Harlem, New York, March 1947
It began with a doll.
Langley found it sitting serenely upright on the curb despite the raw March wind coming down from upstate New York, eyes concealed behind a black band, lace skirts decorously arranged around its porcelain ankles and little white kid boots so that its bloomers wouldn't show.
It had long, perfect dark curls like the ones he remembered from his boyhood. Girls back then wore proper curls, like silken bedsprings, not like now, all short and cropped off willy-nilly.
Unable to pass by such easily available perfection, despite the vaguely disturbing black band covering its eyes, Langley carefully placed the large old-fashioned doll with her daintily dimpled hands complete with perfect shell-pink nails and perfect rosebud lips slightly parted to reveal just the hint of perfect little pearly teeth in his rickety wheelbarrow among the day-old loaves of pumpernickel bread, moldy oranges, stale peanut butter, old clothes, half of a sewing machine, and the sousaphone he'd found earlier that morning poking out of a trash can like a giant brass cobra - and began shuffling home through the slowly dimming streetlights of Harlem in shoes held together with twine as the sky in the East began to lighten.
The ghost was a different story.
"Public nuisance, indeed!"
The ghost announced itself on the following evening with a plaintive calling and tapping at the barred and boarded up windows of what had once been Langley and Homer's parent's fine brownstone mansion, calling, "Give us back our dolly, give us back our Miss Edith, or the queen shall be vexed." in the voice of a little girl.
This both frightened and excited Homer, Langley's blind younger brother - they hadn't had visitors since the unpleasantness in 1939 when the City had attempted to evict them, indeed, evict them! From their home, the home their father Dr. Collyer had filled with furniture and every possible luxury imaginable for Mother and they - and all for not having paid something as trivial as bills and taxes as well as something absurd about creating a "public nuisance".
Of course Langley had dealt with it by writing a check and handing it to the ungrateful wretches whom dared intrude upon his and Homer's perfection-in-progress after the police had so rudely broken down their front door, causing the uninvited guests to go away. (Money is always the perfect solution. Should you not care to deal with someone or something, throw money at it until it goes away.)
Problem was, money also has a way of attracting still more unwanted guests who might set the process of attaining perfection even further back - so over the years the two brothers had boarded up their windows, adding bars and locks wherever necessary - concealing their perfection from those who knew they had money and would take it from them - or worse, take the perfection the two of them had already so carefully accumulated over the long years in their quest for perfection -public nuisance, indeed!
And yet, after these long years a ghost had come calling - perfectly unexpected and perfectly uninvited!
Spiders and Flies
Perfectly unexpected or perfectly uninvited or not, a ghost is something different from City officials demanding entrance over something as trivial as unpaid taxes and bills, or even public nuisances: she wanted the doll Langley found in the street, its perfectly dainty little ankles decorously crossed, perfect little hands in its lace-trimmed lap.
Quite frankly, she couldn't have it - its perfection was theirs: his and Homer's. He'd found it; they'd keep it, too bad.
Still, Langley ran a quick mental inventory of the contents of their father's house, with its fourteen pianos (to have fifteen would make them perfect), single Model T (incomplete so far in it's near-perfection, and numerous pickled human organs in bottles (each one perfect)) and thousand of thousands of books ranging from ones on medicine to others on music and engineering to the point where they were now stacked up on the floors wherever the space could be found for them - the one thing he'd yet to acquire to make their isolation and their eventual re-emergence into Society perfect once they'd perfected the entire collection, was a ghost.
And suddenly, here was one, tapping on their windows, their doors, wailing at them down the whistling, soot-blocked chimneys - left out on the curb like so many cracked and discarded bowling pins or a child's chair for him to claim, as was his and Homer's right - to add to the accumulation of perfection they were building.
So, that night, as the ghost screamed and heaved bricks at their barricaded front door, Langley crawled through the many tunnels which wandered randomly through his shared warren of perfection in all stages, all equally precious, shoved several crates of girlie magazines and a stack of Civil War cannon balls aside, and opened the front door for the first time since that perfectly rude incidents in 1939.
"Come in, my dear, come in!" He cackled, rubbing his grimy, gnarled hands with their yellow and jagged nails in anticipation of adding to his shared hoard of perfection, "Oh, please, do come in, my dear!"
The ghost proved perfectly troublesome, the ghost proved perfectly rude, the ghost proved perfectly, alarmingly, well, physical upon its addition to the Collyer brother's vast aggregate of accumulated perfection. First it knocked Langley over into a heap of perfectly good old hats and bent pokers, snarling in a childish voice while baring amazingly efficient-looking teeth, "Give us our Miss Edith, for Drusilla is famished!"
The ghost then bit Langley on the neck - her mouth perfectly solid for a ghost - much more soild than what Langley had been led to believe by the ghost tales of his and Homer's Irish nanny so many years before.
Nursery ghost stories aside, those teeth were sharp, perfectly sharp!
Langley gurgled and writhed beneath the ghost's weight, only to have it abruptly removed. The ghost was now standing atop a mound of old bedsteads clawing at its mouth wailing, "Tastes nasty! Tastes nasty! William give your Drusilla medicine, this one is dirty and will give her a disease!"
Well, then! When a man has an invalid brother as well as a vast treasury of perfection in the making to look after, personal hygiene is perfectly dispensable; in fact Langley couldn't remember if he'd bathed in the rainwater which accumulated in the back parlor's brass spittoon collection last Spring or was that the previous?
No matter, Langley was a perfectly busy man; perfectly busy men don't waste time on perfect nonsense like bathing when there might be a set of perfectly good but rusty bedsprings on some street corner waiting for him to add it to his and Homer's near-perfect collection.
Annoyed, Langley risked his and his brother's entire future by hurling a moth-eaten stuffed owl at the ghost, who gave an indignant screech before disappearing into the shadows high among the remains of the once-elegant molded plaster ceiling, followed by the sound of rustling paper and groaning floorboards, "Give us back our Miss Edith, you bad-bad boy!"
"Shan't!" Langley yelled into the shadows as he pushed the crate of vintage pornography and the cannonballs back against the now firmly shut door. Wheezing, he straightened, running his skinny hands though his straggling grey hair: rude as she was, the ghost was already settling beautifully into his and Homer's collection of unmatchable perfection - but oh, if only Homer could see what he'd added to their accumulation of perfection unmatched!!!
As stated before, valuable as it was, the new addition to Langley and Homer's collection of perfection made their lives extremely inconvenient.
Inconvenient or not, they called it Susan after the sister they'd lost in infancy. Perhaps it was her, Susan, that is, only she was so very much larger than they remembered. The last time they'd seen Susan, she'd been packed away like a bon-bon in a coffin the size of a hatbox and after a trip to the cemetery and such, well that was the end of Susan.
"But she's so much bigger, now." Homer mentioned in between his strictly enforced, but perfect diet of oranges, somewhat moldy, pumpernickel bread, equally moldy and peanut butter, decidedly stale. "But then, perhaps, that's what happens when they bury you- you grow - this makes perfect sense to me!" as Susan wailed, Susan moaned, and Susan threw things, making a mess in general, demanding her doll back even as she caused the ceiling to collapse in the old servant's quarters at the back of the house, dislodging an entire lifetime's accumulation of unread newspapers and the mice who lived amongst them, setting back Homer and Langley's quest for perfection by at least a decade.
Indeed, if it weren't for her being such a rare and perfect item, Langley and Homer would have bodily tossed this perfect inconvenience back out into the street, and kept the doll. The doll wasn't hers. It was theirs. Langley found it; seeing as Susan had not taken good care of its perfection, Susan didn't deserve to get it back.
(Anyway, "Miss Edith" added to the perfection of their collection almost as perfectly as Susan!)
That morning before sunrise, Susan followed Langley through the warren of tunnels the two brothers had made among their perfection-in-progress heaped high, and out into the street as he scoured them for more discarded perfection to add to their own. She even went so far as to set fire to the pile of books he'd rescued from where a poet had been evicted onto the street, presumably for nonpayment of rent.
Perfectly calm, yet seething inside at such a desecration of perfectly good books, Langley urinated upon the fire though he was a gentleman and gentlemen generally don't do such things in front of ladies even if they are ghosts. She'd stood there the whole time demanding Miss Edith back, as he'd piled the still smoking books back into his wheelbarrow before trundling them back to the brownstone.
"Nonsense!" he'd said, still delighted despite his annoyance at her perfectly irresponsible treatment of what were now his books, at having such a perfect rarity in his shared collection, "Miss Edith, is mine and Homer's, and mine and Homer's she shall remain!"
And so Miss Edith remained, neatly packed away, adding to the perfection of the two brother's accumulation of perfection with her own - to remove her from where Langley had hidden her, to give her back would not only ruin the integrity, the perfection of the brother's collection, but to give her back would be the cause of a perfect disaster of crushing proportions - perfection is nothing to be trifled with!
Dreams of Perfection and Roast Turkey
"No, my dear," Langley said through clenched snags of teeth for the hundredth time as he peeled another soggy orange for Homer who was daydreaming of roast turkey and stuffing, and handed it to his brother, "I shan't give her back. Bad little girls, especially ghostly ones, don't deserve toys they've not taken proper care of!"
Langley no longer had any fear of Susan bothering Homer - she'd tried biting his younger brother as she had him, only to wind up rolling around on the filth strewn floor clawing at her mouth, screaming for more medicine. After that, she stayed a safe distance from Langley's blind brother, instead, scrambling and digging through the warren of discarded furniture, old dressmaker's dummies and Mother's hope chests which cocooned him - though her antics disturbed the accumulated perfection of years, irking Langley in a dull, possessive way that he tried to ignore. In fact Langley got so he'd regularly crawl through the tunnels he'd made through the years just to sit beside Homer in Homer's rickety kitchen chair for a little bit of peace and quiet - even as she wailed, screamed and pouted after Miss Edith.
Langley was sure that Susan would settle down eventually; adding to the perfection thus collected so far. Then he and Homer would speed up their work to a perfect frenzy towards completion once Homer's eyesight returned thanks to Langley's perfect cure. Once perfection was reached, the brothers would go back to being gentlemen - only the best people would be invited in to see their perfection at first, once it was truly, genuinely perfect, indeed the world would stand back in awe at what they had done!
(However, the mayor of New York would not be allowed in. Both brothers had the nasty suspicion that he'd heard of their accumulation of perfection back in 1937, and out of jealousy, had sent City officials to harass them.)
Then they'd marry, but only into the best families - after all, sixty plus or minus a few years is still young enough to start a family if the bride was perfect-only perfect brides would do because, why, just look at the Bible, which was perfect, and what went on in there with men decades older than they
Later, while Langley was feeding Homer his perfect diet of oranges, pumpernickel bread and peanut butter, Homer mumbled as part of a cautious interruption of Langley's recitation of what they needed to do to speed the process of perfection along, was what he really wanted was a steak. A big, thick one with mushroom catsup and creamed spinach on the side washed down with port and then a cigar - which would be perfect. Not that he was ungrateful to Langley for his perfectly splendid care, but after years of a perfect diet consisting of oranges and pumpernickel bread slathered with peanut butter, a man got perfectly tired of the same diet, even if it was perfect in nature.
(At the very least, might he be allowed a glass of sherry, and if it wasn't too much to ask, the cigar he'd mentioned earlier?)
Over Susan's howls, Langley shushed him, baring his stained, rotting teeth in an unseen brotherly snarl, "No need to thank me, dear brother, no need to thank me. I know my cure is working. Now, how many fingers am I holding up - young lady, will you please be quiet? This is medicine. Medicine needs concentration, not hysterics from females, ghost or otherwise - I am after all, an engineer. As an engineer, I know all about medicine seeing as our father, though I blush to mention it in mixed company, was a gynecologist!"
Susan stuck her head through a gap in the overhanging glacier of old newspapers and made a rude noise with her tongue while putting her thumbs in her ears and waggling the whole thing quite pointedly at the two brothers. Langley ignored her - thanks to his perfect determination to keep her as part of their growing perfection despite her perfect disruptiveness, it was getting perfectly easier and easier to do so.
That evening, it got so that Langley could perfectly ignore Susan and her antics perfectly well, just as he did the cat feces underfoot from their eight cats and the rats squealing and fornicating atop him whenever he slept at night beneath his tattered blanket atop the remains of Dr. Collyer's medical desk.
But not so the perfectly horrible male ghost which showed up that evening, swearing and snarling at Susan through the bars and boards with, "Bloody Hell, pet, Miss E's just a damn doll. I'll get you another!"
This new ghost, whom the brothers refused to add to their growing perfection as he was obviously flawed, said many other perfectly disgusting things as well; unkempt as Homer and Langley had become in their determined accumulation of earthly perfection for their eventual return to Society as perfectly rich gentlemen to be reckoned with, to repeat what the other ghost said in full might cause the remaining plaster to fall from the ceilings all at once while turning air blue, which would set back their quest for perfection in all things by at least a year!
(Anyway, there might be children' present; one did not swear in front of children even if the little dears might be as conveniently deaf as poor Homer had been inconveniently blind since 1933.)
Running out of Groceries
The stalemate continued, added to by the male ghost, which they christened "Tom" for reasons of their own. Langley initially tried offering the ghost a large "to the bearer" check through a crack in the front door to go away, only to be met with a perfectly nasty derisive laugh. Thus Langley dared not leave the house that night for fear Susan would follow him, allowing Tom to steal her from them, thus depleting their perfection as it now NEEDED Susan as never before: she added cohesiveness, she added zest; not to mention what Miss Edith contributed to the perfection as a whole from where she was secreted away, perfectly unseen among the newspapers, a perfect delight just in the owning!
Problem was, they were beginning to run out of oranges, pumpernickel bread, and peanut butter - which was the last thing Homer needed, as he was now at the stage of Langley's perfect cure where he might regain his sight at any moment but only if he unvaryingly continued the perfect diet his engineer of a brother had recommended to him.
So, ignoring Susan on the inside, and Tom on the outside from sundown to sunrise as best he could, Langley tended to the perfection of their collection even as he rationed out their dwindling supply of blue-green oranges, rock hard loaves of pumpernickel and jars of moldy peanut butter rescued from the trash cans behind the neighboring grocer's as Homer alternately started and cowered at Tom's frequent and perfectly dreadful outbursts of unprintable obscenities: something would have to give soon.
They were running out of supplies: Langley would have to risk leaving the house during the day, which would never do - people might see him if he did, which would interfere with the overall perfection of their collection if only this "Tom" would go away and would allow Langley to leave the building long enough after dark to get more medicine for his brother - as well as perfect new treasures for, well, the eventual perfection of everything.
Langley dithered, and dithered, in a perfect dilemma. The time to make a decision would soon arrive, what should he do? It was a perfect quandary.
Running Close To Empty
The time came to leave the house during the day and it passed un-acted upon swiftly so that the last of Homer's medicine was served even as yet more empty bodies of dead rats littered the floor of the their hidden kingdom where Susan had tossed them, blood on her pale chin, large eyes blazing in between demands for the return of her dolly Miss Edith. Langley was doing the best he could, he told himself over and over. It wouldn't be long before this Tom, this uninvited ghost would go away and he could go out at sundown and find his brother more medicine as well as thing that would add to their perfection. But meanwhile, the perfect cure for his brother's blindness would have to wait until then. They would have to do without oranges.
They would have to do without pumpernickel
And they would certainly have to do without peanut butter - even as their perfect collection, their beautifully perfect collection began stagnating unperfected without new additions. It was all temporary, Langley added to himself as he pushed the tray with the last of Homer's medicine upon it ahead of him in the tunnel of his brother's private room where Homer dreamed of a more personal form of perfection: apple pie with ice cream, among the newspapers, booby traps and old suitcases full of elderly suits. Yes, this was all perfectly temporary - if money wouldn't work, boredom would: the other ghost would get bored, and go away - leaving them with Susan, Miss Edith, and fourteen pianos, all of them with different tones
"GIVE ME MY DOLLY BACK, YOU BAD BOY!!!" Susan's voice blared into Langley's ruminations, causing him to jump and nearly lose their last, shriveled orange among the rat turds and marbles which littered this section of the tunnel.
Langley snapped back at her, "My dear girl, we will not; you don't deserve her!"
Susan screeched, unseen high up towards the cobweb shrouded ceiling - this time she even used some of the words that Tom was pouring in from the outside.
Perfectly shocked at her unlady-likeness, Mother would never have used such language; Langley paused, "Even if you did deserve her, you'd never find her where I've hidden her atop the tallest pile of newspaper oh dear..."
Now he'd done it.
He'd betrayed Miss Edith's perfect hiding place - as part of the perfectly engineered booby trap thathe'd oh dear, oh dear!
Langley hurried up, arthritic knees and hands all but screaming in protest as he heard the ghost scrambling across the mountainside of old papers, a near unbroken, perfect collection of editions, which loomed over him. Oh dear! Oh dear!
The Delicate Sound of Death
There was a squeal, a rustling, a, "Oh there you are, you naughty girl!" even as decades of news and an old suitcase full of broken bricks avalanched down upon Langley, crushing him and the last of Homer's medicine perfectly flat as the pancakes neither'd had in years.
A giggle floated through the following, near-perfect silence.
Alone at Last
The noise of a small avalanche of perfection awakened Homer from his perfect dreams of apple pie and ice cream where he sat in the perfect darkness of his small section of the whole of the brother's shared earthly perfection. Stiffly, he pulled the remains of his tattered blue and white dressing gown around his perfectly emaciated frame, calling out querulously, "Langley, is that you making all that racket? Do hurry, I'm perfectly hungry you know!"
There was no response, except for one of Susan's unnerving titters in the perfect darkness.
"Oh, well." thought Homer in the perfect darkness, "It must have been one of the cats tipping something over." as he dozed off again, dreaming still more perfection in the shape of cigars and rare cuts of beef in brown gravy, with a spinach salad on the side, or possibly blue point oysters on the half shell, followed by port in the drawing room and another cigar. And a perfect finish to such a meal? Chocolates, yes, French chocolates
Drusilla, atop the now flattened mountain of old newspapers, dead flies, and a broken phrenologist's head, hugged Miss Edith tightly, cooing, "There you are my darling, my precious sweet, did you miss your mummy? Mummy missed you after the nasty, dirty, smelly man took you and hid you on the moon."
"Bloody Hell, pet," came Tom's voice from somewhat lower down and outside one of the boarded up windows, "Did'ja find her?"
"Yes, my Dark Star, my sweet Spike. I found Miss Edith all safe and sound wrapped up in Oberon's cloak where the dirty man left her." Susan stood, teetering on the slippery surface of sliding stories and advertisements from days long gone, "Now let us go, Drusilla needs a nap and afternoon tea. Chinese, yes, Chinese would be perfect. Italian goes with everything!"
And so "Susan", (Or was it "Drusilla"?) with Miss Edith cradled in her arms, joined the appallingly foul-mouthed "Tom" (Or was it "Spike"?) on the street in front of the stinking carcass of a once fine brownstone mansion in the remains of a once fashionable neighborhood where clotheslines now festooned with cheap, much-mended garments crisscrossed the raw March air high above cracked pavement as two doors down someone played The Basin Street Blues on a second-hand record player while remembering the New Orleans of yesterday as New York's sanitation department began its usual pre-dawn rounds of emptying the thousands of piled-high garbage cans for the coming day.
Public Nuisance, Again
As for Langley and Homer, the same City agencies whom had harassed them in 1939 came to their rescue days later after the neighbors who barely tolerated their squalor finally had had enough of the brother's latest outrage and bitterly complained of the perfectly horrible new stench emanating from Homer and Langley's already ripe boarded up home to the Sanitation Department.
Hints and Allegations
In the end, after a wild goose chase looking for Langley, whom some accused of murdering Homer and then scampering to avoid prosecution, it took Sanitation, with the help of New York's finest, days to rescue what was left of either brother, one flat as a pancake, the other, whom would have loved a pancake very much, perfectly dead of hunger still seated upon his perfectly rickety chair within a perfectly astonishing mountain of perfection which upon removal, proved to consist of around 130 tons of perfection in all stages of completion, which when all was said and done added up to about two thousand dollars at auction, the remainder was then hauled out to sea on a garbage barge and perfectly disposed of.
As desired by Langley, Society stood gaping shoulder to shoulder in perfect open-mouthed astonishment as he, his brother, and then their perfection as first they and then it emerged from their father's brownstone piece by piece.
The brownstone was then condemned as perfectly uninhabitable, and a park was eventually built upon the site after the house had been demolished- a park where "Tom" (Or was that "Spike"?), years later, had his first encounter with a dark-skinned Slayer named...
Who had a son named...
But, that would be telling, now wouldn't it?
And yes, Langley and Homer really existed, once upon a time.