Some of the old timers who put up their own homes on top of the hill in Byersdale must have built without benefit of plumb or level.
I’m talking about the houses just beyond the water tower where the road straightens out just before the dogleg to the left. They were all jammed in cheek-by-jowl, like row houses. Maybe they held each other up. Or perhaps the thick tangle of woods on the hillside kept them from rolling over backwards into Legionville Hollow.
I may exaggerate. It is one particular pair of houses I remember from fifty years ago. The others suffer from guilt-by-association.
I delivered the morning paper to the occupants of the two houses. The two families were related and shared a single copy of the Post-Gazette.
There were two brothers – one married and one a bachelor. The bachelor lived with his mother. When it came to paying for the paper, I collected from the married brother; but if he and his wife were absent, I was instructed to call on the bachelor.
The bachelor seldom spoke. The mother I saw only once.
In autumn the days shortened. It was dark when I got home from school. I delivered papers in the morning but did bill collection in the evening. Who wants to get out of bed at sunrise to do business with the paperboy?
That stretch of road wasn’t my favorite place. There was one streetlight. If you looked closely you could spy out a bat or two circling the water tower. Beneath my right shoulder were the black depths of the hollow. The pavement was neglected and broken away at the edges.
I shuffled through a cover of fallen leaves. The night air was frosty.
I turned onto a boardwalk that forded the frozen ditch in front of my customer’s front porch. The house sat right on the road. It was just a few feet over the ditch and onto the porch. There was no room for a lawn. The two houses were separated by a gap of twelve inches. The families shared a single porch as well as a single newspaper.
The decking of the porch gave perceptibly with each step. I felt as though I was aboard an old ship that was groaning in a heavy sea. One false step ...
I approached the door. It seemed no one was at home. There was one dim light on, back in the kitchen. I knocked once, then a second time. I waited. No one answered. I walked over to the bachelor’s door.
I knocked at the second door. I knocked again, then a third time, more forcefully. I turned to leave. Just then there was an answering knock – more aptly, a tap, slowly repeating and becoming louder.
I looked into the small window high up on the door. A creature with a thousand legs scurried across the glass.
I peered in. Tap … tap … tap. A figure in black came toward the door. The room was unlit. I could see that the figure held a cane.
Slowly, slowly, slowly towards the door it came. The knob turned. The door opened wide. Before me was an ancient head in a heavy black babushka, its owner clad in widow’s weeds. Someone had dressed for a funeral thirty years before and had never undressed.
The apparition looked at me blankly as it opened its mouth to utter something unintelligible in a foreign tongue.
It was time to screw my courage to the sticking point. Screw courage. I turned and fled.
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Nancy Bohinsky Knisley grew up in Ambridge in the 1950s and 1960s. She is the creator of Ambridge Memories, a blog dedicated to local history from 1950 to 1970.