The Potato Man - A Short and Creepy Story
By Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak
Ghosts are frightening ... breast cancer is terrifying ... what happens when these two collide?
Since childhood his skin smelled of turned earth. His clothes were always imbedded with the hallmark rust stains of the acidic sandy soil. The land he farmed is the same land that his father and his grandfather farmed before him. Acreage that had been in his family as part of a land deed after the Battle of Monmouth was bestowed upon his predecessors who fought in Washington’s Continental Army. The man was hardened by his life’s work and his heart’s loss.
The sun dipped low over the reservoir and a gentle breeze broke through the heat of the late summer day, rustling over the acres of vegetation that were nearly ready to be harvested. The man in the potato field prided himself on the tubers he grew, the way he nurtured the soil, the way his father and grandfather taught him about irrigation and crop rotation. He liked the plants that formed in the dark, deep under the earth. He understood their need to remain unseen. He preferred to remain in the shadows, diligently working his land uninterrupted.
Stillwell potatoes, best in the county, maybe the state many believed. He knew local merchants would begin lining the dirt road to his farm over the next few weeks to collect their orders to fill up the general stores and inns that dotted the roads connecting the towns that stretched from the cities to the coast. They called him The Potato Man to separate him from the other local farmers. The Berry Man, The Apple Man, The Gourd Man, all played a valuable role in the agricultural county, and all prided themselves on the expertise of their farmland. The Potato Man was austere, humorless, and gruff. By contrast, The Berry Man was cheery and generous, always giving away a quart of free berries to the children at the local markets. The Apple Man was a drunkard and was focused on supplying the local distillery with his apples to get a free pint of applejack brandy in kind. The Gourd Man was generous and always had a basket of hand pies from his wife’s kitchen to share throughout his daily deliveries. The Potato Man loathed deliveries. He preferred others come to pick up their designated bushels. He only delivered at the end of the harvest to sell off what hadn’t been previously ordered.
The Potato Man washed up at the outdoor pump, the icy water cooling his sun warmed skin before he went inside, a habit his wife Alma instilled in him, for she despised having to clean up the indoor sink before preparing their evening meal. In clean shirt and trousers, he prepared a simple supper of cold leftover chicken, pickled root vegetables, and a heel of stale bread from the market and ate slowly by the dim glow of the oil lamp. This was his least favorite time of day. He disliked being alone with his thoughts in the quite house. His mind wandered to his son Joshua, who had made it quite clear he wanted no part of farm life – instead going to Philadelphia to work at the stock exchange. It was understood throughout the county that had Joshua been commanded to stay on his family’s farm in New Jersey, he might never had jumped off that bridge when the market crashed. He packed the bowl of his pipe, lit a match, and drew in deeply, savoring the tobacco sweetness upon his palate. Holding his pipe between his teeth he poured a bit of the applejack brandy that had become as comforting to him as a warm blanket on a cold night. He began taking it medicinally after he lost his Joshua and continued the habit in the wake of losing Alma who was taken by sickness shortly after the winter thaw. He poured himself a bit more.
The man’s eyes grew heavy, and after cleaning his lone dish and solitary glass he retired to his room. He laid upon his bed with thoughts of tomorrow’s harvest which would begin in the southeast corner of his property. This would be his first harvest without Alma. A tear collected in the corner of his eye as his breathing slowed. He pulled the thin cotton coverlet up over his shoulders with a shiver. A familiar odor drifted briefly beneath his nostrils, but the applejack had the better of him. His brandy dusted mind thought quickly of the oil lamp on the counter. Was it still lit? Was it too close to the dishtowel or the hanging herbs? In his old age he was becoming forgetful, or was he just so used to Alma putting the house to sleep at night? It was Alma who checked for embers in the fireplace and ensured the oil lamp was out and placed in the sink. It was Alma was who reminded him to tap his pipe outside into the dirt beside the walkway rather than leaving it on the small ceramic utility plate. He felt her presence nearby as he dozed into a liquored slumber. He never felt the burn of the fire as it roared through his small rustic farmhouse, melting his body to the bedframe.
The noise was deafening and jolted him upright. What was that screeching he heard? Screech. Screech. Screech – blaring at evenly timed intervals. The sun was so bright it hurt – how long had he slept? He ran towards his field and saw the familiar sandy orange dirt, but no plants, no rows, no order. Where were was his harvest? His potatoes? He gaped at the sight of huge mechanical beasts pushed the dirt around the parcel with determination. The noise was coming from them, perhaps a warning? He opened his mouth to scream but was met with silence. He ran towards the machines and seemingly ran right through to the other side. He spun around in bewilderment and saw these machines reduce what remained of his charred homestead to rubble. He fell to his knees in horror.
Days and nights blended; he had lost all concept of time. He had once lived by the sunlight and the moonlight; in death they had no consequence. The man wandered the land as homes began to surround him and the land he once knew. He watched as familiar dirt pathways were covered over with black gravel and tar. He saw families in odd manner of dress come into these houses in machines that resembled automobiles but much larger and more colorful. He didn’t understand – until he saw Alma. But Alma was beside another man and two young girls. Alma was making her home in the house on what was once the southeast corner of his land.
“Alma!” he yelled for her but there was no sound and she kept on with this strange man and children. Was she haunting him? Taunting him? Why was she here yet not seeing him? Laying with another man, having his children. But no – it couldn’t be Alma. He held Alma as she took her last breath from the cancer that started as an uncomfortable dimple in her breast had spread like wildfire through her body. He remembered her soft eyes focusing on a faraway spot. As a smile passed over her dry pale lips. “Joshua” she said in a whisper, as her heart ceased to beat. He was there and felt some comfort with the fact that his wife had been met in death by their only son.
The man watched. He listened. He heard the children’s laughter as they raced bicycles up and down the road. He heard Alma speak to her husband in hushed loving tones. They kissed tenderly at the front door when he left for work. The Potato Man was consumed with jealousy and confusion. He needed for her to see him, he walked right through the door without even touching the handle. One minute he was outside and the next he was standing in a bright green kitchen which was modern in ways he could not understand. He stood with silent curiosity as Alma placed a meatloaf into a large oven so different from the wood burning stove, she had cooked on for him. She looked so beautiful, he said her name again with as much force as he could muster, “ALMA” and she jumped.
She spun around and looked right through him.
“Who said that?” she asked aloud, her eyes sweeping from the kitchen to the family room doorway and back again.
She walked with hesitation toward the sound of his voice, looked past him into the dining room and tossed the dishrag in her hand over her shoulder and sniffed the air. Someone must be preparing their grill for dinner time she thought. She chuckled at her skittish behavior and went back to fixing dinner.
The Potato Man watched her attempt to create a small garden off the back patio. He knew deep in his bones what she was planting would never grow, for the soil of his land did not contain the nutrients for those delicate plants. Alma knew better. But this wasn’t Alma. This was Laura he learned by standing in the shadows, always in the shadows he stayed and watched and listened. But the man still saw a specter of the woman he loved in Laura’s brown hair and creamy skin and all he wanted was for her to come to him. He enveloped her each day in his scent. Laura was beginning to feel uncomfortable in the house alone, and she could never understand why the house always smelled of smoke and earth no matter how many Glade solid air fresheners she would place in the rooms. Sometimes, on cloudy days she swore she could see a large figure reflected behind her in the windows. She would spin around expecting to see an intruder but all she was greeted with was the phantom smells she was diligently trying to eradicate. The more time the man stayed in the house the more energy he extracted from her which in turn made him more powerful. An odd presence within the home was becoming apparent to Laura’s girls and Laura’s husband when an untouched glass would shatter, or a door would slam in the middle of the night or when their wedding portrait would fall off its hook.
The man liked to watch Laura sleep. He liked to touch her hair, her hips, and her breasts as she breathed deeply and evenly. In time though Laura took more frequently to her bed in the daytime. She was growing tired, like his Alma. Her breast became deformed like his Alma’s became before she passed. Losing her joyful energy, Laura became thin and weak. Laura’s beautiful brown hair disappeared one day, and her eyes became more haunted. The Potato Man would stay in the shadows of the room until the lights went out and then he would come to her, touch her, listen to her gentle weeping in her sleep and place his hand on her bare head. Laura’s husband spent more time at home – and The Potato Man hated to see him put his arms on this woman who, even in illness – especially in illness, resembled his Alma. Her girls continued to go to school on big, bright yellow buses and then returned home to sit in their mother’s room while staring at flickering images and noise on a small box that once resided in the room with the fireplace.
He seethed. He wanted to comfort her as he had done for Alma. For he knew he brought the illness with his touch, and it was time for him to take her. The man positioned himself between Laura and her husband. Her husband began to grow distant and angry, like The Potato Man has been for an eternity. In time, Laura’s breathing became labored and raspy. Shortly before she drew in her last breath her eyes flew open wide, fixed on the man, and screamed. A loud piercing ugly scream that shook her family’s faith of what death meant. She saw him! He was pleased that she would finally come to him. But she didn’t. He lunged for her soul, but the vapor of her essence went to the corner of the room and dissipated in a brief light.
The man was disheartened. He rattled around the house looking for her. He stayed in the basement during the day and walked the upstairs hallway at night. He walked the yard, the tree line by the woods, all points of the land that was once his most favored southeastern plot. He circled the bedroom where he last saw her. He waited. He stood at the side of the bed watching her husband until he woke in a sweat calling for Laura. The Potato Man watched Laura’s husband so intently he became convinced there was someone in the house, installing an elaborate alarm system on the doors and windows. The Potato Man grew vengeful. He willed Alma back to him, but he could never find her in this strange home.
One evening he saw the husband was not alone in the bed he once shared with Laura. There was another woman, and her name was Cara. Petite like Alma and Laura, soft brown hair like Alma and Laura. And in an instant, he wanted her too. He circled her. Stronger now than when Laura first came into the home. He watched her sleep. He touched her as he once touched Laura. He watched her clean and cook. He listened as she spoke. But different than Laura she always felt as if someone was watching her in the house. She left the home as much as she could and couldn’t bear being there alone. She fought frequently with Laura’s husband. She complained of the smokey smell which seemed to have no origin. She demanded they move from this house – he refused. This was the house he bought with Laura. This was the home he bought to raise his daughters in.
“Your daughters have moved on!” Cara screamed. “They went to college, and they never come home. All this house reminds them of is their mother’s death. Sickness. Sadness. The ghost of your wife lives here, and I hate it!”
And with that she left in her automobile and didn’t return until the morning.
Time passed and the Potato Man grew confident that he had the power to bring the illness to Cara as he brought it to Laura. But Cara only stayed in the house when her husband was there. If he went out – she went out. Until one late afternoon in autumn when she recieved an upsetting phone call. Crying, she hung up the phone and immediately collapsed on the kitchen floor. The Potato Man came to her, cradled her. Stayed with her. Willed her to see him. And when she came to, the horror of what she saw in front of her lodged in her throat. His charred face and bald head stared down at her. Waxy melted lips tried to hush her screams as they folded around tobacco rotted teeth. His gnarled hands reached for her face. And in an instant, Cara blinked, and the man disappeared from her sight leaving behind a lingering scent of smoke and loamy earth. Cara jumped to her feet, called her husband at work, and told him she was moving from this haunted house. The doctor had called and confirmed there was a cancerous tumor in her breast and she refused to stay and die in this house like Laura did. The very next day a sign was placed on the lawn, suitcases were packed, and the automobiles drove away. The man never saw Cara again. He brough the illness to her and she took it away from him.
Time passed and the house stood quiet and empty. The man stayed in the basement – where he could still sense the familiarity of the earth he tilled. Then one day that changed. Another woman stood in the kitchen. Dianna.
She too had brown hair and fair skin like his Alma, like Laura, like Cara but she was different. Everything about her was loud, her voice, her children, the music she listened to when the house was empty, the way she spoke to her husband. But in the same way he had been drawn to the others, he was drawn to her. He needed her. He watched her but he was no longer unknown. He too was being watched. Her son Davis sensed him acutely. He could see him in the shadows. He didn’t like him. The man watched her son from the corner of the basement which now was made to look like a room. A large picture box hung on the wall, sounds and voices emitted from it loudly, like everything else here. It hurt his head. It made him angry. They did not respect his home. His peace. He knocked things around. He made noises that frightened the family and upset their dog.
Dianna didn’t sense his presence like her son did but at night when she slept, he would come into her room and reach for her. He would run his fingers through her hair, he would boldly caress her breast as it sometimes peeked out from her nightgown, stirring things in him that hadn’t mattered in many years. This became his ritual and over time, like Laura and Cara and Alma before them, her breast became misshapen. She too began to grow ill, and with sickness came quietness. He stood beside her bed one night and noted that her beautiful brown hair was now gone. He knew his power, he honed it in the shadows. She was coming to him – he could tell, but then, one night in the bedroom he saw an old woman looking at him. The room became crowded with folks like him. Folks that could see him with ease. The man was curious.
“GO!” the old woman demanded as she walked toward him. He was stunned and replied, “Go? This is my land woman, and I will stay right here.”
“GO!” she said again as she sat upon the corner of the bed by Dianna ’s feet. Dianna stirred and seemed move her feet closer to this old woman as if she knew she was there. The room shifted. Another old woman appeared beside Dianna ’s head, she placed her hand upon her bare scalp and looked at the man, and stated, “You heard her. Now leave. You are not welcome in our granddaughter’s room.”
The man became enraged, knocking over the waterglass on the bedside table. Dianna ’s husband awoke and cleaned up the glass. Dianna asked her husband why he was touching her head.
“I wasn’t” he muttered groggily and went back to sleep.
Dianna looked around the room, picked up a smaller version of the picture box that was on her bedside table and listened to the voices as the pictures flickered. The man found himself back down in the basement where he flung around the children’s toys and sofa pillows. Upstairs the dog barked and scratched at the kitchen floor.
The next evening The Potato Man stayed beside Dianna’s bed. She was weaker now, he could see that, and he knew that meant she was closer to being with him. Her son, however, would not leave her side. He stayed up late, he watched the house, he walked up and down the hallway while his sister, father and mother slept blissfully unaware. Her son then addressed the man.
“I don’t want you in our house” he said much more forcefully than his age let on. “You do not belong here!”
The man replied but the boy could not hear him. The man raged at this child but Dianna ’s son just stood still. Then, another man appeared from the shadows.
“Leave. Now.” He said to the man.
“I’ll do no such thing.” The Potato Man replied.
“You will not take my daughter from this home, from her family. She is sick now but will get better. You will not take her energy. She is not yours to collect. It is not her time and won’t be for many years.”
The man stared at Dianna’s father. He was a force to be reckoned with. Dianna’s son stood beside Dianna’s father – an alliance between the young man and the older man shifted the dynamics of the house and in an instant the house felt less like the land the man once tilled.
The Potato Man wanted to destroy this house and everyone in it. He ran – looking for an oil lamp to spill. Looking for a pile of newspapers, anything that would ignite. Magazines slid from their place on the corner of the end table. Mail left upon the countertop flew about the room.
“Rage all you want – there is nothing here that is still yours, Stillwell!” Dianna’s father roared at him and in an instant was upon him – out in the yard. “I know you. I know your name. People once called you The Potato Man. I’ll call you by the name of your forefathers. Now you go Stillwell – go back into the earth from where you came. Go back to your tubers and dirt and dust. Do not enter this home again.”
The Potato Man rose to his full height up against the apparition of Dianna’s father but his anger and want was no match for the love of a father. Death does not change that. The Potato Man looked to the tree line at the far end of the property where a slip of blue fabric trimmed in lace caught his eye. ALMA! His Alma stood at the edge of the woods watching. Watching like he watched inside the home she watched the land. How had he not seen her before? Beside her was Joshua. In death Alma was well. She was bright and vibrant and young. Young as the day they met. Before life beat him down. Before her illness aged her. Before he worried day and night about his farm, credits, debits, taxes, and the weather. He went to them. The Potato Man walked toward Alma and Joshua and disappeared with them into the foliage. He never entered the home again.
Davis watched as his mother became well over time. Her hair grew back, and her smile returned. The house was once again loud and happy.
Dianna’s father decided to stay. He liked to perch on the small boot bench in the front entryway. From that vantage point could see the kitchen, the living room, and the family room. He watched his grandchildren whom he did not know in life play, yell, tease each other, and grow up. He watched Dianna and her husband appreciate their time together with the children and with each other. He ensured no one entered that house uninvited.
One day, Davis was home from college for a long weekend. He grabbed a couple of beers out of the refrigerator and handed one to his mom. He caught Dianna up on his classes and fraternity shenanigans as she pulled together his favorite meal of beef stew with dumplings. She alternately laughed and reprimanded him and always reminded him to be safe and smart. She realized she needed more flour and asked him to grab an extra bag out of the cellar pantry for her. As Davis came up the stairs, he rolled his eyes toward the front entry way and laughed, shaking his head.
“What’s so funny? Dianna asked.
“Your dad” Davis replied. “He’s still here – right in that doorway looking at you.”
A chill went up her spine. “My dad? Why would you say that?” she asked.
“Because mom, he’s here. He’s always here. Watching us. Watching you.”
“Davis – you never knew my dad. He died when I was 20, before I even met your father. What do you mean he’s in the doorway?” Dianna looked toward the doorway, her eyes suspicious.
“Mom, I know my grandfather. I see him all the time. He’s nice. And it’s not scary that he’s here. Not like The Potato Man. Now he was scary. And mean. But he finally left.”
“Davis, you’re scaring me. Who is the potato man?”
“The man that always used to be in the basement when we were little. Don’t you remember how Julia and I hated playing down there alone? It was because of The Potato Man. That was his name. He would stand in the corner by the furnace and watch us. He would come upstairs at night and go into your room. Especially when you were sick. And then one day, grandpa told him to leave. He went out in the yard and never came back.”
Davis explained The Potato Man with such conviction Dianna believed him. And it freaked her out a bit. There were nights in her bed when she did feel and sense things that she couldn’t understand. She assumed they were hallucinogenic properties of the powerful chemotherapy drugs she was taking. Maybe, but maybe they were something else entirely.
Dianna, looked toward the doorway, smiled and said, “Hey dad. I miss you every day. I love you. You are always welcome in my home. Thank you for watching over us.”
And with that statement a glow came through the house – illuminating each corner and bringing brightness to Dianna and Davis’ faced. Their hearts felt warm and loved and peaceful as they sat at the kitchen table, finished their beers, and made plans for the weekend.