The rag man, a true story of a mysterious visitor

For the month of October Listing Toward Forty is Listing Toward Halloween, featuring a variety of Halloween-inspired posts including many by guest authors. This post is by Jay Keenan.

This is a true story.

Because it is true, it needs some background. The event occurred when I was a little boy, when I was five in 1943. We lived on Inwood Street. I was not yet in school. Our house was 841 Inwood. It is not there anymore. I went back to see it after my mother died in 2000, but the house was gone, just an empty lot there now and a tree I once played under.

It was a fine house, big in my child’s eyes. We lived on the high side of the street, a street visited daily by milkmen and icemen and hucksters who still came in horse drawn wagons. And by the Duquesne Bakery truck. And by my father’s Packard, which lived in the garage behind our house.

Behind the house was the yard—and the tree under which I played. The yard was separated from the back alley by a plank fence. Beyond the alley was a depression, a tract of empty land long enough and wide enough for kids to use for baseball, and beyond that were the railroad tracks. The trains carried the circus into town. They carried the soldiers off to war. They carried coal and cattle and potatoes. They went by at night like great shadows, blacked out from the view of enemies. I know they carried potatoes because my mother would take me to the tracks once a week to pick up those that had fallen off. We would fill a bag, sometimes two, and she would boil them or mash them for supper. “We’ll just cut the bruises out, and they’ll be fine.” I admired my mother. She could turn rubbish into food. She was not afraid of anything. No, that’s not true. She was deathly afraid of thunderstorms.

The trains also carried hobos. One or two would come to our house every week. Mother was not afraid of poverty or of people. Nor was I. She kept the doors locked, but when a man would knock, she would give him a glass of milk and have him wait on the back porch while she made him a sandwich. Then she would sit and talk to him while he ate. She always gave him his sandwich on a plate and handed him a cloth napkin. Over and over again she explained that these were just men like my daddy, but they had no work and no money and that they were traveling from city to city looking for jobs. We had to help them as much as we could. She would show me the mark on our fence which she said was a hobo sign that told other hobos that we were a good house and not to harm us. Mother was as proud of that scratching as she would have been of a Picasso.

Hobo Markings

Hobo markings. Photo by Infrogmation

Mother had been the secretary to Father James R. Cox of Old Saint Patrick’s Church in the Strip District. She had organized “The Jobless March on Washington” and had handled the logistics of Shanty Town. She was not afraid of poverty.

My story might have to do with hobos, and it might not, but it must be read against that background.

It was a fall day, somewhere past the middle of September, but not yet Halloween. It was cloudy and chilly. I was playing inside, downstairs with toy soldiers and trucks. I was not warlike. I loved parades, and would set up my marching columns around the carpet edge from living room to dining room and back. It took hours. My mother was cleaning upstairs.

There was a knock on the kitchen door. I always went to see who it was, but only opened the door to neighbors or to my grandparents. There was a window, high up to me, but I could see through it. So, there was this knock, and I went to the door. There was no face in the window. I went back to my parade. Again the knock. My mother called down: “Don’t you hear that knocking? See who it is.”

I went to the door again. Again nothing. But before I turned away a figure wearing a hat came clear in the window. The hat was strange. It was old and shapeless, once probably a Fedora but dwindled into a crown of sorts. There was no face beneath the hat. Where there should have been a face there were only rags hanging straight down from the hat. Where there should have been eyes there were just slits. That’s all—just gray, brown, dirty rags hanging straight down. There seemed to be no shoulders below the rags and no chest—just rags. A gloved, a rag-gloved, hand rose into the window; it hovered and beckoned me to open the door. And the rag head nodded.

I didn’t move, couldn’t. I found my voice, like one struggling to cry out in a nightmare. First a little sound; then a scream. Fear makes a chilling sound.

Mother was beside me in an instant. I was trembling. I told her what I had seen. She looked out, opened the door and looked around. Nothing. She laughed reassuringly, said I had quite an imagination, and that there was nothing there, absolutely nothing. No footprints, no smudged glass, no sign of anyone or anything. Perhaps she was a bit impatient, thinking I might have done this just to get her to come downstairs to be with me. She went back to cleaning the upstairs.

Minutes passed and again a knock. This time it was at the front door. Again my mother called down for me to see who it was. I approached the front door with great hesitancy and genuine fear. In the door glass, as I feared, there was the head of rags. It nodded and gestured more urgently, menacingly it seemed to me. I stood still for what seemed minutes in little boy’s reckoning, and then I began to back away and scream for my mother. She was at my side. She was upset. But not with me. She had heard the knocking—both times. This second knocking was too hard, too insistent to have been made by any five-year-old. She picked me up, and after looking through the glass of both the front and back doors, she opened the front and stepped outside. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Mrs. White was outside sweeping leaves from her porch. No, she had seen no one. Mother carried me back inside. I clung around her neck, but she loosened my grip and put me down. I paused, looked at her, and said matter-of-factly and evenly: “It’s Death.” A simple statement of fact.

I saw her go tense; I think she shivered. “Why would you say that?”

We never talked about things like that. There was war going on, and I had uncles in it, but to me it was flags and parades. I loved the Brothers Grimm, but their tales to me were the wonderfully tame ones of the 1940s.

“Why would you say that?”

“It just is,” I said. “It’s Death.” I said it calmly. Then I started to cry. “Was I going to die, was she, was Daddy?” The questions tumbled out in hiccoughing sobs.

“No, no, it was probably just a hobo, some poor man who maybe had been burned, and you scared him away.” We had a glass of milk. That was it. I went back to my parade, my daddy came home, I went to bed. I slept easily.

That night, old Miss Ryan, who lived next door, died in her sleep. When I woke up I heard my mother and Mrs. White talking about it over the back fence. It was a sunny morning. I went outside in my pajamas and walked up to them and their voices hushed as they were talking about what I had seen and said. My mother took my hand and walked me back into the house.

I said, “It was Death. He just had the wrong house.”

“Nonsense,” said my mother, “Just a coincidence.” I don’t think she sounded convincing. I didn’t care. I knew what I had seen.

The rag man was never seen again, nor explained. Death has come many times in my life, but never as the rag man. Unless he came when my mother died.

She was in a home. She was one month shy of ninety-two, and she was suffering from severe dementia. I alone could excite her to conversation, for while she could not tell you what she had had for lunch three minutes after lunch, she could remember the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s with remarkable clarity. She sometimes mistook me for my father, but the facts she remembered were always accurate. Once or twice I would bring up the rag man, but she didn’t want to talk about that. She remembered. It was just not a topic she wanted.

I had been on vacation, and I was very tired the evening I returned home. I unpacked, promised myself I would call and visit Mom next day, and I went to bed. I awoke with a start about two in the morning. I thought I saw the rag man’s hat and rag-face in my bedroom window. I sleep on the second floor in a room that faces front, a near streetlamp functioning as a nightlight. I turned to look more closely. Nothing there. I felt a chill. It was May. Still I shivered. Sometime before six in the morning I received the call. Mom had died during the night—sometime between two and three.

An earlier version of this story was read aloud at "The Spooken Word," a 2010 fundraiser for the Pittsburgh Literary Council.

Jay Keenan is a retired professor of English and Theater from Duquesne University.  He now works as an actor and director in the Pittsburgh area.  Jay fancies himself a pretty good story teller who struggles to find his voice in prose.  But for his former student and good friend, Kim, he's willing to take the risk.

I'm glad you did, Jay.

All Halloween posts from this series can be found here.

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Tags: Ghosts, Halloween

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