“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Ghost Haunting 710 Crowder Court

        Long before I was an atheist and scientific skeptic, I was fascinated with and scared shitless by ghosts. I remember watching a show called Sightings with my best friends down the street. Their Filipino mom was superstitious and had told them all kinds of stories, like one about a baby born in the Philippines with horns and a tail, and because of the distinctive cuisine the house always had a strange smell. But it was their dad, who had met their mom while in the navy, who really scared me. Those guys were my best friends for years, but I don’t think I ever heard their dad speak. I had met the two boys at school years earlier and become fast friends with the younger one because he appreciated my ability to make up ghost stories on the fly. He was the one who first introduced me to Alvin Schwartz, whose “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” would be one of the delights of my childhood.  

       After watching Sightings, the three of us would try to regale each other with stories of our own experiences with ghosts. It would have been around the same time that I started hanging out with another aficionado of the horror story who went to the same school but lived the next neighborhood over. This guy had HBO and it was at his house that I first saw Tales from the Crypt. I can’t think about this period without picturing the strip of woods separating the two backyards forming the border between our neighborhoods. Too often I made Ichabod Crane’s mistake—though I wouldn’t read that story till years later—indulging in all the stories I loved so much only to have to walk home in the dark, along a poorly kept trail through those woods, scared half to death.

As a kid I was imaginative, suggestible, and prone to vivid dreams—hell, I kind of still am. But I only ever had one ghostly experience that I didn’t quickly attribute to being less than fully awake and still dreaming. I remember recounting it to my best friends after watching an episode of Sightings in their strange-smelling, uncomfortably silent house. The oldest boy had just told us about how he’d been doing homework and heard someone enter the room. Thinking it was his brother, he made some snide remark only to turn around and see that he was alone in the room. But the dangling cord from the telephone was swinging back and forth. As he sat there frozen, trying to figure out what had just happened, the light hanging from the middle of the ceiling began to flicker, sending him out of the room shouting for his brother. It was the same room we were sitting in now. I looked over at the telephone. Then I looked up at the light. I was glad there were no woods between our houses.

            Now that it was my turn I began to tell the story of my first night at 710 Crowder Court, the house my brother still lives in to this day—but not for much longer (he's moving). I had learned from the younger of my two friends down the street that some years earlier the family who lived there before us had experienced a tragedy. Their little boy had slipped while running near a pool, hit his head, and fallen into the water. He had drowned. I actually remembered hearing about this, and at the time I recognized the boy’s name. I want to say Eric now, but that was another little boy I knew from a much earlier time. Eric had died of leukemia; his funeral is one of my earliest memories.

            The boy who’d died in that pool had an older sister, who apparently moved into what had been his room in our new house because the walls and the carpet were pink. I’m the youngest in our family, so I got the last pick of the bedrooms. My friend assured me the pink room had in fact been the boy’s bedroom when he died, giving me two reasons to dread moving into it. But move in I did, and I’ll never forget my first night sleeping there.

            I woke up terrified, as if from a nightmare. It was still dark but I sensed there was someone in the room with me. The reason I couldn’t dismiss what happened next as the remnants of a dream was that I lay there wide awake for what seemed like hours. My eyes were peeled open and my heart was pounding. I was completely frozen with fear. Next to my bed was a digital clock, but it took me some time to work up the courage even to turn my head. Like I said, it was completely dark when I first woke up, but what finally prompted me to check the clock was the graying light of morning coming in through the window. It was before six. I began to calm down, hoping I might still get some more sleep before my alarm went off.

But that’s when I heard it. I immediately tried to ascribe the sound to the expansion of pipes. My stepdad must be up already, I thought, getting ready for work. He’s running hot water. Then I heard the sound again. If it was a pipe, then it had to have been running directly over my bed. I’d spent enough time in houses still under construction, seeing them as playgrounds of sorts, to know how unlikely that was. I lay there frozen in my bed as the rising sun gradually lit the pink walls of the room. The third time I heard the sound there was no mistaking what it was—the pathetic moan of a little boy. I didn’t budge again until over an hour later, when the room was fully lit by the morning. I never heard anything like that sound again as long as I lived there.

But there was another sound I heard that would keep me up through countless nights over the following years. Whenever the wind came up at night, I heard what I at first took to be tree branches scratching against the vinyl siding outside my room. I took this explanation for granted for a while. I still recall the first time it dawned on me, while I was pushing the lawnmower around after a night of particularly intense scratching, that there weren’t any trees or bushes remotely close to the siding. I turned the lawnmower off and began pushing and pulling at the vinyl slats, trying to reproduce the sound—not even close. After that, whenever I heard the scratching, it heralded a long, sleepless night.

            Years later, long after I’d moved to my dad’s house on Union Chapel Road, long after I had largely outgrown my fascination with ghosts and such things (sort of), I got in a conversation with my mom about my stepsister. Mom was mad at her because she was starting to skip her weekend visits to her dad’s house. As a teenager now myself, I tried to explain that it was perfectly natural for her to prefer spending weekends with her friends, that nothing sinister should be read into it. “No,” my mom said, “she says she can’t sleep here because she thinks there’s something scratching on the wall outside the bedroom.” She was talking about the pink bedroom--even though by then the walls had been painted.

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