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June 8, 2017 | Nonfiction

Ghosts

Brent Fisk

Ghosts photo

I began my life in a trailer. A black and white shaky construction plunked on a corner some farmer had carved out of an old cow pasture. One silver maple with a rotten core clung to life. I watched the world outside through drafty windows and remember the shade slapping the sash when the wind picked up. I would wake early, stand on my small bed with my covers wrapped around me. I was afraid of the dark, and insisted the door be kept open. My father would come in, check under my bed, open the closet door, say, “See? No ghosts. Nothing to be afraid of.” I would listen intently for movement in my parents’ bedroom and watch the blackness at the window slowly give way to a soft gray light. It was often so quiet, I was convinced my parents had disappeared, had been spirited away in the night. Birdsong, a cough, a footfall, a snore—those were enough to break the spell—something else alive moving through the world.

I was young, not yet four, and what I remember from then comes in flashes of sound, sight, smell, and touch. Whole sections of that trailer are dark to me--indistinct, fuzzy. I can tell you where the stove, the sink, and the fridge were, and that the buttery yellow kitchen linoleum was cold under my feet.  The living room carpet was a drab olive green. A china cabinet rattled when I roughhoused, and inside that, carnival glass caught the light and made me think of the stained glass windows of our church. There were plastic grapes in a wooden bowl on a table that I could pull from the stem, stick in my mouth though I wasn’t supposed to. I swallowed more than one. That trailer is where I learned the names of things: tulips, gravel, coffee, hairspray, Easter eggs, The Waltons.

There were things I knew without them being taught to me: That I had a family that loved me. That a dog’s teeth could do great harm. That a fever brought a strangeness to dreams. That I moved through the world in infinite ways. There were also things that confused me: the movement of shadows and light. The way smoke billowed from my father’s nose when he exhaled. That an egg could grow into a bird unless it cracked. That we buried the dead in the ground.

The first time I remember being in a church was for a funeral. It wasn’t anyone I knew—some lady my mother had worked with. My mother kept me next to her in the pew and I used a red crayon on a few crisp white sheets of paper and was only interrupted when we rose to sing.

I grew up Methodist, and can’t really tell you what that means. Our preachers didn’t shout from the pulpit. Baptisms were accomplished with a sprinkle of water—no showy immersions in a creek or golden ladles of blessed water. The older men in our congregation had ears laced with blood vessels which the light passed through. The women smelled of witch hazel and talcum powder. Some of them had runs in their stockings. The place felt like a nest I wanted to sleep in, and to be honest, I often did. And they let us. Methodists are sensible. People sin less in their sleep, and children, not at all.

I liked our first preacher, Reverend Steve—the only one to really make an impression. He gave a sermon dressed like the baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday, and gave one Bible lesson in character. I sucked on a piece of hard candy and marveled as someone looked like they were having fun in a church. This was the same man who helped us bury my grandfather. We were most active in the church just following his death. Mom in her polyester dresses and dad with his sideburns and thick white belt. My brother with his peanut head and rounded way with words. You could feel the grief infuse our clothes, stick to the black soles of our shoes like mud. We tracked it everywhere.

That October, as a fundraiser to send a group of elders to Haiti, our church decided on having a haunted house. Someone donated a hail-damaged trailer and a large truck dropped it behind our sanctuary in early September. This trailer was a dirty white, and the youth group splashed it with red paint and smeared red hand prints along the sides, all Helter-Skelter, and painted the interior walls a flat black to knock down the interior light, then hung strips of black fabric from the walls and ceiling which made walking through the hall and rooms disorienting. They ripped out the windows for safety, and someone painted a sign in black and white that said, “Trailer of Terror” and screwed it above the door. They had strobe lights, smoke machines, and a sound loop of screams, witch cackles, and crackles of thunder.

The Evansville paper gave it a middling grade in its annual review of Halloween attractions, but I was fresh off seeing my grandfather nestled in a coffin and so I was open to the horror of everything. Each image in the comic books I read stuck with me: Skulls with shreds of flesh hanging from them, vampires thrusting claws through spade-tamped earth. Fear had welled up inside me, spilled over, seeped into all the tiny rooms of our home. The mourners gathered in the kitchen and living room, piled their coats on my bed, popped olives and deviled eggs in their mouths, and though the visitors paid their respects and left, that fear and discomfort lingered. I was at an age where each book was read a thousand times. My lips moved along with the text, and I could tell you the smallest bird and snail tucked into every illustrated fairy tale. My eye loved color: the pastel Easter eggs that we fished from the vinegar that set the dye. The violets, the crocus and hyacinth, the tulips. The thick green leaves that thrashed beneath the roiling black thunderclouds of summer. The autumnal hickories blazing bright yellow, the staghorn sumac, the sugar maples, and the dying elms.  

When my grandfather fell dead of a heart attack, his brothers lifted the coffin from its place at the front of the church and removed it to the apse where we filed past on our way to the graveside service. The opened casket allowed mourners one last look at him so they could say their goodbyes. My father lifted me to his hip so I could see. My grandfather’s color was not right. He was both yellow and ashen with a bit of rouge pinking his cheeks. He wore a dark suit—charcoal or black, with a black shiny tie snugged tight below his chin. I knew him best in his sweat-stained t-shirt, slippers, socks and boxer shorts. His skin was sallow and drawn and looked like paper that soaked up water and dried again. He did not smell of cigarettes or aftershave. He did not smell of mints. My grandmother crumpled to one knee, wailed into her hands. My father put me down, lifted her up, nudged us toward the door. The light outside was so dazzling it hurt my eyes, and I caught the scent of apples and wanted to share this, but then they closed the lid with a final heavy thud, and I locked my fingers around one spindle of the wrought iron railing and refused to take another step toward the hearse.

 

My great-grandmother, Ida Krauss, moved in with my grandmother so she wouldn’t be alone. Her own husband died long before I was born. He was born Adolph, but changed his name during World War II.  Ida Kraus found God in a Detroit church. Men on the street had jeered her for her heaviness. A corpulent woman, fat calved and veiny like all her sisters, she’d stepped into a church, prayed that Jesus would make her thin. Her accent gave her speech a sibilant hiss, and she often told this story of miraculous weight loss and joyous salvation, her arms waggling as she clasped her hands against her breasts. Her jowly cheeks and matronly form made it difficult to imagine her as a thin servant of the Lord. When I asked my father, he told me she was once quite immense, nearly four hundred pounds at her heaviest. She whacked me and my assorted cousins with a wooden spoon if we said so much as “Golly,” a word of great danger since it came so near to using the Lord’s name in vain. She was a stickler for the spirit of the law, and if she caught me chewing the Heavenly Host, she’d shoot me a glare that warmed my backside. I had dreams of fire and brimstone, my grandfather’s body come to life and shuffling through the shadows of my room.  He had refused to be baptized and my great-grandmother fretted that this meant he was doomed, though she never said so where my grandmother could hear.

When they opened the doors on the Trailer of Terror, I wanted to peek behind the curtains at what made people scream, and maybe poke some small monster with a stick. The fake-blood phantasmagoria of our church’s trailer was a campy relief in comparison to all the whispering around our house about hell, a place which had grown very real to me. I saw the monsters put their makeup on. I saw the zombies pull up on mopeds, get dropped off in Chevy Impalas and old grungy vans.

This haunted house wasn’t some grand morality play designed to scare sinners back to Jesus. We didn’t skewer adulterers or suicides. We did not have a single room that looked like hell. It was your standard gathering of ghouls and goblins, a clown with a chainsaw. I wore a white pillow case and pretended I was a ghost. No one cut arm holes for me, just little slits to look through. If I fell, someone had to help me up. My father dressed as Dracula, put Vaseline in his hair that didn’t fully wash out until after Thanksgiving. My mother teased an old wig high, a spray of white paint rising from her forehead. She sold tickets in a coffin-shaped booth. When you entered the side door of the trailer, an axe embedded in the wall dripped Karo syrup colored with red food dye. Down the hall, a guy flopped around in a bloody bathtub. In another room some teenagers tore at the spaghetti guts of our church organist. I bought a single ticket but they let me roam the halls a dozen times until the boy in the bathtub groaned at me, and the teenagers said, “It’s him again,” and flung a handful of noodles at my head.

I would tear around the parking lot, hands curled into claws beneath my sheet, yelling “RAhr” at anyone who would listen. In the basement of the church you could buy wax fangs, fake blood, rubber balls that looked like bloodshot eyeballs. I ate cookies and listened to the polite screams, the recorded sound of thunder, the ladies manning the concession stand who broke character to talk about Thanksgiving menus.

For my birthday in July, my grandma and grandpa on my mom’s side gave me a plastic Casper the Friendly Ghost that glowed in the dark. Before bedtime I would hold it close to a table lamp so it would shine bright when the lights went out. Sometimes I’d wake in the middle of the night and it had lost its shine as though it disappeared. I thought of my Grandfather all that October, his widow’s peak in the center of his forehead, the yellow callouses on his wide, busted hands, the way he was swallowed up in his bed sheets, tendrils of smoke rising from the cigarette in the ashtray on his dresser.

My mom and dad tell me he was good-hearted, but I remember him as gruff, and always tired, and he could not walk past me without grabbing a handful of hair at the nape of my neck and threatening to give me a haircut.  When he’d pull me into his lap, his fingers dug into my ribs, his whiskers rough on my scalp. I felt so guilty that I did not love him, not with the soft certainty I did my grandmother. That image of him in his coffin in the apse, the way my family churned and faltered while I stayed quiet? There was sin in that, I knew. When I closed my eyes, I saw the suit jacket, the subtle makeup daubed on his face, the way his lips were set and pinched. I thought again of how the light gathered in the small glass vestibule, the dust of the rugs, some chemical I couldn’t place, the cloying scent of perfume on the women. How the small space locked up the heat and sent sweat trickling down my back.

It was all I dreamed of-- the end of him, and how his absence writhed and roiled behind my loved ones’ faces.

There was an apple tree at the back of the church property. The fruit fell onto the lawn, got carved out by yellow jackets even in the cold, turned sour in the sun. If you were quiet, you could hear the ground hum with life. My mother waited in our station wagon the last Saturday of October. She tilted her tall hair so it fit in the car. She drank coffee from a small plaid thermos, her red lipstick smudged on the lip of the Styrofoam cup.

“Which do you prefer, being frightened or sad?” she asked.

I shrugged. She offered me a sip of her coffee, turning the cup so I’d miss her lipstick.

The coffee was warm and bitter, but I drank it because I wanted to feel older.

“I’d rather be frightened, but not for real. Frightened goes away,” I finally answered.

My father was talking with some of the men in the congregation, broke off and came to the car. He slicked back his hair so you could really see his widows peak, popped in his plastic fangs, opened the door.

“Showtime,” he said, his mouth filling with spit.

He took my pillow case costume off the dash, held it out for me to slip into.

Somebody inside the trailer turned on the strobe light, hit play on the thunder.

“I don’t want to be a ghost,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “you can stay in the ticket booth with your mother, or go inside and help the ladies at the concession stand.”

And thinking I’d meant something else, my father tossed the pillow case on the front seat in resignation, kissed my mother with his fangs still in, and disappeared into the darkness of the trailer.  The wind ticked away at the last few leaves clinging to the shrubbery. My mother checked her reflection in the rearview mirror, pursed her lips and pouted.

The scent of my father’s aftershave hung in the air, the only trace of him, and spooked by his sudden absence, I scrambled up the steps into the trailer, my hands searching the blackness in front of me, afraid of nothing I knew was there.

image: Aaron Burch


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