Monday, October 31, 2005

My Own True Ghost Story


No road leads forward but they all lead back. Thus it was in the summer of 1960 that for four weeks in 1960 we rose at four in the morning every day, and drove twelve hours to the next and next and next motel, making the trip from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and then, by a similar but divergent circulatory system of highways, back again. This story has nothing to do with most of that journey. I was nine.

Especially when we passed through Kansas and Iowa, my father was tracking down relatives, and every town, it seemed, had a back road or a town thoroughfare to explore, as we looked for street signs, for mailboxes, for house numbers. I paid little attention; the important things to me were not adult smiles from strangers, but lemonade, and treats, and playing (instead of, as sometimes happened, sitting stiff and upright and fidgety in a parlor) out of doors -- finding rocks and corners and strange natural dramas in the grass and jumping from one place to another. There were but few relative uncovered in the end, though much exploring was done.

One house was one of some minor consequence on a shaded residential street -- an old two-story house, nicely attended. I don't know what town it was; it was all the town of childhood to me. We -- my father, my mother, my two younger brothers, and I -- were heartily welcomed (or so it would seem; it had not yet occurred to me that any welcome might be less than heartfelt or joyous, though I was on the verge of guessing that some adults looked askance at children) by an old couple. I say that they were old, which is to say ancient, but I do not know. They might have been fifty or sixty or seventy; all people who presented with gray hair and a wrinkle or two and who seemed implicated in the process of rulemaking were alike to me -- and, although I knew that technically they had once been young, I did not truly believe it, not for a moment. They were old the way a stuffed animal was brown -- permanently, indelibly, and forever.

It was absurdly hot that day -- that summer really -- with temperatures into the nineties. The house was pleasantly dark inside, and well-appointed: the grandfather clock (anyone of any standing, and many without, had a grandfather clock) in the hallway; and solid yet delicately crafted furniture of dark woods from lost forests; and all of those lying and hanging things, doilies, throws, white curtains, rugs... There was a stairway opposite the front door, not too narrow and not too broad, with elaborate wooden railings on either side. To the left, as you entered, was the front living room, the one where one entertained (meaning talked and sipped and nodded) but did not live (meaning -- I wasn't sure with adults); and where all of the finer, stately yet somehow whimsical, objects that had been a lifetime (or several lifetimes) in accumulating were laid out on side tables, and on coffee tables, and in bookcases, and on the mantle -- conversation pieces that bred little conversation, memorabilia themselves forgotten. On the right was the dining-room, which had what seemed to me a very long table indeed, covered in a spotless white spread, the dining chairs all tucked in and dozing, fruit and flowers being dreamed.

I would have had little interest in any of this. They were a kindly old couple -- I expected nothing else -- and I got my lemonade, and was introduced, and I tried to be polite, and was doubtless told what a fine young man I was, a commonplace remark I would have taken as my due, with only the faintest lingering sense that it might not be entirely true. At some point, though, the old woman took pity on me, lightly suggesting that I might like to explore the upstairs. But of course I would; my eyes sparkled and I leaped up. There were hints in the air that there might be toys in chests and closets, and great and wondrous things, and fine surprises for an alert and curious youngster. This would not have been said in so many words, perhaps not in any at all, but it is what I would have thought. My parents nodded.

Within seconds I was up the stairs. The hallway had several doors, a few on either side, but only one was slightly ajar, and I immediately concluded that this must be a playroom of sorts. Or might be made to serve for one.

And so it was. There were sounds and voices. At the time I took the young man I found in there to be the father, although in retrospect he could not have been more than twenty or so; so perhaps he was the uncle or an elder brother. He was an adult, but not yet too much of one, and he smiled as I entered. He was quite merry and friendly, and I instantly took to him. The two children I found there were likable, too -- one somewhere around my age, smart and blonde and eager; the other, to whom I paid little attention, had brownish hair and an intent expression with an abstracted gaze, and appeared somewhat uninvolved, as though he were not quite there -- he was around six, I'd say.

But most of the room was crowded near to bursting with a great square table; and on that table, chugging noisily around, passing through field and over stream, through tunnels and over bridges, past stations and towns and trees and hills and mountains and even miniature people -- was an electric train. I'd seen electric trains before, of course, but nothing like this. This was an entire shrunken country, complete unto itself. The young man seemed very much in charge of everything, although the older boy took an enthusiastic hand; the younger boy seemed always to linger back, watching with a certain fascination, with a kind of innocent caution, saying little, always behind or beneath or beyond, never quite an inhabitant.

I didn't even have to ask. The young man showed me how to use the controls, and how to slow down and speed up according to the problems posed by the landscape. I was enthralled, and as the sun faded, lights came up, and an hour or two passed in untold bliss. There were no windows, but the heat did not penetrate.

Then I heard them calling me to dinner from downstairs, and the young man said that I'd better be going, and to be certain to wash my hands, and that it had been a pleasure, and to visit again. I said goodbye to the older boy, with whom I had become great pals, I was certain. The younger boy again hung back, head bobbing, smiling uncertainly, but the older boy and I both knew that he was too young for us to acknowledge his full existence.

Across the hall was a bathroom, and I performed the customary ritual, more formal than effective, of half-pretending to wash up. Dirty the towel. Then I ran downstairs. The sun had gone down, all of the lights were up, dinner was on the table, and everyone was waiting for me.

The next day we went on towards Philadelphia. There is not much left to the tale.

When traveling back homewards some days later, we stopped at the same house again in the afternoon, and were invited to stay to lunch, which we did. As we ate at the dining-room table, at last I could contain myself no longer.

"Where are the children?" I asked excitedly.

The old lady smiled at me politely. "Children?" she inquired.

"You know," I blurted. "the children. The two children. And the grown-up. And the electric trains! You know, upstairs!"

"But," she said politely, "there are no children here, or trains. Goodness. There's just us."

Conversation paused briefly, then hurried on, and before I knew it we were out of the door and traveling again. Of course, there are a hundred explanations for this anomaly, and I was clever enough as a nine-year-old to think of many of the more rational, commonsense ones. But they didn't add up to me. Something was always wrong with any scenario I could envision -- a mix-up concerning peoples' houses, for instance, or confounding a dream with reality, or perhaps some adult secret about the people visiting upstairs that day that the old people had forgotten, or wished for innocent reasons to conceal -- or perhaps they were relatives who came and went unannounced, to play.

I prefer the ghost story.

Were I writing this as a short story, I'd have my protagonist find his way back to the same house ten or fifteen years later, and discover -- but that would be telling.

The plain vanilla version, as above, I call, after Kipling, "My Own True Ghost Story."