The distance between the natural and the supernatural is shorter than we’d like to think, the membrane that holds back unspeakable horrors as thin as a moth’s wing.
It was about month ago when the first letter arrived. I say “letter,” but in fact it was just a folded rectangle of graph paper bearing a string of numbers.
Ah, I remember thinking, a mystery. But, frankly, I am often too busy for mysteries, and I added the missive to the growing pile of unanswered correspondence that sits precariously atop my desk.
It had slipped my mind completely when the second letter arrived a few days ago. This one was in a business-reply envelope of the sort you find stapled in magazines. The writer had scratched out the preprinted address and scrawled mine. The message itself was jotted on a scrap torn from some glossy publication. A few printed words were legible: “average,” “-burg,” “lled up.” The same inscrutable string of numbers huddled in a bare spot as if they’d been dashed off in desperation.
Curious, I thought. I was about to toss it when I realized with a flash what the numbers meant. They were an address, a Washington address!
There was no quadrant, but I am sufficiently knowledgeable about our city to know that certain addresses exist only in certain parts of the District. I ran from my office, hailed a cab and bade the driver convey me to a location in Southeast.
The driver expressed some skepticism as I alighted at my destination, though he took my money all the same. I was left standing in front of a sorry row of shops — or what had been shops at some time in the distant past. Most were closed, their whitewashed windows cracked, their doors covered with rusting metal grates. Yellowing mail and brittle newspapers moldered in dirty vestibules. And yet I thought I saw movement behind one dusty window.
It was hard to tell what sort of store it was exactly. Crudely lettered signs read “International Phone Cards! Cell phone repair! Money orders! American cuisine! School supplies! Sponges! Souvenirs! Pharmacy! Tarot!”
I went inside, startling myself as the door collided with a set of bells. When my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw that the store was empty — empty of people, anyway. The space itself was crammed with all manner of tat and gimcrackery: plastic foot baths, folding shopping carts, ceramic plant pots, T-shirts, tube socks, birthday candles, disposable cameras . . .
How could anyone make a living selling such junk, I wondered.
Just then a beaded curtain at the back of the shop parted to reveal an old woman walking my way. Hobbling, really. She was bent over like a question mark, each gnarled hand clutching a cane.
“Can I help you?” she asked in a voice tinged with the sound of the islands.
“Er,” I stalled, looking around for anything that I might conceivably purchase. My eyes hit upon a patch of color atop a shelf near the cash register. Could it be?
“Um, I’d like one of the Washington Nationals bobbleheads,” I said.
She threw her head back and gave a rasping laugh. “Those aren’t bobbleheads,” she said. With a surprising dexterity she reached up and pulled down a tray that held dozens of tiny figures.
Now that they were closer I could see that they weren’t bobbleheads. They were crude dolls, just barely simulacra of humans. Straw poked through their burlap skin. Each was dressed in a tiny, hand-stitched red and white baseball uniform. And on the back of each outfit, carefully picked out in thread, was a player’s name: Desmond, Gonzalez, LaRoche . . .
“But,” I stammered, “some are missing.”
And then, reader, there emerged from the back of the shop a thing so monstrous, so horrible, that my skin crawls at the mere memory of it. It was a man, but like no man I had ever seen. He was grotesquely macrocephalic, his head a massive fleshy orb out of all proportion to his body. His pale lips were pulled back in a skeletal leer, each gleaming tooth the size of a china saucer.
He spoke: “That’s right, my good man. Werth is missing.” He pulled from his waistcoat a doll whose left wrist hung at an unnatural angle. “And so is Ramos.” A straight pin pierced the catcher’s right knee. “I just added Leon to my collection.” In his palm was the rookie, a pin through his right ankle.
“But why?” I croaked.
“Oh, I think you know why,” he said, moving closer to me, his face a grim rictus. “They won’t play fair. I won’t play fair. It’s a long season, and I have plenty of pins.”
To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.