Katherine Gleason’s most recent book is Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism (Race Point Publishing, 2013). Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Cream City Review, Papirmasse, River Styx, and Southeast Review, and online at Camroc Press Review, Mississippi Review online, and Monkeybicyle online. 



Doubtful Guests

Katherine Gleason


Edward Gorey tales colored our childhood. The Wuggly Ump, who devours brass doorknobs, mud, carpet tacks, and children, figured large in our lives. We imagined its beady eyes, its grin filled with pointed teeth. We imagined its cavernous insides. What would it be like to be swallowed by the Wuggly Ump?

As teenagers, my sisters and I coveted our mother's worn copies of Gorey's books. For my seventeenth birthday, I attended a performance of Dracula, complete with Gorey sets and costumes, at the Wilbur Theatre in downtown Boston. I still have my playbill and the full page ad from the New York Times announcing the show's move to Broadway.

One early summer afternoon—my sister Pam had just graduated from high school, and I'd finished my freshman year at Brown—hanging around our parents' house, we flipped through our mother's copy of Who's Who, and fell upon Gorey's address on Cape Cod.

"We could meet him," Pam said.

The next morning, we donned dresses and straw hats. I wore light blue socks to contrast with the red and white print swirling around my ankles—a new habit after reading D.H. Lawrence. Pam wore a more classic look—bobbed hair and a knee-length blue dress with fine white stripes. We scrambled into the old turquoise Toyota and left Cambridge for Barnstable, Mass.

We knew the route. We looked for Mill Way Road and found ourselves on the dock near the center of town where we had once bought lobsters on a previous car trip. We parked and located a pay phone. Miraculously, a phone book lay inside. Gorey was listed. I made Pam pick up the phone and dial, and he answered.

"We are two of your biggest fans," my sister said. "We've just driven down from Boston. Could we take you out for tea?"

I leaned in, hoping to hear his voice.

"He's just put water on to boil," my sister said, "and says we should come over."

"No, not really," I said, cracking my knuckles.

"Yes," my sister said as she hung up. "Don't do that."

We made our way along the pier to his door, just a block from where we had parked.

Gorey greeted us in his signature attire—Bermuda shorts and hightop sneakers. His white beard flowed down his chest. Gold hoop earrings adorned him.

"I'm struggling with the pop-up book of Dracula," he said, "and I don't want to talk about it."

He served us tea and Pepperidge Farm shortbread. Carefully, we skirted the topic of his work, the very subject that drew us to him in the first place. We discussed Cambridge, where he had gone to school; the late-1970s renovation of Harvard Square; and our impending trip to Scotland. He said he hadn't been to Scotland. We promised to send him a postcard.

"I never read my mail," he said.

"We'll send you one anyhow," we said.

Our tea cups drained, our talk wound down. I got up from my chair. "We should probably call Ma," I said.

"To tell her we're not dead," Pam added.

I had envisioned myself sprinting out to the pay phone, but Gorey waved me to his. "Please," he said.

And it must have been in these moments—when I was on the phone informing our mother that we indeed were not dead; and, yes, we had met him; were, in fact, in the house; and did she want us to pick up lobsters?—that he showed Pam what he was working on, the troublesome pop-up Dracula. But I didn't know this till years later.

Later that summer we did send Gorey a postcard. We selected an image of the Loch Ness monster gliding across her lake. A few years ago, during one of Pam's rare visits to Manhattan, we made another sort of pilgrimage—to Gotham Book Mart, once the commercial home of all things Gorey.
On the second floor, perusing the portfolio of Gorey prints, among the Figbashs, dancing elephants, and disembodied thumbs, we found a Loch Ness monster. Could our vacation greeting from Scotland have inspired this Nessie lithograph?

We each bought ourselves Loch Ness monster prints—mine is number 11 from an edition of 50. Pam's is number three.