m just getting some more chocolates.”
“Thank you!” I said. They really were very good chocolates. I’d eaten so many I was perhaps getting a stomach-ache.
I went back down the stairs and into the room with the light. There was no loom in there, or not any kind I recognized. There were some different machines and tools and things, and a three-legged metal stool. There wasn’t much to do while I waited. No surprise there, I mean, who goes in basements? Maids, I suppose. To do chores and get supplies and things. I was so bored I looked around for something to point out to Hilda. There was a Bendix washing machine, a really old one, with rust on it. I couldn’t find a radio or a telephone or an intercom or anything good. When Hilda finally got down here, she would probably find something fantastically ghastly with her first glance, though. There was one machine that looked like a flattener and there was another that looked like a giant porcupine with knitting needles sticking out all over. It made a terrible noise when I turned it on.
After a while, I went back up the stairs and asked Mrs. B. if everything was all right. The door at the top of the stairs seemed to be stuck shut. “I can’t see the loom,” I said, pushing with my shoulder on the door. “I only see something that looks like it’s for ironing, and a knitting needle thing. What is that, anyway?”
“You’ll find out!” Mrs. B. answered. “Your friend seems to have disappeared,” she said, from the other side of the door.
The stairs had something tacky on them, a thin coat of something like honey. My shoes would probably be ruined, but I didn’t mind because it was time for new shoes anyway. I went back down the stairs and into the little room with the machinery in it. I was suddenly feeling a bit tired, so I sat down on the stool and opened up Hilda’s notebook. I looked back at the earlier pages to see if Hilda had put some jokes in there or something. Maybe a comment on the ghastly painting.
On her last page she’d written “Bathroom window. Run! See you tomorrow.” Had she really gone out the bathroom window? Oh, she was going to just die when she heard what she missed. She would never again be able to claim she was better at the survey than I was. I wished there was some place to lie down, because I felt like taking a nap. The floor was just dirt, so I didn’t want to lie on it. But then I lay on it anyway.
Mrs. B. still didn’t come down. It occurred to me that if I couldn’t get out of the basement Hilda wouldn’t know about it until the next day. And she probably wouldn’t want to tell anyone where we had been, because that would be end of all our fun. My stomach was really hurting now, and my head, too. I wondered if there was something wrong with the chocolates.
If I went missing for 24 hours, I thought, I would definitely be the winner. Hilda might get some attention for being the last person to see me, but my name is the one that would be splashed all over the papers and spoken in hushed tones at school. I’d be quite famous! There would really be no way for Hilda to compete with that.
And if I were killed, well, that would be even better, because she could never one-up me in that case. Even if Hilda found a way to get herself killed too, she would just seem like a copy-cat.
Oh, good. Mrs. B. was on her way down the stairs now.