The October Country…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…
In celebration of fall, I am always drawn back to the fiction of the late Ray Bradbury—it’s a gross understatement (quantitatively and qualitatively) to say Bradbury taught a generation to write…he’s still teaching us to write. His style lightly macabre, flickered like a candle; it was also wondrously garish, carnivalesque. Ray Bradbury, like Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, and Shirley Jackson, was a stylist. And we don’t see many of those in any generation. I relish them. I envy them. I yearn for them, innocent—like that shiny red apple bobbing in the basin—its poison silent, and resting.
The Man Upstairs
Ray Bradbury, 1947
Originally appeared in Bradbury’s 1947 collection Dark Carnival. It was collected eight years later in The October Country (1955). (See book cover images above.)
‘The red glass did things to Mr. Koberman. His face, his suit, his hands. The clothes seemed to melt away. Douglas almost believed, for one terrible moment, that he could see inside Mr. Koberman. And what he saw made him lean wildly against the small red pane, blinking.’
He remembered how carefully and expertly Grandmother would fondle the cold cut guts of the chicken and withdraw the marvels therein; the wet shining loops of meat-smelling intestine, the muscled lump of heart, the gizzard with the collection of seeds in it. How neatly and nicely Grandma would slit the chicken and push her fat little hand in to deprive it of its medals. These would be segregated, some in pans of water, others in paper to be thrown to the dog later, perhaps. And then the ritual of taxidermy, stuffing the bird with watered, seasoned bread, and performing surgery with a swift, bright needle, stitch after pulled-tight stitch.
This was one of the prime thrills of Douglas’s eleven-year-old life span.
Altogether, he counted twenty knives in the various squeaking drawers of the magic kitchen table from which Grandma, a kindly, gentle-faced, white-haired old witch, drew paraphernalia for her miracles.
Douglas was to be quiet. He could stand across the table from Grandmama, his freckled nose tucked over the edge, watching, but any loose boy-talk might interfere with the spell. It was a wonder when Grandma brandished silver shakers over the bird, supposedly sprinkling showers of mummy-dust and pulverized Indian bones, muttering mystical verses under her toothless breath.
“Grammy,” said Douglas at last, breaking the silence, “Am I like that inside?” He pointed at the chicken.
“Yes,” said Grandma. “A little more orderly and presentable, but just about the same. . . .”
“And more of it!” added Douglas, proud of his guts.
“Yes,” said Grandma. “More of it.”
“Grandpa has lots more’n me. His sticks out in front so he can rest his elbows on it.”
Grandma laughed and shook her head.
Douglas said, “And Lucie Williams, down the street, she . . .”
“Hush, child!” cried Grandma.
“But she’s got . . .”
“Never you mind what she’s got! That’s different.”
“But why is she different?”
“A darning-needle dragon-fly is coming by some day and sew up your mouth,” said Grandma firmly.
Douglas waited, then asked, “How do you know I’ve got insides like that, Grandma?”
“Oh, go ’way, now!”
The front doorbell rang.
Through the front-door glass as he ran down the hall, Douglas saw a straw hat. The bell jangled again and again. Douglas opened the door.
“Good morning, child, is the landlady at home?
“ Cold gray eyes in a long, smooth, walnut-colored face gazed upon Douglas. The man was tall, thin, and carried a suitcase, a brief case, an umbrella under one bent arm, gloves rich and thick and gray on his thin fingers, and wore a horribly new straw hat.
Douglas backed up. “She’s busy.”
“I wish to rent her upstairs room, as advertised.”
“We’ve got ten boarders, and it’s already rented; go away!”
“Douglas!” Grandma was behind him suddenly. “How do you do?” she said to the stranger. “Never mind this child.”
Unsmiling, the man stepped stiffly in. Douglas watched them ascend out of sight up the stairs, heard Grandma detailing the conveniences of the upstairs room. Soon she hurried down to pile linens from the linen closet on Douglas and send him scooting up with them.
Douglas paused at the room’s threshold. The room was changed oddly, simply because the stranger had been in it a moment. The straw hat lay brittle and terrible upon the bed, the umbrella leaned stiff against one wall like a dead bat with dark moist wings folded.
Douglas blinked at the umbrella.
The stranger stood in the center of the changed room, tall, tall.
“Here!” Douglas littered the bed with supplies. “We eat at noon sharp, and if you’re late coming down the soup’ll get cold. Grandma fixes it so it will, every time!”
The tall strange man counted out ten new copper pennies and tinkled them in Douglas’ blouse pocket. “We shall be friends,” he said, grimly.
It was funny, the man having nothing but pennies. Lots of them. No silver at all, no dimes, no quarters. Just new copper pennies.
Douglas thanked him glumly. “I’ll drop these in my dime bank when I get them changed into a dime. I got six dollars and fifty cents in dimes all ready for my camp trip in August.”
“I must wash now,” said the tall strange man.
Once, at midnight, Douglas had wakened to hear a storm rumbling outside—the cold hard wind shaking the house, the rain driving against the window. And then a lightning bolt had landed outside the window with a silent, terrific concussion. He remembered that fear of looking about at his room, seeing it strange and awful in the instantaneous light.
So it was, now, in this room. He stood looking up at the stranger. This room was no longer the same, but changed indefinably because this man, quick as a lightning bolt, had shed his light about it. Douglas backed up slowly as the stranger advanced.
The door closed in his face.
The wooden fork went up with mashed potatoes, came down empty. Mr. Koberman, for that was his name, had brought the wooden fork and wooden knife and spoon with him when Grandma called lunch.
“Mrs. Spaulding,” he had said, quietly, “my own cutlery; please use it. I will have lunch today, but from tomorrow on, only breakfast and supper.”
Grandma bustled in and out, bearing steaming tureens of soup and beans and mashed potatoes to impress her new boarder, while Douglas sat rattling his silverware on his plate, because he had discovered it irritated Mr. Koberman.
“I know a trick,” said Douglas. “Watch.” He picked a fork-tine with his fingernail. He pointed at various sectors of the table, like a magician. Wherever he pointed, the sound of the vibrating fork-tine emerged, like a metal elfin voice. Simply done, of course. He pressed the fork handle on the table-top, secretly. The vibration came from the wood like a sounding board. It looked quite magical. “There, there, and there!” exclaimed Douglas, happily plucking the fork again. He pointed at Mr. Koberman’s soup and the noise came from it.
Mr. Koberman’s walnut-colored face became hard and firm and awful. He pushed the soup bowl away violently, his lips twisting. He fell back in his chair.
Grandma appeared. “Why, what’s wrong, Mr. Koberman?”
“I cannot eat this soup.”
“Because I am full and can eat no more. Thank you.”
Mr. Koberman left the room, glaring.
“What did you do, just then?” asked Grandma at Douglas, sharply.
“Nothing. Grandma, why does he eat with wooden spoons?”
“Yours not to question! When do you go back to school, anyway?”
“Oh, my land!” said Grandma.
Mr. Koberman worked nights. Each morning at eight he arrived mysteriously home, devoured a very small breakfast, and then slept soundlessly in his room all through the dreaming hot daytime, until the huge supper with all the other boarders at night.
Mr. Koberman’s sleeping habits made it necessary for Douglas to be quiet. This was unbearable. So, whenever Grandma visited down the street, Douglas stomped up and down stairs beating a drum, bouncing golf balls, or just screaming for three minutes outside Mr. Koberman’s door, or flushing the toilet seven times in succession.
Mr. Koberman never moved. His room was silent, dark. He did not complain. There was no sound. He slept on and on. It was very strange.
Douglas felt a pure white flame of hatred burn inside himself with a steady, unflickering beauty. Now that room was Koberman Land. Once it had been flowery bright when Miss Sadlowe lived there. Now it was stark, bare, cold, clean, everything in its place, alien and brittle.
Douglas climbed upstairs on the fourth morning.
Halfway to the second floor was a large sun-filled window, framed by six-inch panes of orange, purple, blue, red and burgundy glass. In the enchanted early mornings when the sun fell through to strike the landing and slide down the stair banister, Douglas stood entranced at this window peering at the world through the multicolored windows.
Now a blue world, a blue sky, blue people, blue streetcars and blue trotting dogs.
He shifted panes. Now—an amber world! Two lemonish women glided by, resembling the daughters of Fu Manchu! Douglas giggled. This pane made even the sunlight more purely golden.
It was eight A.M. Mr. Koberman strolled by below, on the sidewalk, returning from his night’s work, his cane looped over his elbow, straw hat glued to his head with patent oil.
Douglas shifted panes again. Mr. Koberman was a red man walking through a red world with red trees and red flowers and—something else.
Something about—Mr. Koberman.
The red glass did things to Mr. Koberman. His face, his suit, his hands. The clothes seemed to melt away. Douglas almost believed, for one terrible instant, that he could see inside Mr. Koberman. And what he saw made him lean wildly against the small red pane, blinking.
Mr. Koberman glanced up just then, saw Douglas, and raised his cane-umbrella angrily, as if to strike. He ran swiftly across the red lawn to the front door.
“Young man!” he cried, running up the stairs. “What were you doing?”
“Just looking,” said Douglas, numbly.
“That’s all, is it?” cried Mr. Koberman.
“Yes, sir. I look through all the glasses. All kinds of worlds. Blue ones, red ones, yellow ones. All different.”
“All kinds of worlds, is it!” Mr. Koberman glanced at the little panes of glass, his face pale. He got hold of himself. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and pretended to laugh. “Yes. All kinds of worlds. All different.” He walked to the door of his room. “Go right ahead; play,” he said.
The door closed. The hall was empty. Mr. Koberman had gone in.
Douglas shrugged and found a new pane.
“Oh, everything’s violet!”
Half an hour later, while playing in his sandbox behind the house, Douglas heard the crash and the shattering tinkle. He leaped up.
A moment later, Grandma appeared on the back porch, the old razor strop trembling in her hand.
“Douglas! I told you time and again never fling your basketball against the house! Oh, I could just cry!”
“I been sitting right here,” he protested.
“Come see what you’ve done, you nasty boy!”
The great colored window panes lay shattered in a rainbow chaos on the upstairs landing. His basketball lay in the ruins.
Before he could even begin telling his innocence, Douglas was struck a dozen stinging blows upon his rump. Wherever he landed, screaming, the razor strop struck again.
Later, hiding his mind in the sandpile like an ostrich, Douglas nursed his dreadful pains. He knew who’d thrown that basketball. A man with a straw hat and a stiff umbrella and a cold, gray room. Yeah, yeah, yeah. He dribbled tears. Just wait. Just wait.
He heard Grandma sweeping up the broken glass. She brought it out and threw it in the trash bin. Blue, pink, yellow meteors of glass dropped brightly down.
When she was gone, Douglas dragged himself, whimpering, over to save out three pieces of the incredible glass. Mr. Koberman disliked the colored windows. These—he clinked them in his fingers—would be worth saving.
Grandfather arrived from his newspaper office each night, shortly ahead of the other boarders, at five o’clock. When a slow, heavy tread filled the hall, and a thick, mahogany cane thumped in the cane-rack, Douglas ran to embrace the large stomach and sit on Grandpa’s knee while he read the evening paper.
“Hello, down there!”
“Grandma cut chickens again today. It’s fun watching,” said Douglas.
Grandpa kept reading. “That’s twice this week, chickens. She’s the chickenist woman. You like to watch her cut ’em, eh? Cold-blooded little pepper! Ha!”
“I’m just curious.”
“You are,” rumbled Grandpa, scowling. “Remember that day when that young lady was killed at the rail station. You just walked over and looked at her, blood and all.” He laughed. “Queer duck. Stay that way. Fear nothing, ever in your life. I guess you get it from your father, him being a military man and all, and you so close to him before you came here to live last year.” Grandpa returned to his paper.
A long pause. “Gramps?”
“What if a man didn’t have a heart or lungs or stomach but still walked around, alive?”
“That,” rumbled Gramps, “would be a miracle.”
“I don’t mean a—a miracle. I mean, what if he was all different inside. Not like me.”
“Well, he wouldn’t be quite human then, would he, boy?”
“Guess not, Gramps. Gramps, you got a heart and lungs?”
Gramps chuckled. “Well, tell the truth, I don’t know. Never seen them. Never had an X-ray, never been to a doctor. Might as well be potato-solid for all I know.”
“Have I got a stomach?”
“You certainly have!” cried Grandma from the parlor entry. “‘Cause I feed it! And you’ve lungs, you scream loud enough to wake the crumblees. And you’ve dirty hands, go wash them! Dinner’s ready. Grandpa, come on. Douglas, git!”
In the rush of boarders streaming downstairs, Grandpa, if he intended questioning Douglas further about the weird conversation, lost his opportunity. If dinner delayed an instant more, Grandma and the potatoes would develop simultaneous lumps.
The boarders, laughing and talking at the table—Mr. Koberman silent and sullen among them—were silenced when Grandfather cleared his throat. He talked politics a few minutes and then shifted over into the intriguing topic of the recent peculiar deaths in the town.
“It’s enough to make an old newspaper editor prick up his ears,” he said, eying them all. “That young Miss Larson, lived across the ravine, now. Found her dead three days ago for no reason, just funny kinds of tattoos all over her, and a facial expression that would make Dante cringe. And that other young lady, what was her name? Whitely? She disappeared and never did come back.”
“Them things happen alla time,” said Mr. Britz, the garage mechanic, chewing. “Ever peek inna Missing Peoples Bureau file? It’s that long.” He illustrated. “Can’t tell what happens to most of ’em.”
“Anyone want more dressing?” Grandma ladled liberal portions from the chicken’s interior. Douglas watched, thinking about how that chicken had had two kinds of guts—God-made and Man-made.
Well, how about three kinds of guts?
Conversation continued about the mysterious death of so-and-so, and, oh, yes, remember a week ago, Marion Barsumian died of heart failure, but maybe that didn’t connect up? or did it? you’re crazy! forget it, why talk about it at the dinner table? So.
“Never can tell,” said Mr. Britz. “Maybe we got a vampire in town.”
Mr. Koberman stopped eating.
“In the year 1927?” said Grandma. “A vampire? Oh, go on, now.”
“Sure,” said Mr. Britz. “Kill ’em with silver bullets. Anything silver for that matter. Vampires hate silver. I read it in a book somewhere, once. Sure, I did.”
Douglas looked at Mr. Koberman who ate with wooden knives and forks and carried only new copper pennies in his pocket.
“It’s poor judgment,” said Grandpa, “to call anything by a name. We don’t know what a hobgoblin or a vampire or a troll is. Could be lots of things. You can’t heave them into categories with labels and say they’ll act one way or another. That’d be silly. They’re people. People who do things. Yes, that’s the way to put it: people who do things.”
“Excuse me,” said Mr. Koberman, who got up and went out for his evening walk to work.
The stars, the moon, the wind, the clock ticking, and the chiming of the hours into dawn, the sun rising, and here it was another morning, another day, and Mr. Koberman coming along the sidewalk from his night’s work. Douglas stood off like a small mechanism whirring and watching with carefully microscopic eyes.
At noon, Grandma went to the store to buy groceries.
As was his custom every day when Grandma was gone, Douglas yelled outside Mr. Koberman’s door for a full three minutes. As usual, there was no response. The silence was horrible.
He ran downstairs, got the pass-key, a silver fork, and the three pieces of colored glass he had saved from the shattered window. He fitted the key to the lock and swung the door slowly open.
The room was in half light, the shades drawn. Mr. Koberman lay atop his bedcovers, in slumber clothes, breathing gently, up and down. He didn’t move. His face was motionless.
“Hello, Mr. Koberman!”
The colorless walls echoed the man’s regular breathing.
“Mr. Koberman, hello!”
Bouncing a golf ball, Douglas advanced. He yelled. Still no answer. “Mr. Koberman!”
Bending over Mr. Koberman, Douglas picked the tines of the silver fork in the sleeping man’s face.
Mr. Koberman winced. He twisted. He groaned bitterly.
Response. Good. Swell.
Douglas drew a piece of blue glass from his pocket. Looking through the blue glass fragment he found himself in a blue room, in a blue world different from the world he knew. As different as was the red world. Blue furniture, blue bed, blue ceiling and walls, blue wooden eating utensils atop the blue bureau, and the sullen dark blue of Mr. Koberman’s face and arms and his blue chest rising, falling. Also . . .
Mr. Koberman’s eyes were wide, staring at him with a hungry darkness.
Douglas fell back, pulled the blue glass from his eyes.
Mr. Koberman’s eyes were shut.
Blue glass again—open. Blue glass away—shut. Blue glass again—open. Away—shut. Funny. Douglas experimented, trembling. Through the glass the eyes seemed to peer hungrily, avidly through Mr. Koberman’s closed lids. Without the blue glass they seemed tightly shut.
But it was the rest of Mr. Koberman’s body. . . .
Mr. Koberman’s bedclothes dissolved off him. The blue glass had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was the clothes themselves, just being on Mr. Koberman. Douglas cried out.
He was looking through the wall of Mr. Koberman’s stomach, right inside him!
Mr. Koberman was solid.
Or, nearly so, anyway.
There were strange shapes and sizes within him.
Douglas must have stood amazed for five minutes, thinking about the blue worlds, the red worlds, the yellow worlds side by side, living together like glass panes around the big white stair window. Side by side, the colored panes, the different worlds; Mr. Koberman had said so himself.
So this was why the colored window had been broken.
“Mr. Koberman, wake up!”
“Mr. Koberman, where do you work at night? Mr. Koberman, where do you work?”
A little breeze stirred the blue window shade.
“In a red world or a green world or a yellow one, Mr. Koberman?”
Over everything was a blue glass silence.
“Wait there,” said Douglas.
He walked down to the kitchen, pulled open the great squeaking drawer and picked out the sharpest, biggest knife.
Very calmly he walked into the hall, climbed back up the stairs again, opened the door to Mr. Koberman’s room, went in, and closed it, holding the sharp knife in one hand.
Grandma was busy fingering a piecrust into a pan when Douglas entered the kitchen to place something on the table.
“Grandma, what’s this?”
She glanced up briefly, over her glasses. “I don’t know.”
It was square, like a box, and elastic. It was bright orange in color. It had four square tubes, colored blue, attached to it. It smelled funny.
“Ever see anything like it, Grandma?”
“That’s what I thought.”
Douglas left it there, went from the kitchen. Five minutes later he returned with something else. “How about this?”
He laid down a bright pink linked chain with a purple triangle at one end.
“Don’t bother me,” said Grandma. “It’s only a chain.”
Next time he turned with two hands full. A ring, a square, a triangle, a pyramid, a rectangle, and—other shapes. All of them were pliable, resilient, and looked as if they were made of gelatin. “This isn’t all,” said Douglas, putting them down. “There’s more where this came from.”
Grandma said, “Yes, yes,” in a far-off tone, very busy.
“You were wrong, Grandma.” “About what?”
“About all people being the same inside.”
“Stop talking nonsense.”
“Where’s my piggy-bank?”
“On the mantel, where you left it.”
He tromped into the parlor, reached up for his piggybank.
Grandpa came home from the office at five. “Grandpa, come upstairs.”
“Sure, son. Why?”
“Something to show you. It’s not nice; but it’s interesting.”
Grandpa chuckled, following his grandson’s feet up to Mr. Koberman’s room.
“Grandma mustn’t know about this; she wouldn’t like it,” said Douglas. He pushed the door wide open. “There.”
Douglas remembered the next few hours all the rest of his life. Standing over Mr. Koberman’s naked body, the coroner and his assistants. Grandma, downstairs, asking somebody, “What’s going on up there?” and Grandpa saying, shakily, “I’ll take Douglas away on a long vacation so he can forget this whole ghastly affair. Ghastly, ghastly affair!”
Douglas said, “Why should it be bad? I don’t see anything bad. I don’t feel bad.”
The coroner shivered and said, “Koberman’s dead, all right.”
His assistant sweated. “Did you see those things in the pans of water and in the wrapping paper?”
“Oh, my God, my God, yes, I saw them.”
“The coroner bent over Mr. Koberman’s body again. “This better be kept secret, boys. It wasn’t murder. It was a mercy the boy acted. God knows what might have happened if he hadn’t.”
“What was Koberman? A vampire? A monster?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Something—not human.” The coroner moved his hands deftly over the suture.
Douglas was proud of his work. He’d gone to much trouble. He had watched Grandmother carefully and remembered. Needle and thread and all. All in all, Mr. Koberman was as neat a job as any chicken ever popped into hell by Grandma.
“I heard the boy say that Koberman lived even after all those things were taken out of him.” The coroner looked at the triangles and chains and pyramids floating in the pans of water. “Kept on living. God.”
“Did the boy say that?”
“Then, what did kill Koberman?” The coroner drew a few strands of sewing thread from their bedding.
“This. . . .” he said.
Sunlight blinked coldly off a half-revealed treasure trove; six dollars and seventy cents’ worth of silver dimes inside Mr. Koberman’s chest.
“I think Douglas made a wise investment,” said the coroner, sewing the flesh back up over the “dressing” quickly.