Eve Fisher

One cold and windy October night in Laskin, South Dakota, my mother and I were in my grandmother’s living room, and Mom was reading aloud “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
It was a creepy story for a creepy night. Whenever Mom paused for breath, I could hear something outside, scuttling along the sidewalk or scraping along the wall. I could have gone upstairs and read a book, or even gone to bed, but the wind was howling, the windows were rattling, the attic door in my grandmother’s house had an eerie tendency to open by itself, and I had certain suspicions about the bedroom closet. So I stayed where I was, curling tighter and tighter in my chair.
“A coal black stallion loomed on the other side of the bridge. On the back of the stallion a long black cloak billowed up around a tall, dark figure. And that tall dark figure had no head.” Mom paused dramatically and then yelled, pointing at the front door: “It was the Headless Horseman! And there he is!”
Well, we all levitated, because I took one look at the tall, dark figure standing in the doorway and shrieked like a banshee before I bolted. My grandmother and mother both landed back in their chairs but I was all the way through the dining room and on the other side of the kitchen before I settled down.
“Is everything okay?” the figure asked.
“Oh, fine,” my grandmother said. (Mom was laughing too hard to speak.) “Really, Linda, it’s just Clarence Hanson. Come back in here and say hello.”
Well, word of that little scene spread all over town – Clarence? Mom? Grandma? – and from then on, Clarence was known as “The Headless Horseman,” “Headless” for short. It was a really good joke. Everyone laughed, including Clarence, which seemed inhuman to me. I’d have been furious, humiliated, surly, angry, and vindictive. I already was, just knowing that someone had told the tale. So why wasn’t he? And as for his attitude towards me…
I was always nervous on Halloween, mostly because I whole-heartedly believed everything I was told about witches, ghosts, vampires, and monsters. Especially at night. But a kid will do anything for candy, from going down dark alleys to crossing railroad tracks that were slick with what appeared to be dark dried blood. The streets were all poorly lit, and it looked like cobwebs had been installed in every window. Almost every yard had a display of pumpkins, corn, and at least one scarecrow, all slouched together. As I walked by the Reinhards’ house, a tremendous gust of wind sent leaves and corn husks swirling around me. I was still gasping, when one of the scarecrows rose up from its chair and came towards me, tearing off its head…
I didn’t stop running until I got to my grandmother’s house, where I burst in the kitchen door, panting and white-faced.
“What on earth is wrong?” my mother asked.
I told her what Headless, I mean, Clarence had done.
“Where was this?”
I told her that, too.
“Oh, my God,” Mom said, disgusted. “He lives there. It was just a Halloween joke. And you ran like a rabbit.”
Grandma shook her head. “The next time you run into him, you say ‘boo’ right back and see what happens.”
“Good idea,” Mom said.
Easier said than done.
Friday afternoon a week later:
School was over, and the Olson kids burst out of the door ahead of me. Their Uncle Warren was waiting for them in the pick-up to take them back out to the farm. There was a light snow riding a cold wind that took your breath away. Mom was going to pick me up, and we were going downtown to buy shoes, so I huddled in the doorway and waited, miserably. Finally a dark Chevy pulled up and I dashed out and got into it. I shut the door, turned around to say hi, and –
“Welcome to my parlor, said the spider –”
But I scrambled out before he could finish it, and dove into Mom’s dark Chevy which had pulled up behind.
“What in the world were you doing in that car?” Mom snapped.
“Headless –” I gasped.
“I know that’s Clarence Hanson’s car. Did he lure you in?”
I saw Mrs. Reinhard, still in her lunch lady uniform, come out of the school, and get in Headless’ car.
“No. I thought it was ours.”
“Oh, my God.” Mom rolled her eyes and pulled out of the parking lot. “What on earth is the matter with you? You have got to learn to pay attention, Linda! Anything can happen, and there you are –”
Thanksgiving dinner, and after we did the dishes, Grandma wrapped up a huge plate of leftovers and sent me out into the cold, bleak day to give them to Elsie Hopf, who was laid up with heart trouble. I delivered the meal and stayed to chat for a while and play with her seven cats, who would, undoubtedly, get most of the leftovers. Finally I headed back home. The windows and the televisions were lit all up and down the street, and I walked slowly, so that I could see the people inside without seeming to be a Peeping Tom. The wind was brisk, a light snow falling, but not too bad. The honey locust outside the Reinhards’ was stripped of leaves, and the long pods hung down and rattled in the wind like bones. Just as I was passing, Headless stepped out from behind the hickory beside it.
I guess I screamed, because Mr. Reinhard poked his head out the back door. I know I ran because I don’t have a clue what he said.
I was starting to see a pattern. And it didn’t stop. Those were just the highlights. It was a constant cat and mouse game, and there was no one I could tell. The police? Please. My mother? She was already disgusted with what a chicken she’d raised. Even Grandma really thought I needed to grow a backbone. Besides, experience had taught me that telling was never a solution.
Thankfully, winter was upon us, the long cold snowy South Dakota winter, and I could largely stay indoors and away from monsters rising or appearing or chasing me. It was harder to keep him out of my dreams – a recurring one was Clarence as the Headless Horseman or Frankenstein’s monster chasing me – but in real life I just had to remember that his dark Chevy had different license plates (I always had trouble memorizing numbers) and to keep an eye out for him.
I also gathered all the information about Headless, I mean, Clarence, I could, his weaknesses, troubles, crimes – things that I could maybe use against him. Winter was ideal for that – everyone hunkered down in living rooms and kitchens, talking endlessly about old stories, and there was no finer way to learn all the gossip about someone specific, if you could stand hearing about everybody else.
My results:
Clarence rented a basement apartment two blocks down from where I lived. The house belonged to Piers and Lois Reinhard, who lived on the main floor. Mr. Reinhard was an electrician, and Mrs. Reinhard was a lunch lady at the school. They had no children. My Aunt Matt Stark said they didn’t like each other enough for that. My mother said they were crazy enough about each other back in high school, but they do say a hot fire goes out the quickest. My Aunt Paula Olson sniped Mom should know, and Uncle Harold nipped that in the bud by saying he’d heard that Mr. Reinhard was sniffing around one of the girls at the Veblen Meat Packing plant, where Laskin Electric was doing some work. Aunt Paula said if it was Carla Hovis, she wouldn’t be surprised, and did anyone remember when he and that Terje girl were caught up by Beam’s Point? Grandma said that was Ole Nordstrom with the Terje girl and at that point the conversation went off into tales from the Jurassic…
Clarence worked at Mellette’s Lounge four nights a week as a dishwasher. Sarah Olson said he probably worked there to be near Mrs. Reinhard because he was in love with her. I hadn’t known Mrs. Reinhard cooked at Mellette’s, which made my mother shake her head – “What have I told you about paying attention?” – and said she was the one who made the Friday night creamed chicken over biscuits I loved so much. Which was why Clarence picked her up after school on Fridays, to take her to work. I really didn’t understand why Mom was so upset, I mean, I’d never been in the kitchen…
Anyway, Mrs. Reinhard wasn’t much better looking than Clarence, and twice his age, so I knew Sarah didn’t know what she was talking about. I figured he worked there because the money was good, and I planned to work there myself as soon as I was old enough, because that way I’d have lots of money and lots of time to do other stuff, like watch Clarence.
Clarence got his hair cut downtown at Ray’s twice a month. He ate breakfast at home, lunch usually at the Laskin Café. He was at the library every afternoon except Tuesdays and Thursdays (see below). Since no one could like reading that much, I figured he was casing the bank, which was right across the street. I ran that by Aunt Matt, and she said she certainly hoped so, because she was tired of being the daughter of the only bank robber Laskin had ever known, and it would take some pressure off the family. I don’t think she took me seriously.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Clarence headed off to Brookings in his old Chevy. He left early in the morning and didn’t get back until late at night. My grandmother said he should be getting his degree next year.
“As what?” my mother asked. “Mortician’s apprentice?” My eyes must have popped wide open, because she added, “I was only joking, Linda. Though God knows the world needs morticians, too.”
You see what I was up against. No one took me seriously.
And besides, what if he really was studying to be a mortician? My mother had psychic abilities. She could predict the end of every episode of “GeneralHospital”. She could tell if a man had been drinking just by looking at him. She had strange dreams, full of portents and omens. What if she’d guessed right?
Winter passed. Spring was coming, and the days were longer and almost warm. The local baseball teams started to play on Saturday afternoons right after Easter. Clarence was there, sitting as usual by himself high up in the far bleacher.
“Doesn’t he have any friends?” I asked Mr. Reinhard, who was manning the concession stand.
“Who, Headless? Not that I know of.” He looked at his lodger and shook his head. “No surprise. He doesn’t have a word to say to anyone. He’s lived with us for three years now, and we barely get two words out of him a week. You ever shake hands with him?” I shook my head. “Clammy as a dead fish.”
“I think he looks like Frankenstein,” I whispered.
Mr. Reinhard gave this consideration. “He’s got the forehead for it. And there’s room for a couple of bolts in his neck. But we can’t go calling him Frankenstein.” He grinned, and handed me a loaded hotdog. “Lot better calling him Headless.”
“Yeah. But I don’t think he likes it.” I looked back at Headless, and he turned his head and looked at me. I couldn’t see his expression clearly, but I still shivered.
“So what? Everybody’s got something they don’t like.”
I don’t know what flitted across my face, but Carla Hovis said behind me, “Two hotdogs, please, Piers.”
“Coming right up,” he said. Both of them gave me the look – you’ve been here long enough – and he added a pop as incentive. I walked off, hands full, as she moved in and leaned over the counter, laughing.
Up in the bleachers I settled in to root for the Laskin Storm vs. the Herman Tornados, mostly because my childhood crush, Gary Davison, played shortstop for them. (Years later I’d marry and later divorce him, but that’s another story.) I ate my hotdog, drank my pop, cheered my lungs out, and kept an eye on Clarence, who got up at one point and went to the concession stand. As he came back, he looked up at me watching him and shook his head.
Every Friday, he picked up Mrs. Reinhard. Every Friday, I watched him as he waited. Every Friday… well, at first he’d made a face at me and/or aimed his finger at me like a gun, and/or mouthed “Boo!” or “Gotcha” or something; then he’d stared at me with dead eyes; now he shook his head and looked away when he saw me. And there came a Friday, now that the weather was warm, when he rolled down the window, poked his head out, and said, “You really need to stop this.” I just gaped at him. “Let it go, Linda. Leave me alone.”
I looked at him, wide-eyed. I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t…
But later on that night, I thought about it, and I realized that I was the one who was watching him. I was following him. I was… What was I doing? What was I thinking? If I left him alone, would he leave me alone? That night I dreamed again of Frankenstein’s monster, but this time he was in a room, with one-sided glass, and I was watching him. And he looked tired.
The last week of school there was a dedication of a new school gym, and alumni came from all over the state, and further, to it. Everyone went, including Mom and Grandma, but Clarence wasn’t there, which actually disappointed me. I had decided that I was going to leave Clarence alone for the rest of my life, that I was never going to react to him again, that I wouldn’t flinch or even notice him, and I wanted a chance to prove it. Oh, well. Maybe next year.
The next morning I got up and found Mom on the phone in the kitchen, Grandma sitting right next to her, listening.
“What is it?”
Grandma waved to me to sit down. “Somebody robbed Mellette’s Lounge last night.”
Headless, I instantly thought. He worked Friday nights. “Did they get a lot?”
“With all that crowd from the dedication? Must have been a thousand dollars at least.”
Mom hung up and said, “Well, no one knows who did it, yet, but they figure it happened in the middle of the night. Whoever it was knew where the money was kept.”
Headless, I thought. That’s why he wanted me to leave him alone. Because he was going to rob someone, and he didn’t want me to be a witness.
“Anybody could figure that out,” Grandma replied. “That safe was right under the bar.”
“Yes, but that one was just for show. Ole put the money in another safe, hidden. And whoever took it knew where that was. They’re questioning all the employees, including those three high school girls he hired to help out.”
“But would they know?”
Mom shrugged. Headless, I almost whispered. Instead, I had my breakfast and went out for a long walk, which led to the Reinhards’ place.
I went down the alley, and sidled by the side of the garage. It was empty. Maybe he’d already left the county. I started to sidle away, when his car came down the alley. I scrunched myself between lilacs and the next door neighbors’ garage. Headless got out of his car and walked up the sidewalk to the house. Up the steps, opened the screen door, the back door, the screen door slammed and the back door closed, and I dashed up to the window.
He was standing just in the doorway, looking at something. His face was a monster’s, drawn and white and his mouth was twisted. I looked where he was looking: Mrs. Reinhard was on the floor. One of her legs was at an odd angle. Headless stretched out a hand towards her, and then turned around and bolted out the door.
And into me.
I tried to make a run for it, I really did, but he ran right into me. I screamed, he grabbed me, put his hand over my mouth and threw me into his car. The next thing I knew we were screeching out of the alley and heading down the road at a hundred miles an hour.
We were at the old fireworks stand outside of town in minutes. He pulled over and looked at me.
“Get out,” he gasped. And kept on gasping.
“I don’t understand –”
“I don’t either. Get out. Go home.”
“It’s two miles back!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake – can’t you walk that far?” he sobbed.
“You’re not going to kill me?”
“Only if you stay in this car. Get the hell out! Now!”
He roared the last word and I scrambled out of the car. He took off, leaving behind a trail of dust that left me coughing. And then I was all alone. It was a county road, gravel, silent, no cars in sight. Fields stretched out on both sides, one side plowed, the other still all stubbled from last year’s corn crop. I could see the water tower in the distance, and the trees of RennerPark.
I started walking back to town, wondering, why had he let me go? I was a witness. I’d seen him – I stopped by a small clump of wild asparagus and started picking it automatically. What had I seen? Headless walking in, and running out. Mrs. Reinhard, lying on the floor. That funny angle –
I gagged on the asparagus spear I was chewing. She was dead. Headless had seen her, and bolted. But why? He hadn’t killed her – he hadn’t had time. Unless he’d killed her before. But if he’d done that, he wouldn’t have walked back in on her, and he certainly wouldn’t have bolted like that. So Headless hadn’t killed her, and he was just running scared. He was scared!
I did a little jig, right there in the ditch.
Then I practically marched home. I had a story to tell, and for once I wasn’t the only chicken in it.
Except they didn’t believe me. At least, not at first. My mother just rolled her eyes, sighed, and lit another cigarette. My grandmother studied me intently. Then she went to the phone.
“Who on earth are you calling?” Mom asked.
“That new police officer. Ken Jonasson.”
“The police?” Mom practically shrieked.
“I taught him in school. He’ll keep it quiet.” We all sat as Grandma asked him, just to please her, if he’d run by the Reinhard place and take a look. “Someone said something strange was going on there. No, I really – Ken. I’d rather not say. If there is something strange, then I’ll be happy to put you in touch with the person who told me. But would you? Please? For your old teacher? Thank you.”
Fifteen minutes passed, and Mom shook her head and said, “So much for that story.”
Half an hour passed, and Mom stubbed out her cigarette and said, “Maybe I’ll go for a little walk.”
“You stay right where you are, Frances,” Grandma said.
“At least I could see –”
“I said to stay put!”
An hour passed, and Officer Jonasson knocked on our door.
“Mrs. Thompson. How’d you know?”
“I didn’t. Linda did. Linda, come and tell Officer Jonasson what you saw.”
“I went over to the Reinhard house. And I saw Mrs. Reinhard on the floor. And Headless, I mean, Clarence Hanson, come home. And he came in, and he turned white as a sheet. And then he bolted. And he ran into me. And we ran off – he was really scared. So whatever happened to Mrs. Reinhard, he didn’t do it.”
“Was he working at Mellette’s last night?” Mom asked.
“Actually, no. Seems he’s got a girlfriend up in Brookings. Went with her to meet her parents. But Mrs. Reinhard did. She closed the place down for Ole.”
“Then Mr. Reinhard must have picked her up after work,” I said. Everyone looked at me. “She doesn’t – didn’t – know how to drive. Mr. Reinhard wouldn’t let her. Remember Headless always picking her up at school?” I turned back to Officer Jonasson. “But he wasn’t there. So Mr. Reinhard must have done it.”
“Mm. What else do you know about him?”
Mr. Reinhard was tracked down in Sioux City, Iowa, where Carla Hovis had some cousins. His trial was a triumph of deflated arrogance: He couldn’t believe he’d been caught – he’d even stashed the murder weapon (a crowbar) in Clarence’s room. (He’d kept the money he stole from Mellette’s, in order to pay for his new life.) He kept shaking his head throughout everyone’s testimony. Especially mine. Carla was so ashamed she never came back to Laskin.
As for Clarence, well, he graduated that summer, and went on to graduate school. He never came back to Laskin, either, but for different reasons. One, he could make a lot more money practically anywhere else in the country. And two, he was sick to death of being called Headless. Although he did send me a postcard from L.A.:
“Turns out it was a good thing you were following me after all. Thanks. The Headless Horseman.”
Clarence stayed on in California, and eventually became a forensic pathologist. Like I said, Mom was psychic.