GHOSTS: AN OUTLINE
The Brown House
Our first apartment together was in a two-hundred-year-old brown house in the tiny downtown of Farmington, Maine. When Matt and I moved in, the previous tenants told us to never buy fish. They were warned before they moved in. They ignored the caution, bought a little bowl and a couple of goldfish from the pet store. Shortly after, they came home to find the brand new fish dead on the middle of the living room rug. As if they had flung their small bodies out of the water. Don't buy fish, they repeated.
I would find my necklaces and our toothbrushes on the floor of the hallway, under the cracked hole in the wall where horsehair and newspaper insulation peeked out. Sets of earrings divided—one in the hallway, the other absent entirely.
The basement, like so many northern basements and cellars, was a rumored stop on the Underground Railroad. When we lived there, it was no citadel for freedom, rather a cadre of oily rags and the abandoned remains of previous tenants' lives: bike chains, doll houses, a rock collection, scientific names in faded calligraphy (and another warning, “Do Not Touch Mr. Wilson's Rocks!”) on small cards in front of each sample. A rusted deer winch hung in the center of the room, years gone by since a carcass had dangled from its hook.
Two flights up from the basement, we drank late into the night, piling up blankets to edge out the 52-degree air (the landlords paid for the heat, so it never reached the second floor). A locked door at the back of our bedroom, hidden by a false wardrobe, led to a junk room. It was formerly a child's bedroom, now home to a Zenith radio, old twin mattresses, a banjo uke with only two strings. We drank enough that when the odd shifting sounds came from the junk room, we'd just yell at the closed door. When our otherwise docile cat spat and snarled at an empty corner, we just screamed (Get out of here!) and waved our arms to appear bigger.
The Landlord's Apartment
Sometimes, the landlord's son stayed in a room on the bottom floor of the big old house. The house had belonged to the family for decades. He told us a child (his elderly mother's sister, perhaps) died in the bottom apartment in the thirties. My friend, who was also the downstairs tenant, was routinely shaken awake at night by small invisible hands, roused to a dark and empty room. The son would invite us into the living room, cluttered with the doilies and overstuffed furniture that formerly populated the entire house, a family's life collapsed down into one room. His breath hot with whiskey, he'd show us his unregistered AK-47, let us hold it in our arms, telling guarded and confused stories about his years as a sniper. Full Metal Jacket blared in the background.
The second place we lived was a third-floor apartment in a gated community that had never been rented before. We had just moved to North Carolina so I could go to grad school. It smelled like fresh paint and disinfectant and we kept it so air-conditioned—our blood not yet adjusted to the Southern heat—walking in was like reaching into the dairy cooler at the grocery store. Suspended in our turret of a home, we felt nothing more than the gentle tremor of the trains passing nightly through the trees that abutted the community—the absence creating its own odd and disarming specter.
We lasted less than a year in the manufactured home, moving into the bottom floor of a wood-frame Victorian the next spring. The house had just hit the 100-year mark, earned a plaque on the front the landlord refused to pay for. Two-story magnolias enclosed us from our neighbors and mulberry trees shed sickly burst berries all over the backyard. The tugboats trawled by on the river, signaling mournfully to the people on the boardwalk. In the neighborhood, a man once was trapped in a 15-foot hole he'd dug looking for bottles in an old latrine. Inside our house, a lamp once jumped off a side table in a room with two closed doors. I heard the crash and found it on the floor in the far corner of the room, its cord tangled about it like a tail. The day we moved out there were contractors working on the house. They dragged us outside (thinking we were the owners) to show us how significantly the house was leaning. Indeed, the entire right side—when looked at from the correct angle—was sinking. Gonna send someone under there to look at it for you, the man said. We continued filling our U-Haul, wondering how we'd managed to live there for three and a half years, and never once felt the pitch of the floorboards beneath our feet.
The Landlords' Apartment Pt. II
The upstairs of the Victorian was also an apartment. It's our crash pad, the landlords gushed, as they led us through the empty rooms. We were all trying to impress each other—I switched my ring to my left hand, spun it between my fingers as I invented wedding plans on the spot. They'd come for a weekend, bounding out of their cars, holding little plastic cups filled with vodka. We'd joke, the parents are in town. They'd invite people over; he'd play bongos into the early evening. The summer grew into autumn, the nights shortening. They'd have blowout fights we'd hear through the floor. We were trying to build a life beneath the erosion of theirs. The landlords grew openly hostile with each other, with us. As the years went by, the apartment became a place for our landlord to stay for days on end, his wife rarely in sight.
The Closet Under the Stairs
The landlords left things in our apartment—like a full set of china in a bottom kitchen cabinet. I filched the gravy boat each Thanksgiving, returning it to its rightful spot the day after. At the back of our bedroom closet—under the stairs of the house—we found an Army trunk. The top portion of the trunk, a removable wooden tray, was filled with children's books. Littered throughout were glass bottles, mason jars, and flower vases. Underneath: more books, Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four comics, awards, pictures of Elvis—all tagged with the same childish, loopy signature: Rip. Further in the trunk: A scrapbook filled with letters from our landlord to Rip, during an apparent time of separation, where he was living with his grandparents in Raleigh. More pictures of Elvis. A certificate of achievement in tennis. A letter from a coach congratulating him on a well-played season. You have a future with this team, in uneven typewritten print. Multiple framed pictures (of Rip perhaps) from the same photo session, the same light blue v-neck sweater and cowlick, half-grin lilting the edges of his mouth. Pictures dating back to toddler days, posed with a brother against a yellow background. Never any older than the eleven year old with the v-neck sweater. Never older than the last page in the thick scrapbook: an obsessive's collection of clippings about Elvis's death. Priscilla with wet, black-rimmed eyes, the coffin being carried out of the church to crowds of sobbing mourners.
We now live in South Carolina, in a three-bedroom house built in 1928. Someone slapped up vinyl siding on the outside, modernizing the exterior trying to cover the house's history. Our landlord purchased the house at foreclosure, sight unseen. The previous owners ran a shop downtown that explosively went out of business. They spent six figures renovating the house and business, writing bad checks all over town. The couple left in such a hurry they left Ziploc bags in the drawers, cans of olive oil and bags of rice in the pantry. Pacifiers and baby toys in the closets suggested they had a little family. Collection notices and pawnshop letters arrived daily for six months after.
The couple left no forwarding address. On the attic wall, the words ZULU WARRIOR printed in childish script. The remnants of a lock on the outside of the attic door. Would you believe me if I said their stroller is still up there? We honestly can't decide whether the most appropriate response is to memorialize them, or pretend the family, the life they almost lived here, never existed at all.
We recently replaced a door that was removed by the previous owners, closing up the doorway between our bedroom and what was a nursery. After hours of petty arguing in Lowes while looking for the right historic hinges, we got the door up. The time in the heat and winter cold of the attic had warped its wood and it no longer hangs completely flush with the wall. We have no children and no immediate plans to change that, why would we need two rooms connected? So we lean our shoulders against it to keep it closed. We bring more things into the house, buy better versions of things we don't need. We brush off questions of why we're not married, why we haven't had a baby. I diagram the rooms into furniture arrangements. We rearrange the rugs, spinning them until their natural shape better fits our constructed one. We build a life in these walls and pretend we'll never have to dismantle it.
I think about the couple with the baby who owned this house, I wonder if they're still together, out there somewhere attempting to rebuild their lives in the face of so much failure. Maybe it made them stronger. Or maybe like my old landlords, they've stayed together just to breathe tangible resentment in each other's face in each exchange. Maybe they moved out to the suburbs and got one of those move-in ready joints with the dark synthetic hardwoods and tray ceilings. They are right now watching the baby crawl across the carpet, pull himself to a shaky stand, his tiny hand gripping the coffee table. Maybe he will find his legs or stumble to his bottom. Perhaps he's surrounded by newness: the silence of fresh doors, the smell of wet paint. And outside, the shaking saplings so recently established with poles sunk deep into their permanent squares of earth, granted the full promise of time. And asleep in his crib each night, in the quiet of development, the house—like all the houses—will sag beneath him, bending joists and girders, bodies and beams listing back toward the earth.
While writing this I was thinking a lot about real estate and landownership and how much we ignore when we think about the world around us in that way. The first line of Letter III of Crevecoeur's [Letters from an American Farmer] followed me around while I wrote this: "What then is the American, this new man?"