If I Tell You I Believe in Ghosts, Will You Think Less of Me?

I spent ages three through nine in a 100-year old stone farmhouse right off Route 50. There was a pool at that house and my brother Arash and I painted fishes and waves and dolphins on the walls of it and then we’d lay the hose on the concrete edge and it would take all day to fill up the pool with well water. Since we lived so close to the main road leading into the small town a mile up the way, we’d come home from visiting relatives to find our various family pets splattered at the bottom of the driveway, having chased a scent or a squirrel to the road only to get hit by a tractor or a farm truck. For some reason my parents never bothered to lock our cats and dogs into the house, or build a fence.

* * *

My dad used to make slimy foods for dinner, like tripe or tongue, and when I refused to eat them, he would pull me out of my chair by my ear and shove me into the basement. There were black snakes and rats down there and I would crouch on the top stair screaming and sobbing and begging and pounding for what seemed like hours, but was probably less than ten minutes each time. I would have a recurring dream about that basement: I would fall and fall past the creaky wooden stairs of that basement until I hit a ground of slippery rats and snakes. Someone told me once you’re not supposed to die in your dream because it means you have died in real life. But I always died when I hit the ground. And my real self would watch my dream self and wonder: what do I do now?

* * *

Arash and I once found red rusted farm machinery in a field behind our house. We arbitrarily decided it was Civil War machinery. We decided the family had been killed by Union soldiers—that the dad was farming and saw his house being devoured by flames. And when he tried to rescue his family, a soldier shot him in the back of the head. My brother and I switched off playing the soldier and the dad and when I got shot in the back of the head, I’d stumble around for several yards until my brother yelled at me to die, already.

* * *

When I was nine, my dad moved our family to a new house, near a larger town, a house he had built using all the money my parents had saved up. I lived in a neighborhood now and my first day in that new house was the best day of my life. I met a boy and a girl, one across the street and the other next to me, and we became best friends. Joe and Amanda. And me. And we were obsessed with ghosts. I had read somewhere that there were Native Americans in Virginia, maybe where we lived. So I told Joe and Amanda our houses were built on an ancient Native American burial ground. After that, we heard cries in the middle of the night and one time I even saw a glass of orange juice move across the countertop, I swear. I was sure it was a Native American, but I decided I wouldn’t be scared if I saw him, because I felt sorry for what the white men before me had done.

All the kids in the neighborhood, even the older ones, practiced a deep religiosity when it came to the pet cemetery located at the edge of Joe’s yard. His older sisters accidentally killed their hamster and we all gathered to say goodbye. Jenny read a poem that she had written about him. I sang a Beatles song, off key. We picked dandelions and buttercups and put them in the shoebox that held him and then we used a spade to dig a shallow hole for him to lie in. There were other pets in the cemetery, too:  a bird, two gerbils, a bunny, several fish. I knew that if my dog ever died, she would not be buried there, ever.

* * *

Small town, small-town rules. No child labor laws, at least not ones that were enforced. When I was 12, I worked as a hostess and bus girl at a diner. I had a crush on one of the waiters. My friend worked there with me, and on busy nights, we’d both hostess and bus. There was an old man who came in every day for lunch. He was poor and lived in one of the shacks on the outskirts of town. The brothers who owned the restaurant told the staff that his meals were to be comped. Every day he ate meatloaf and French fries with unsweetened iced tea. He never swallowed the food though. When I cleared his plate, there was the food, chewed up into mush, all of it.

One night, my friend and I decided to buy two slices of dreamsicle cheesecake as a reward for a hard day’s work. There had been a parade down the main street of town and so the restaurant had been extra crowded. We went back to my house and sat on the floor of my room. There was a thunderstorm outside and the lights went out as we savored our last bits of cake. We laid down on the floor and talked—about Andy the hot waiter, about the 8th grade play, about our parents. We awoke the next morning, fully clothed, our backs slightly sore, but ready to make pancakes and go back to work

* * *

There was only talk of ghosts at camp. Summer’s Here Day Camp, which was the camp we all attended at Foxcroft, the all-girls boarding school near my small town of Middleburg. And before I knew Foxcroft for its reputation as a breeding ground for lesbians and those who couldn’t get into Andover, I knew it as the home of Miss Kyle’s grave.

I came to learn she was known as the Mad Shrew of Foxcroft. The story was that Ms. Kyle was a Revolutionary War woman who lived in a house on the grounds called Brick House. While her husband was away, she became mad and was chained up in the attic. Legend says that she tripped and fell down the stairs and died, although another legend says that she was actually shot. The founder of Foxcroft, Miss Charlotte, was so obsessed with the tale of Ms. Kyle that she and several of the girls at the school dug up the makeshift grave only to discover the bones of a small lady, and a skull which had a bullet hole in it. They moved her bones to a proper burial site near the orchard and marked her spot with a plaque. Which is where I got to know her.

Miss Kyle was ever present at Summer’s Here Day Camp. All Truth-or-Dare dares, all pranks, all mischief, all tales revolved around here—who had seen her, what she’d done, her shrieks in the night, her blood on the mirrors. It went like this: If you stepped on Ms. Kyle’s grave, you were doomed. If you defiled her grave in any way, you were really doomed. There was evidence to back it up, evidence which the camp counselors proudly shared with us kids.

* * *

Joe and Amanda and I had a lucrative lemonade business. We sold both regular lemonade and raspberry lemonade and sometimes even pretzels. We used a refrigerator box to set up our stand at the bottom of Amanda’s driveway. When we got bored of selling lemonade, we had a car wash instead. Joe and Amanda’s moms and dads would come get their cars cleaned. And then, because they were all friends, the families would go to the diner in town for burgers and dogs.

***

I had a sleepover for my birthday and we played Ouija board. Me and six other girls crowded in my room and lit tea candles and turned out the lights and closed the door and windows of my room. We asked the spirit questions. We forced the spirit to tell us it knew us. It did. It answered questions only spirits know, like the middle name of a dead great aunt, or a favorite toy from age four. We almost believed but not quite, so we taunted the spirit into proving its presence. We heard a crash from outside the room! I ran out of the room, bravely, and heard the familiar arguing coming from the kitchen. It wasn’t the spirit, I told my friends. Spirit, we demanded, prove your presence. We waited. In that waiting moment, a pink balloon moved from one side of my room to another and gently touched a Pez dispenser on my bookshelf, which fell to the side and knocked over another Pez dispenser next to it until my whole Pez collection fell like dominoes, like children playing ring around the rosy. We screamed like little girls and ran out of the room and down the stairs. I was scared, but not that scared.

* * *

I was not allowed to walk to town, but I did it anyway. I had to take the back way though, in case someone who knew my parents would see me and tell them. This meant I had to walk through the cemetery. Sometimes I never made it to town and would weave my way between the graves. There was one grave I would sit next to all the time: Isabella Beaufort. She died when she was 17. We talked sometimes, she and I. Apparently, she was a beloved daughter. I asked her about being a grown-up. Kissing boys, dancing in the gym at sock hops, having blonde hair (I was sure of it), riding in a convertible, family dinners where her parents asked her how her day was, ice cream floats, giggling with friends, this world and the other. I asked her about God. Did she know Him? Did He love her? Was He nice?

* * *

One day at Summer’s Here Camp, an older boy and his friends invited me to hang out with them. I was eight. And already desperate to please. I went along. They rode bikes while I walked along the dirt road, unsure of where we were headed but giddy with the sense of inclusion, the power that came with being the only girl, the only Koala (they were all Cheetahs) to be asked to come along. We ended up near the orchard. Watch this, the boy leader said. He kicked off the ground and rode his bike over a mound of dirt with a large bush growing out of it. The rest of the boys oohed and ahhed. What’s the big deal, I thought. Then I noticed something resting on the mound—a small, flat, rectangular, glittering thing. I walked over to it. “Don’t!” yelled one of the boys. I stopped and looked at him. “Don’t walk on that area,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he said. “That’s Miss Kyle’s grave.” The other boy kept riding his bike back and forth on Miss Kyle’s grave. I told him to stop. I was scared for him and for all of us. “It’s just a stupid ghost story,” he said, riding across the plaque one final time.

The next day, I sat at the pool and watched as that boy slipped off the diving board and cracked his skull on the bottom of the pool.

* * *

Joe and Amanda came over one night to watch a movie. I think it was Milo and Otis, but it could have been Grease. We were in my playroom all smushed together on the futon, head to foot to head. I fell asleep in the middle of the movie and when I woke up, they were head to head, lip to lip, their hands disappeared under the blanket. I squeezed my eyes so tight to see the starbursts behind my lids and wished to be anyone else.

* * *

I got home one day from school and the TV and stereo were gone. When I asked my dad what happened to them, he said you watch too much TV anyway, go and find Joe and Amanda and make your own TV show with them. Sometimes he had a wolf’s growl in his throat. That’s when I would go outside, even if it was rainy.

* * *

The older I got, the more I noticed the difference between me and the people in my small town. They were rich. They were white. They were southern. And as the years went by, the differences became more and more pronounced.

I felt like an outsider desperately wanting to be on the inside. Every year, there was a big party in Middleburg—it was famous. The party would alternate between the Stokes farm and the Wellington mansion. When the Stokes held it, it was called Stokes Stomp, on alternating years at the Wellington mansion, it was called Cake Walk. All of the prominent Middleburg families were invited to go. My neighbor’s family invited me to go when I was in 8th grade. I knew my entire class would be there. It was the social event of the season, as all of my classmates were fond of joking. But it wasn’t a joke.

The girls in my grade were all buying new dresses. I could have bought a new dress too, but at the time, I hated shopping because I hated having to see the double digits (rapidly getting higher and higher) on the size tags. I was the heaviest girl in my class, and the darkest, and I often envisioned myself as a yeti amongst gazelles.

The night of the party, Amanda’s family picked me up and we drove to the Wellington farm. When we arrived, it was dusk. The grass felt dewey, the crickets were chirping, the big band played the Charleston on the platform stage above the black and white checkered dance floor parallel to the outdoor veranda. There were twinkly lights everywhere. When I think back on Middleburg, this is what I see. This is what I tell people about how I grew up—as though I was living my own gentile version of a Tennessee Williams play in rural Virginia.

All the kids were hanging out in the back, where the barbecue buffet tables were being set up by the waitstaff—all black men and women dressed in white coats. I joined my classmates and spent the rest of the night pretending not to be riddled with anxiety about the sneaking of cigarettes and half drunk mint juleps. I wasn’t cool. Painfully uncool, actually. I felt so out of place and all I wanted was to ask a boy, any boy, to dance to the swing music. Of course no one would dance, it wasn’t cool to do so, and of course even if they did, no one would dance with me. I clung to my group of girl friends like they were my protective coat. I barely said any words the whole night.

It was then that I decided if I couldn’t be like them, I would be so unlike them that we wouldn’t even be part of the same universe.

* * *

I got into the habit of telling people my parents were dead when I would loiter in front of the grocery store. Can I borrow a quarter for a soda, I would ask a stranger pushing a stroller. Where are your parents little girl? I’m not little, and oh, my parents died in a car accident and I live with my older sister, Isabella. Can you please loan me a quarter for an RC Cola, please.

* * *

The day my parents told me they were getting divorced, I rode my bike to the pond behind the woods near my house. Some of the older neighborhood kids were there, horsing around. They asked me to come and horse around too. It was getting late in the afternoon and the weekend was just beginning. Do you want to pull a prank, they asked me. I shrugged. It involves ghosts, they said. You don’t believe in that, do you?

No.

* * *

I met up with Joe and Amanda later. We had plans to build a fort. Before we set out on our way, the older kids pulled up on their bikes, outside my driveway, all worry and energy. The dogs are gone! The dogs are gone! Daisy and Scotty, they’re gone! Amanda’s Daisy and Joe’s Scotty, gone! Chaos and drama and plans to find the missing dogs swirled in the dusk air. The older kids lead us to the haunted barn behind my house. There was barking. A shrill scream. One of the older kids ran out of the barn. She had red rivulets down her arms and legs. She was crying. They’re dead! A ghost killed them. The dogs are dead! Amanda and Joe began to cry. They were little kids, after all. They cried so hard. They begged it not to be so. They wanted Daisy and Scotty back and promised God to be good, to never chase ghosts again. God, I’ll be good. Don’t do this to me. I began to cry. I cried so hard, like tears were gold. And then Daisy and Scotty came galloping out of the barn, their tails wagging, excited to finally be allowed to participate in the commotion. The older kids laughed. Why are you crying, they asked, and pointed at me. Joe and Amanda stopped hugging their dogs and looked up at my red, blotchy face—confused. She knew, the older kids said, pointing at me. Then they got on their bikes and left. Then Joe and Amanda left, Daisy and Scotty trotting behind them. I did not try to call their names. I stood there, behind the barn, rooted to the ground, frozen in the twilight, as the sun rapidly set behind a great, gray cloud.


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