By Lamont A. Turner
Joel tossed a blanket over his easel, jumped into bed and snatched a book from the stack on his nightstand. Peering over the top of the book at the balding giant scowling at him from the doorway, he realized he’d been too slow.
“Hi, dad. What’s up?” Joel asked, trying not to look at the crumpled paper in his father’s hand.
“This is what’s up,” his father shouted, stomping across the room to shove the paper at him. “How could you be failing science? Your father is an engineer and your mother is a chemist! You should have straight As!”
Joel spread out the report card on his book. Science wasn’t the only subject with and F in the column next to it. He was still trying to formulate an excuse when his father yanked the book away and grabbed him by the wrist.
“What is this?” his father asked, holding his hand up to his face. “Ink stains all over your fingers! You’ve been doodling instead of working on your studies!” Before Joel could protest, his father had jerked the blanket off the easel to reveal the face of a leering ghoul. “You spent the whole afternoon drawing this crap?”
“It’s not crap!” Joel shouted, jumping up to stand between his father and the canvas. “It’s art!”
“Since when is—whatever the hell that is, art? It looks like something from a comic magazine.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” Joel said. “It’s going to be the cover of a new horror book I’ve been working on.”
“Horror? You were raised better than that,” the father said. “What would Rabbi Heller say if he saw this garbage? Comic books!”
“Comic Books were created by Jews,” Joel said. “Superman, Captain America, all of the great characters were drawn by Jewish artists just like me. Rabbi Heller should be proud of what they accomplished.”
“Rabbi Heller would be proud of this?” Joel’s father shouted, reaching over Joel’s shoulder to point at the ghoul. “It’s disgusting!”
“It’s supposed to be,” Joel said. “It’s horror, just like the stuff Graham Feldstein drew back in the 1950s.”
“Graham Feldstein? I’ve never heard of this nobody. He probably died in a gutter somewhere after wasting his life making scribbles for pennies. This is your last chance. Get those grades up, or all of this goes, the pens, the paints, the easel, all of it. Do you understand?”
Joel wanted to scream that it was his father who didn’t understand, but, knowing that would only prolong the encounter, he nodded and tossed the blanket back over the easel. His father stood there, glowering at him for a moment before shaking his head and storming off. As soon as his father was gone, Joel rushed to the closet and lugged out the cardboard box he kept on the top shelf. He didn’t have much of a collection, but he treasured the issues he’d managed to scrape up enough to buy. He thumbed through the box until he came to a tattered comic in a plastic bag. It wasn’t in great condition, but there was a Feldstein zombie on the faded cover, one of the last covers he’d drawn before the moral crusaders shut the horror publishers down. Feldstein had floated around for a few years after that, trying to make a living drawing funny animals and superheroes, but eventually his familiar signature vanished from the comics. What had happened to him, Joel wondered. Was his father right? Had Feldstein died destitute and disillusioned?
Remembering there was a website dedicated to the horror comics of the 1950s that was regularly updated, he found it and searched through the archives. In an article about Feldstein published the year before, he discovered the man had lived in Crown Heights, just a few blocks away. The article mentioned he was working on a new graphic novel. Could he still be alive? He would have to be close to a hundred. If Feldstein was alive, he had to meet him!
It was almost too easy. He found Feldstein listed in the phone directory, and, after an hour of wavering, he finally got up the nerve to dial the number.
“This is Graham Feldstein,” said a voice that could have come from Joel’s thirty eight year old father. “How can I help you?”
Joel explained that he was a fan, and, after pausing to catch his breath, added that he too was an artist. The voice on the other end of the line sounded flattered and amused.
“I didn’t think I had any fans left,” Feldstein said. “Maybe I should have agreed to sign autographs at that silly convention. I didn’t think anybody would remember me when that young fella invited me.”
“You would have been a big hit, Mr. Feldstein,” Joel gushed. “They’d be lined up around the block to meet you.”
“That’s very nice of you to say, young man,” Feldstein said with a chuckle, “but I doubt you’d have much company. Where are you from, Joel?”
Joel told him he was only a few blocks away.
“Why don’t you stop by and show me your work Joel,” Feldstein said, causing Joel to nearly fall off his chair. “You could stop by Friday afternoon, if it’s alright with your parents.”
Joel assured him it would be fine with his parents and thanked him several times, only feeling guilty about the lie after hanging up. He would have to come up with an excuse to sneak out of the house, a task doubly difficult because he would be bringing his samples. He had two days to devise a plan, and to complete the story he’d been working on.
Finding the address he’d been given led to an old brownstone, housing a deli, Joel thought he’d written down the wrong number, or worse, that Feldstein had given him the runaround. There was no address on the building, but the numbers of the houses on either side said it had to be the place. He checked the crumpled paper in his pocket again, and was about to call Feldstein when he noticed a heavy-set woman staring at him through the plate glass window. Noting his distress, the woman shook her head and set down the stack of signs she’d been hanging.
“Can I help you with something?” she shouted from the doorway as a man in a white apron with red smudges came to stand behind her. “You’ve been standing there staring at the wind for fifteen minutes now.”
“I was looking for 225,” Joel said.
“This is 225,” the woman responded. “Did your mother send you for something?”
“No,” Joel said. “I had an appointment with an artist I was told lived here. I guess I got it wrong.”
“You mean Graham?” the woman asked, wrinkling her nose as though she’d just smelled something bad. “What do you want with that old schlep?” The man behind her muttered something under his breath and retreated back into the deli.
“You know him?” Joel asked, suddenly hopeful.
“He has the flat upstairs,” she said, hitching a thumb at the stairs going up the side of the building. “You family?”
“Just a friend,” Joel responded, pleased with the notion of being considered an intimate of the great artist.
“Tell your friend his rent is past due when you get up there. You’d think we were a charity the way he expects us to carry him.”
Joel crept up the stairs, conscious of every creaking board, until he reached the tiny landing and tapped on the door. Despite the lightness of his tapping, the door quivered in its frame and flakes of paint came off on Joel’s knuckles. He waited, clutching his portfolio to his chest while trying not to breathe in the stench from the alley below. This was how one of the greatest artists ever to grace the four-color medium was spending his twilight years? The railing, composed of hastily slapped together boards, wobbled as he leaned against it, propelling him forward just as the door swung open.
“You must be Joel,” said the old man in the doorway, his hands in the pockets of his tattered robe. “Come in.”
Joel followed him into the dimly lit room as Feldstein shuffled over to an overstuffed recliner and collapsed into it. It took the old man a minute to catch his breath. When he did, the voice came out in the same exuberant tones Joel had heard over the phone, though it was accompanied by a steady wheeze.
“Let’s see what you got there,” he said, reaching for the satchel with shaking hands. As Joel handed him the leather satchel, he noted the gnarled fingers and swollen knuckles. There was no way this man was still drawing.
Feldstein took his time examining each page as he pulled it out, nodding to himself and occasionally whistling as he saw something that impressed him. Finally, he stuffed it all in the satchel and handed it back.
“With talent like yours, you should be in advertising,” he said. “Why do you want to waste your time making funny books?”
“It’s an art form I’ve always admired,” Joel said. “I think I can tell some really great stories, just like you did.”
“For me it was just a job,” Feldstein said. “Back then, there weren’t many opportunities for a poor Jewish kid just off the boat. We had to make due with what we could get. It isn’t like that today. You don’t have to work in a sweat shop, churning out page after page of childish pap just to fill your belly. Go to college. Get a good job with a good firm. Forget the comic books.”
“But you’re a legend,” Joel said. “People pay big money for the issues you drew.”
“More than I ever made for drawing them,’ Feldstein said. “Comic books were meant to be a stepping stone, a way to hone my craft and keep a roof over my head until I could get a real job. Look where it got me.” He paused to cough into a wad of tissue pulled from a box on the end table next to the chair. “Maybe things are different today, what do I know, but my advice is to use your talent to better advantage.”
Both flattered and dismayed, Joel wasn’t sure what to make of what he’d just been told, or what to say next. Searching for something to break the silence, he brought up the graphic novel he’d read Feldstein had been working on. Feldstein chuckled.
“I met a nice young man who told me I could make some money if I did a story with some of my old characters. He said they’re all public domain now, so I wouldn’t have to share as much of the profits. None of it made a lot of sense to me, but I humored him. I never got any farther than a few sketches.”
“Can I see them?” Joel said, the sentence pouring out as one long word.
“I suppose there wouldn’t be any harm in it,” Feldstein said after a pause. “Though I fear you’ll be disappointed. They’re on the desk in the other room. The light switch is right inside the door.”
Joel floated off toward the room on a cloud of enthusiasm. He was going to see Feldstein originals, probably ones no other person had seen! He was already half way into the room before he remembered the light switch and stumbled back to flick it up. On the easel there was a completed page, not the sketch Feldstein had described. He’d inked it in his familiar crosshatched style, but with a skill far beyond anything he’d done back in the 50s. Joel paged through the stack of pages on the desk. Aliens with exposed brains over insect-like mandibles and bulging eyes shot laser beams at hapless spacemen. Zombies shuffled from their graves to enact vengeance on the cheating spouses who’d murdered them. How had he done it with those hands?
“This is brilliant!” Joel proclaimed, carrying a page depicting the demise of a tentacled giant at the hands of the military. “This is the best stuff you’ve ever done!”
Feldstein didn’t answer. Slumped back in his chair, he stared at the ceiling with his jaw hanging open. Joel knew instantly the man was dead. Dropping the page, he reached for his phone with a trembling hand, and had already pressed the 9 when he suddenly stopped. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He’d told his parents he was going to see a friend who was interested in purchasing the bag he’d hidden his art in. There wasn’t anything anyone could do for Feldstein anyway. He was already gone. Best to just slip off and pretend he was never there. The woman downstairs wanted her rent money. She was sure to come up and find the body soon.
He rushed across the room and out onto the landing but, as he turned to close the door, he spotted the page he’d dropped. It lay there, beckoning to him. Nobody would know if he took it. Nobody would know if he took all of them. He’d probably be saving them from being destroyed. Trying not to look at the dead man in the chair, he went back in, stuffed Feldstein’s pages into his satchel, and ran out. He kept on running, not stopping to pick up the trash can at the end of the alley he’d knocked over. It had disgorged the rotting meat it held onto Joel’s shoes, so the stench traveled with him. The woman from the deli came out to glare at him as he paused to retch, leaning against a lamppost in front of the store. What if she went up there now, he thought. What if they blamed him for Feldstein’s death? He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and nodded at the woman.
“That alley smells pretty bad,” he announced. “I guess I have a weak stomach.” The woman frowned, but said nothing.
Once home, Joel opened his window and tossed his shoes out onto the fire escape. Throwing himself across his bed, he smothered his sobs with his pillow so as not to alert his parents.
Joel didn’t sleep the night of Feldstein’s death, nor did he sleep the next night. He hadn’t even dared to look at the purloined art, leaving it in the satchel he’d stashed under his bed. On the third night, overcome by exhaustion, he finally fell into a fitful sleep, only to be awakened by the sound of ruffling papers. At first, Joel didn’t stir, thinking the sound was from the breeze wafting in through the open window. It was only after he remembered he’d closed the window against the evening rain that he sat up; suddenly aware he was not alone in the room. Someone was sitting in the chair by his easel, the open satchel at his feet.
“You know, I had help with these,” Feldstein said, running his hand over the page spread out in his lap. “I had help from the start. We all did.”
“How?” Joel whispered from under the blanket he’d pulled up over his head. “You’re dead.”
“No one is ever truly dead,” Feldstein responded. “It’s a shame. Too many generations spent here among the gentiles has erased kabbalistic truth from your lives. You are Americans now, your faith firmly grounded to the contents of your wallets. If you can’t buy it—or steal it, it isn’t real.”
“I didn’t mean to steal your work,” Joel protested. “I thought they would throw it away if I left it.”
“Better if they had,” Feldstein said solemnly. “These pages weren’t finished. They weren’t sealed.”
“Sealed?” Joel asked, unfamiliar with the term.
“We were taught to tap into the aspect of God that involves creation,” Feldstein said. “For most, it was only used for the inspiration it provided, but, as my hands failed me, I came to rely on this force too much. I called these things into being, but I was only a man. I couldn’t dictate how real they were to become, and how they would interact with the world. I was in the process of sealing them to the page, making sure they never became more than images. Now it’s too late.”
“Too late?” Joel asked. “Too late for what?”
“Too late for me to save you,” Feldstein said, ruefully, letting the page fall from his lap. Feldstein groaned as he faded away, dispelled by the glow emanating from the page. Joel stared into the glow as it grew, spreading upward and taking the form of a man. The man stretched out and threw back his head, convulsing as he sucked in the light. As the room went dark, Joel became aware of the stench of decay. The figure before him lurched forward on unsteady legs. Chunks of rotting flesh fell off its face as it reached for him, stifling Joel’s screams with a fetid claw.
“You’re going to be late for class,” Joel’s father shouted on his way out the door. Not getting a response, he set down his briefcase and walked to the foot of the stairs. “Are you awake? It’s almost seven thirty!” Hearing nothing, he grunted and headed up the stairs.
“Up and at ‘em!” he shouted, throwing open the door to Joel’s room. The bed was empty. Concluding Joel had left early, he was about to leave when he noticed the window had been left open. “No wonder my utility bill is so high,” he muttered, crossing the room to slam the window shut. As he turned to go, he noticed a drawing on the easel. Slipping on his reading glasses, he examined the lone figure on the canvas. He had to admit, his son had talent, but such a morbid imagination! In the center of the canvas, surrounded by an empty white space that seemed to be crushing him from all directions, Joel floated, his hands raised to ward off an invisible threat.
On his way out, he scooped up the pages, blank but for Feldstein’s signature in the bottom corners, as an alien watched him from the closet, its ray gun trained on his back.
About the author: Lamont A. Turner is a New Orleans area writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online venues including Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Dossier and others. His collection of short stories, “Souls In A Blender” is available on Amazon and Godless Horrors. He can be found in Twitter @LamontATurner1.
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