ISSUE #62 GUEST CURATORS Heidi Vanderlee and Amy Klein are members of Brooklyn-based band Leda, which was previously featured in Storychord Issue #54. They have two new songs available for download on Bandcamp. Outside of Leda, Heidi plays cello with Mal Blum, and Amy sings and plays guitar with Hilly Eye.
by Carianne King
It wasn’t until after I moved out of the house near the river that I learned that my live-in super, Holly, was a ghost hunter. After my friend moved in, taking my place at the old mansion, which had been split into four apartments, he told me he had befriended Holly, that she had shown him her ghost-hunting equipment over a dinner of organic meatloaf and kale. I was surprised. Holly could be friendly? Perhaps I hadn’t interpreted her offerings correctly. I had been neglectful at that time. I had lost my thread on life. Simple household tasks like remembering which day, exactly, was trash day, and sweeping the leaves off my side of the porch (as soon as they fell) seemed just out of reach. Yes, I did these things incorrectly. Holly would send a message to my phone, ten beeps long, complaining. The last message was always sweet. “A bowl of hot soup will be outside your door in five minutes.” I’d get up from bed, hurry to the door to thank her, and find that I was always too late. Time after time I’d open the door to just soup, in a tupperware, cooling on the mat.
Issue #62 soundtrack: Mal Blum "The Bodies, the Zombies"
“She always used to run away from me,” I said, to my friend, sort of as explanation.
“What do you mean?”
“Like in the yard, if we both got home from work around the same time. She’d park her car and then scurry to her front door, like she hadn’t seen me at all.”
“Funny,” he said. “She said the same thing about you.”
The old mansion near the river was certainly haunted, but if there were actual ghosts, I never knew.The house sat up on a hill overlooking the oldest part of town, a neighborhood where all the houses were a bit creaky and gothic-looking. I had heard that there might be a tunnel under the house where I lived, leading to the woolen mills, so the owner could travel from his home to his business comfortably on cold winter nights. The factory had burned down and hadn’t been repaired. If there truly was a tunnel under the house, I figured it was full of more than soot.
I didn’t explore these possibilities. There was hardly much to gain from them. Secret knowledge was of little interest to me. At that time I was just trying to keep my job in this little town, keep kicking to the top, some upward motion. I had a few friends living with me here, but they had all since abandoned ship, moved to bigger cities, following the economy like birds flying south for the winter, waiting for the climate to improve. Soon it would be my turn. As soon as I had a lump of money in the bank, I’d be on my way.
The hours of my nights became capsules that I could swallow one by one. I’d come home, make dinner, pour myself a single cup of whiskey, maybe two, and watch TV with my cat, Angus, situated on my stomach. I wasn’t interested in going out anymore. There wasn’t anyone to see anymore, really. I was tired of the same old bars, the white slips of paper stuck into a leathery folder that I’d have to pay, ready for bed long ago. And the same faces I’d known, for years, still mere acquaintances, always a tip of the hat and nothing further. “How’ve you been doing?” we’d say. And always the same answer: “Same as before, same as before. Making it.”
Perhaps the house was haunted. Would I have known? When I tiptoed across the porch to the laundry room at night, I couldn’t see beyond the trees that lined our yard. My skin would prickle. Holly had once mentioned a white deer that seemed to roam near our house—a genetic anomaly, not a ghost. I thought of it each time I had to cross the yard to my car, out for some late errand. I didn’t want the ghost deer to startle me, so I’d preempt it. “Hello, out there,” I’d say. But there was never any answer. Soon I was the last resident at the big house who hadn’t seen the friendly deer, who, Holly said, would eat berries right out of your hand if you approached it the right way.
From the long, yawning windows of my apartment, I watched as winter settled more firmly in the neighborhood. The twisty elms shed their leaves, allowing me to see further out, to the houses that sat beyond the train tracks at the edge of the property, their chimneys smoking. The train passed through our property twice per day, rattling the glass in the windows as it sailed by. The tracks enclosed our yard, separating us from the houses down the hill. Sometimes I’d have to wait nearly a half-hour for the train to pass. Only when the windows stopped vibrating could I carry on with my business in the outside world.
Some mornings, before I had to be at work, I’d go for walks by the river. When I walked down the hill to the river, I passed over the tracks, then went past the old clapboard church, and the house whose owner raised goats in a pen in the yard. Sometimes I could hear them bleating, the first sounds of the day. Down by the river, on the coldest mornings, the steam rose off the water where the early orange sun melted the frosty film that had developed overnight. The shell of the burned-down factory was just on the other side of the water. I could only see its smokestack from where I was. The path on these mornings was frequented by dog owners and joggers. There weren’t many people just out there to look around, like me.
I came on these walks to busy myself, to stretch my legs and to capture some health. Now that it was winter, I was staying in most evenings, pouring myself a glass of whiskey when I got home from work, and if I finished that one before dinner, maybe another.
I imagine that if Holly had been hunting ghosts at our big, haunted house on the hill, she would have appeared at my doorstep one night. She would have been holding a device like a laser gun, like the kind at the grocery store that zapped barcodes. She would knock. I would be sitting on the couch, with Angus in my lap, swilling the ice my glass. I would startle.
“Who is it?” I’d say.
“It’s the super,” she’d say. “Holly.”
I would open the door, wondering what I’d done now.
“I’m detecting some paranormal activity,” she’d say, crossing the threshold uninvited. I would notice that she was wearing a funny hat. Her ghost-hunting hat.
“It’s coming from your living room,” she’d say, reading the numbers on her device.
“Really? It’s just me and Angus here, I think. We’re watching ‘Family Feud.’”
Angus would jump down off the couch, mewing sweetly, and rub himself against Holly’s legs. The device in her hands would beep at a steady rhythm as she waved it around the room. She’d shuffle to and fro, penetrating every corner. I’d scratch the back of my leg with my other foot, half-listening to the television. Name something your neighbor does that drives you crazy.
When Holly would reach the sofa, my heap of blankets and melting ice cubes, the very bed of my lonesomeness, the machine in her hands would beep wildly.
The host on TV would say, “Survey says!”
Then the beeps would die.
“Dang,” she’d say, tucking the detector back into the holster on her belt.
“Whatever was here must have got away,” she’d say. “Sorry for the trouble.”
“No problem,” I’d say. “Anytime.”
After I saw her out, locking the door behind her, I’d pour myself another glass, crawl back under the blankets on the couch, and wonder if the specter in my apartment would return now that no one was looking for it.
“Hello there,” I said, to the man with two red dogs. I saw him every morning on this path. He was the only one who wasn’t a stranger. We had started nodding at each other a few weeks ago, a sign of recognition.
“Oh, hello,” he said, in a reluctant voice. There was a question in his eyes.
We passed each other, traveling in opposite directions Days later, returning to my morning walk, I saw him again. We didn’t speak. We nodded, back to our old routine.
I once asked Holly to watch Angus one weekend when I was going north to visit family. I could have brought Angus with me, but it would have been cruel. He suffered from motion sickness. On car trips he would always huddle in the passenger seat with his eyes squeezed shut, as if meditating. This was merely his admirable attempt to keep from vomiting, unsuccessful as it always was.
“Do you think you could watch Angus?” I had typed to Holly.
She wrote back immediately that she would “LOVE TO.”
I left a gift bag on the counter for her that containing a pair of wool socks. I didn’t know what to get her, but thought that would suffice. If not warm socks, some pie-scented candle, a log of soap labeled for its aromatherapeutic properties.
I went away for the weekend. Visited my ailing grandfather. Saw a friend from home who was now working in the communications department at a tech company.
At some point, Holly messaged me about the heat in my apartment.
“Angus seemed cold, so I turned it on for him.”
“Oh,” I typed back. “I guess a fur coat’s not enough. Thanks so much.”
Was Angus basking in the heat, just now? Was Holly attending to his needs, scratching him in places I never knew were pleasure centers? ...
“I played with him for about an hour,” she reported.
When I returned, Holly’s invisible movements lingered within my home. One of the shades was pulled up to let in the sunlight, and I drew it back down, the way I liked it. An emptied can of diet cola sat on top in recycling bin. On the counter was a note thanking me for the socks, a tupperware full of cupcakes, and a homemade calendar. Twelve months of Angus. Holly had taken at least twelves photos of my cat while I was away. Angus perched on a shelf. Angus sniffing the potted fern. Angus licking the inside of his hind leg on the living room carpet.
Hey, now, I warned myself. This is kindness.
Angus brushed against my leg, full of secrets.
Did he seem peppier, well-fed? No, he was just Angus, determinedly chewing the off-brand kibble in his bowl, which I had been meaning to upgrade.
“He seems so happy,” I typed, to Holly. “Thanks again.”
The calendar went in some old drawer. It wasn’t the type of thing I could hang up at my desk at work. The photos of my cat curled into ecstatic poses embarrassed me. I didn’t love him that way. I didn’t love anything that way. I feared questions.
One evening I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner—an old friend, someone who I didn’t even remember lived in this town—but he canceled at the last moment. He said he was moving out of his apartment the next day, which I found odd. Who would ever schedule a long dinner date when he was supposed to be packing cardboard boxes? Or did he make the date before he knew he was moving, a sudden development? Sometimes relationships with roommates frayed all of a sudden. These were questions I didn’t bother to ask, however, due to the fact that our meal was supposed to reconnect us, make it possible to be so friendly, so interested in each other’s lives, again. He said maybe we could catch dinner next week, when things were less hectic. He would call me.
When I got home from work, I poured myself a glass of wine and thought about dinner. If my friend hadn’t canceled last minute, I would have bought groceries, would have something to eat at home. The fridge was bare. I picked up a menu for Chinese food and considered having it delivered. The house was so far out, on the edge of town. The street of its address was in fact a vestigial driveway, a road that used to be a main road but disconnected from the neighborhood once new infrastructures were built. I had never ordered delivery to this house. I wasn’t certain that these rushed delivery guys, dashing from house to house to collect crumpled dollar bills, would be able to find me.
“45 minutes,” said the voice on the phone.
“Let’s make sure you have my phone number correctly, OK?” I said. “In case you get lost.”
“No, we got it,” said the voice. “We know where you are.”
The delivery man arrived, finally, only a few minutes late. I peeked outside my door and saw that he had gone ahead and pulled into the yard.The headlights beamed at my neighbor’s window. A man climbed out of the car and came running up to my door, sort of a jog, holding a greasy paper bag. I gave him the money and wished him a good night. He turned around and started pacing back through the yard. Midway, the headlights on the car suddenly went dark. He pulled out his cell phone and made a call. His urgent voice floated over to me.
I heard Holly’s footsteps above me, pacing.
“Is there something wrong?” I said, entering the yard.
“It’s an old car,” he stated. “Always has battery trouble.”
The car was parked diagonally across the yard, its tires sunk into the mud.
“Are you calling a tow?”
“I have a friend nearby, coming to do a jump. This always happens.”
He shooed me away, more or less. It was cold out there. My food was inside, waiting for me. Go ahead, go ahead.
“Would you like to wait inside my apartment?” I said. “Stay warm?”
Again he rejected my offer. He was already ferociously dialing another number, and by the time I had walked back to my front door I could hear him yelling at someone on the other line, perhaps the manager, whomever had loaned him the shoddy car and expected there to be timely deliveries. The other meals in the backseat were likely getting cold by now.
But god, he was loud. Shouting in the night.
When I came back inside, my phone was vibrating. It was Holly.
“Are you having a party?” she said.
I looked at my watch. Already it was after eight. Quiet hours.
“No, no, nothing like that. I ordered food. The delivery guy seems to be having car trouble.”
The man paced back and forth through the grass, still yelling.
“Why do you keep doing this?” Holly continued, undeterred. “I’ve told you about my early mornings. Why do you keep doing this?”
She was referring to this one time—and only once—I had a group of friends over. This was nearly a year ago, before we went our separate directions. We stayed up drinking whiskey and listening to records. Holly had left a note on my door the next day: “Sound travels in old houses.”
“The car is dead. If I could do something about this, I would,” I said.
Holly breathed on the other line, unconvinced. It seemed I would have to go back in time, correct all mistakes, not just this big dead Honda in the front yard.
The delivery guy’s friend pulled up, dangling jumper cables from his hand held out the driver-side window. He was blasting his radio.
“There,” I said, to Holly. “This will all be cleared up in a matter of minutes.”
“A simple apology would be nice,” she said.
After two quick attempts, the car in the yard started. The two engines whirred harmoniously. I poked my head outside and the delivery guy gave me a thumbs-up symbol. I waved. Off they went, backing out of the steep drive and disappearing beyond the dark curtain of trees lining the property.
I crept up the stairs to Holly’s apartment. I had gotten off the phone too quick. I wanted to be sure my sentiments had been received. I was sorry, definitely. I was sorry for all of us, shoved here in these apartments, vulnerable to each other’s daily doings. It was an absurd and fragile way to live.
I knocked on her door and waited. No answer. The scent of incense wafted from the apartment, like burnt flowers.
I knocked harder. Eventually the door opened, but only a crack. I could see her eyes, the wet whip of her hair. She had been in the bath, I determined. Relaxing. She squinted at me.
“What do you want?” she said. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to know that I’m really, truly sorry.”
I wanted her to think I was a good neighbor, if not a good person.
“There’s nothing I can do for you at nine in the evening on a Sunday,” she said. “Nothing.”
She shut the door. I traveled downstairs to my apartment. I had left the door open. Angus had fled. I waited for him on the porch, sitting with a blanket wrapped around me while I ate my cold dinner out of its box. Angus was a stupid cat, not fit for the wild. But he always came back eventually.
One day in spring, one of the cats killed a rabbit in the garden.
When I came home from grocery shopping, I noticed two odd stones in the yard, jutting upright like goal posts. I looked closer and that’s when I saw the heaving rabbit. Its throat wore a necklace of blood, a deep gash. The poor thing couldn’t move, I saw. It was asphyxiating slowly. On its torso, someone had sprinkled a few leaves of sage.
I went inside, but while I was unpacking my groceries, I couldn’t stop thinking about the suffering that was happening right in my back yard.
“What’s with the rabbit?” I typed. “Looks like it’s in bad shape.”
“Yes, Farro got him this morning. I’m waiting for him to cross over.”
Why wait? I thought. Laser-like, another message reached me.
“We need to be with it when it goes.”
I put my phone aside for a moment.
I started to make myself lunch. Winter was thawing. The trees were starting to fill out again. I was working on an impressive salad when I saw Holly sidling through the yard, headed for the driveway. She had empty grocery sacks on her arm, on her way to the store. After waiting for her to back out of the drive, I went outside to check on the rabbit.
I leaned over it and saw that its breaths were spastic now, hurtling like shock-waves through its tiny body. I could see the raw red wound at its throat better now. I could see it was severe.
“Poor thing,” I said. “You hopped into the wrong yard, didn’t you?”
I knew the only act of love would be to kill it, end its suffering. This would be an insult to my the unassuming way I liked to live my life, but I knew I had to do it. I retrieved a shovel from the shed. The bunny stared into oblivion, unaware of me, nearly already gone. With one heavy thwack, I killed the poor thing. As I scooped it into the shovel, airlifting it to its burial site, I grieved for it and for all other times when life requires us to be merciless.
I was leaving soon. My nest egg was ample. I had a few leads.
I buried the rabbit around back, underneath the blackberry bush I could see from my porch. When Holly got back from the store, I watched from my window as she searched for the bunny.
“What happened to it?” she wrote to me later.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe a predator made off with it?”
“Poor thing,” she typed. “Poor, poor thing.”
I put my phone aside. She persisted.
“Imagine, leaving this earth with no one to comfort you?”
A month later, I slipped out of town. My decision to leave was a lot like my decision to stay—accidental, vague. I could leave a place as easily as I had entered it. Whether I would have friends to wave me off was another matter, and in fact, by the time I left, I could do so without much regret. I packed my car full to the brim without help, without fanfare. It was easier to leave, I thought, knowing there was little I was leaving behind.
“What do you mean, Holly’s a ghost-hunter?” I said to my friend that night at dinner, in the city where I now lived, far away from the house near the river. He lived there now, in my old apartment. He was visiting me, catching me up on the gossip.
“She invited me to dinner once,” he said, “It was kind of a potluck. Did you know Holly’s a great cook?”
“Sort of,” I said. “Sometimes she left soup outside my door.”
“Well,” he said. “She showed us her ghost-hunting equipment. She had this ghost-gun thing that detects changes in the electromagnetic field. And an infrared motion sensor that could tell you if a ghost was about to throw a book at you.”
“Did you ask if there are any ghosts at that house? I often thought it might be haunted. But I was in a bad mood all the time, so who knows.”
“She mostly goes on these excursions out in the country,” my friend said. “Which is probably best for all of us, isn’t it?”
He went on to explain that Holly, the ghost-hunter, my old neighbor, never hunted ghosts on the property that we shared. There was a fine line between the human world and those of the spirits. Fragile at best. She didn’t want to disturb it. She was a responsible landlord, after all. Out of respect for her tenants, she had vowed never to disturb any of the spirits who lived there.
Carianne King is studying fiction at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter.
Kelly Shee is a photographer living in Toronto. View more of her work on her Flickr page.
Mal Blum is a songwriter living in Brooklyn, NY. Her new album "Tempest in a Teacup comes out this spring. Visit her online at malblum.com.