by Brian Lebeau
Eleven, tucked neatly between 10 and 12, is an often overlooked age that, when we reminisce, can be both magical and paradoxical. We relinquish our childhood fears in favor of prepubescent ones, yearning for independence even as we cling to the shelter of a warm bed in familiar surroundings. High school is near enough to ignite our imagination, yet distant enough to arrest our anxiety, and we expect our friends will be fixtures throughout our life, though most will be retained only as memories, becoming the stories we share with our children when they’re old enough to understand and still young enough to listen—somewhere between the age of 10 and 12. Yes, I believe 11 is the perfect age.
I spent my childhood in Fall River, Massachusetts, and turned 11 in early 1975, at a time of year when the season’s first trading cards were released and a few weeks before major league baseball’s first pitch. The snow and worst of the bitter cold were gone, and promise was firmly rooted in the ground and wistfully floating in the air, bringing with it the hope of a Red Sox World Series Championship for the first time since 1918, when Babe Ruth played in Beantown. I love baseball, and 1975 provided some of my best childhood memories and several lessons in disappointment.
My family lived on Charles Street, three houses down the hill from Salvo’s Made-Rite Potato Chips. From spring through fall, Saturdays meant a free bag of chips at the front counter and playing baseball at Abbott Court. When Salvo’s fumigated, the factory rats scuttled to nearby sanctuaries, one of their favorites being the dirt basement below the front house on my parent’s property. While I shoveled dead rats into barrels and dodged the survivors, my father added to the trauma by relaying stories of The Black Death and how fleas transferred the infection associated with the Bubonic Plague from rats to humans in the Middle Ages. Armed with this alarming bit of world history trivia, I’d shovel all the faster.
In winter, if we didn’t leave the water dripping from the kitchen faucet, the underground copper pipes would freeze. So, on those unfortunate early mornings, I worked my way through the frigid and unlit crawl space under the front house kitchen with a jacket, several layered sweaters, and a plumber’s butane torch. There I shivered, alongside the huddled rats, until the ice in the pipes––warmed by the sincerity of my prayers and aided by the torch’s blue flame––melted sufficiently to liberate both the water and myself with a crackling flush. The rats stayed huddled as I crawled back out and got ready for school, welcoming my departure with the same menacing stares that had greeted me fifteen minutes earlier. But the enormous rats lived behind King Philip Mills, four blocks east along Cook Pond. Those were the ones my father would reference when explaining why our rats were just a nuisance. So, I grew up a well-adjusted early riser equipped with a proper fear of rats, crawl spaces, and the dark.
Through most of the 1970s, I spent weekdays in Saint Patrick’s schoolyard with my friends, playing baseball with a rolled-up pair of socks, trading baseball cards at the front fence, and discussing the promise and plight of the Red Sox. And when I was 11, I first visited the Fall River Historical Society with my fifth-grade class and received a history lesson on the Lizzie Borden mystery. A few weeks later, the entire school went to the downtown theater to watch the ten-year rerelease of “The Sound of Music.” The stark contrast between the enchanting Maria von Trapp and the ill-fated Abby Durfee Borden left me wondering which depiction was the truth about stepmothers. Though I can’t recall any students singing from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, chanting the Lizzie Borden rhyme in the schoolyard was a rite of passage for students in Fall River, even more than eight decades after what was considered the greatest murder mystery of the nineteenth century.
Centered squarely between 18 and 80, 54 represents another wonderful age. Perfectly positioned between promise and wisdom, we are still young enough to dream and old enough to make the cherished ones a reality. A perfect balance between physical and fiscal wherewithal, we often engage in our most adventurous travel and riskiest career transitions. In my 54th year, I walked away from the measurable benefits of a hurried business career and stepped into the indeterminable world of writing novels. This new path led me back to the neighborhood of my youth, drawn to the mystery surrounding my hometown’s most notorious stepdaughter.
After not seeing the city’s South End for more than two decades, I visited in 2018 as part of a research trip for my upcoming psychological thriller A Disturbing Nature, released May 10, 2022. Saint Patrick’s Elementary was gone and replaced by a drive-thru pharmacy. Salvo’s became a McDonald’s. And King Philip Mills, where I spent many late afternoons and weekends playing football in the grass patch along Kilburn Street, was being demolished to make way for single-family homes. The Walko Bowling Alleys were no longer at Globe Four Corners, but the rest of the South End––with its side-by-side three-family houses, orange-and-red brick storefronts, and corner bakeries––looked much the same as when I was eleven.
That night, I stayed at the Lizzie Borden House. More specifically, I slept on the floor in Lizzie Borden’s former home. There’s something about lying on the floor on your back with a flat-weave, wool rug and a sliver of bedding material to soften the hardwood that gets the mind wondering what it feels like to be laid to rest in a fancy coffin.
I’m sure I hadn’t slept on a floor more than several times since turning 30, when I found myself in my 50s, lying on a folded-up sheet beside the bed in the John V. Morse Room—the Abby Borden Murder Room—at the Lizzie Borden house. It was late April, and cool air flooded the room through the open windows. Along with the sound of neighborhood cats, early morning traffic cruising across the nearby Braga Bridge, and guests still milling around the bed and breakfast, the cool air made it difficult to sleep. But it was the moonlight seeping into the room that allowed my eyes to wander under the bed to the spot where Abby Borden, Lizzie’s stepmother, was found murdered. The cool air became an icy chill, the passing cars sounded more like clattering hooves, and the whispers in the house could have been mistaken for the sound of a hatchet splitting bone. Turning over, I pulled the blanket over my face and tucked it around my body a little tighter, leaving just enough opening at my head for fresh air to enter my makeshift cocoon. Unfortunately, when I opened my eyes, it also left enough space to see the hem of the drab olive-and-sage colored dress that Elizabeth Montgomery wore in the 1975 made-for-television movie “The Legend of Lizzie Borden.”
I took the house tour in the afternoon, the ghost tour in the early evening, and joined a ghost hunt just after midnight with the other guests staying at the inn. Later, guests chatted while sipping wine in the sitting room where Lizzie’s father was murdered. Having been introduced to the ghost face of Andrew Borden in the basement washroom and his bloodstains under the floorboards, it was clear nobody looked forward to going to bed. Around two, I was among the first to say goodnight. I’m certain I did not fall asleep until well after three, while others likely stayed up the entire night.
I planned on sleeping on the very spot where Abby died, but that seemed a bit much when the time came, and the space between the bed and dresser is rather narrow for someone that does not like crawl spaces and tight environments. I also had the uneasy feeling that it might be viewed as sacrilegious to sleep directly on someone’s death bed and might anger the spirits. With morning’s first light, I was first in the community shower and ready for breakfast before the plates hit the table, happy to have visited and thrilled to leave. Looming over Fall River, high above this historic and charming city’s scurrying rats, creepy crawl spaces, and haunted mills, the image of Lizzie Borden hovers like a specter, occupying the space between 11 and 54 while offering a glimpse into our darkest fears.
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