Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Visit To The Red & White Store: I Hear Dead People

“Let’s go!” My husband was impatient.

I set the cooler full of drinks on the floorboard behind the front seat and the bag full of snacks on the back seat next to my sister. “You’re the one who gets to hand out the goodies!” I said to her.

“Better be nice to me then!” she joked.

I climbed behind the wheel of our rental car and turned to my husband, sitting in the front passenger seat. “Where to?” I asked him.

“Diamond Lake,” he answered.

“Good choice!” My sister’s voice resounded from the back seat.

We drove through Roseburg, turning onto Diamond Lake Boulevard and headed east on Highway 38. The road parted fields of tall yellow grasses, dotted with blackberry bushes laden with berries. Dilapidated old barns stood majestically on weathered frames amid tall, green Douglas Firs. The river wrestled chaotically over rocks revealed by summer time water levels. Panting deer lay in green shaded meadows at the foot of rock studded mountains that pierced the cloudless sky. Hawks glided on the gentle breezes, searching below for field mice.

“Look!” I said, pointing at a road sign. “Crater Lake is open. We’ve got our National Parks Card so we can get in cheap. Do you guys want to see the Pinnacles?”

“Yeah!” my husband answered.

“I haven’t seen Crater Lake in a long time,” said my sister.

“Cool!” I smiled and followed the signs that would take us to the lake. I arrived at an intersection and stopped. It was then I saw the sign for Chemult.

“Let’s go to Chemult and see if the Red and White is still standing.” I suggested waiting at the stop sign.

“Grandma and Grandpa’s store!” said my sister, sentimentally.

My husband grinned and nodded. He loved spontaneous adventure better than a planned road trip.

I turned onto the two lane highway framed on either side with red pumice and thick groves of dust coated pine trees and headed towards Chemult. I drove several miles before arriving at the small town where my grandparents had operated their business. Their small grocery store had opened to the public from the front. They had lived in the back, entering the store whenever a customer opened the door, striking bells hung to alert them to the visit.

We parked in front of the small store built of wooden planks once painted white with red shutters.

“Wow. It sure looks different.” I said. My sister nodded. We looked at the two story façade built of graying boards. The second story served as a bulletin board for product advertisements. The windows held even more placards for items sold inside. It was a chaotic mess. I remembered the windows of my youth. They had held neon signs advertising beer and nothing more.

“Let’s go inside.” My husband said.

We walked through the door, announced by an electronic beep. The nostalgic smell of the old Red and White filled my nostrils. Unfinished wooden floorboards and Red Man tobacco still permeated the store.

“Do you remember how the store was set up?” I turned to my sister.

“Not really,” she answered. “Do you?”

“Yeah.” I pointed to the southwest corner of the store. “They built a wall there and installed coolers. That used to be where Grandma and Grandpa entered the store from their kitchen. The counter and register was there.”

I took my sister and husband on a tour of the small store, describing the set up I remembered. A clerk behind the register listened to my dialog while waiting on customers.

I got in line so I could talk to her. “My grandparents used to own this store when I was a child,” I told her. “We’re visiting our roots. Is there any way we could look in the back?”

She smiled. “Sure.” She asked a coworker to mind the register and volunteered to give us a walking tour.

“The bathroom is in the same place.” I said, noting the updates. The shower stall had been removed and an antique dresser holding live plants sat in its place. The toilet was now installed on a wide platform.

The clerk stepped into the long walkway to the back of the house. “This is the cooler.”

“This used to be my grandpa’s bedroom. I think he died here.” I said to her.

“Wow.” She said. “This room is haunted. We’ve seen a man standing here. We have a clerk who is kind of lazy. She’s told us that she’s heard noises during her shift. We think that he doesn’t like laziness.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I believed her. When I was 10 years old, my grandpa died. He appeared to me in a lucid dream, scared, reaching his arms out to me and calling my name. The third time he called my name, he started to rotate with the spinning vortex behind him. He was sucked into the vortex, still calling my name. I knew he had died, frightened and resisting his death. It made sense that he was still at the Red and White. I told the clerk about my childhood dream.

The clerk walked us to the back of the house. “This is the storeroom,” she said.

“Oh my God!” I said. “Our school pictures used to hang there forty years ago!” I pointed to an area on the back wall. The wood had darkened with time, except for five rows of three by five inch rectangles. I looked on the north wall of the room and spotted a light irregular shape. “The deer head used to hang there!”

The deer head had been a four point buck that my grandpa shot. It weighed 345 pounds and the meat was so tough even the dogs couldn’t eat it. Its rack measured one inch wider than a regulation doorway. It was the only deer head my grandpa had ever mounted.

A train rumbled by and the house began to shake and rattle. “When I was three, I was sleeping on the couch, under the deer head. A train went by and rattled it right off the wall. I woke up to the deer’s horns straddling my head on either side of my ears, its eyes staring into mine. It scared me and I screamed. The room filled with my parents and grandparents. They all made such a fuss that I started crying. They finally calmed me down with the promise of ice cream from the store.” I recounted the memory to the clerk.

I pointed out all the changes I could recall to the clerk. She seemed genuinely interested. She told me she really loved the store and hoped to buy it one day. She told me there was a memorial garden on the east side of the store. We were welcome to visit it.

My sister and I went out to see the garden. The plaque nailed to the ancient pine commemorated a Viet Nam veteran, the son of the family who had bought the store from my grandma. The blue and yellow flowers in the garden spilled their fragrance into the air, attracting bees. My sister and I sat on a bench in front of the plaque.

“Can you believe that?” I said. “I was hoping he would appear to me. He did when he died.” I remembered how scared he was. “I just want to know he’s alright.”

“Me too,” said my sister.

Three loud raps echoed through the side yard, startling birds into flight. I looked at my sister. We glanced toward the small rectangular window just under the eaves. “I guess your hubby wants you to go back into the store,” she said.

We stood up, stretched and walked back around to the front of the store. As we opened the door, my husband walked out and handed us a soda.

“What were you knocking for?” I asked.

“I didn’t knock,” he said.

“Who knocked? Was it the clerk?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear a knock. What are you talking about?” he answered.

My sister’s mouth dropped open and her eyes widened.

“Wait.” I said.

I popped my head into the store, locked eyes with the clerk, and asked, “Did you just knock on the window?”

As I glanced at the window, I noticed the large rack of commodities in front of it. Someone would have to climb the rack to reach the window. I looked back at the clerk.

“No. Why?” she asked.

“Uh, I heard knocking.” I said, feeling stupid for saying it. “Did you hear it?”

“Oh!” she gasped. “No. Our haunt, your grandpa always knocks three times when he makes noises.”

I grinned and nudged my sister. “I guess he was letting us know he’s okay.” I felt calm, loved, and relaxed. My hardworking, no nonsense grandpa was still managing the store he loved from the other side.

“I want to get some pictures,” I told my sister. She and I pulled out our cameras. My husband turned on his video camera. It was no use. All of our batteries had died.

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