c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
Cruise through certain neighborhoods in Pasadena, California, and you can still find quaint bungalows and Craftsman homes of the 1930’s. They seem as perfect as they always were, with neatly kept lawns and two-track driveways made with old cement, just big enough for a coupe or even a Model-T to make it into a funny little garage in the back. In the early 1960’s, when I lived there, my parents struggled to pay $100 a month in rent. The same house we lived in is now worth a cool $1.7 million.
We moved to Pasadena when I was about three years old. My parents rented our house from a family named Reynolds, who had probably lived there since it was first built in 1923. It came fully furnished, from the wonderfully big dining room table and its matching sideboard to the beds, dressers. Somewhere in that time my father acquired his Aunt Myrtle’s old couch, and I believe that is the only piece of furniture we actually owned.
When we moved in, our neighborhood was filled with elderly residents who had lived there for a long time. There was a nice couple named Sears, and the Mrs. made us wigs out of her old pantyhose, which we delighted in wearing as we bobbed around the neighborhood and imagined we were princesses in need of rescue. Up the street was a family with six kids, just enough for us to play “Gilligan’s Island” so we had a full crew. Mrs. Milligan was across the street, and was forever “shushing” us if we played too loudly. Then there were the Squire sisters, two spinsters who still dressed in 1920’s gothic dresses, tended their rose garden religiously, and did not like children at all. The one time we were robbed, one of the Squire sisters gave my mom a little pill to calm her down. She zonked out and slept for five hours.
Our house had a Spanish bungalow design, with a big shaded concrete patio in front of an ample front lawn, and a huge backyard that went all the way back to the alley. The driveway led to a garage in back, and we had great fun riding our trikes as fast we could on the slope of the drive, picking up our feet, and “Weeeeee,” careening uncontrollably right into the street. Of course my mother put an immediate stop to that once she caught us. Sometimes, we contented ourselves with playing on a side porch, created in the days to receive visitors through beautiful French doors from the driveway.
The backyard had two avocado trees and several others, plus a little garden full of Naked Ladies. I liked them because they were beautiful and pink, but also because I could say the word “naked” when addressing them, without getting in trouble. At the back gate was a gigantic eucalyptus tree towering over the alley. At some point, someone had spray-painted the words “snake tree” on its massive trunk, inspiring all sorts of scary stories and dark imaginings about what snake might live in the tree. That yard always scared me a little anyway, since in the days of the nearby Mansion murders and the racial riots in Los Angeles, my mother constantly warned us of “stranger danger.”
It did not help that Mr. Reynolds, who occasionally came to collect the rent, would pull up very fast into the driveway, leap out of his car, and walk purposefully towards the house. On more than one occasion his sudden arrival sent me running across the yard and bellowing in fear. Worse was that Mr. Reynold’s senile mother occasionally escaped from the home he’d put her in. On those occasions, she would come “home,” walk right into the house, and upon seeing my mother, would presume she was one of the neighbor kids. Then she would bustle around the kitchen, looking for cookies and pouring a glass of milk for my mom, who placated her until she could get to the phone and call Mr. Reynolds to come retrieve his mother.
The occasional appearance of Mr. Reynolds’ mother was nothing to what else went inside our house. The place was not only full of the Reynolds’ furnishings, but also some of their belongings. Among the things they left were some books, encased on some shelves on either side of the fireplace. One time I was playing with the books and found a tiny matchbox behind them. Inside of it was a little wooden, jointed monkey. I decided to keep my find a secret, only taking him out when I was home alone with my mom, and carefully putting him back. One day, I went to look for my little monkey. He, and his matchbox, were inexplicably missing, and I never saw him again.
The monkey’s mysterious disappearance didn’t begin to match what else happened. I won’t say it was a malicious spirit, but something was definitely there. Being the earliest riser in the house, I remember waking up to voices talking clearly in our living room. I would get up, careful to not disturb the hopeless bully I called my sister, wander down the hall, and go into the room, only to find it empty. My parents were still asleep in their bed. I was small enough that I didn’t really think much of it, until the day I had a fight with one of the six kids up the street and marched home in a huff. Nobody was home, but I disobeyed my mom’s order to stay with the neighbor until she came back and went inside. As I squatted on the floor in the living room, idly playing with my toys, I heard men’s voices speaking clearly in the kitchen. I grew nervous, went back to the neighbors, and never stayed alone in the house again.
There was more. The room I shared with my sister was at the back of the house. A U-shaped hallway ran between our room and my parent’s room. It is true that a big bush grew over our bedroom window, and that all sorts of critters rambled around back there at night. I would awaken and listen to them in growing terror, but when something started moving in our closet, which already scared the hell out of me, I would sit bolt upright and start screaming. Then my sister would wake up and start screaming too, sometimes pulling the blanket over her head in an effort to keep whatever the monster was from finding her. Down at the other end of the hall my parents would leap out of bed and come running, sometimes forgetting to make a right out of their bedroom door and running smack into the wall right in front of them. The second I heard that familiar thud, I knew help was coming.
Then there was the strange room built onto the back of our bedroom, connected by a common door. This room also had its own outside entrance and was once occupied by a woman named Norma, who had long since gone away. The door leading outside had long warped shut and we were too little to force it open. Even my dad had a time opening that door, and it made a horrific squeak when he did. Feeling this was a safe place to keep us from wandering outside, my parents made the room into a playroom for us for a time. But the room was big, and creepy, and our voices seemed to echo loudly in there, so we soon abandoned it. Even after that, we could often hear movement in there and, sometimes, voices.
Once, I was playing out a Bugs Bunny cartoon by myself and snuck up to the door to that room to peek through the keyhole. The door once held a lock for a skeleton key, but this had been removed and enabled me to look into the room. Imagine my horror when I peeked through the keyhole – and saw an eye looking back at me. A whole new, never-before-heard scream came out of me as I booked my little butt to the living room in search of my mom. I don’t know how many times she would open the door with me to show me nobody was there, but the noises and voices convinced me otherwise.
Of course my parents tried to comfort me and convince us that there was nothing scary going on. But even my mother could not deny that something was off when she began dreaming that on the other side of our French doors in the dining room was a mirror replica of our house with thousands of mirrors throughout the rooms. And the day that, upon returning from a visit with Mrs. Milligan, we found that the fringe on Mom’s chenille bedspread had inexplicably caught fire and was burning its way onto the mattress. Or the time my sister wished for a black cat, and one mysteriously appeared under our bed. And even my ever-logical dad had to admit something was definitely amiss when Norma herself paid a special visit.
It was summer, and our expansive kitchen was sorely in need of a paint job. Mr. Reynolds made a deal with my folks: he would pay for the paint, but they had to do the job themselves. So here were my young parents, disassembling the kitchen and applying the new paint, all the while complaining about the lazy Mr. Reynolds. “If we had a $100 bucks,” they were joking, “we’d get out of here and go to Vegas for the weekend.” (And that was back when you could indeed spend a couple of days in Vegas for a C-note.)
My dad was on the floor, next to a pile of pots and pans, and painting the inside of a cupboard when he found an interior shelf above the door. Feeling around, he pulled out an old shoebox. It was full of delightfully vintage Christmas cards from generations ago. Dad put the shoebox on the table as he and Mom started picking through the cards and admiring their pretty designs. About halfway through, Mom opened a card to read it, and out fell a hundred dollar bill. Inside of the card was the spidery handwriting of long ago. “Go out and buy yourself a new pair of stockings and have fun,” the card said. “Love Norma.”