A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en: Shadow and Dust
A young father hopes to repress the demons of his childhood while struggling in a volatile marriage, all the while oblivious to the dangers that he has invited into his children's lives. Ignoring their nightmares of a menacing figure in a hat who stands over their beds at night, he finds himself sleep walking to the basement every night when the family is asleep for hours on end. What he is doing down there -- or whom he is meeting -- is a mystery to him, but every time he returns, it seems as though he's brought company upstairs with him.
S H A D O W A N D D U S T
We moved to our old home on North A— Boulevard in a very mild April during a very mild year. The matter of moving the contents of our three-room apartment to the two-story colonial was quick and painless, and the morning was cool but not cold. By noon we had transferred all of the cardboard boxes from the van into their respective chambers, and by two in the afternoon – while the sun gazed lazily into the western windows – the last article of furniture had been deposited. My friends and family sat on the porch and shared the pizza that we laid out on card tables. Coke bottles were passed around and someone opened a bottle of wine that was quickly decanted into blue plastic cups. The house we were moving into was a grey colonial revival with a wide front porch and a cozy backyard where garden lay fallow under a bed of snow-blackened leaves, and a clothes line – two T-shaped wooden frames facing each other, with three ropes slung from one to the other – all under the shade of a grey-skinned silver maple. It came to us as a steal – some $30,000 under the value of most homes in the neighborhood, with a clean bill of health from the inspector, and scads of perks: brand new lifetime warranty windows, new carpet in the living room, original molding from 1925, hard wood floors in the dining room, and exposed brick walls in the bathroom. It was small – three beds and one bath – but it had all of the charm of a character-drenched fixer-upper with none of the fixes required. The porch needed a rail, and the roof would need shingles in a decade, but it was otherwise in mint condition. The previous owners had poured a shocking amount of care into it before what happened to them. In a quiet place of my heart I almost regretted reaping the rewards of their hard labor so shortly after they had suffered so much. We never met him, of course, but she seemed like a haunted woman when we signed the papers at the lender’s, with a look in her eyes like a fish in a trawler looking up at a mallet.
The chatter on our porch had increased its volume incrementally until it poured out into the quiet street and had begun bouncing off of the houses opposite us in gregarious echoes. I looked across the boulevard and was struck by the guarded feeling that these houses had – something sensed, not seen – as if they were standing shoulder to shoulder, watchfully considering us like sentinels who have other thoughts in their minds, but who are never so distracted as to forget the seriousness of their jobs. Something about this impression deeply upset me, and I walked into the house to get away from the juxtaposition of our lively company and the stoic neighborhood.
The door lead into the living room which occupied the right half of the house. To the left was the dining room which lead to the kitchen, and thence to the breakfast nook. The nook jutted from the body of the house, so that the left half of the building was divided into these two rooms. I walked through them, past the boxes, seeking the cool quiet of the basement. The stairs leading down were off of the kitchen. Like so much in the house, they bore the marks of our predecessors: they were made from brand new 2x8 boards and supported by 4x4s with a level of skill that bespoke excellent carpentry. The stairs ended at the far right side of the house – under the living room. The basement consisted of three rooms: a large, open, unfinished, concrete space that precisely replicated the main rectangle of the house excluding the porch and nook. It was here that the heater, washer, dryer, and boiler were. The unfinished ceiling revealed the intricate systems of copper piping, electrical wiring, and aluminum ductwork that fed life into our home – matted in webs and darkened by dust. Directly across from the stairs is a long, rectangular room that corresponds the porch. Four feet above the ceiling, my family were breaking bread and laughing. It was a dark, old room – a root cellar with a crooked doorway that barely held shut the antique door with its crackled white paint and rusted hinges. It was this room that we had selected for a storage area for Christmas decorations and winter coats. Under the stairs, corresponding precisely with the breakfast nook, was a second, smaller room. It would work well as a pantry, we thought, being too small for regular storage, but too big to be a coat closet. I hadn’t looked closely at it during any of the previous times we had been in the home, and something about its removal from my shouting family – being at the most opposite end of the house – and about its fastened door drew my attention. The door was newer than its counterpart in the root cellar, but not by much: the deadbolt looked to be from the ‘50s, and the blue paint was not as crackled, but it was thin and peeling. Something fell on the porch with a shaking thud and I heard a carillon of laughter. I was reminded of the wine. Turning again to the door, I twisted the bolt back, and it receded with a sharp scrape. I pulled the handle, and the hinges pivoted wearily, exposing the black room to the fresh air. The odor of mushrooms and dampness hung lazily on the other side of the jambs, as if too comfortable to move, but I followed it.
I turned on the light which revealed the pantry cabinets that we had so briefly glanced at during our first walkthrough; we avoided the basement on the second pass – my wife said it seemed dark after a long pause when the realtor asked her (I later learned that this was the room where they found him, with his brains on the wall). They still carried a meager collection of rubbish: empty paint cans, a box of screws – half-empty, a jar of decade-old wax polish – full, several shoeboxes filled with the sort of miscellany that handy men tend to collect in their garages or workshops, three used paintbrushes, baby food jars filled with nuts and bolts, a rusted screw driver, a cardboard Budweiser coaster, a mostly empty can of WD40, half a dozen lighters, a pack of cigarettes, and well-worn rosary. I also found – tucked away, almost hidden on top of the cabinet – a large, black felt hat with a round crown and a wide, circular brim – a slouch hat that reminded me of the Amish men from my hometown in northeastern Indiana. I thought about trying it on. I am glad that I did not. Heavy, awkward, and tediously large – certainly eccentric, almost sinister – I knew that I would never wear it I mentally noted which articles would be pitched, which preserved, and which sold or given away. The hat went into the trash with the lighters and cigarettes and coaster.
As I closed the cabinet doors, I noticed that they still stuck out a bit, as if something was keeping them from shutting all the way. Of course, they were empty now, so I opened them back up and peered inside. After rubbing my hands along the shelves, I noticed that the topmost one was sticking out by a few centimeters. When I couldn’t push it back in, I pulled it out towards me, and something soft fell down – which had been wedged between the shelf and the back of the cabinet: a small composition book with marbled black and white covers. The notebook initially fell into the pitching pile; it was warped by moisture – the pages rippled in a serpentine harmony – and the paper was thin and cheap, yellowed with damp, and of no apparent use. It was with a sense of whimsy that I opened it to the first blank page, and perhaps of perversion that I turned over the third, fourth, and fifth blank pages. I knew that there was nothing to be found here – like most notebooks, the first pages had been written on and torn out as needed – but something pushed me to explore beyond the threshold of what seemed realistic or even interesting. I pictured some off-color doodle, some list of people to never speak to again, some confession to a hateful act of vandalism. Or arson. Or murder. I don’t know what drove me to anticipate such unwholesome things from such a nondescript pad of paper, but on the twelfth page I found handwriting. I read the first pages in the basement under the yellow glow of the pantry bulb. The rest I read outside in the sunshine a few days later when I was able to go back into the basement again, but was entirely unwilling to read such words in such a place so intimately related to the other. I have reproduced it, and preface it with a standard warning: what happened to Steve Horton or didn’t is not entirely clear, and people under great stress are not the most reliable narrators. In earlier centuries we spoke of madness. Later we used the term nervous breakdown. Most recently we call it a period of mental crisis caused by stress-induced anxiety. I don’t know why I feel compelled to qualify his words, and maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I do it because I think his tragedy shouldn’t become the object of titillation and morbid glee – a tragedy that may merely be the ramblings of a sick man. Or maybe it’s because, after all, I still live in his house.
Doctor Jessica told me I should try this. She thinks that writing out my feelings might help the marriage. It was a while ago that she said that, but me and Ashley just had a pretty bad fight. Sometimes – I’ll try this, I guess – I feel like she doesn’t care about who I am. It’s like she wants me to be a different guy. It frustrates me because I know that her last husband is more what she wants. Someone tough and emotional and loud. But he knocked her around, and I’d never do that. I’d never try to hurt her. Sometimes I get a feeling like I could smack her in the head, but I’ll never do that, and it’s only when she’s screaming at me with that face that she makes. It’s not all human. And there’s something that really disgusts me about it. It’s just kind of half human and half stray dog. If it were just a stray dog, or even a rabid, mad dog, I would be afraid. If it were a fully, human, fully sympathetic face, I would admire it, or even love it. But it’s that combination that happens when the screaming is so loud that my ears ring and I stop hearing words. It’s a kind of revolting hybrid that I could understand another person seeing and wanting to smack her with a shovel to get her to be quiet and stop making that face. My mom would do that to my dad, and he just sat there like a man being spat all over on by his drill sergeant. Dad was in the Army during Vietnam, and I wonder if that’s where he got it. He just sat there and his eyes seemed to recede back into his head like he was going away for a while, and that he would probably be back soon – but maybe he wouldn’t. And then there was a day when he didn’t. He took a reaming from mom one night while us kids were in bed. God it was loud. And then the door slammed. Now, I thought it was him leaving, but it was really her. We woke up the next day and the house was empty. Mom came home a few hours later, looking really put together and sort of fake-happy. She grinned at us and asked all cheerily where dad was. We didn’t know, of course. No one was in the bed or the living room or the bathroom. That’s when the cheeriness went away, and her face went sort of white. So she ran out to the backyard to look for his car. I thought he was maybe doing laundry, so I went to the basement – down the steps into the dark. Maybe I’ll be able to talk more about this later. I’m going to try to write a little bit whenever I feel like I’m really bottled up. I don’t ever like shouting around the kids, and since they’re just about never out of earshot (I guess Dr. Jessica is right), I have a lot of things that just go down inside of me and never get aired.
I’m back. I’m keeping this down here because no one likes the basement besides me. Ashley can only do laundry in the middle of the day, and she always has the kids come with her. They don’t like it either. It was really weird, actually, when, yesterday, Carly told me that she was worried that the man with the hat wouldn’t let her leave the basement if he found her there alone. Now, she’s four, so I thought it was pretty hilarious – she watches a lot of Curious George, so I figured it was the Man in the Yellow Hat that she was imagining – but Ashley got really still and her face got sort of green-grey. I didn’t come down here to write about this, so I’m not going to ramble too much more, but it did start the fight, so it’s pertinent, or whatever. Ashley grabbed Carly’s arm really tight and started asking her a ton of weird questions – how tall was he, what color were his clothes, what did his voice sound like, where did she see him – and that last one really was a big deal to her. She kept asking where she saw him, like it was a lost dog that the whole neighborhood was looking for. Carly doesn’t have a great vocabulary, but without taking Ashley there (Ashley refused when I suggested they go down together), Carly indicated she was talking about the root cellar under the porch, opposite of the stairs. I kept shushing Ashley, and tried to pull her away from Carly – the skin of Carly’s arms under Ashley’s double grip was turning white, and the girl was starting to cry from the pain – but she wouldn’t understand that a four year old has an active imagination. Ashley’s always been kind of spooky – kind of mystical in a way that tilts between silliness and concern. She has feelings about what people are doing that cause her a lot of stress. One time at the movies she made us leave halfway through because she was really worried about her mom. The woman was in perfect health, and I was almost furious with her for rushing us out of there for such a stupid reason. Coincidentally, her mom had actually been in a car accident just a minute or two after we got in the car. Now she was fine – the car got totaled, but she was all right – but this really bothered me. I think Ashley’s too sensitive. Gets too worked up about things.
This kind of so-called “proof” just makes things worse. Last year, when she and the kids moved into this house on North A— (I bought it in a foreclosure three years back, and I’ve been renovating it ever since), she woke up screaming and begged me not to let the kids go to school that morning. This was the worst “feeling” episode that she ever had, because it seemed to prove to her that she had some second sight. What happened was that the Maumee River overflowed its banks that morning, and the kids’ bus was washed off the road. Five kids went to the hospital, and one didn’t make it. I told her that it had been storming all night, and everyone knew the roads were bad, and that probably hundreds of mothers had “premonitions” that day, but it just made her worse. So we really got into it over this “man with the hat” thing. I told that it was irresponsible – maybe even dangerous – to frighten the girl. Her eyes just went wide, stupefied by my answer it seemed, like I was saying “go ahead, let the kids play tag with the steak knives.” For a second her eyes seemed to tremble, and then it all bubbled up into her hand. I think I heard the slap before I felt it, but it brought me to the ground, and Carly started screaming. I struggled to get up, and looked over to Ashley, who was holding Carly’s face in her hands with a grip that twisted her skin like a melted rubber mask. “Never, ever let me ever hear that you went down there alone. Do you hear me? If I ever, ever find out that you went down there, I’ll make sure you can’t sit on your ass for a week. Do you hear me, girl?” Carly’s head jiggled up and down between the vice of Ashley’s hands. “He’s a bad man, Carly. He’s a very, very bad man, and he does very, very bad things. He will do bad things to you if you don’t let me protect you. If you ever see him again – and if you EVER see him upstairs – you have to tell me. You have to tell me, or he might do bad things to you and the babies.” Carly’s eyes got big. “And Ethan, too?” Her six year old brother was upstairs with our newborn and the toddler.