I was only 4 years old when I first stumbled across the dark shed behind my home. It was hidden behind a thick wall of elderberry trees to the rear of our landlord’s L-shaped lot.I often played behind a brush in my back yard. I liked it there. No one could see me. But I could see between the slats of the boards and, more than once, I watched our landlord, Mr. Neiman, walk towards the elderberries. He always stopped, looked around and then would sweep aside some brush, exposing dark wood, before stepping through.
"There’s a secret room back there,” I said to my brother once.
But he didn’t believe me, or maybe he wanted me to believe that there was not.
At 11 years of age, he seemed to know everything and he warned me not to get too close – the place was crawling with large beetles, he had told me.
But I wasn’t afraid of the beetles and I wasn’t afraid of adventure. But I was afraid of Mr. Neiman.
Two cherry trees stood just beyond the tall wooden fence separating our yards. I often climbed the fence to reach the branches. I’d cling to the tree, stuffing cherries into the pockets of my dress – and into my mouth – to keep my hands free for climbing.
I would prefer to wear jeans but my mother wouldn’t hear of it. Jeans were no attire for little girls.
I was on this fence one day when I saw the Neimans walking down the street. The Mrs. was not always well, so it was not often that they went for a walk.
Knowing I had a few minutes to explore before they returned, I climbed over the fence and slowly walked towards the brush. My heart raced as I glanced back. Not that I expected to see them, for I knew that they would be gone awhile. But I was afraid that my brother would see me and that would be worse.
I stopped and studied their home. It was always dark in the main house. Once in a great while, a small light could be seen in a back window.
The children in the neighborhood were afraid of the two-story home. The brown home was said to be haunted.
There was no lawn, only bark and mulch and roses and wild flowers of every color. Mrs. Neiman always hunched over her garden, pruning or planting. And Mr. Neiman would water.
“Cheri’ take some flowers to your mama,” he would say to me in his husky voice, and then gesture to me.
“Come, come. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you, my little Cheri.”
He liked calling me Cheri’ – more than likely because of my love for cherries, I thought.
Every now and then, usually on the first of the month, my mother would send me to their home to deliver the rent. It always took a long time for them to open the door.
I always prayed it would be the Mrs. But every now and then it was her husband.
“Come in. Come in, my Cheri’,” he would say every time in his husky accent. And I would step just inside the dark room. A large upright piano stood near the door, dust clinging to every inch of it. I would squint, unable to focus in the dark. There was furniture cramped into every corner, yet the old couple moved as if they were in a maze, fast and with a purpose.
Mrs. Neiman rarely spoke but always smiled. I often wondered if she spoke English. She seemed harmless, yet the children in the neighborhood feared her. I didn’t. I feared him.
I’d stand quietly each time as he scribbled a receipt. And it was during these short visits that I picked up tiny pieces of their history. Mrs. Neiman had been born into royalty in
I had asked him once if they ever had children. They did. Twin girls. But they died. Mrs. Neiman wiped away a tear as Mr. Neiman spoke. Then he quickly shooed me out of the house. I never asked again.
As I approached the shrubs, there was no question about it, I could see the old wood – dark, splintered and faded in some areas. There were no windows, or at least, none that I could see -- only one door and one large padlock. But next to the door was a hook – with a key.
Shaking, I spread the brush and stepped in, careful not to disturb any potential beetles.
I quietly turned the key and slowly opened the door. I expected the room to be dark but a window on the back wall brought in just enough sunlight to glance around.
I stood still, mouth open. I could not believe my eyes. Never in my life had I ever seen such a thing – picture after picture of naked or scantily-clad women on the walls. Some of them were standing, some were sitting, others were bent over, but each one, beautiful, with long hair, big eyes, ruby-red lips and the roundest breasts I’d ever seen.
I turned and ran as fast as I could. I never looked back and as I climbed the fence, I saw the Neimans walking back. I didn’t care. I was safe in my yard. Breathing heavily, I noticed I was so nervous that I was clenching my hand into a fist. I slowly opened my hand -- and panicked. I held a key in the palm of my hand.