June 14, 2008
The house, a solid four bedroom colonial on an acre of land in Buck’s Country, had been on the market for years, and each year the price had come down. The stain of death bothered Jenn’s parent’s but their immigrant’s love of the deal overcame any sense of trepidation. Each house they had owned since moving from Korea had been a little bigger than the last, but this one was two steps up the ladder.
Soon after moving in, Jenn, who was 8 at the time and who had heard nothing of the dark history of the place, would complain about a man whistling in the hallways. “Can you tell him to stop,” she would ask her mother. Her mother would shush her. Ghosts should be ignored. Later, through the network of 8-year-olds at school Jenn found out about the dad who had been murdered in the basement. Friends were scared to sleep over. She told the whistling man to go away and as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Four years later when her own father dropped dead of a heart attack in church, everyone blamed the ghost. To a certain extent, they still do.
One of the previous owners of a house I lived in on Coronado Street in LA was a man named Fink. Fink had died in the tub and wasn’t found for several weeks. While I avoided tub baths in that house, I didn’t think much of the story until I found an old suitcase full of Fink family snapshots. Most were apparently taken by Mr. Fink himself. There was his shadow at the Rose Bowl, the shadow at the State Fair wearing a hat, the shadow wearing another hat at the Golden Gate Bridge. There was Fink's date at Chasens. Fink's cat. Another cat and another (Fink apparently had many cats). And at the bottom of the suitcase in an envelope, there was a single picture of Fink himself. A picture of Mr. Fink in a bubble bath wearing one of the saddest expressions I have ever seen.
My grandmother was one of 11 children. Nine of her brothers and sisters died before her and she claimed to have had premonitions of each death. Her mother was also a frequent visitor in dreams.
Tio Gorgonio had come to her in a dream the night before he died. In the dream he was wearing his best suit, but without shoes. He did not speak when she called to him, but just waved and walked away.
At the very moment someone called to tell her of Tiberio's death, a wind blew up the curtains and slammed the doors of her house. It was a windless day.
With Tia Honda it was a nighttime vision of her sister alone on a bus carrying a live rooster. When my grandmother would call out her sister's name, Honda would turn towards her with a twinkle in her eyes, shush he,r and tell her to get off the bus.
When my grandmother would sleep in her blue rocker, she would dream it was Tio Nacho who was rocking her, and indeed even in the deepest sleep her rocking would never stop.
Her mother, Mama Juela, would show up in afternoon dreams as a 10 year old in a confirmation dress eating Polvorones.
More often than you might think, my grandmother woke up with tearstained pillows.
Most of all I remember the silence. In the mid-90's I worked for for a movie producer for a few years and we had offices near the top of the old Gulf an Western building on Columbus Circle. The building was on its last legs (it was about to be gut-renovated, renamed, and clad it chintzy bronze by Donald Trump) and our offices were less than glamorous (and made less so by a boss who had a habit of punching holes in the walls), but we all had spectacular views.
One afternoon out of the corner of my eye I saw a man falling. He was out across Columbus Avenue. It was not a graceful fall. It happened in slow silence although the fall itself was incredibly fast. I was spared the impact by some intervening buildings but some officemates were not and I remember the startled yelps that echoed through the office. The man we later learned was a college professor. In the middle of a lecture, he had paused mid sentence, gone to the window, opened it, taken off his glasses and jumped.
A scrum of police cars and fire engines arrived quickly on scene. An ambulance showed up, and then men with power hoses. An hour later it was as if nothing had happened. When I walk that particular corner I always feel enveloped in the cold and helpless silence of that moment.
My brother Christopher would probably enjoy being thought of as a ghost. He always had a thing for the supernatural although he was an intensely rational soul. In my dreams he is usually reading in the back of the room. I'll have been doing something else and will only notice him after a long time of being engrossed elsewhere. He is always 19 always with a fresh haircut. I try to ask him how he's been, but by the time I reach him, only the book remains, always with one of his elaborate homemade bookmarks. I collect the bookmark hoping that finding it missing he will have to pick up the book again, and I will have another chance at saying, 'Hey there little brother, I miss you'.
I am in Maine for the week and ghosts are plentiful here. People talk of the ghost of a headless sea captain who roams Damariscove island, the ghost of a mother who lost her baby in the sea, and the ghost of a girl who walked into the woods one day and never returned. In thinking about ghosts I realized the ghosts that scare us are born of other people's tragedies, the things we can't understand, they are the mental form of our fears— a clumsy way of marking the unspeakable and warning us that danger is all around. But there are other types of ghosts, these are the ghosts conjured from our hardest memories, the ones that give shape to sadness. In their strange medicine of allowing us taste to loss anew, these ghosts provide deep comfort even if we must occasionally wake as my grandmother did with tearstained pillows.